Culture Moments Podcast: Around the World in 20 Years with Geetha Rajagopal, Phebus HR Advisory

In a fitting continuation from our last episode with Tyronne Stoudemire,  Episode 2 of the Around the World in 20 Years series on the Culture Moments Podcast features Geetha Rajagopal, another colleague and friend we worked with closely at Hewitt & Associates.

When LCW began working with Hewitt on expanding their D&I and cultural competence training outside of the US, Geetha was tapped as an internal resource to be a part of the instructor pool. A perfect fit for this work, since the roots of her worldview stretch beyond her native India to experiences across the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa and Latin America.

With two decades of experience leading Human Capital and Workforce Management projects around the world for many Fortune 500s across Healthcare, Banking, Automotive, Telecommunications, IT, Aerospace, and Engineering, today she is the founder of Phebus HR Advisory.

In this episode, Geetha shares how she entered the D&I and intercultural competence field as an LCW-trained facilitator during her time at Hewitt, and the impact that experience had on her career and her global mindset. She also shares openly and from a global perspective what we need to do as practitioners to move the D&I field forward and fully integrate into our business functions and cultures.

Tune into the conversation below! (Run time: 18:47)


Show Notes & Highlights

(L-R): Geetha Rajagopal in Shanghai with LCW’s Rebecca Parrilla, Monica Marcel Francois, & Randall Stieghorst

(2:14) From India to Lincolnshire, IL: Geetha’s global DEI journey

(7:09) How balancing integrity and generosity generated the best outcomes

(8:33) D&I has become more integrated…but there’s still a long way to go. 

(11:10) “You can mandate diversity, but you can’t mandate inclusion.”

(12:13) “Stop focusing on programs and activities and start focusing on outcomes.” 

(15:09) It’s time to groom leaders to develop a global and inclusive mindset. 

 

 


Show Transcript 

Tanya:

Good evening, Geetha. How are you?

Geetha Rajagopal:

Very well. Thank you so much, Tanya, for having me here.

Tanya:

Well, thank you for joining us. It’s a real privilege. I guess we can just begin by learning a little bit about your background and your journey into the D&I field.

Geetha Rajagopal:

Sure. I’ve been in the industry for roughly 20 years, and I do a variety of things. I dabble in business/management consulting. I do a lot of HR work both as an internal HR consultant, as well as an HR business partner. And very recently, almost a year and a half ago, I set up my own boutique HR consulting firm called Phebus HR Advisory, in which we do a variety of projects including office structuring, diversity and inclusion and a bunch of other things. That’s a little bit about my background.

My journey in the diversity and inclusion field actually started, I would say, way back in 2005, when I was a part of an organization called Hewitt, now Aon. Hewitt was investing extensively in the space of diversity, inclusion, and cross-cultural competence. We were expanding this work outside of the US into India and the rest of Asia Pacific.

I was one of the few people who was tapped into being part of the instructor pool to teach these courses outside of the US. And that’s where I met Monica and LCW and many of her colleagues, and had a chance to understand the concept and the field firsthand. My education began there.

Then later in 2006, I had an opportunity to further my education by coming into the US. I was based in Hewitt’s headquarters in Lincolnshire, where amongst many other things that I did, I was responsible for the cross-cultural learning for Hewitt across the enterprise. And so the partnership with LCW became very, very strong.

During this time, I taught the concepts and the courses to a variety of audiences across the USA. I had a chance to work with employee resource groups, or ERGs as they were known then. I participated in my first Pride Parade in Chicago – obviously, a bit of flavor of the city in the summer – the Summer Festival, the dances, the theater, the Air Show… And then [I got] to travel across the country – Times Square and all of those wonderful things.

I think just the classroom teaching, the partnership with Monica and Randy, and just the exposure to a brand new culture, first hand, was a big part of the diversity education that I got.

Tanya:

That’s amazing. Let’s dig deeper into this work with LCW. Tell us a little bit about this educational journey that you were on with them when you were with Hewitt. And any highlights or stories you want to share about that time, this would be a wonderful time to do that.

Monica & Geetha in Toronto.

Geetha Rajagopal:

Wonderful. Yeah, absolutely. I think I started at ground zero. I literally learned the concept for the first time, because I had no clue. I mean, I did have exposure to global clients, but I did not know what cross- cultural meant and the impact it has on the way we conduct our business.

So literally, I learned the ABCs and started putting the words together. Part of that was just understanding the concepts. And Monica, Randy, and everybody else they had trained as master trainers played a big role in being the experts and so generously sharing their expertise with me.

