Leap Voices is a new series lifting up the importance of equity and high performance by sharing the voices and experiences of Leap Ambassadors.
‘True Inclusion and Equity Are Accomplished in the Mundane’
Ingvild Bjornvold • May 2023
Leap Ambassador Pratichi Shah found her career home in the nonprofit sector years ago. After more than a decade in the corporate sector, she found humanity, lightness, purpose, and even fun as Chief Talent Officer at Independent Sector. Today, she’s a Human Resources (HR) and Organizational Development (OD) Consultant specializing in talent strategy, culture-shaping, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The world changes faster than organizational culture, and organizations across all sectors need help keeping up. Leap Ambassador and support team member Ingvild Bjornvold spoke with Pratichi about workplace changes, what it takes to nurture authentic inclusion, and how it relates to organizational performance.
Ingvild: Can you start by describing your work as an HR consultant?
Pratichi: I work on talent and DEI strategies, areas of HR connected deeply to an organization’s impact and efficacy and handled through an organizational development lens. It’s about aligning the mission of the organization and its organizational strategy or strategic plan with its organizational culture and approach to talent. Where I come in is shaping the culture and establishing the talent and DEI strategy, so that ultimately the organization and culture are more equitable, inclusive, and positive. A healthy culture allows the organization to be high performing and accomplish its goals and mission. My work also includes doing a significant amount of facilitation, training design and delivery, and leader coaching.
Ingvild: What led you to this work?
Pratichi: Growing up in central Florida as an Indian and Hindu, I was aware pretty early of how inclusion and exclusion impact life, work, and achievement. I think this became the foundation of my interest in creating organizations and communities that include and lift up all talents and people. Then when I was at Eckerd College in nearby St. Petersburg, I was looking for the intersection between business—because I thought that brought practicality—and psychology, which was my first interest, and social service, as I was passionate about creating positive change in society.
I had zero interest in things like consumer behavior, which was often offered as an area where psychology and business meet, but I wanted to work more on the human and relationship side of business. So I decided to pursue an MBA at American University in Washington, DC, which allowed me to focus my graduate degree on HR and organizational development. I’ve been in DC ever since. So I came to HR in exactly the opposite way from most people; most people start in the field as generalists and then become specialists. I started out with a specialty in training and OD and over time my work broadened to include all aspects of HR.
Ingvild: How do you see the relationship between equity and organizational performance?
Pratichi: Performance depends on inclusion and equity. An inclusive and equitable organization is a more powerful and impactful organization. Simply put, if we’re equitable, we’re playing to everyone’s strengths. Everyone is equipped to succeed at what they’re good at. Instead of having narrow definitions and paths to success, which allow only some people to be effective, we need nuanced and differing understandings of success. The more we open that up, the more we open up ways for people to succeed, leading ultimately to an entire organization being impactful.
Ingvild: What’s an example?
Pratichi: One of the most powerful things organizations are doing is rethinking how they manage staff performance. It has typically been a top-down process that centered the manager. People kept trying to make the process objective, but one human being assessing another can never truly be objective, because we all have biases and lenses. So while we have tried to introduce formulas, ways to quantify performance, and whatnot for so long, we ultimately need to focus on the human beings, their skills and abilities, the work, and the relationship.
I’m encouraging organizations with whom I work to move performance management from assessment and judgment to more mutual, ongoing conversations about what the employee is working on and how the manager can support them. It’s about establishing and reinforcing a culture of mutuality and support. We can’t remove power differentials, but creating that dialogue mitigates some of the adverse effects of power dynamics. Performance management should include an understanding of progress on goals; feedback upwards, downwards, and even laterally; and how the manager can support the employee reaching their work and development goals.
Since individual performance feeds right into organizational performance, if everyone is clear on what they need to do to be successful and have some flexibility in how they do it, they can take risks, they can experiment. And, ultimately, organizational performance is elevated. Greater communication between managers and employees, as well as clarity, flexibility, style, allowance for different approaches, and, again, that notion of playing to everyone’s strengths helps everyone—and the organization—be more impactful.
Ingvild: How has your work evolved over time?
Pratichi: When I started consulting, the nonprofit world considered HR more of a functional and transactional area. It was often more about employee relations and benefits management. We weren’t asking questions like, “How do we build a value proposition for people? Why would they pick us instead of another organization?” I focus on talent, DEI, and culture because it was what the sector needed and where my strengths lie.
Workplaces are evolving constantly, especially with massive changes like the COVID pandemic, the entry of each new generation, and the emergence of varied options for socially minded talent. Everything changed with the pandemic, of course, but it also changed during the dotcom boom era and when Millennials joined the workforce. What people expect from a workplace also changes. So it’s about being extremely conscious and sensitive to what’s changing, what you—as an organization and a leader—need to be responsive to, and what needs to change in your organization to ensure you can appeal to those who are passionate about your mission and get to where you need to go. We all had a taste of this when we thought three years ago that we would return to a mostly in-person office experience. Now many organizations in our sector are setting up a future in which a wholly in-person office experience will never happen again. It’s a significant example of change based on responding to circumstances and what current and future team members need to be successful.
