Have you ever considered the hidden hurdles that highly skilled immigrants face upon entering Canadian job markets?
In this episode, host David Rice is joined by Ayo Owodunni—VP Inclusive Leadership at Eagle’s Flight—to talk about the unique challenges that immigrants face in the workplace.
- Discussion on the Book ‘Inclusive Leadership – The Immigrant View’ [01:47]
- Book inspiration: Frustration with the underutilization of immigrant talents in Canada.
- Frustration deepened with the case of a highly experienced CIO struggling to find work in Canada.
- Immigrants face challenges despite high standards for entry, leading to underestimation of their potential.
- The book aims to be a voice for these individuals and prompt a shift in thinking about inclusivity for immigrant workers.
- Immigration Experiences in the U.S. and Canada [03:40]
- U.S. immigration is tougher and takes longer; Canada is comparatively easier to get into.
- Once in the U.S. system, finding a job is easier; Canada’s system is tougher in Ayo’s experience.
- U.S. tends to be more blunt, direct; Canadians are friendly but not necessarily friends, so immigrants may miss subtle messages in Canada, coming from cultures that are more direct.
- Ayo encourages bluntness in communication, as cultural differences affect the understanding of messages.
- The Struggle of Immigrants in the Workplace [06:52]
- Immigrants often feel the need to downplay their expertise to be accepted in the workplace.
- Ayo shares a personal experience of feeling misunderstood when offering strategic input.
- Reflects on the possibility of immigrants being perceived as threats or intimidating.
- Acknowledges advising immigrants to tone down to avoid being seen as intimidating or annoying.
- Urges employers to view immigrants as a cultural addition rather than fitting a predefined mold.
- Warns against overlooking valuable talent due to cultural differences or intimidation concerns.
Look at the potential you have. Yes, the person might need coaching, they might be raw here and there. But consider what they bring to the table; don’t see it as intimidating. Think of a culture add more than just a culture fit.Ayo Owodunni
- The Role of AI and Technology in Mitigating Bias [09:30]
- Ayo believes AI reflects the biases of its builders.
- Shares an anecdote about a biased hiring incident he experienced as a hiring manager.
- Highlights the importance of diversity in the tech team to avoid biased algorithms.
- Advocates for including individuals from diverse backgrounds to contribute varied perspectives.
- Points out the flaw in current AI systems, where certain cultural experiences may be overlooked.
- Emphasizes the need for more inclusivity and diverse representation in building and testing AI systems to ensure fair outcomes.
- Advice for Immigrants in Canada [13:34]
- First priority: Get in and secure a position.
- Emphasizes the “first 90 days” strategy: Connect with the boss, understand department objectives and KPIs.
- Stress on humility – being too confident may be perceived as arrogance.
- Openness, attentiveness, and willingness to listen to feedback are crucial.
- Encourages getting a coach or mentor for navigating the Canadian cultural context.
- Cultural adaptation is a significant aspect, sometimes more challenging than the actual work.
Get a coach or mentor to guide you through the Canadian cultural context. Often, the primary challenge for immigrants in the workplace isn’t the work itself but rather grasping the culture, as well as their colleagues.Ayo Owodunni
- The Future of Immigration in Canada [15:39]
- People, especially organizational leaders, may not fully recognize the importance of immigrants to the workforce.
- Ayo highlights a disconnect between public opinions, government communication, and the actual need for immigrants in Canada.
- Acknowledges existing issues like housing shortage but emphasizes they are not solely immigrant-related.
- Shares a story of a talented immigrant whose manager’s simple question and support led them to stay in the country when they were planning to leave.
- Encourages a more proactive and caring approach to integrate immigrants for mutual benefit.
- Advice for Leaders to Create Inclusive Cultures [20:48]
- Encourages leaders to read his book to understand the experiences of people in their organizations.
- Emphasizes the need for open conversations, especially with marginalized communities, to identify and address concerns.
- Urges leaders to question and identify unconscious barriers within their organizations that may be hindering certain groups.
- Advocates for self-reflection, inclusivity in thinking and behaviors, and regular audits to identify and bridge gaps in creating an inclusive culture.
- Ayo’s Political Journey [23:55]
- No prior political background, brought corporate experiences into politics.
- Applied corporate practices like customer focus and empathy in politics.