The second [area] was just as we were expanding these curriculums to outside of the US – to the rest of India, Latin America, Southeast Asia – just the sheer work that we did with LCW in adapting the curriculum. Sometimes with the help of the experts and sometimes by ourselves, but leaning on their expertise and to be able to make that possible.

The third area of partnership was when we were developing our own instructor pool. It was very hard for us to work with a partner and do it all by ourselves. We needed our army, so to speak, in other parts of the world. We worked with them extensively in creating our instructor pool.

And that’s where I have two stories I want to share. One is just the sheer attention to detail. I work with a lot of partners, and I’ve never seen this before anywhere else, whether in the US or in India. Just the sheer attention to detail. Something as simple as when you say, “Hey, we need to develop an instructor curriculum,” it would be so detailed. You’ll never get that sort of stuff from any other partner.

I think the second thing that comes to my mind is integrity. It’s not just, “If the client wants something, we’ll deliver it!” Even if it means educating the client to make sure they get the right thing out of the curriculum and the right learning outcomes. And it means that sometimes the client is not at the same wavelength.

You have to work with a client and educate the person and make sure that if they say they want to build something around unconscious bias, let’s make sure that they understand what unconscious bias is all about, and the kind of outcomes they want to deliver. So often it’s not like the client has said, “Yes,” and we will do “Yes!” At LCW, [they] partner with them to educate them to make sure they get the best bang for their buck.

I think the third [story] is personally, what I’ve experienced is just sheer generosity. They’re not looking at you as like, “Okay, this could be a potential competition.” No, they’re just so selfless with sharing the expertise, their intelligence, their connections and network.

I could pick up a phone in the middle of the night and say, “Hey, I have a client who might be interested in something like this,” and I know somebody is going to be on the other end of the phone helping me out. I think those are the things that really makes LCW stand out.

Tanya:

Thank you so much for sharing those great stories. Sort of segueing into the present now, let’s talk a little bit about how the cultural competency in the D&I world has shifted or changed. I think specifically this past year, which has seen so much change…how do you think this field has changed or shifted since you started 15 years ago?

Geetha Rajagopal:

Brutally, if I’m very honest, I would say the space has shifted, but not as much as I would’ve liked it to. It has tried to be much broader than just affirmative action, diversity, cross-cultural learning, to become more about, “Okay, let’s talk about inclusion.” It’s more the focus on the “I” as opposed to the “D”. It’s more focus on, “Okay, how do I ensure people understand unconscious bias?”

The space also has become much more integrated. Earlier, I would say cross-cultural or D&I was more of a separate discipline. And today the focus is on how to merge that into every single thing that’s happening. So if I’m hiring, how do I make sure that I have a diverse candidate slate? How do I make sure there’s equality of opportunities? It’s not about D&I, it’s also about workplace equality, so that no one group feels left out of the opportunities. Integrating it into performance management, coaching, and everything that you do. There’s far more integration of disciplines now.

But what I feel specifically on the backdrop of what happened this year, both with the events in the US and other events in the rest of the world, the recently concluded United States elections… I just sometimes feel that we take two steps forward in totality, and then we end up two steps backwards.

Every time a life-changing event happens, we seem to fall back into somewhat of a defense position. I’m not saying one group, I’m just saying in general individuals’ defense position. And that came to bear very significantly, whether it’s, as I see in India, individuals become very wedded to our opinions. It can [only] be one way or the other. There’s no middle ground.

Often, that came in the middle of relationships. I’m now getting forwards and messages saying, “Hey, don’t worry if you’re Red or Blue! Please, don’t spoil your friendship because you are Red or Blue, just try and see the policy and the ethos behind it.” So now I think the conversation should be, “Okay, how do I have this conversation without someone mandating it? How do we have this conversation without being told that this is what needs to be done?”

Because you could mandate diversity, but you can’t necessarily mandate inclusion. Inclusion is about truly changing your behavior, changing your relationships, changing the way you think about it, changing your heart. I wish the discipline would go there, and I wish the people would start thinking about it like that.

Especially after the George Floyd tragedy, it was very hard. And for a lot of leaders, people expected us to talk about it. And not just talk, but do something about it. But how do you do it in a way that seems inclusive and does not seem, “Okay, we are favoring one group versus the other?” I’m not so close to what’s happening in the US, but from where I sit and also in the context of what’s happening in India right now, with our recent government, that’s how I feel. It has to start with changing the hearts of the people.

Tanya:

Yeah. That’s super critical. What do you think it’s going to take? If we’re looking down the road, whether it’s five years, 10 years, 20 years from now, what do you think it’s going to take for us to get to that place? What do professionals, specifically in our field, have to do? What steps do we have to take to get there?

