Weaving diversity and inclusion into Navy culture

Is it even possible to change the culture of something as bulky as the United States Navy? Charles Barber is going to try.

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Is it even possible to change the culture of something as bulky as the United States Navy? So that diversity and inclusion are woven into mission and performance? Charles Barber is going to try. He’s an Army veteran brought in as advisor to the vice admiral in charge of personnel and diversity. He joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Barber, good to have you on.

Charles Barber: Good morning Tom. Thank you for having me. It’s good to be here.

Tom Temin: I’m going to reveal something about you that I think everybody needs to know first, this thing that struck me the most, and that is, you once ran 100 yards in less than 10 seconds.

Charles Barber: 100 meters. I was actually part of the Army’s all Army track team and 100 meters was my main event and I wind up running a 998 hundred meters is my career best?

Tom Temin: Well, I think that’s one of the great metaphors maybe for life, because no matter how much talent you have, if you don’t work like the devil, you’ll never do that. And so I think it’s a combination of talent and a lot of sweat I’ll bet.

Charles Barber: Absolutely right.

Tom Temin: Before we get to the Navy details, I guess maybe let’s define some terms here. What in your opinion and your experience is culture for an organization that big?

Charles Barber: Well, culture, it was actually derived from a French term, in Latin terms it means to attend the earth and grow. But in simple terms culture is just the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group from different backgrounds encompassing language, religion, social economic status, habits, race. When you collect, we bring all of those different personalities together, it’s that collection of beliefs and norms that kind of actually feed into day to day activities. So that’s what culture is.

Tom Temin: And thinking about diversity and inclusion. If the Navy has a diverse set of sailors and operators in the raw feedstock that comes and joins the Navy of all races. In that sense, there’s automatic inclusion and diversity. But I think it means more than that, doesn’t it?

Charles Barber: It does. When you when you look at diversity and inclusion, diversity is what helps an organization get to the next level of being a high performing organization. And the good thing about the Navy is the senior leaders, they realize how inclusion and diversity ties into readiness. So diversity is a big part of the Navy’s mission, and it will be a big part of the Navy moving forward.

Tom Temin: And so in bringing you aboard, what is the Navy saying that its issue is? What is the goal here for what you’re trying to do?

Charles Barber: The goal is to link our existing I&D initiatives, link some of the things that we’re seeing in some of our barrier analysis. We want to link all of those things into a very comprehensive culture model that’s going to give us the ability to continuously diagnose issues benchmarked against other organizations and prescribe get-well plans on a continuous basis. So that is the long term strategy. We are very well aware of recent social events, particularly with George Floyd. And that kind of prompted our Navy leadership to take an inward look at some things that might actually be barriers inside of the Navy that actually attributes to degradation of readiness. And some of the things we kind of seen is lack of representation at the senior leader level. We’ve had a host of listening sessions with the sailors and we’ve kind of gotten some input that kind of show us issues related to climate. So those things do bleed over into the workplace, they bleed into readiness. And so this is a very big priority for senior leaders.

Tom Temin: Now, the Navy has an effort going on, I think it’s called Task Force One Navy, where they are doing a lot of data gathering. If there’s an incident, say a racially motivated type of violence for example, or somebody’s hanging a confederate flag, or this type of thing, that’s pretty easy to identify as racially motivated and something you don’t want to happen in an organization. But what are some of the maybe hard to spot indicators that might be revealed in a more formal data gathering that can show whether an organization needs to move in a different direction?

Charles Barber: Yeah, that’s a very good point, Tom. As we’ve kind of tried to characterize this issue, we realized that you can have systemic inequalities or systemic racism without necessarily having overt racist actions in place. When when you kind of think about systemic inequalities, it’s those less overt forms of racism or inequalities that have been embedded in normal practice, and quite frankly, they just become accepted over time. Some of those things kind of lead to barriers in career advancement opportunities. Might be the way that our senior leaders engaged with some of our sailors that don’t necessarily look like them. There might be data points in our criminal justice system. There are a number of things that are One Navy Task Force, which is led by Rear Admiral Alvin Holsey, that they’re looking at. And those things are gonna allow us to go back and look at some of our policies and processes and make sure we can remove any intended or unintended biases as it relates to discrimination or systemic inequality.

Tom Temin: Actually, I had Rear Admiral Holsey on and impressive gentleman, I might say. How will you go about your work? How do you get to the task of changing your culture because you’ve got a million people to deal with?

