In order to drive a successful D&I agenda, you need to be competent in getting the message across and really aligning the business leaders behind the cause of D&I. That means you have to command a certain level of respect that is independent of color, background, age, gender etc.
When it comes to gender within D&I, female role models is the single most important dimension that is most effective, because you cannot be what you cannot see.
Christiane Bisanzio, Director – HR of northern, central and eastern Europe & Group Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at AXA is a passionate advocate of equality with an impressive track record in the areas of gender and LGBT equality. Her work on the ‘Sponsorship Tandem’ program was cited as an example of ‘best practice’ by the Catalyst organization and she continues to develop this model in AXA. From 2001 to 2006, Christiane worked for GE where she was Chairwoman of GE’s Women’s Network. In October 2015, she was named by the Economist as one of the Top 50 Diversity Professionals in its Global Diversity List.
As the Group Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at AXA, what would you say, is your job description and your mandate?
I provide strategic framework and thought leadership on Diversity and Inclusion for AXA at a global level and work in close partnership with the chairman of AXA as well as the global executive committee in shaping the agenda for Inclusion. It means partnering with the senior executives across the business to ensure that D&I get embedded in our business especially from a customer and product perspective.
As a permanent member and lead for the Global D&I advisory council, it also means championing D&I topics at a global/ regional level. Most importantly, every day I do my best to role model inclusion with the language I use, challenging others every time I see behavior that is not inclusive, and challenging myself to fully understand the differing points of view of those around me.
There is a lot of debate about who qualifies to lead D&I in terms of knowledge, skills, degrees, experience and background. From your experience, what do you feel are the most important qualifications for the role?
They need to be strategic. It is a highly strategic job. If I were to recruit for that position, I would look for somebody who really understands the business the company is operating in, the context it is operating in and really takes the strategic high-level view. It goes beyond the expertise, which is one-dimensional, because the ability to apply expertise in a business dimension is what differentiates a good and a great Global Head of D&I.
You can only drive a successful D&I agenda if you manage to work with and influence your colleagues and the executive committee of the leaders. You need to be competent to get the message across and to really align the business leaders behind the cause of D&I. That means you have to command a certain level of respect that is independent of color, background, age, gender etc. Globally, we see all kinds of D&I heads — you see old, you see young, you see men, you see women, you see people from the LGBT community, and from various other minorities. I would say there isn’t any other criterion other than the fact that these people are well respected within and outside their organization.
What can organizations do to create ‘mindset’ shifts across the board on diversity and inclusion? What are the various steps to be taken down that road?
This depends on what dimension of D&I we look at. I would say most companies, if not all, are now really looking at gender. And when it comes to gender, having female role models is the single most important dimension that is most effective, because you cannot be what you cannot see. If you see women that are operating in heavy success roles or mid-management roles, that is when you begin to see the shift. It has to become more of a reality. That would be my single lever in gender.
When it comes to the topic of disabilities, my single most effective would be that everything starts with an A — accessibility, acceptability and acceptance – in AXA. Some companies have the approach that let’s see what kind of job roles and what kind of disabilities match. This is not our approach. Our approach is more broadly that we need to get the right accessibility and these are often things purely to do with real estate. Also, what we really focus on in AXA is mental health — disabilities that are often less obvious.
What are some of these real-estate related modifications which make the workplace accessible?
The difficulty with many real estate modifications is that they are not ‘road tested’, for example, are disabled toilets truly accessible or are the big wide doors in fact too heavy to open? Clearly for new buildings, accessibility has to be a core consideration but for the existing infrastructure, a balance has to be achieved in exactly what is required (each disability is very different) and what is pragmatic from a cost point of view. Our aim is to fully include people with disability in our workforce which means reasonable accommodation that is tailored to exact requirements.
In the modern working world this is also not just about physical changes but we are very proud in AXA to have made our conference calls available to deaf and hard of hearing employees by using a captioning service. This is inclusion in real time.
What kind of measures have you implemented to LGBTQ employees feel psychologically safe in the workplace in various countries — some being far less progressive on this issue than others?
At AXA across the world we have a global non-discrimination policy that prevents discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. We have a strong commitment and support from the senior most executives on this topic and AXA entities across the world are implementing programs or working on policies for this community of people.
With due respect for the local legislation and cultural climate, we adopt what we call an embassy model of LGBT inclusion in which entities are encouraged to enforce pro-LGBT policies of providing an inclusive environment and a supportive workplace within their own walls. Some examples include reverse mentoring programs, equal benefits for same sex domestic partners, participating in external discussions with other companies in the same country, sponsoring, leading research projects, showing our commitment by signing charters in certain countries, participating in PRIDE either as a sponsor or as a participant specifically in the US, UK and Germany etc.
You have made your mark in promoting proactive inclusion of women, people with various sexual orientations, and aging workers. Could you tell us more about these initiatives, especially the ‘Sponsorship Tandem’ program for creating a pipeline of female senior executives at AXA?
The sponsorship tandem in AXA is very unique because it differs from others programs that you see in other companies. First of all, sponsorship is to talk about promoting a person and not just mentoring them. Each member of our global executive committee and our executive committees around the world selects a woman employee that they want to sponsor. This is special because in many similar programs, sometimes there is an HR office that matches and brings the pairs together, which doesn’t work. The sponsor in this case takes the responsibility and puts his or her own reputation behind it. So first is the self connection — and the second unique dimension is Job Shadow, which means that throughout the year the female sponsorees are shadowing the executives in their work, so that they can have the job experience. The program so far has been highly successful because of this on-the-job advantage.
Besides the Chief D&I Officer, you are also the Director - HR of Northern, Central and Eastern Europe. Europe has been grappling afresh with questions of race and ethnicity after the Syrian refugee crisis. What do you feel could be some best practices towards encouraging inclusivity, given the changes that can be anticipated in workforce composition?
What you are asking in particular regarding the refugee crisis, really comes into perspective with what Angela Merkel and the Government in Germany are doing because she clearly has the strongest positioning on this. In all sectors, we in Germany are bringing in people, whether it is from academic backgrounds or other skills, from Syria and other countries because we are a country with an aging population and we need immigration. That’s how Angela Merkel is positioning this topic. And certainly, we like any other company are working alongside this immigration specter in Europe.
I would say that companies need to take out the fear. If people are afraid, it is because they are afraid that their job is in danger and I come across this same fear in men, very often because there is so much focus on bringing more women into the workforce. What you need to do is to start addressing this fear. I am operating in Germany and am German by passport and I have to say that the situation is not as tense as it seems to be because more employers are opening up to say that this is really an opportunity, not a threat, and things are starting to calm down on that aspect.
What can organizations do to strengthen and support their HR & Diversity officers in doing their job well?
I would really say that what helps the most is to walk the talk. It is really a draw in the D&I if you have a business leader who is portraying a behavior or recruiting a team that is not diverse. If you have someone who is putting these things into action that you sort of map out from a strategic D&I perspective. That really helps and putting more female role models in place.
Why do organizations need to not only care, but also prioritize inclusivity in their corporate agendas?
I would say this has a lot to do with digitization, the internet, the consumer and the employees are more and more educated on products, on companies and services that they deal with. I do not believe that if you are a corporation that does not reflect the society, you can stay successful in selling products or be attractive as an employer. You need to reflect the society, by getting the balance right, for example, making the women’s ratio to men 50:50, in order to be good at consumer branding and employee engagement.