- Used a book on running for office as a guide, following instructions meticulously.
- Acknowledges being clueless but relied on energy and enthusiasm.
Meet Our Guest
Ayo Owodunni is a Keynote Speaker, Management Consultant and facilitator who brings over 10 years of experience in coaching, training and strategic direction to the table. Ayo aims to help enterprise-level clients achieve big-picture goals while focusing on corporate innovation, diversity, inclusion and cultural understanding in the workplace. His approach combines subject matter expertise, personal stories and just the right amount of humor—all intended to break barriers, push for change of behaviour and ultimately deliver results.
Taking that extra care to help someone integrate better into society can work wonders for both the organization and the country. We all need to do a better job of supporting people in that process.Ayo Owodunni
- Join the People Managing People community forum
- Subscribe to the newsletter to get our latest articles and podcasts
- Connect with Ayo on LinkedIn
- Check out Ayo’s website and book: Inclusive Leadership – The Immigrant View
Related articles and podcasts:
- About the People Managing People podcast
- How To Create More Inclusive Workplaces
- Inclusive Leadership: 3 Practical Frameworks To Inspire Inclusive Behaviours
- Create A Structure That Makes Everyone Accountable For Creating An Inclusive Environment
- DEI: Bridging The Gap Between Intention And Action
- Comprehensive Guide To Hiring International Employees: What Decision-Makers Need To Know
- Company Culture: Why It Matters And How To Improve Your Own
Read The Transcript:
We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.
David Rice: When we think of inclusive workplaces, we think of inclusivity towards people of different races, ethnicities, abilities and identities; whether that's gender, religion, sexuality or even experiences like parenting. But within those groups, there's another group that is living a unique experience, one that we often don't account for in our DEI efforts or workplace culture strategies.
I'm referring to immigrants in the workplace. Immigrants play an important part in the modern business landscape as the search for skilled workers goes beyond borders, state lines, and time zones. They'll continue to play a big part in workplaces as well. In Canada in particular, the number of immigrant workers is expected to balloon in the coming years to help the country meet its workforce needs and create new growth opportunities for its businesses.
But when workers arrive from other countries, skilled or not, what do they find? In many cases, it's a workplace not ready to consider them in its efforts toward inclusion. We wanted to know: what is the experience like for immigrants coming to Canada to work? And what can be done to make it better so that everyone can truly bring their authentic selves in an effort to win at work?
Welcome to the People Managing People podcast. We're on a mission to build a better world of work and to help you create happy, healthy, and productive workplaces. I'm your host, David Rice.
My guest today is Ayo Owodunni. He's the author of the new book, Inclusive Leadership - The Immigrant View. We're going to look at the experience many immigrants have when they join new companies and how workplaces can create a more inclusive environment to help those folks succeed.
Ayo Owodunni: It's a pleasure being here, David. Thank you for having me.
David Rice: So first up, I think we should chat about the book a little bit. What inspired you to write it and how do you hope it'll create some changes in people's thinking about how inclusivity extends to immigrant workers?
Ayo Owodunni: Started with frustration. That would be a good way to put it. I was having a conversation with an individual who used to be a chief operating officer for a construction company out in Qatar, and he's currently driving Uber here in Canada. And that individual, the only reason why he moved to Canada was because his kids wanted to go to university here and he wanted to stay close to his kids.
So in my mind I'm going, "Qatar has lost talents?" Canada has lost talents. Another individual was the former CIO of one of the largest beverage companies in the entire world. And he was responsible for not just one country, but for an entire region like Western Africa. It took him a long time to be able to find work. And here's this person with all this experience and knowledge, and he was able to just do some amazing things, especially during the pandemic. They would have turned sales around during those times, yet he couldn't find work here in Canada.
So for me, it just blew my mind on how individuals who have all this talent, who went through this rigorous process to get into the country. All this high standards, but at the end of the day, we're saying they're either not good enough for our organizations, or if they do come into our organizations, we're not managing them well.
And we're not unlocking the potential that these individuals bring to the table. So it was the frustrations that really pushed me to pen to paper, as they say, and try to be a voice for these individuals.
David Rice: You yourself, you've gone through two different immigration experiences and once in the U.S. and once in Canada. Talk to me a little bit about the challenges of each. I'm curious, what are some of the similarities and differences between the two places in your view as somebody who's done it?
