I’ll be honest: When I sat down to listen to this episode, knowing it was about a company in the steel industry and their attempt to construct a more diverse and inclusive workplace, my palms got a little sweaty.
Why? One of my best friends is an engineer who works at a local steel manufacturer. (I won’t name which.) To put it lightly: His coworkers aren’t the type to rally for diversity or cultural inclusion in the workplace — nor do I think those are issues the higher-ups there would really care about.
That’s why this conversation was so enlightening and uplifting for me to listen to – a true breath of fresh air.
Before I go any further, let me introduce the company and the folks I’m talking about here. On this episode of The GoGedders Podcast, our host Richie was joined by Rich Ballenger and Richaad Reed of Lucas Millhapt. (“Lucas”, hereafter, refers to the company — not a person.) Rich is the president of the company, and Richaad is a national account manager who’s been with Lucas for years, having started as an intern.
This dynamic duo took a seriously rough year and turned it into an opportunity to not just grow as a company but to grow as people, and help others do the same.
When the George Floyd tragedy happened and BLM kicked into gear, businesses everywhere were quick to make posts to support the movement, condemn racial injustice and inspire change. As the leader of the company, Rich wanted to do what was right, but wanted to do so in a way that was genuine. He didn’t just want to just put out a statement to go along with what everyone else was doing.
So, he did something that’s arguably harder than going with the flow — he was vulnerable. Genuine. Open. Honest.
He reached out to his employees during an all-employee communications meeting and said, “What should I do? What should we do? I’m all ears, and here to support however you need me to.”
The responses were almost immediate – and they kept on coming.
One of the responses was from Rishaad. As a Black man working in a predominantly white industry, he knew it was his time to step up, despite initial feelings of anger and helplessness brought forward by the George Floyd tragedy.
His idea was great, and it stuck: an employee resource group (ERG) focused on diversity and inclusion. Rich empowered Rishaad to lead the group, now composed of over 20 volunteers, to promote ideas from a range of people of different ages, races, genders, abilities and more.
“If you want to make a change, it doesn’t have to be a grand thing. You just get up and change whatever you can, do whatever you can to make it just a little bit better,” Rishaad said.
Like Rich, Rishaad didn’t want to slap a band-aid on the problem. He wanted to do something that would enact lasting change and create a real culture shift. And this was the way to do just that.
One of the biggest things they’ve tackled so far is a training course centered on unconscious bias. For those of us who aren’t aware (I say us, because I was in that boat about 20 minutes ago), unconscious bias is a term that applies to people of all colors, creeds, shapes and sizes.
We all have unconscious bias.
This training is focused on making that unconscious bias conscious. Why? Because if you can’t see it, you can’t change it. As you’d expect, the unconscious bias program was met with mixed reviews. They got a lot of feedback, both positive and negative. But that’s a good thing.
“Not everyone is gonna love it,” Rich said. “But it’s about challenging the employee base, getting programs out there to influence change and making people feel more comfortable voicing their opinions."
Rich was also proud of the bottom-to-top instead of top-to-bottom approach that the ERG has brought about. He’s also a proud believer in servant leadership, which is the mindset that you work for your employees, not the other way around. He believes that if you work for your employees, listen to them, and follow through and take action on what they’re asking for, you’ll naturally foster a more diverse and inclusive environment. Even people who come in to interview become more comfortable, because they quickly get a sense of everyone else’s attitude.
The ERG has also brought forth neat stuff like the company cookbook, which highlights recipes from all over the world, from the people at the company who are – you guessed it – from all over the world. That kind of inclusivity celebrates all of your employees and encourages them to interact with one another in new ways, trying each other’s recipes and getting to know another culture’s food – something that’s right from the heart, no matter who you are.
Another thing to come out of the ERG is focus groups, giving a voice to people who felt like they weren’t being heard before.
“I sat in on a focus group the other day," Rishaad said. "It got intense… but it was a positive experience, a positive vibe."
Rishaad’s advice to other businesses looking to change for the better? Give employees a forum to feel comfortable expressing themselves. Then, plan actions and actually do something based on their feedback. Don’t just hear them and do nothing – that’s dangling a carrot in front of them. Plan real actions, and you’ll actually improve culture based on their feedback.
It’s been over a year now, and Rishaad is incredibly proud of all the change he’s brought about. The conversations he’s having with HR now have come miles from where they began.
But more importantly, he’s excited about the future of diversity and inclusion at Lucas Millhapt. And why shouldn’t he be? With all the attention this extremely key program is receiving, that future sure does look bright.
Here’s to you, Rishaad and Rich. I think every business could learn a thing or two from you guys.
As always, thanks for listening and reading our content. If you have any feedback or suggestions for future guests and topics, please don’t hesitate to send an email directly to host Richie Burke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gabe is bringing you stories on Milwaukee that matter. Tune in for The GoGedders Podcast every Tuesday.