Customer Stories, Engagement, Leadership, Trends

Creating a culture of belonging in frontline organizations

Posted on: February 16, 2024Updated on: April 16, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

Some people on your teams will find it easy to naturally fit in, like they’re part of the group and belong. Others might rarely feel included. Both groups play a critical role in the organization. But are they being equally supported so nobody feels like they’re being left behind?

Belonging (the “B” in DEIB) is a fundamental human need. And when organizations fail to address the five pillars of belonging, team members can face major psychological and emotional barriers to success at work. 

We recently dove deeper into the complex but critical topic of creating a culture of belonging and championing DEIB on stage at AxoniCom 2023 with panelists Russell Wigginton, President of the National Civil Rights Museum, Mark Person, VP of Store Operations at Dollar General and transformational culture consultant Elizabeth Thompson, CEO of Intuitive Quest, LLC and former EVP and Chief People Officer at Southeastern Grocers. 

Russell Wigginton & Mark Person Elizabeth Thompson on creating a culture of belonging

Panel members shared personal experiences and eye-opening lessons about investing authentically and finding ways to build a strong culture of belonging and inclusion, at any scale. The full conversation is below, but here’s an overview into the lessons they shared on stage. 

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable

DEIB is a very personal, complex journey that everyone will approach with  a different level of readiness. While experiences with DEIB may vary, a recent Pew Research Center sentiment survey revealed over half of U.S. employees see focusing on DEI at work as a good thing and most have seen at least some measures in the workplace. 

Russell Wigginton opened the session by talking about the importance of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable as we navigate DEIB and belonging. In other words, building brave spaces as well as safe spaces. 

“I look forward to having a rich conversation about something that affects all of us, something that touches all of us, something that makes all of us uncomfortable, but we’re going to do this together because it’s all about doing it together so that we can make progress as a country, as individuals and we can be our best selves,” said Wigginton, talking about how The National Civil Rights Museum helps guests—at every part of the journey—sit with their discomfort and educates them without shame. 

“It’s a complicated experience. Our history is complicated. It’s nuanced. We make sure you don’t try to simplify and roll it up into one nice, neat story. There are no nice, neat stories. Every single one of us is filled with complexity and contradiction. When you help people figure out this is going to be a heart and head journey, it helps them recognize they too can find their way,” says Wigginton.

“There are no nice, neat stories. Every single one of us is filled with complexity and contradiction. When you help people figure out this is going to be a heart and head journey, it helps them recognize they too can find their way.”

– Russell Wigginton, President, National Civil Rights Museum

Leading with  empathy and vulnerability that starts at the top

Another component of that concept of being comfortable with being uncomfortable is about building psychological safety as the foundation of inclusion and belonging. Elizabeth Thompson noted that frontline leaders have a responsibility to create opportunities and space for people within the organization to connect and feel included. 

“There’s a lot more to this feeling of psychological safety: to feel safe in a space when you may have something that you’re hiding and that you’re struggling with. To have leaders around you who support you and are your community is huge,” she said.

But, it’s not always easy. “It’s hard to be vulnerable from the top,” noted Wigginton. “But when you are, it sets a beautiful standard and puts you out above your peers in ways that you can’t orchestrate or engineer. When our leaders and corporations make statements and actually back them up with action, they find themselves a lot less vulnerable to having deficits in their personnel needs because people are watching.”

Showing team members that they’re valued—in the organization, and in the community

One clear sentiment was shared by all: don’t ignore what’s happening in the outside world. Lead with empathy and be mindful of the impact external forces might be having on employees. Person called out some of the recent news in the retail world, and specifically at Dollar General, as examples of external forces facing frontline organizations right now, and the need for fostering that culture of belonging as an organization, and as a community: 

“If you have been listening to the news recently, whether it’s shrink and theft or what’s happening with retailers, it’s a tough go right now. And those interactions between customers and our frontline employees are getting more aggressive in nature. We all know that. We also know that there are tragedies that happen, whether it’s Buffalo, whether it’s Collierville, Tennessee or whether it’s what happened in Jacksonville, Florida. These things are popping up all over the country, on the frontline. And oh, by the way, there was this little thing called Covid a couple of years ago where we asked our frontline employees to still show up every day and provide service because we were deemed essential. We asked them to put their lives on the line literally every day and show up and give our customers the service they needed while putting themselves at risk at the same time,” he explained. 

“We’re asking our frontline employees to still push through that. If we don’t value them, if they’re not respected, if they don’t feel like they belong, why would they put themselves in that position? Why would we ask them to put themselves in that position? What made those employees want to show back up the next day was that they had frontline leaders, managers who had connected the dots for them. They felt like they belonged. They were a part of the community, and they recognized that being closed is harming the community more than it is anything. And we want to be there for the community.”