Ayo Owodunni: It's very interesting. I would say the U.S. immigration experience is tougher. It's tougher to get in into the U.S. and it takes much longer as well in the U.S. Canada is easier to get in when you compare the two, relatively speaking.
It's easier to get in in comparison to the U.S. However, one thing that I figured out or I found out is once you were in the system of the U.S., finding a job and getting into the system was a lot easier. Canada, from my experience and experience of many, it was a lot tougher. I've never had anyone say to me, "Do you have U.S. experience?"
But that's something you would hear over and over again here in Canada. Do you have Canadian experience? My response is always, how do I get Canadian experience if I can't work? It doesn't make sense. Like, come on. So also I feel like people in the U.S. are very, and this is me generalized and not everyone is the same way, but there was a tendency to be more blunt in their approach, straight to the point.
You would know if nobody, somebody does not like, like it's quicker. In Canada, it is hard to tell. In fact, we run trainings for immigrants, and there is a phrase that we spend time on. Canadians are friendly, but they're not your friend. And people are always shocked and wondering, what does that mean? Just because the person gave you their phone number does not mean they want you to call them.
You call more than once past 5pm, you would probably and of course in the proper Canadian, it's all wrapped up in niceness. You would hear things like oh, yeah, yeah. Why are you happen to call me? You know the second time and the person says it's so friendly that you don't think anything of it. So there are times when we don't get the message as immigrants, because we come from cultures and I'm generalizing once again, but a large majority of us come from cultures where the messages are stronger and a very direct.
If you smell, your boss will tell you, you smell in Nigeria. You know, if you're a selfish, your boss would say you were selfish. Canada would say, you need to be more selfless. So you could leave that conversation goes, Oh, okay. I need to be more selfless. Okay. But what the person is saying is you are selfish.
So I sell that to share that, just to even encourage your listeners, especially with immigrants that you work with, you need to be a bit more blunt. Because you might be saying things and you might think it is as clear as day to us. But we might be speaking English to one another, but the types of English you're speaking are completely different.
David Rice: Dialect and behavioral differences can make all the difference. You mentioned at the top, you know, some of your frustrations about the person who was from a large beverage company and couldn't find work. And people are missing out on talent. I've heard you talk about immigrants often have to play down their experiences or expertise to be accepted into the workplace.
This sort of idea of brilliant people being tamed. What do you think is the biggest obstacle to changing this and what impact does that have on the person in terms of not only how they view themselves, but the decision to come to this place?
Ayo Owodunni: I had an experience where one of my bosses literally said to me, what makes you think we don't know what we're doing here?
And my response was, I'm confused. I never said you don't know what you're doing here. But you asked me to come in to build a strategy so that we can move our revenue from a certain amount to a certain amount. So I'm building a strategy. I'm sharing that with you. And then eventually you're pushing back with this statement out of frustration with me.
It's something that I do not know why. And I do think it's an opportunity for people to self reflect. Are we being seen as threats? As intimidation? So on one end, I don't know what to share with people. What I'd like to share is, you're missing out on potential when you hold them back. If I have someone super smart working in my department, yes, I'm making a final decision, but I want to get all their ideas and thoughts. Like, what are we missing out on that could increase market share, that can increase revenue, that can improve profitability or whatever it is?
What is it that we can do to get that competitive edge? I need it. But there are times where we have to speak with immigrants and share and advise them to tame themselves, to calm down, to not pull all your cards at a table because you could be intimidating to people. And that could hold you back from either being hired or being seen as just annoying.
And I've been in that annoying space many times to my bosses and people that I've worked with. And the best advice that I can give people is look at the potential of what you have. Yes, the person might need coaching, they might have, they might be raw here and there. But look at what is being brought to the table and you have a lot more options on what to choose from.
So don't see it as intimidating. Don't see it as, Oh, this person doesn't fit our culture. Think of a culture add more than just a culture fit as well, and you could be losing a lot at the end of the day, if you don't pull in that taint talent.
David Rice: You know, we hear so much now about the AI and technology and the recruiting process and talent management processes, how it can mitigate bias.
I'm curious from your perspective, do you think that's really helping or do you feel that it's maybe a bit exaggerated the impact that basically any technology could have on biases or prejudices that are inherently human when it's a human making the decision?
