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Office Snacks: Anthony Clay

Our Office Snacks series is where we have an informal conversation with expert members of our community to delve into their varied buffets of experience and come away with juicy insights and ideas. 

This time we chatted to Anthony Clay—co-founder of Microsoft’s BlackLight program and CEO of Indi, diversity-focused career development and advancement platform. Above all Anthony is an effervescent character and his infectious enthusiasm reminds us all why we love what we do.

Watch/listen/read to get valuable insights into hybrid working, diversity and inclusion, gauging sentiment, employee feedback, the crucial role of managers, future trends, and—most importantly—favorite office snacks!

Becca Banyard

Hi Anthony, it’s such a pleasure to have you here today. Tell us a little bit about yourself, where did you grow up and where are you based now? 

Anthony Clay

I was born and raised in San Francisco into a family of lawyers. So, that was sort of an interesting dynamic to grow up in. Growing up in the Bay Area when you have a family of all lawyers, but you’re also thinking a lot about Silicon Valley and technology. 

My family was always advocating about social justice and systems, and how technology would interact with people. When I went to Microsoft I realized that, “Hey, there’s a massive opportunity to create disruptive and inclusive people programs and use technology to do it.”

And I really saw that through the technology tools that Microsoft was building for people. And that’s what led me to start Indi, which is all about bringing a disruptive lens to people programs and to HR.

Becca Banyard

Amazing, thanks. You were one of the experts at our remote work summit so, just quickly on that topic, do you think that remote working is something that will stick in the future? 

Anthony Clay

I think what is going to stick is hybrid, I’m a big believer that hybrid is here to stay. Most organizations, if not all of them in the next five years, will have some kind of hybrid setup where folks can come into the office or stay and work remote some parts of the week. 

It’s been really interesting to see organizations struggle through this question and really fight that deeply ingrained human habit of in-person interaction to say, “Hey, can we learn something new?” What’s also interesting as well is that senior leaders have been very open about this. 

There’s a very interesting hierarchical reinforcement when you’re in person, right? It’s kind of tough when you’re a senior leader, and you have a big team, to keep in touch and keep tabs on how your team is really doing. And that’s been a struggle as well for senior leaders. 

A lot of problems in today’s HR discipline are multifaceted. They’re multidisciplinary, and it’s really important to have that lens and be able to navigate the room and navigate conversations with range.

Becca Banyard

So how can leaders help their team adjust to a hybrid workplace? 

Anthony Clay

Yeah, that’s a great question and it’s tricky because imagine a world in which half your team is in the office on some days and the other half is in the office on other days. What’s tough is that continuity and how you really reinforce continuity.

I think it’s critical that leaders start to bring values to their teams around things like empathy and wellness into the team culture, because I think there’s no one size fits all approach and people’s schedules are not going to align. This hybrid world is going to be a lot of building the plane as we fly it, so it’s important that teams are empathetic when there’s that kind of dynamic going on.

So I think the best thing, or the first thing for managers and leaders to think about, is bringing an ethos of empathy to the team—so that’s understanding and being flexible for what this hybrid thing looks like. ‘Cause we don’t know what it will look like, but being flexible as a team is the best way to be ready and resilient. 

Becca Banyard

That’s really great. We are going to take just a quick little turn here. I’d love to know more about how you got where you are today and what specifically drives you? 

Anthony Clay

There’s so many different things. I think mentors and advocates have played an important role in my journey at so many different stages of life. I’ve been very fortunate and very intentional about seeking out help from others. Other experts, other folks who know more than me in certain realms. Really leveraging and being a sponge and soaking up feedback from those folks to learn and grow in areas where I’m not necessarily the strongest.

So I think that’s been really important as mentors and advocates. And then, I’m a big, and I know a lot of folks lean into this and some don’t, but I’m a big believer in strength finders. I’m a really big believer in strengths and if there’s areas for you to grow—and we all have areas where we can grow—it’s worth spending time in those areas to develop.

Lastly, I think it’s been really important to have a range. Being a specialist is great and going deep into an area is fantastic, but there’s also a massive need for folks to be holistic in how they approach topics.

