AmpEquity Speaker Series Highlights Inclusion and Belonging in Conversation with InaMarie Johnson, Zendesk

By Maddie Vann

“It’s not good enough to say ‘oh we have a lot of diverse perspectives.’ …What do you do with that? Is the company thriving? Is that diverse perspective being recognized, and seen, and leveraged?” — InaMarie Johnson

InaMarie Johnson’s parents instilled in her the belief that “you belong” and “you are worthy.” On Thursday, October 15th Johnson joined EGAL for the AmpEquity Speaker Series to share how those same lessons have informed her leadership philosophy, which prioritizes diversity and inclusion. In her current role as Chief People & Diversity Officer for Zendesk, Johnson leads the company’s vision for delivering a great employee experience. She oversees Zendesk’s diversity equity and inclusion efforts, workplace experience functions, and talent acquisition and development strategy. A long-time partner of EGAL, Johnson serves on EGAL’s advisory council and fully embodies EGAL’s Equity Fluent Leadership principles.

Growing up, Johnson was the only black student in her class of roughly 400 and her parents consistently reinforced for her and her brother that they “were worthy” of belonging in their chosen environments. That foundation has underscored Johnson’s thoughtful concern for the experience of employees inside her organizations.

Johnson started her career at The Clorox Company, then spent a decade at Honeywell, and is now in her third year leading the global People & Places organization at Zendesk. Across these companies, she’s observed many patterns and similar challenges, but a core commonality has been that they were all “evolving and transforming.” As such, she views herself as a change agent who champions diverse employee voices and perspectives to prepare her organizations for global success.

From the conversation, moderated by EGAL’s Founder Kellie McElhaney, the following key lessons and themes emerged.

Being a global leader starts with being able to ask great questions and tap into diverse perspectives.

  • Across different global environments, Johnson consistently sees the need for connection and empathy. She believes that if you can try and walk in the shoes of someone in a different country, or someone with a different set of experiences, then that relationship gets stronger.
  • Believing that empathy begins with listening, Zendesk has launched “empathy circles” around the world — from Singapore, to Dublin, to Melbourne — that offer a forum for senior leaders to ask great questions and hear diverse perspectives about what is needed.
  • Looking at social injustice and racism, Johnson’s team has observed similar themes transcend the U.S. and show up in Zendesk’s global offices, themes related to unconscious bias, feelings of not being seen, and hurtful conversations.
  • Zendesk has built a culture of belonging where employees feel empowered to share their ideas — the empathy workshops themselves initially came from one employee in Madison, WI, not from a C-suite leader.

As corporate leaders have struggled to add authenticity and action to their statements of “allyship” and “antiracism,” allyship toolkits have empowered Zendesk leaders to “not stop at listening” and move toward effective action.

  • These priorities have informed Zendesk’s commitment to “not stay silent” in the face of racism. Believing it insufficient to “just say stuff,” Zendesk published their “Five Commitments” to antiracism.
  • DE&I innovation can come from anywhere in the company, but efforts have to be leader-supported in order to gain momentum. Zendesk has equipped managers with equity policy resources and tangible toolkits. The company wants their DE&I efforts to be leader-led across the board, and not just come from the HR and Diversity teams.
  • Beyond publishing these values and tactics, Zendesk has put real dollars and investments behind the work. Johnson praised Zendesk’s CFO Elena Gomez who helped the company carve out these investments and emphasized that Zendesk can’t support antiracism and diversity efforts without allocating proper funding.

Like many companies, Zendesk has grappled with the balance between “enough change to really make a difference” and “too much change that chokes the organization.”

  • Johnson believes that in the beginning, her organization didn’t manage that balance well. Her team didn’t think enough about the manager who already has an over-full plate to manage. In this environment, DE&I initiatives, if not properly embedded, become too burdensome for managers to incorporate.
  • Johnson emphasized the importance of thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives from the perspective of the leaders who will embed it, own it, and adopt it for their teams.
  • She believes leaders can make a difference on their teams by prioritizing diversity hiring and then by getting to know their underrepresented talent and focusing on their development. She acknowledges, however, that if a company wants leaders to do those things, they have to enable that with the right incentives, tools, and resources.

Johnson believes that to advance justice for women and underrepresented minorities, “the name of the game is going to be flexibility.”

  • Johnson emphasized that leaders need to “manage for outcomes, and not manage people around hours.” She believes that creating more flexibility in the system will be one of the most powerful levers for attracting and retaining diverse talent.
  • In considering the many dimensions of “diversity,” Johnson also emphasized intersectionality, the concept that people can experience overlapping forms of discrimination based on social categorizations such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and socio-economic status.
  • Acknowledging the complexities of managing with flexibility, Johnson reiterated that allowing flexibility is the right thing to do when you’re trying to relieve tension in the system, especially for parents and caregivers.

Johnson argued, importantly, that “what gets measured gets done.”

  • As tech continues to be diversity-challenged, leaders should consider how they will bake diversity into their incentive metrics for leaders.
  • Johnson spoke about a “baseline inclusion index” her team is establishing that will look at the manager-employee experience, factoring in things like psychological safety and trust. From that baseline, she believes her team will be able to more quantitatively track performance along the “inclusion journey.”
  • Similarly, Johnson emphasized the importance of measuring and focusing on retention, not just hiring. She referenced the problem of “leaky bucket syndrome,” where companies bring diverse employees in as fast as they experience turnover. To address this, she emphasized the importance of robust development practices and clarity around career progression, sponsorship, and rewards.

As the conversation wrapped up, Johnson encouraged listeners to consider who is on your “personal board of directors.” Do they look different from you? Will they question and challenge you? In her Clorox days, a leader encouraged Johnson to “cast her net wide” and establish a broad range of interactions, relationships, and influence. Johnson echoed this same advice, highlighting the richness it can add to one’s life, both personally and professionally. Through convenings like this one, that’s exactly the kind of network-building EGAL continues to facilitate for the next generation of Equity Fluent Leaders.

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Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership (EGAL)

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.