Ayo Owodunni: I believe that AI reflects the builders, whatever the builders put in place.
In fact, there's a very interesting joke on YouTube of a black guy who had approached one of those things in the bathroom to dry your hands and it wouldn't come on. You know, but when a white person did it, it came on immediately and it was this joke online. And I don't think that was racism or anything like that.
I just feel like it's a representative of the builders that built it. So if all your testers and all the people that went through the beta version are a particular race and color, it's only the thinking of those individuals that will come into play. I'm on the board of an organization called immigrant networks.
We meet with immigrants on a weekly basis, coaching and mentoring and training them and working with them. We were just on a call just last week with them and there are still individuals having a tough time making it through the application tracking system, getting job calls, getting job opportunities.
In fact, David, if I share this story, people will think I'm exaggerating. The reason why I know this story is because I was the hiring manager that it happened to. We had 64 people that applied for a position in an organization. As a hiring manager, I got to see all the resumes. I'm like, man, this is interesting.
I got PhD holders. I got all these amazing people applying. I cannot wait to meet the people that I see at the second round, of course, recruiters handle the first round. And when it got to me, the eight people that made it through were all blonde hair, white, and not only that, one of them had no background in what I was looking for.
The people's resumes that I saw that had a PhD in that field that had years of experience in that field did not make it through. What happened? How did it happen? No one knows. No one knows until I pushed back and I went straight to the VP of HR for the organization. And oh, by the way, David, two months after that, I was let go into company, but that's a different story.
When I brought that up and challenged it and said, there is something wrong with this and we need to fix this. So, at the end of the day, I do think those that are building our tech, those that are putting together a lot of these things, you need to ensure that there are multiple people on your team from diverse backgrounds.
Because they can then bring their thoughts and their ideas and their cultural lived experience to the table. For example, a Nigerian might not have a lot of volunteer experience back home, because that's just not part of our culture. But that same individual would have a lot of church leadership and volunteering experience within some religious group.
But they might not put that in the resume so that someone who's a leader in the organization would cut them out because they're "a member of a church". So they wouldn't put that there. But then the ATS is, you know, kicking them out and not giving them points because "they don't have volunteer experience", which they do have.
So you need people from that background to say, hey, this is something you should think about from this demography of people. I do think it's a reflection and I do think there's still a lot of issues in that space and we need to involve more people so that better decisions can be made.
David Rice: And, yeah, you'd mentioned previously about, maybe for folks who have immigrated, not putting all their cards on the table or kind of says some things that they have to change. I guess, what advice do you give to people immigrating to Canada about finding work when you have those conversations and what it takes to be successful in the workplace itself?
Ayo Owodunni: What I usually first say is get in. Get in first and then bring in your experience, bring in what you have. We run a session called the first 90 days, where you're looking to connect with your boss, understand what the objectives, the KPIs for your department, for yourself as well. Start to meet other people within the organization, understand that value chain where you're working and how your work impacts other people as well. Make sure that relationship with your boss as well in depth and as well connected.
Be very humble and be very wise. Humility is such a crucial part of this because if you're too confident, it could be seen as arrogance, could be misconstrued in many ways. Be open and be willing to listen and be so attentive to feedback because once again, remember that selfless comments. I could walk away feeling good and saying, Oh, it was a selfless, they said I should be more selfless.
So, okay, I'm doing well. I just need to do better. No, that's not what that means. It means you're selfish. It has been written down. It might've been documented. And two more conversations like this, you might be gone from the organization. Like, take it that seriously, because the person is not direct does not mean it's not serious and important.
So these are some of the things that we talk about with new immigrants that are coming in. Ensure you get a coach. Get a coach, get a mentor that can walk you through, navigate the Canadian cultural context. Most times, the number one issue that immigrants are dealing with in the workplace might not necessarily be the work that they're doing.
It's more understanding the culture, whether that is the workplace culture, the Canadian culture context, and understanding the people that they work with. So those are usually the hardest parts that they have to adapt to.
David Rice: Immigrants are, you know, they're an important part of business. Now they'll continue to be in the future. And I've heard you share some statistics about the future of immigration in Canada in particular. And at some conferences, I watched one online and he asked, "Are you ready for this future?" And I'm curious, what is the answer to that question when you ask it most often and does it match the reality?