Applying range to different areas of my career has been really important, and a lot of problems in today’s HR discipline are multifaceted, they’re multidisciplinary, and it’s really important to have that lens and be able to navigate the room and navigate conversations with range. And that’s been really important for me to kind of stay resilient as the workforce changes.

I mentioned being from a family of lawyers and seeing systems, the criminal justice system is a really big system, HR and kind of people operations and how we set up culture is like a big system too. 

Systems are very powerful and they can be amazing and robust, but systems also require tweaks and tinkering and creativity. And I think about HR as such an awesome system that has so much room for disruption and creativity. And I’m a big believer in challenging the status quo. And so you bring all of that together, and you have Indi, which is all about disrupting the status quo about how we look at HR technology.

And that really fuels me, thinking about how powerful systems can be but how systems also are meant to, should be, broken. They should be disrupted and that fuels me every day. 

Becca Banyard

That’s amazing. And you mentioned your company Indi, I’d love to know a little bit more about how you would describe what you currently do at Indi.

Anthony Clay

Indi is all about giving folks equal access and opportunities to grow. It comes from a place where folks leave organizations, or don’t feel engaged with organizations, because they’re looking for the opportunity to grow new skills, or to take on new kinds of projects, but they don’t know where to look for them. 

Typically, opportunities are given to people who are in your network and, if you’re not in someone’s network who has an opportunity, what are you supposed to do? If you want an opportunity, you’re out of luck. So knowing that folks are really hungry to grow their skills, to meet new people and to develop internally, but there’s no central place for them to find that stuff, we have created that central place. 

Indi is that central hub for every organization where you can discover mentorships, stretch projects, shadowing opportunities to sort of self-serve your own career growth.

Data is, you know, it’s a weapon. I know that word is strong, but it’s a weapon. I mean, data is so powerful for HR professionals.

Becca Banyard

That’s amazing and huge congratulations on your success with it so far. How can HR professionals collect feedback from employees and gauge their engagement?

Anthony Clay

Ooh, oh my goodness. This is a 10 hour… we’ve got 10 hours, right? One. I’m a big believer that culture and having a strong culture is so critical for a successful organization. If you have a great product, but bad culture, maybe you can survive for a bit but bad culture really can sink an organization.

Having a strong culture fundamentally comes down to listening and so listening is so, so critical and listening is multifaceted, it’s multi-pronged, there’s not one way to listen. 

It used to be the ‘one-time a year’ survey and now the new ethos is continuous pulse surveys. That’s awesome, but they can’t be the only thing. There’s gotta be a lot more things that you’re augmenting that pulse survey with. And I’m a big believer in employee resource groups. 

They are typically the largest concentration of employees from diverse backgrounds and diversity is not monolithic. There’s so much nuance in these rich communities and they offer so much valuable, rich perspective on customers, on culture. Such a powerful, I call it a tool, but I mean a powerful source of feedback.

I’m also a big believer that HR should leverage things like councils—kind of agile task forces—because these are a good way of getting a sense of what’s going on across the various departments. What’s going on in marketing, finance, engineering, legal? Again, that helps really apply nuance to listening and that’s really critical is to use a multi-pronged approach.

You use these different listening systems because it’s so important that you’re listening to every single type of feedback you get, and that means looking at data and cross tabbing that by demographic, by location, by department and really getting at the sentiment in these feedback channels that I just mentioned. So a multi-pronged approach and you gotta cross tab your data.

Becca Banyard

Thanks, that’s excellent. In a similar vein, how do you measure whether your employees are happy or not?

Anthony Clay

Again that’s a gazillion things, but let me be actionable and give you one. I’m a big believer in this question, I just think it’s so fundamental:

“Would you recommend this workplace to a colleague or to a friend  or someone in that person’s network?” 

I think the psychology of the question is so beautifully constructed because it’s essentially asking someone to get down to their deepest core. You are putting your clout on the line, your political capital. You’re going to go talk to your close friend and tell them about the workplace.

And if you’re going to say “You should go work there, it’s a great place,” that’s a high stakes action. And that question it really, it gets at the heart, it gets so deep. Really making someone think about the clout they would put on the line, it’s my favorite way. It’s one of many ways, though, just to be clear. 

