Diversity & Inclusion

Leveraging a Background in Marketing to Drive DEI Results

James Kinney is Chief People Officer at Media.Monks, a global content, data, and media firm. That seems to be a great fit for Kinney, who has leveraged his marketing background—in addition to his passion for helping people—to create a successful career spanning two decades as a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leader.

James Kinney

Kinney says his DEI story started when he was a management consultant, advising businesses on operational matters, marketing matters, and eventually people matters. “When I was in my early 30s, I had a serious bout of anxiety and depression,” Kinney says. “I decided to dedicate my life to impacting people. I felt like the workplace was one of those places where I could have this immense opportunity to help people.”

The Early Years of DEI

Kinney has been in DEI for more than a decade. He got his start when such initiatives were relatively superficial and low priority. But, just as Kinney’s career has evolved and accelerated, so, too, has corporate appreciation for the importance and value of DEI.

“I was fortunate enough to do some work with Toyota. And Toyota had a supplier diversity program,” Kinney notes. “This was probably mid-2000s, so this is before DEI got as big as it is now.” He says that he was both excited about and impressed by all the nuances associated with the professional supplier diversity program: from veterans to persons with differences in ability to how a minority-owned business or a female-owned business can be certified and much more.

“Way before I became the diversity chief, I learned about DEI from a very real way that was impactful to a lot of people,” Kinney says, adding that there were incredible success stories of lives being changed through the program. These were people who had businesses, and they were offered a chance to support, build, and grow those businesses with Toyota. “That’s really how I got my start,” he says.

Media.Monks and the Diversity of Diversity Efforts

Kinney was the first chief diversity officer and, as of his most recent promotion just under a year ago, the first chief people officer at Media.Monks. In an organization that boasts over 9,000 employees in 60 offices across 32 countries, Kinney is responsible for overseeing DEI, hiring, HR, and much more.

An interesting challenge Kinney faces with diversity efforts at Media.Monks is how diverse those efforts must be in order to account for the many jurisdictional, regulatory, cultural, and demographic differences that make up Media.Monks’ global footprint. For example, what may be a legally permissible or even a required diversity policy in one part of the world might be legally prohibited in another. Additionally, the diversity of local populations themselves and their historic treatment within the local community impact the extent of the need for DEI efforts in one region compared with another.

“When we’re thinking about diversity goals and diversity needs globally, what that means for Brazil is going to be different than what that means for a place like China,” Kinney explains. One way he and Media.Monks have tried to achieve some consistency with their global diversity efforts is by using data-driven analysis of DEI challenges to support a localized approach.

Leveraging a Marketing Background

“As far as my career goes, I am really a marketer and a consultant, by trade,” says Kinney. “This people-focused portion of my career has really been just the last eight years of my career, but it’s been so rewarding.”

Despite this shift in focus, Kinney hasn’t lost his marketing roots, and he believes that has greatly contributed to his success as a DEI leader. “Because I have a marketing background, I recognized very early on that really effective DEI programs needed to be marketing campaigns,” he explains. “I decided to talk about DEI like a PSA—like those big campaigns in the 80s encouraging people to wear a seatbelt or give up smoking.”

Employees, he says, are consumers, and that means creating the types of inclusive communications plans that have been used by marketing firms with external audiences.

Building a Sense of Community

Like many of the DEI leaders we’ve spoken with, Kinney is a firm believer in the importance of belonging in any organization, and a big part of creating a sense of belonging is employee community groups.

“I’m a really big believer in this,” Kinney says. “Community groups, as I call them—some people call them employee resource groups, or ERGs—are really great, and I’m a firm believer that we need to take them a step further.”

That step further, he says, involves pulling together a diverse group of people to take action on a specific cause. Media.Monks has two of these committees: “One is dedicated to mental health and the other one is focused on equality for women.”

Kinney says the format of Media.Monks’ committees is part of their success. “The cool thing about our committees is you really flip the conversation on its head, so to speak, because people from all four of our global regions in one group that are diverse themselves. We have people who identify as Caucasian, working with people from people from Peru, working with people who identify as Black. So, you have all these diverse people working together for a particular cause.”

DEI Is for Everyone

Kinney cautions, however, that DEI can be weaponized by some and used as a culture war lightning rod. That type of politicization, he says, misses the point of genuine DEI. He argues that literally anyone can participate in and benefit from DEI efforts. Efforts to polarize opinion around DEI efforts are counter to the true spirit of the movement, he believes.

There are many, many historically underrepresented and marginalized groups. The future of DEI, though, “is bringing everyone along.”

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

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