Ayo Owodunni: I don't think people are ready. I think we nicely say we are, I don't think organizations. And when I think about organizations, I'm thinking about the leaders within organizations. I don't think we see the importance of it. In fact, I was listening to the radio this morning or yesterday morning, David, and there were people calling in complaining about immigrants.
And the phrase used was "those people". And I'm like, Oh my gosh, I'm a counselor in the city of Kitchener. And people consider me and several others that probably look like me or sound like me as those people. So I appreciate the radio hosts for, you know, he listened to people, then he pushed back and he said, I do hope you know that we don't have enough people in the country to keep our economy going.
I do hope you know that they're businesses that are going to slowly die out because they cannot find or rather industries, because they cannot find enough workers. I do hope you know when we retire, there are people that technically, you know, those payments that come in from the government, the government doesn't have money set aside, they've been using it for decades.
So a new set of workers have to be paying taxes that cover our pension payments in the future. That is why, in fact, the number 500,000, I just heard that it's probably going to be increased over time. So the government knows that we have a dire situation, a potential crisis in our hand in terms of our economy long term.
But I don't think the government also does a good job of communicating that it is a really bad situation and we need these people here now. So the better we all understand that, the better for all of us to be able to say, okay, how do we work together? Now, I'm not saying that we don't address the issues.
There are issues that need to be addressed. We don't have enough housing. And because of that, the more people that are coming in, housing prices are soaring. People are concerned about their own children, where they have a place to live and that kind of, we're bringing people in, we don't have enough housing.
But that is not an immigrant issue. That has been a government issue for quite a while. The government stopped building as far back as the 90s, affordable houses. So now we're 30, 40 years behind with a lot of these things. We call developers demons, we hate them. We don't like them, but they build the government doesn't necessarily build.
They had to build in as well. So I say all that to say, we all need to have better conversations as a country at a macro level, as an organization at a micro level. I'm not sure if I share the story with you. I would send a book, a friend of mine who now owns a FinTech, by the way, David, who Google just funded, he was ready to leave the country a few years ago.
What happened? He moved in and after a few years or after a few months, he handed his resignation letter to his boss. And when his boss asked what happened, he said, I'm sick and tired of eating mashed potatoes. Like that's all I eat here. I want to eat my local African food and you don't have it here.
So I'm going back home. Like I miss family. I miss home. Depression is kicking in. I can't even find my own food. Sorry if you are a huge fan of mashed potatoes, David. But this person was sick and tired of mashed potatoes and gravy, you know, they wanted something different. And the boss smiled, introduced them to a fellow African in another department that they had not met.
And that person opens them up to a whole new world of African stores, African restaurants. They connected them to African community. And this person suddenly is like, Oh my gosh, I didn't know all this existed. Takes back his resignation letter, is now happy to be in the company and the country, engagement goes up.
He now owns a FinTech. You know, it's doing extremely well and is now adding great value in the country, has staff members that are working for him. My question is, we almost lost that great talent as a country simply because the manager never asked a simple question. How could I better support you? Let me just get to know a little bit more about you.
What do you like to eat? You know, here's mashed potatoes. Okay. I see you don't like mashed potatoes. What do you like to eat? Oh, let's do a Google search together. Just taking that extra level of care to be able to help someone ensure that they're better integrated into the society can do so many wonders for the organization and for the country. So we all have to do a better job of helping people to be able to do that better.
David Rice: Yeah. Sometimes it's just the littlest interaction, the littlest thing that can change your day or your whole trajectory. You just never know, right?
So I'm curious, cause we were talking about the leadership, the piece of this and what advice do you have for leaders for them to create cultures where they're making the most of the talent that they're bringing in and cultivating an environment where those people feel that they can make an impact?
Ayo Owodunni: Number one buy the book, buy for all your leaders, get to better understand what people in your organizations are going through. Done audits for organizations and you would hear 97% of people working there are extremely happy to work there. The NPS score is over the roof. But then when you start to filter and look at marginalized communities, you start to notice that that NPS score has dropped significantly. You will notice people are not happy, there are concerns and there are issues.
So we need to be willing to have those conversations. Number two, we need to be able to start asking ourselves questions around what barriers are we placing unconsciously within our organizations that could be holding people back? For example, the company that I worked for many years ago had a policy where you needed to make payments with your credit card and then the company will refund you.