Becca Banyard

That’s a really great approach. And sticking in the same theme, how can HR use data to create a better culture? And is there a preferred metric for this? 

Anthony Clay

Oh, wow. You know, I just get excited. Data is, you know, it’s a weapon. I know that word is strong, but it’s a weapon. I mean, data is so powerful for HR professionals. It’s so powerful for us because, before, you’d launch something like a mentorship program and you just kind of kept your fingers crossed that it would land. But now we can measure sentiment.

Leveraging data is so important for measuring the efficacy of what we’re doing as HR professionals and I think it also brings a lot of credibility to our work. You know, sometimes as HR professionals we struggle to land insights and programs with other business leaders and there’s this push that, what we’re doing, you can’t quantify it. And that’s so incorrect.

I’m going to get tactical with this one because I think for HR professionals making the case for having an HR BI then yeah, please go do it.

These HR systems are so monstrous, and they’re collecting so many different things, how do you get into there and actually start pulling out some insights? And so making a case for headcount for an HR BI, someone who can come in and do some business intelligence, is critical.

And, secondly, I think this is where your listening systems are really important. I think it starts with a journey of listening. Listening to your employees across surveys, across the task forces, across employee resource groups, and getting a sense of the key areas that you want to drill into.

That’s really important. You don’t want to prioritize things that your employees aren’t articulating as pain points. And so as you start to hear sentiment across employees through your listening systems, then using your HR BI analysts to start to drill into the different dynamics that you’re hearing from your listening systems.

“Managers an important frontline listening system for culture and for culture orchestration. When you’re thinking about programming, it’s so critical that your managers have a heartbeat on what your employees are really feeling and that’s critical to actually operationalize. What I mean by that is that it’s so important that senior leaders make that a critical part of what managers do at an organization.”

Becca Banyard

Awesome, thanks. Let’s talk about leaders and managers for a second. How do you personally see the role of managers in an organization? 

Anthony Clay

Y’all got a lot of empathy for managers. Shout out managers out there! I mean, it’s tough. I mean, first of all, fun data point: I think managers feel it, but just to quantify it for all you managers out there, the hours of required training for managers has doubled in the last five years. It’s just really taxing to be a manager.

There’s just a lot on our plates, on manager’s plates, just from a compliance perspective, staying compliant with workplace and legal systems. So a lot of empathy for managers, managers are so critical, they are the frontline listening system.

When you talk about a matrix, you know, you have your senior leaders and then you have folks that are earlier in career and kind of grinding, and then you have that middle layer manager. They are literally right in the middle of these two critical parts of your organization. 

And so when senior leaders who are making decisions on culture and taking action on engagement, when they’re making those decisions, they need to have the best data and the best kind of feedback from employees. They have to rely on their managers for that because, in these surveys that are very top-down that go to employees, there’s a lot more nuance to what they’re trying to say that managers can capture that a survey cannot. So managers an important frontline listening system for culture and for culture orchestration.

And when you’re thinking about programming, it’s so critical that your managers have a heartbeat on what your employees are really feeling and that’s critical to actually operationalize. What I mean by that is that it’s so important that senior leaders make that a critical part of what managers do at an organization.

Managers should be required to collect feedback from their team members on a regular basis, at a regular cadence, so that senior leaders can tap into that feedback and then make culture decisions that are really tapped into what employees are feeling. So that feedback loop is really critical and managers are key.

At the same time that we’re asking them to carry the culture torch, we’re asking them to carry the compliance storage, we’re asking them to carry the business results torch, and then we’re asking them to carry the primary caregiver torch.

There’s a lot of torches and our managers need a lot of support. They need toolkits, they need best practices. And that’s really important as well as to support our managers, given how important they are.

Becca Banyard

Right on! During the remote workplace success summit, you gave a talk on radical empathy and I’d love to know what radical empathy is and why organizations should think about it. 

Anthony Clay

You’re going to hear me say this for forever and ever, just so you know, you heard it at one summit, you’re going to hear it next year, every summit Becca.  

But yeah, I really do believe in radical empathy. It’s a mindset, it’s a cultural approach. It’s really a never-ending practice of being super intentional and proactive and going to the extreme to understand someone else’s lived experience and looking at so many different things with a lens of nuance.

