Diversity & Inclusion

Reggie Willis: Making a Difference By Taking a Strategic Approach to DEI

We often find that the chief diversity officers (CDOs) we speak to are driven by a passion for helping and working with people. That passion doesn’t necessarily focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) specifically or exclusively, but DEI work tends to be a great outlet for that passion.

Reggie Willis DEI Ally Bank

And it has been a great outlet for the focus of this installment of our series: Reggie Willis, CDO at Ally Bank.

A Midlife Revelation

Like so many of the CDOs we’ve featured in this series, Willis did not have his sights set on such a role from an early age. In fact, he started his career in the insurance industry, following in the footsteps of his father.

“As I think about my journey into this space, I’m not sure if everyone’s was as unorthodox as mine, but mine was definitely not a linear path to this work,” he recalls. “I started out my career not knowing what I was going to do. I had an undergraduate degree in psychology. I had a dad who worked in the insurance industry his whole career and a mother who was in the banking industry. So, I ended up starting my career off as an analyst for an insurance carrier and did 23 years work in the risk management space.”

After spending over two decades in the insurance business, Willis decided that his passion was people and started looking for career opportunities more in line with that passion than what the insurance industry was providing him.

“Right before I turned 40—I’ll call it a midlife crisis—I really started to make the determination that people were my passion,” Willis says. “I kind of knew that all along, but I was really starting to wonder how I was going to create a path where my vocation and my passion for people were one and the same so I went out on this exploration and tried to figure out how I could do that by interviewing a number of different people who have previously retired and just ask them, ‘did this ever happen to you where you felt like you were at a crossroads where you weren’t being fulfilled in the work that you were doing?’”

From Coaching to Corporate

Willis says some of the people he spoke to sought to scratch that “itch” he was feeling through not-for-profit (NFP) work. While Willis is heavily involved in NFP pursuits, he says he felt he needed something more and began looking for opportunities to combine his passion with his career.

“I went and got certified to be an executive coach,” Willis recalls. “So, I have this certification to kind of help people through life coaching and kind of coaching their careers, but I had a unique opportunity back in the fall of 2015.”  

Willis attributes much of Ally’s early DEI success to Martin Davidson, a consultant and CDO for the University of Virginia (UVA), as well as an adjunct professor at UVA’s Darden School of Business. “He came in and did this conversation, and it was great and really amplified why you need to and how to think about celebrating differences and not necessarily seeing diversity as a problem to solve for,” Willis says.

The Pros and Cons of a Clean Slate

DEI efforts have only recently come to the fore in many organizations. Like many of the CDOs we talk to as part of this series, Willis was the first person to hold the CDO role at Ally, which meant he had a clean slate. While this can be a double-edged sword, Willis says there were definitely some benefits.

“We didn’t have anything that needed to be fixed,” he explains. “We didn’t have anything that was broken, unlike many organizations who approached this work, maybe back when affirmative action came into play.” Back then, he says, the focus was more on the numbers and filling quotas to meet regulatory requirements and not so much about valuing what varied perspectives could bring to the organization in terms of innovation and fresh insights.

Without the shackles of a preexisting DEI foundation focused primarily on superficial quotas, Willis says he had the opportunity through most of 2016 to take a very thoughtful approach to his work.

“I took most of 2016 to do research,” Willis says. “We ended up hiring Martin Davidson, the gentleman who came to speak with us as a consultant, and we did a lot of research and we held small group sessions and talked to our employees about what their experiences were around acceptance, around what would make a successful diversity and inclusion program.” Willis and his team also conducted 30-minute interviews with all of Ally’s executive teammates to get their perspectives.

A Use-It-or-Lose-It Attitude Toward Diversity

Ally launched its framework and strategy in 2017, starting with a focus on inclusion because the research Willis’s team had done warned that if an organization doesn’t create a space where people have a tremendous sense of belonging and feel like their opinions matter, then no matter what the organization does to recruit diversity, it will probably lose it as quickly as it brought it in.

Willis’s team created eight employee resource groups (ERGs) and a Diversity and Inclusion Council, which includes every member of the Ally executive team—a strong signal of support from the top and a key driver for the company’s DEI efforts, he says.

Impressive Levels of Employee Participation

The executive team members aren’t the only ones getting engaged with Ally’s DEI efforts. It’s something that has permeated the entire organization. “I’m proud to say that now over 44% of our employees are part of one of our employee resource groups,” Willis says. “So, we have a tremendous amount of participation. We celebrate each of our ERGs with a particular focus month. So, they have a month where kind of all of our resources and all of our other ERG is trying to rally around that particular ERG.”

A Cornerstone of the Corporate Culture

Willis believes Ally’s DEI efforts have really paid off over the last several years, and he believes it’s not just the DEI team that would give that assessment. “If you ask anyone in our organization, I think they would tell you that diversity, equity inclusion is fundamental to our culture,” he says. “And it really, we talk about it and how we approach our customers. We talk about it in the community efforts that we have, whether that’s through our grant giving through our active volunteering in our communities.”

That DEI focus extends beyond the company itself and its employees. “We think about it in our supplier programs and think about how we actually procure services,” says Willis. “We have a gentleman by the name of TJ Lewis who leads our diversity efforts around suppliers.” At Ally, he notes, DEI isn’t “just about how do we target employees—which is paramount—but also how do we move it into all that we do from providing services to our customers to engaging in the communities that we do business with, as well as the people who provide those back end services for us through our third party program.”

Willis is a great example of a DEI leader who came to the work through a passion for helping people. Initially, that passion wasn’t necessarily focused on a corporate DEI role, but, like many other CDOs, Willis found this work was a great outlet for that passion. Both he and Ally Bank are certainly better off for it, and so are those they serve, both internally and externally.

Taking a strategic approach to driving effective DEI efforts has therefore made a measurable difference at Ally.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.