Without impugning the virtues of country music, it’s fair to say that this genre probably doesn’t pop into mind when most people think about diversity, equity, and inclusion. While country music does have and has historically had some notable stars of color, it’s largely dominated by white artists, and the music heavily focuses on themes and settings associated with rural, white culture.
So, when we say that our subject for this installment of our series on chief diversity officers (CDOs) is a country music artist who was born in Kansas, it might raise a few inquisitive eyebrows. But Chely Wright approaches her diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) work with a passion and a practical approach that speaks to her midwestern country roots.
Wright is CDO at global strategy, design, and construction firm Unispace. She’s also a wife, mother, member of the LGBTQ+ community, and fierce advocate for diversity and inclusion.
A ‘Pivot’ to DEI
So, how did Wright go from a country music singer/songwriter to a corporate DEIB leader? A lot of it has to do with her own experience learning to embrace her own diversity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Wright used the opportunity brought about by the COVID shutdowns to significantly change her life—to pivot, as she calls it. After enjoying decades of success as a singer/songwriter, Wright took her blue-collar parents’ mantra of “Plan your work; work your plan” to heart and took a break from show business to pursue an impactful career in the DEIB space. Using her life experience as a formerly closeted gay woman who lived in fear of personal and professional repercussions if she came out, Wright now helps people fully celebrate their authentic selves.
Just as it may be surprising to some to see a country music artist pivot to a DEIB role, it’s also perhaps surprising to see a construction company like Unispace investing in a DEIB program.
Wright, however, is quick to point out the similarities in the country music and construction industries: a lack of diversity, the prevalence of traditional thinking, and too many people saying “that’s not how we do things.” At Unispace, Wright works closely with her colleagues to truly embed DEIB into everything the firm does. However, her efforts don’t stop there. Wright also works with Unispace’s clients to help them implement DEIB programs, as well.
Leveraging Her Skills as a Storyteller
While it may seem like moving from a career as a country music artist to a CDO role wouldn’t give Wright many opportunities to leverage her experiences, she says her abilities and experiences as a storyteller have certainly served her well in her new professional life.
“My first record came out when I was 23,” she says. “And for the past 30 plus years, I’ve made records and toured. That’s storytelling, and that’s a really incredible opportunity to move through life as a person who listens deeply and listens more than they speak.”
Speaking through story is impactful, Wright notes, and it’s what she did for a long time. She quickly realized, though, that communicating with people wasn’t all about songs.
Telling a good story is a great way to help get people on board with any effort, and that includes DEIB efforts. “When you can get people at every level of the business, whether it be the construction team or the procurement team, the finance team, this team, the marketing team, the communications team, when you’ve got everyone speaking the same language and understanding that this is the long game then you can I you know, you can make them you can turn the dial, and we’re feeling some of that,” Wright says.
Ticking Boxes as a Necessary Baseline
When asked what advice she would give other CDOs and diversity leaders, Wright is quick to say that she’s hesitant to give advice to other diversity leaders because everyone’s organization and challenges can be so different. However, she does say that she believes certain basic tenets are broadly applicable.
For example, she notes that many companies fall into a bit of a mental trap when it comes to getting started. They often feel like they only have the resources to do very basic and foundational initiatives, like focusing on more diverse hiring or tracking diversity within the organization, and they don’t want to feel like they’re just “ticking boxes,” so they do nothing.
Instead, Wright says, ticking those boxes should be seen as necessary for any DEIB program. It isn’t going to be a silver bullet, but it still needs to be done.
“I would encourage other organizations to see the box ticking as the very least you can do,” Wright advises. Just because companies may be averse to “box ticking,” those foundational efforts—like recruiting practices and workforce composition—are important.
The Importance of ERGs in Retention
Wright is a big believer in the value of employee resource groups (ERGs), which she believes not only provide a sense of belonging but also can tie in closely to an organization’s core business goals. “While the groups can be fun and social,” she says, “they actually can be easily and importantly connected to business imperatives and business outcomes and really kind of the overall business strategy of a company.”
Furthermore, Wright says that creating a sense of belonging can help with retention.
“If you want to hold on to institutional knowledge within a company, you’d better hold on to your talent,” she adds. There is a war for talent right now, and employees can “make a decision to hop,” she cautions. When they do, they take with them their “hard-earned institutional knowledge of where the business is and where the business is going.”
Wright’s journey from country music artist to CDO is another great example of the circuitous paths so many diversity leaders take to get to their roles and pursue their passions. In many cases, their own experiences as members of diverse communities inspire them to help others, and that’s a big part of Wright’s story, too. For more information on Wright, her personal journey, and her thoughts on DEIB, check out her recently released book, My Moment (Simon & Schuster, 2021).
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.