Charles Barber: The good thing about what Admiral Holsey is doing, and particularly with the senior leadership support we’ve gotten from our chief of Navy personnel Vice Admiral Nowell, we’re not just looking at this solely from a compliance based perspective. But we want to see what we can do to gain commitment to long term change. And that’s where the culture comes into place. Luckily, for me, I have over 20 years of experience with culture, inclusion and diversity, and also how those things kind of integrate into our HR processes and systems. And so being here in the Navy N1, which is the center of Personnel Management, is paramount. So again, we have a number of inclusion and diversity initiatives that are currently in play. We have the barrier analysis is taking place with Task Force One Navy, and we also have our Navy culture of excellence. And so what we want to do is we want to take all of those existing activities, the work that Admiral Holsey is leading, and we want to link all of those things into a very comprehensive culture model that’s going to allow us to benchmark and prescribe get well plans over time and on a continue basis. So when we do get to the place where we want to get to in terms of equality, we want to have controls in place that we don’t go backwards again, and I’m very confident we’re going to get there.

Tom Temin: And is there a timeline for this, if one of the metrics of success is a greater number of officers of color, for example, or female officers, in positions of command relative to what it is now, that could take years till the effects manifest themselves in the head counts at the upper ranks.

Charles Barber: Yeah Tom you’re absolutely right. In one of my recent conversations with the chief of Navy personnel, I was kind of explaining to him kind of what we’re saying what our demographic, that’s the result of hiring practices and things that have happened 15, 20 years ago. So while we can’t go back and change what happened 15 or 20 years ago, we can most certainly put controls in place now to see what we can fix moving forward to try to integrate diversity with a meritocracy framework. And so it’s kind of tough for me to place a timeline on it right now. But I will tell you, and also, I want to make sure that our sailors know this too, we’re looking at all the flexibility that we can, we are looking to really impact those hiring, those career advancement opportunity areas and those retention areas so we can truly make a difference moving forward.

Tom Temin: And people’s promotions depend on promotion boards, and what can be done at that level to make sure that only the merit of the individual and their performance is considered for promotion?

Charles Barber: Well, again, we are a meritocracy. And we want to make sure that when we promote our sailors, they’re promoted based off of the talent and accomplishment and skills. However, we do know that there is a bit of bias in the process, whether it’s intended or unintended. And I will tell you, one of the things that I’ve started exploring is potentially introducing a level of artificial intelligence, particularly with our centralized selection processes. You won’t be able to completely remove the human element out of it — but if you can use artificial intelligence to kind of help look at some of the promotion criteria, diversity criteria, to kind of generate an initial list for like benchmarking, I think innovation like that will kind of help eliminate some of that bias.

Tom Temin: And I’m just curious about a couple of things that I’ve heard a lot of lately. One of them is unconscious bias. I guess conscious bias is pretty easy to identify either in someone else or in one’s self. But how can it be unconscious? What if someone’s really trying hard and they went to church and they learned their lessons? What is it and how do you identify it?

Charles Barber: it kind of resonates with the way policies were put into place over time, the way processes were kind of managed over time. And if I’m a sailor that kind of comes on board within like the last five years, I’m going to accept a process or a policy that has been in place for years, not knowing that that policy may have a disproportionate impact on a particular minority group. So I think that’s a pretty good example of how a normal practice can become an unconscious bias.

Tom Temin: The other question is the term systemic racism, because no one is allowed really, in any sort of workplace nowadays, to express any overt racist type of sentiment, which is a good thing, you’d lose your job for one thing. And there are many laws and regulations at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level, and at the agency level when you’re talking about the federal government, that outlaw acts based on bias or bias toward people. So where does the systemic racism live then if you can’t say it and if it doesn’t exist in statute or regulation?

Charles Barber: Well, that’s the good thing about the senior leadership team. They are really working hard Tom to really help create a safe environment and a safe place to really be able to talk about racism and inequalities. If you think about how these things are happening in society right now, those things they bleed over into work, and we cannot ignore them because they’re not going to go away. Fortunately, from the Chief of Naval Operations or chief of Navy personnel, what Admiral Holsey is doing with Task Force One Navy, we have the right leadership support that they are helping to create that safe environment and control so we can have these discussions the right way and put controls in place so the Navy can be in a better place.

Tom Temin: And you’re looking forward to digging into this work.

Charles Barber: Absolutely. This is work that I’ve done from a scholar practitioner perspective, I put models like this in place at other organizations. I’ve actually lectured at Harvard and other universities about past successes. When I was approached about this opportunity, I just felt like I needed to be here and I want to be here, so I’m absolutely excited about it.

Tom Temin: Dr. Charles Barber is Senior Advisor for Inclusion and Diversity to the Navy. Thanks so much for joining me.

Charles Barber: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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