As a new immigrant in the country, because I didn't have credit history, I only had $500 credit limit. So if David has a $5,000 or a $10,000 credit limit, we both are supposed to go into training and the training costs $3,000. David can easily use his credit card. I can't, I have to use a debit card, which is now you're sinking into my savings.
You're pulling out of my payments, my rent payments, my food, those types of things. And then sometimes HR was just like, no, it has to be a credit card, not a debit card. So suddenly I'm being held back within the organization where David is getting an opportunity to thrive within the organization because he has all these little benefits that HR is not even aware of.
That is not a racism issue. That is, it's just an issue of we don't know. We're not aware of it and we need to address it. So, there are times when we need to just go back and ask individuals in the workplace, which part of our policies or the way we do things hold you back? And you'll be shocked some of the things that you hear. There is a CEO of a credit union that has a meeting with new workers once a week. And he asked the same question, what do we do here that is crazy, that annoys you? Or that is just weird. You know, I thought it was a strange question, but over time I started to understand why he would ask that question.
It was like, what are we doing that could be holding you back? What are we doing that is holding us back as a company? So I think organizations need to be able to do self reflections, get your managers to think how inclusive are we in our thinking and our behaviors, and do these types of audits to be able to give you awareness of where the gaps are so that you can do better, so you can create a culture where people feel like they belong and you can help unlock their potential.
David Rice: You've run for office, you mentioned there in the, you're a councilman in the Kitchener. I'm curious, how much did your corporate experiences help you become prepared for a life in politics?
Ayo Owodunni: When I ran, I had no background in politics. So we just literally took what we knew from the corporate world and we brought it into the political world and it was a very interesting and perfect fit.
When you want to know more about your customers, you pull together a focus group, or you talk to your customers, you be obsessed with your customers type thing. So we did that. We ensured that we were empathizing with people. We wanted to listen to them. We wanted to connect with them. We wanted them to have my contact details directly.
Also we did a lot of those things. We bought a book on how to run for office and we just followed everything the book said down to the T. So, two weeks ago, someone actually asked me and said, Hey, who was your campaign manager? And I said, God was my campaign manager. I don't know. We just, you know, just stick our head up in the air.
Okay. The wind is blowing this way today. Well, that's where we're going and that's what we're doing. And I think people just appreciated the energy and we were clueless, but we had a lot of energy in our cluelessness. And I think people just appreciated that mindset and they were willing to work with that and try that out.
So I'm grateful to all the residents of Ward Five for taking a chance on me, and my goal is to make sure that they don't regret it.
David Rice: Before we start wrapping up here, I want to make sure you have a chance to tell people how they can connect with you, and where should they be looking for the book.
Ayo Owodunni: They can go to my website, ayoowo.com.
They can also go on Amazon and type in the title of the book, Inclusive Leadership - The Immigrant View or my name, and it will pop up on Amazon. And if you're in the US amazon.com, that's a great place. If you're in Canada, amazon.ca, either way, you should be able to get the book within a week or so.
David Rice: Well, before we go, I do want to try to start a new tradition on the podcast here. So I want to give you, the guest, an opportunity to ask me a question.
Ayo Owodunni: Yes, I do. What book are you currently reading?
David Rice: I just picked up a copy of a book called Scary Smart. I'm doing a lot of AI research and there's a guy named Mo Gawdat. He's the former chief business officer at Google and he's written this book and it's sort of being very real about AI, but it's also, I think in some ways hopeful about how we can impact our world with AI in it. And so it's, yeah, it's an interesting read so far. I'm not too far along yet, but it's part of my research and we're going to be talking a lot about AI and future of work on this podcast.
So I felt like it was something that I needed to dig into.
Ayo Owodunni: Interesting. Thanks for sharing that. I'm on Amazon now, adding it to my cart. If David is reading it, then I definitely need to read it as well.
David Rice: I want to thank you for joining us today. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Ayo Owodunni: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a great pleasure being here with you. Thank you.
David Rice: All right, everyone. If you want to keep up with all the things going on in HR and leadership, head on over to peoplemanagingpeople.com/subscribe and sign up for our newsletter.
And until next time, smile at a stranger, visit a museum. Have a good day!