Geetha Rajagopal:

Stop focusing on programs and activities, and start focusing on outcomes. When a client approaches you, you need to start saying, “Okay, what would success look like? What do you want your leaders and employees in the hallways talking about? How do you want them to react?” Not just one group in your organization, but every single individual in the organization.

Some may say, “Hey, you’re trying to minimize it.” I’m not trying to minimize. But part of moving forward is to be able to take everyone along in the process. Some may need more nurturing than others, but we definitely have to start looking and saying, “Okay, what’s the outcome? What do I want people to say? What would success look like?”

I think I said this earlier, but focus on diversity and inclusion but also focus on workplace equity or equality. Because you do not want the group to start feeling left out. That is a reason why events have unraveled the way they have, especially in the US. Maybe some groups are feeling here, “I’m not getting enough and other groups are probably replacing me.” So how do you continue to focus on equity and merit and performance, while you are supporting some groups to come forward?

The third is, as a practitioner, you have to continuously learn the discipline and not be wedded to one set of frameworks or models. When we study culture,  study  [Fons] Trompenaars, we study [Geert] Hofstede; but often when you’re going into a client conversation, culture is just one lens to look at it. End of the day, it’s time to start exploring the world from other lenses as well.

So how do you bring that integrated thinking to your clients as a practitioner? I think it’s very important, and it is no one way or the other. You have to be open to all possible interpretations and help your colleagues [and] your clients understand that there is a possibility of variety of interpretations.

From a leadership standpoint, make sure that your conversations are authentic. I often say, if you don’t believe in it, I would rather you stay silent rather than mouthing the right spiel because it’s the right thing to do. But make sure your conversations are authentic because people see through everything. Even if you don’t have all the answers, just say, “Hey, I’m with you, and I’m trying to figure it out as much as you’re trying to figure it out.” It’s okay to be that honest and authentic and say you don’t have all the answers. Because when people listen to you, they are looking for that authenticity. And I think that it’s more crucial than ever, to have that authenticity displayed in the way you talk about diversity and inclusion.

Tanya:

What do you hope this field looks like, in the next 20 years? You talked a little bit about that, about this integration. Anything else to add to that?

Geetha Rajagopal:

Integration is one thing, definitely. For example, now, when I go into clients, I don’t just talk about D&I, I talk about just overall human capital strategy or business strategy, and how does D&I get woven into it? How does that become a part of the cornerstone of the key business metrics and not a separate discipline with its own set of metrics? Which is part of your balanced scorecard?

I would also say as a field, the content, the theory, and the training have to be much more deliberate. I like what we used to do at LCW 15 years ago – you didn’t let just anyone become a practitioner or become a trainer. We made sure that from their own personal journey and personal education standpoint, they were at a certain level; more accepting and more appreciative of what needs to be done. So we used to put them in front of our clients because you know that if you are slightly ahead in your journey, you’re able to help your clients get there.

That deliberateness has to come back. It’s not like HR gets trained on a program and then charged with delivering the training. People who are in these roles, especially leaders, have to be groomed to develop that global mindset, that conversation towards D&I. I think that has to become very integral part of the leadership journey. Whether they’re going into a leadership role in HR or business, or IT… Leaders have to start developing whatever word you use – “inclusive mindset”, “global mindset” – having that lens. I think we just need to develop that far more. I think we have to be much more deliberate about it.

Tanya:

So to wrap everything up, what’s one piece of advice you have for up and coming or emerging practitioners in the field? One piece of advice, one call to action, to sort of wrap all this up?

Geetha Rajagopal:

I’d say, learn, learn, learn! Keep up the learning curve because this field is ever changing. I think if you want your clients to think of it in a more integrated manner, in your [own] mind you have to start thinking in a much more integrated manner. It is no “us versus them” in this field. It’s all open to interpretation, so let’s remember that. I would just say, learn, learn, learn, and be open to interpretation.

Tanya:

Excellent. I couldn’t agree more. This has been a great conversation, Geetha. You’ve shared so much great advice and wisdom with us. Thank you so much for giving your time to us and for your continued partnership.

Geetha Rajagopal:

No, it’s my pleasure. Thank you so much. It’s been a great partnership with the LCW, especially with Monica, Rachel, Randy, Rebecca, over the last so many years. Thank you so much.

 

 

 

2 Comments

Wonderful thoughts Geetha! As always, you have given some inspirational inputs and your thought leadership is clearly evident.

Pawas Anand

Focusing on the outcome and not just on programs & activities. Very practical insights. Inclusion is the key, diversity will follow. Like every bit of what you shared Geetha

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