Nichelle Grant: “Inclusive business is inevitable”
By Melissa Lowery
Nichelle Grant sees inclusive business as “inevitable”. The Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Siemens USA, Grant has a long-term view of her work and its purpose – attracting the best talent who can be their authentic selves – and achieving that requires taking action now to ensure an inclusive workplace in the future.
“Right now, we’re having discussions about updating our policies and the language in our guidebooks to be more inclusive. I think in maybe five but definitely 10 years, we won’t even be thinking about this, because it’s inevitable. It’s going to happen, the next generations of the workforce demand it, so why not lead the way?” she said during our interview.
Gen Z is entering the workforce with a mandate that corporate America adopt inclusive, equitable policies – or they will work somewhere else. In 2019, Deloitte published “Welcome to Generation Z”, an analysis of the demographic that now comprises more than one-third of the world’s population. In summation, the report advised potential employers that, “Diversity matters to [Gen Z] through many dimensions, and isn’t just isolated to race and gender, but also related to identity and orientation. Combining this with their preferences on how they work, where they work and who they work with means that companies will need to fundamentally change how they organize, hire, retain and develop talent.”
This burgeoning workforce is not shy about the fact that they want to see a massive paradigm shift in the employer-employee dynamic. Unlike the nebulous concept of “work-life balance” sought by Millennials, Gen Z is leveraging their power to drive substantive changes to corporate policy.
For example, Project Matriarchs, an organization created and led by a growing community of college students, is drawing media attention for their list of employer best practices with an emphasis on supporting caregiving employees while recognizing contemporary conceptions of gender. The organization’s Pledge to Care petition stipulates: “When crafting corporate policy, it is critical that employers continue to center the experiences of women. That being said, we want corporate policy to reflect the fact that our generation does not see gender as a binary.”
Innovation drives business at Siemens USA, a global company focusing on digitalization, electrification and automation for the process and manufacturing industries and is a leader in power generation and distribution, intelligent infrastructure and distributed energy systems. Part of Grant’s mandate is reinforcing and improving a workplace culture that not only serves current employees and customers, but is also attractive to the next generation’s top talent.
“Do you want to be the company Gen Z looks at and says, ‘let’s go work there because they’ve already done the work, we don’t have to fight, we can just be who we are’ or do you want to be the company that misses out on all that potential talent?” she asks.
Grant became involved in DEI efforts at Siemens through the women’s employee resource group, Women’s Impact Network at Siemens (WIN@S).
“I went to one event and I was hooked,” she recalled. “I was motivated, I wanted to do more, so I started taking on more and more responsibilities on top of my actual job.”
After nearly 20 years of developing go-to-market strategies, focusing on the customer experience and driving operational excellence for Siemens, Grant accepted the role of Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in September 2019. It was a natural fit, combining her passion for advocacy with her deep knowledge of Siemens’ operations and customers.
Allyship and advocating for others has been a throughline in Grant’s life since she was a child, born into a long line of champions for DEI. “I can remember being involved throughout my childhood in key causes to help others like clothing and food drives,” she said. “Even throughout my college years, I was always engaged on campus for DEI including leading a student group. My passion for being an ally continues in my professional life.”
Grant believes that allyship means speaking up for those who do not have a voice, whether in a positive manner or in a corrective manner. That can be dangerous, especially in a corrective situation, so part of her job is ensuring that each of Siemens’ 40,000 team members in the United States have the tools and the confidence to be an ally.
“We want everyone to be an ally and an advocate for their coworkers, so we have various channels that allow people to speak up,’ she said. “We’re teaching employees how to speak up and stand up for others and for themselves. We’re teaching our managers how to work with their teams so they feel like they can speak up whether it’s with new ideas or corrective action.”
That confidence starts at the top with Barbara Humpton, president and CEO of Siemens USA. The most important part of leading, Barbara recently noted in an essay, is actually letting others lead. The key to employee empowerment, she added, is ensuring that everyone feels a deep sense of belonging by using “every available muscle to advance diversity, equity and inclusion.”
By focusing on setting up a framework that promotes allyship, Grant wants to not just remove obstacles but get people used to being an ally.
“It’s never easy to be an ally, but we can make it easier,” she said.
DEI All the Time
DEI at Siemens USA is an “all the time” imperative. With support from the C-suite, Grant drives a holistic approach to building and leveraging a workforce that mirrors the diversity of its customer base, suppliers, partners and society as a whole.
Last summer Siemens USA launched Courageous Conversations, a series of town hall meetings to clearly articulate the company’s commitment to racial equality and invite employees to express themselves. Senior leadership hosted company-wide meetings with hundreds of employees joining in each time. Grant was pleasantly surprised when she began to hear that smaller groups began hosting their own Courageous Conversations.
“Out of being a top-down initiative, people are creating their own ways of having dialogue,” she said. “It’s really taken off and expanded beyond racial justice to women’s issues, LGBTQ issues, the rise in acts of violence against the AAPI community, and more. We want our employees to feel like they can come to work and have these conversations productively because that’s how we create a culture where people feel fulfilled and appreciated.”
Courageous Conversations is just part of the framework Siemens is building to promote inclusive business. Grant works closely with supplier diversity and procurement, legal, human resources and other departments to promote co-ownership of DEI goals. Currently, she is focused on how to engage middle management without overwhelming them with additional responsibilities.
“We’re not asking employees to do something in addition to their jobs. If we hired you to do a particular job, I want you to do that with a diversity, equity and inclusion lens,” she said. “How can you be more inclusive? How can you diversify the sources you’re using? How can you make sure that we’re offering fairness internally and externally?”
One answer is through employee resource groups (ERGs). July was ERG Month at Siemens USA, celebrating and highlighting the company’s ten ERGs. In an article published on the corporate website, Grant asserted that ERGs provide value in many ways. They encourage conversations, volunteerism and networking. Most importantly, she said, they create a sense of belonging that allows employees to bring their whole selves to work.
“If Siemens wants to attract the best talent it can, then we must be open to the whole spectrum of candidates. And those potential employees must know, before they even consider Siemens, that they can be comfortable being themselves at work—on site or remotely. If a person cannot be their authentic self at work, then they are often spending time worrying what other people will think of them. That’s energy that isn’t going into pursuing goals, innovation and career development,” she wrote.
Jason Montgomery, senior consultant in global human resources and a member of the BEQ Pride 40 LGBTQ Leaders Under 40 Class of 2021, is the national LGBTQ+ employee resource group chair.
“Under Nichelle’s leadership these past two years, Siemens USA has seen a significant increase in meaningful and intentional DEI Belonging practices,” he said. “Nichelle is an advocate and ally that puts her full support behind every employee resource group at Siemens. She has strengthened the professional development of all ERG leaders and challenges the status quo. I would venture to say that the awareness of DEI Belonging initiatives is at an all-time high at Siemens USA.”
Ultimately, Grant wants to incorporate DEI into every part of how Siemens USA operates. Gone are the days of “diversity month”, she said. Now, DEI is all day, every month.
“June used to be Diversity Month and then you don’t hear anything else the rest of the year,” she said. “It’s just a blip on the calendar. Now DEI is always part of the conversation. You can be in a meeting with legal or with suppliers and it comes up, there’s a dialogue about DEI. People are thinking about how they can be champions of diversity and inclusion all the time.”