“What made employees want to show back up the next day was that they felt like they belonged. They were a part of the community, and they recognized that being closed is harming the community more than it is anything. And we want to be there for the community.”

– Mark Person, VP Store Operations, Dollar General

The difference between mentorship and sponsorship

When frontline leaders look at ways to support and invest in their people and foster that culture of belonging, it’s critical to understand the different forms of allyship that they can provide. And one insight that Person shared was that team members might not always need a mentor, but a sponsor. And those are very different things.

“There is data that shows a historical disproportionality of people of color who are deemed successful in their corporation, who walk in and hand in their letter of resignation. And everybody goes, ‘What happened? We thought you loved it here. You were doing so great!’ And their response is, ‘I’ve been mentored but haven’t been fully embraced.’ So you give me a mentor, but I haven’t been brought into the family, and what does that mean? Why is your talent, who is deemed successful and why are they leaving at disproportionate rates? They’re looking for a sponsor. They have enough mentors in their lives, they want a sponsor,” explained Person, who went on to share a personal example about the value of sponsorship as he navigated his early career in retail: 

“I went from manager to senior store manager to district manager, and all along the way I had mentors. And it wasn’t until I got to Dollar General that I got a sponsor. That sponsor was the chief financial officer of the organization. So I’m having one-on-ones once a month with the CFO, and he’s getting me into places I had no access to. I’m getting into strategic meetings I didn’t know existed. He’s showing me how he walks through the P&L and the financial statements when he’s having conversations with the investor community. No idea that those things, those conversations took place, how they took place. And so it was that sponsorship that led me to get into the role I’m in today. Because he was like, ‘Hey, we got a guy that you all may want to keep your eyes on that’s at the director level right now.’ So sponsorship is extremely important.” 

The importance of listening to your people

We know it sounds simple. But sometimes the value of listening to your people is lost or feels impossible at the scale of frontline organizations. But tapping into your employee base as you build a culture of belonging is critical to the success of these investments. 

“If you want to know if your programs at your company are working to support the whole self, ask your employees. Don’t ask your HR department. Don’t ask your leadership teams,” said Thompson. “There’s a huge disconnect between corporate leadership and what’s happening on the frontline. Go to the frontline and ask them if what you’re doing is supporting their whole selves.”

Person also shared that sometimes frontline workforces are waiting for these programs: 

“The L&D team for Dollar General put together some really good content around DEI that we rolled out last December, not knowing how this is going to be received by our teams. We didn’t make it mandatory. We didn’t want to hit it hard with a hammer and say, you’re forced to do this. So we said, we’re going to see how it does,” explained Person. “We were overwhelmed that within the first 30 days, we had over 45,000 employees sign up and take the training. And so that let us know that they really, not only did want the content, they were waiting on us.”

DEIB happens by design, not by default

One of the most noteworthy takeaways from this conversation was the importance of being intentional about building a culture of belonging. 

“A dream without a plan is a fantasy. Remember that,” says Thompson. “It’s great to have a dream, but you have to put a plan in place. And I think that’s really where all of this comes into play. Diversity, inclusion, belonging and equity are intentional, and we need a plan behind all that.” 

“A dream without a plan is a fantasy. Diversity, inclusion, belonging and equity are intentional, and we need a plan behind all that.”

– Elizabeth Thompson, Transformational culture consultant

So what does DEIB by design mean? That’s where allyship comes into play again. “We need to be very intentional about who gets hired, who gets trained, who gets developed, who gets a seat at the table, who gets inside the inner circle,” says Person, who also noted that it’s also about representation. 

“They have to see themselves represented at every level of the organization,” he said. “I had a fortunate experience of going to Buffalo, New York, a few weeks ago, and I met a young man named Keyshawn, an African-American male, and he says, ‘So how does one become a DVP?’ And I said, ‘Well, Keyshawn, how long have you been here?’ He said, three hours. Go Keyshawn, right? We exchanged notes and he still writes me to this day. Keyshawn grew up in a family where they didn’t have a vehicle, he still doesn’t have a vehicle. He graduated college. He’s got an IT degree, he wants to be able to work in the IT field, but right now, he can’t get there. He’s working at DG to be able to afford a car so he can get to work. And so that’s a reality that happens, but people need to see themselves represented. So when he saw himself represented, he immediately said, how can I do more? So that’s what happens when people get to see themselves throughout the organization.” 

Watch the full conversation here:  

Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.