And I talk about nuance a lot. And really what I mean is taking a response to a survey question and unpacking it and looking at it by things like demographics and departments. And, again, I mentioned that earlier in our conversation and radical empathy, it really leads to a nuance based approach to business, to customers, to culture.

And that’s so, so important because there are so many untapped opportunities in our blind spots, and only through a nuanced lens can you uncover those opportunities. So radical empathy, embrace it. It’s a mindset, it’s a cultural approach to an attitude. 

Becca Banyard

Amazing. I love that. I love what you said about, and these aren’t your words, but kind of how it involves walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes and just understanding where they come from. I think that’s so powerful. 

Anthony Clay

A hundred percent well said, Becca. Yeah. Thank you. And actually we write, we should write like a dissertation or something on radical empathy. I’m all for it if you are.

Becca Banyard

I’m here for it, let’s do it. So final couple of questions. What has been the most effective initiative or change that you’ve ever introduced as an HR professional?

Anthony Clay

That’s a tough one, but two come to mind. Can I have two? One of them is founding BlackLight and starting this movement of employee resource groups at Microsoft, showing how important they are, and kind of getting a reinvigoration of employee resource groups at Microsoft. Big deal, huge deal. Very proud of it. 

The other, as more of an HR professional, is inspiring other organizations to embrace anonymized resume screening. So to take in resumes and obfuscate things like names so you’re just evaluating how ‘awesome is this candidate?’ I’m just looking at a resume, at what this person has done versus, oh, do I like the sound of their name?

I’m very proud of that because a couple of these organizations, when they embraced it, saw the diversity of their candidate pools more than triple over the course of a few years, just by embracing anonymity and screening.

Becca Banyard

Yeah awesome, I know when I was living in Japan I was really surprised that when you submit your resume there you have to submit a photo with it, which I thought was so wild compared  the culture I grew up in and I thought, yeah, there could definitely be some biases there. Is there a trend right now that is blowing up that you think is going to shape the workplace in the coming years?

Anthony Clay

There’s a lot. I think employee engagement and how connected they feel to the organization is critical, especially when folks are physically disconnected from the organization in a remote world.

And also I think about the trend of gender inequity, and I think about what’s happening in terms of return rates to the workforce, and about some of the progress that we’ve made on pay equity in the last several years and seeing some of that progress deteriorate, just given the dynamics of the pandemic.

I look at some of the economic trends that are happening, macro economic trends with an inclusion lens, with a nuanced lens, and some of those worry me. And I think, for us as HR professionals, we have to think about workplace inclusion as not a trend, it’s a movement, but given the trend of slipping inequity because of COVID, what are we doing as professionals to ensure that inequity doesn’t happen?

If we’re allowing for remote versus in-person positions, are we ensuring the remote position isn’t paid less than in-person position, especially if there’s an over-indexing of women who are choosing to stay remote because of primary caregiving needs. I’m a big believer in not to be somber, but that one I’m paying a lot of attention and helping a lot of organizations think through.

Becca Banyard

That’s really great and so important. So we’re going to have to wrap things up, but I have a very important question for you to finish things off. What is your favorite office snack? 

Anthony Clay

Haha well people call me Sugar Bugs, ‘cause I just love sugar. I love M and M’s and candy. Any candy: game over. Don’t put it anywhere near me. It’s like, it’s literally game over, but I have a reputation for being a cashews person, I love cashews: salted, unsalted, whatever, you name it. If there’re cashews in the office, watch out, I’m coming!

Becca Banyard

I love it. I love cashews too. And macadamia nuts. 

Anthony Clay

It’s so good. 

Becca Banyard

Anthony, thank you so much for chatting with me today. It has been such a pleasure having and I’m so looking forward to having you involved in the PMP community as an expert. 

Anthony Clay

Yes, please. Thanks Becca.

Enjoy this? Have some insights of your own to share? Connect with Anthony and other HR and people experts in the People Managing People Community forum.

Or listen to even more insightful podcasts like this one: The One Thing That Will Derail Your Career If You’re Not Prepared (with Berta Aldrich, author of Winning the Talent Shift: Three Steps to Unleashing the New High-Performance Workplace)