Ingvild: What do employers need to be most responsive to right now?
Pratichi: Right now, the biggest question to me is, “How do we create a healthy, inclusive, equitable organizational culture, especially when we are not necessarily in the office together?” We have five generations with really different definitions of a healthy culture and our teams are asynchronous even when they’re together—given hybrid workplaces. We have people from various backgrounds who want to be included in ways they unfortunately haven’t been in the past. We have marginalized and oppressed people. So what does a positive, inclusive culture look like now, for each organization? And how do we create it?
To be clear, it isn’t about everybody being cheerful and happy 100 percent of the time. It means that everybody is highly engaged, can authentically collaborate, can get what they need to do their work well, and are recognized for it. You can be happy and not impactful, and you can be impactful and not happy. So we need to focus on engagement, and we need to make sure that we’re treating people like actual human beings. Building humane, healthy workplaces will do that.
Ingvild: How can organizations change their culture and improve performance?
Pratichi: There’s no easy answer to that question; it varies dramatically by organization. For years, we thought high performance was only about the numbers: How many people we serve, how much we deliver, based on our mission. But we know that long-term impact goes beyond how many or how much. So what is impact to us and how does that inform the culture we build? What does inclusion and equity look like for us and how does it relate to our mission?
There are certain tenets of equity and inclusion that should be part of any organization, but the overall vision of what the equity and inclusion journey looks like has to be informed by the specific organization—its mission, where it is in the maturity cycle, its culture. It’s similar to a personal journey of health—if we set a goal to get healthier this year, healthier to me, healthier to you, and healthier to Serena Williams will all look different.
So the work of DEI and culture shift has to start with an assessment to understand where you are. What’s working? What’s not? Where might we be excluding or inequitable? What makes us unique? What’s on staff members’ minds, managers’ minds, leaders’ minds? What’s on other stakeholders’ minds? Then it’s about defining the culture we want to build and what it looks like when we are living it. Finally, you have to plot a course to get from the current state to your desired future destination. It’s different for each organization, like getting to New York from DC is different from getting to New York from Chicago.
A strategy to shift culture and address equity and inclusion needs to include macro-level, systems change that needs to be addressed across the organization, as well as the micro-level, individual behaviors each person in the organization needs to adopt or unlearn. So for instance, you can have aspirations to be the most inclusive organization in the world, but if your organizational policies require that someone asks their supervisor permission for everything, it’s not necessarily empowering or inclusive. The supervisor might not be available or really consider an employee’s life circumstances. Similarly, it won’t help to have inclusive and equitable policies if people are perpetuating microaggressions in their individual behaviors. If policies, practices, protocols, and norms aren’t aligned around equity and inclusion, then our aspirations around inclusion won’t be met.
Finally, the last part of the strategy has to be education to support both the macro- and micro-changes. The levers of change—the areas you have to work on—might be different in each organization, but those three elements—macro, micro, and education—should always be part of the strategy, and they are the basis of the change work I do with organizations.
Ingvild: Some research indicates that diversity workshops are ineffective or even harmful. What approaches actually work?
Pratichi: Inclusion and equity are accomplished in the mundane. It’s not a question just of education or even iterative discussions about what equity means or the history of marginalization and oppression in the United States. Those are really valuable and powerful conversations, but people need to know how it ties back to what the organization does and how it does its work. So how does the learning tie to and inform our mission, the way we approach that mission, and how we actually go about doing our work?
It’s about how we manage performance, how we talk to each other, how we manage projects, how we collaborate, how we have meetings, how we approach our events, what our policies say. It’s just not exciting, glamorous stuff—it’s how we do what we do on a day-to-day basis.
Asking how something is not equitable is a good way to approach that analysis. Who isn’t at this table? How have we excluded people by sticking with our everyday practice? Do we always invite the same people to chime in? Do we always go to the same organizations? Do we always go to the biggest organizations or sources, leaving others out?
Ingvild: You were in the corporate world before moving into the nonprofit sector. What was that shift like?
Pratichi: Yes, I was in the corporate world for a dozen years or so, in charge of HR strategy, performance and training, diversity and inclusion, and internal communications. The work was interesting and gave me a great foundation, but I experienced constant values dissonance; I wanted a more humane and mission-based workplace. Then I landed at Independent Sector, and there was no better place to be introduced to the nonprofit world. I was their chief talent officer for a few years, and then—contrary to popular, or any, wisdom—started my own business in 2010 in the middle of a recession.
Coming into the nonprofit world felt good, but I also felt really like I was starting all over for a while. Although I knew my craft pretty well at that point, I started from the bottom when it came to sector knowledge. Ultimately, it was fantastic—a lot of what I had hoped for. It’s a far more humane and values-based place to be. And the support of the community was amazing. There was a lightness, there was fun, there was humanity, and there was mission right at the heart of it. Would I go back to the corporate world? No, I’m quite happy here.