Understanding diversity and inclusion in the workplace is critical to success in the modern economy
Diversity and inclusion are complex topics woven into the fabric of society as well as the current workplace environment. Our personal and professional development requires that we engage these issues in order to better understand this context and thrive in the modern marketplace. Amy C. Waninger has risen within the insurance industry as a key voice in helping professionals broaden their perspectives and achieve success in their journey. While some approach with trepidation, Amy helps to cast these subjects in another light, reminding us that failure to engage serves only to limit opportunities. In her book, Network Beyond Bias, she challenges us to, “Invest in people and ideas outside your own norms to create opportunities for yourself and others (p.95).” Her acclaimed book informs as well as inspires with insights that will educate the reader, including personal stories that help to make these topics approachable. We were grateful that Amy took a few moments out of her busy schedule to correspond in this interview.
Do I understand correctly that you background is in software and IT? What brought you into that industry and how far have you gone with it?
My first Bachelor’s degree was in Criminal Justice, and I aspired to practice Civil Rights law. Just before graduation, I learned how much law school would cost. Then I learned the meaning of the phrase “pro bono.” I decided instead to join the workforce, but I struggled to find a position that offered a path for growth. On the advice of a friend, I went back to school and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. The industry appealed to me because there was a shortage of software developers at that time, at the height of the Y2K frenzy. There were a number of bubbles and bursts in the years that followed, so I learned how to adapt quickly. I spent the last twelve years in progressive management roles, the most recent decade within the insurance industry. The highest position I have held is a Senior Management role within a Fortune 100 company.
You started Lead at Any Level over a year ago, what was the impetus to get this venture off and running?
A few experiences converged that led me to start a blog in 2017. First, I had been participating in Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that had been launched by my employer. I was surprised and excited to learn that there was a business appetite for messages around diversity, equity, and inclusion. At the same time, I earned my Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU) designation, a prestigious award within the insurance industry. The CPCU conferment in 2016 marked the first time I’d ever attended an industry conference. The experience was inspiring, and I began to think about how I could contribute to the industry beyond my “day job.” I submitted a proposal for the following year’s CPCU conference, and the committee accepted my proposal. I began working on the hour of content I would need to deliver for the conference. A couple months later, I attended the Out Women in Business Conference, where I met Jennifer Brown, a Diversity & Inclusion consultant and TED speaker. An idea began to form in my mind that I could build my own business around my passions. I blurted out my idea to Jennifer, and she said, “You totally should!” It seems silly, but that was all the encouragement I needed. I began building a social media presence, writing content for my blog, and developing workshop outlines to submit for conferences.
What is one thing that is harder than you thought it would be as an entrepreneur and one thing that turned out to be a bit easier than you expected?
For 2018 alone, I’ve booked over 35 public speaking engagements, including workshops, webinars, keynotes, and podcast interviews. I also wrote and published a book, which I’m sure we’ll cover later. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s all been fun for me. Even the book was much less of a challenge than I expected, once I enlisted the right coach to help me through the process. The “hard” thing I didn’t expect has been to develop services beyond the talks, and articulating to prospective clients what I have to offer.
Take a moment to talk about the concept of Lead at Any Level, the name and concept is powerful and for me invokes the idea that we shouldn’t be waiting to become leaders but engage in leading from where we are. Can you elaborate on what you envision for leading at any level?
Thank you for asking! I am a little bit in love with my company’s name and tagline. “Lead at Any Level. Leaders can be anywhere and should be everywhere.” It says exactly what I want it to say, and it’s rare that any of us finds the perfect words to convey our meaning. And your interpretation is spot-on. Leaders exist at every level of an organization. They are the ones who adapt quickly, who look out for others, who set a positive example, and who work with integrity. Some leaders are ambitious, high-potential employees. Others have no management aspirations, yet others are drawn to their quiet confidence. To me, leadership is a behavior — or a set of behaviors — rather than a job title. I wanted a brand that conveyed all of that.
Not only did you start a business but you also wrote a book, Network Beyond Bias: Making Diversity a Competitive Advantage for Your Career. What did you see in the professional experience that prompted you to put pen to paper and speak into this area of need?
Naming the book was as important to me as naming my business, so please allow me to answer your question by breaking down the title. Networking is a critical career management and leadership skill. Many of us fail to recognize our default behaviors or the perspectives that are missing in our networks. We may not be able to overcome or undo the biases that cause us to limit ourselves, but if we recognize them, we can move beyond them. I also wanted to be clear that the book is a tool for individuals’ careers. So much literature exists on what companies or executives can do, and I felt there was an unanswered question in the marketplace: “Yes, but what can I do?”
What in your personal and professional experience has brought you to the place where you feel so passionately about making a difference with regards to diversity and inclusion?
Diversity and inclusion was important to me before I even knew what to call it. There are so many examples, anecdotes, and personal stories I could share — and I do share many of them in the book. The common thread, I guess, is that I firmly believe everyone should have the opportunity to do their best work and contribute as much as possible to the world. There are so many problems to solve, and we need everyone’s gifts to solve them.
For those who are reading that are in a position of leadership what is one simple step they can take to make progress towards making a positive impact for diversity and inclusion within their teams?
For current leaders who want to be more inclusive, start seeking diverse perspectives on purpose. If you don’t do it on purpose, it will not happen by default. When I sit down with people to help them assess their professional networks, they are invariably confident that their networks are diverse. After a few minutes of putting pen to paper (this framework is described in Chapter 32), they typically say, “I have a lot of work to do, don’t I?”
For those who are employees, working their way up the ladder but still wanting to be a part of the change, what is one simple step that they can take to lead at their level?
For professionals who are aspiring to higher positions in the corporate hierarchy, I offer this. So many corporate employees want the pay and prestige that come with leadership positions. They seek out high-profile projects, promotions, and executive sponsors. To really stand out in a company, though, you need to stand for something other than your own self-interest. Specifically, you can position yourself as a leader by being an ally to others.