Transcript – Episode 41: Chat with Antoine Mindjimba

Welcome to the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada.

And now introducing your host, Global Affairs Canada’s deputy minister of International Trade, John Hannaford.

John Hannaford: Hello? Hi, Antoine. How are you?

Antoine Mindjimba: Very well, thank you. Excellent.

John Hannaford: Hello, everyone. This is another one of our phone-in podcasts for the GAC Files. And this week we’re going to be speaking with Antoine Mindjimba, who is an associate partner at Ernst & Young in the People Advisory Services practice out of Toronto. And so this is an opportunity for us to talk about some of the issues that we have been pursuing in the department with respect to inclusion, diversity, systemic racism, and to kind of learn the lessons from another context or another series of contexts, which Antoine has had a lot of expertise in. So, Antoine, just as a sort of opening salvo on this conversation, I’d just be interested in your background and how you got into this area of practice and some of the kind of key lessons you’ve drawn from your years of expertise and in providing advice to people in this area.

Antoine Mindjimba: Sure, thanks a lot, John. It’s the vast subject. First of all, hi everyone. Bonjour tout le monde and I’m really happy and honoured to be on the podcast. It’s a great opportunity to have, you know, to be able to discuss about such a sensitive topic. So as John just mentioned, I’m an associate partner at EY in our People Advisory Services practice. I joined Ernst & Young in 2007. In our Paris office, and I quickly joined the change management team, where we help organizations navigate through large transformations. And really focusing on the people aspect of these large transformations and culture is one of the aspects of helping organizations navigate through big transformations.

Very quickly, how I came to be interested in culture, in diversity, in inclusion. I think I’ve been lucky to really travel a lot. First, my father is from Cameroon and my mother is French, and I like to say that I’m 100 percent white and 100 percent black. So I have a pretty objective sense of what racism is all about because that cannot be on one hand, I’m really 100 percent on both sides. I like to understand what’s going on and how we can help organizations or countries think about what it means to be from a minority. I’ve always been very interested in this subject, and I have had the opportunity to travel extensively. Before becoming a consultant, I was a professional athlete and I had the opportunity to work in practically every European country, in North Africa, in the United States and in Canada. And I love to say that I grew up in Quebec and Quebec City, so hello to all my fellow Francophones and Quebeckers. That’s kind of the big picture of who I am.

John Hannaford: So we’re struggling with issues of systemic racism in the way that society in general is like, you know, we’re doing it in the context of the public service and in which, you know, it has its own sort of specific aspects. But I’m interested in some of the experiences you’ve drawn from the private sector. You’ve seen a whole series of organizations and a whole series of different environments. In your opinion, what are the most relevant lessons concerning our current situation? 

Antoine Mindjimba: Yes no, enthusiastically. I would say that today my role, I am the national leader of our offer of services surrounding culture, diversity and inclusion. And I think that what’s happened recently with George Floyd, with COVID-19. COVID-19 has really acted as a magnifying glass I would say. And organizations came to a realization that their biggest assets are all the people.

So they need to do more, be more people friendly. So I would say one of the big mistakes that organizations are making is thinking that diversity, inclusion should be kind of an add-on to their overall culture. Where diversity and inclusion should be part of their culture instead of something that is an add-on, that is an HR project. And why I’m saying that and why organizations are successful local or really knocking it out of the park is really when they begin, when these organizations begin to understand that diversity and inclusion are absolutely a duty, that’s the right thing to do. But at the same time, the successful organizations are those that can link their culture, diversity, inclusion—or more generally, their culture—with their objectives. To their business objectives, and at the same time, the conversation does not simply become something that we have to do, something we have to do from a societal perspective, but also something that is important and that has a certain, a certain logic within their business imperatives. 

So I would say there’s a few things that organizations can do from the public or private sector. First, I would say being open minded. I think for years, you know, the black community or minorities have been crying out loud that something’s not fair, or they are facing some specific challenges. What happened recently? I think at the white community, all the white police are coming to an awakening I would say that, well, it’s really bad. So the first thing that organizations can do is really listen carefully, actively listening with an open mind and accept that some of the stories are painful and ugly. As I said, I think also one of the things that organizations can do is start thinking of D&I as a big part of the culture. And as I said, not something that is an add on as an HR program, but that’s really embedded into who they are.

And the next step will be to really think about what do we mean by D&I? What are the specific objectives and what are the behaviors that you want to see expressed within the organization that’s really going to serve the purpose and really be aligned with who you want to be, what you want to be as an organization? The idea of having a very concrete description of the behaviours, what you’re prepared to accept and what you don’t want to see is what gives a very concrete understanding of what diversity and inclusion mean, and what it means to have a more inclusive culture. I’d say that it is important for the organizations to truly link the inclusion-related traits of their culture with their objectives. Saying who you are as an organization, what your mission is, what your purpose is and really having a sense that is broader than only it’s the right thing to do. It is necessary to deal with what the processes are in a very concrete manner.

I like to say you have to look at your HR assessment protocols from hire to retire through the lens of diversity, inclusion or the culture you want to have, and redefining some robust change-management programs to support the organization that will adopt the new way, the new way of being.

And lastly, you need to measure. So you need to agree what are the KPIs, what are the key success factors. What are the metrics that you want to see that are aligned with your business imperative and aligns with the cultural objectives of the diversity inclusion objective that you want to see? So it’s a lot of things. But I think what is interesting, when you start thinking in a more concrete manner, it will help your people and your organization to really understand the new line,  and what do you mean by diversity and inclusion?

John Hannaford: Right. And that’s fascinating and helpful, I think. You know, one of the things that my colleagues and I at the Deputy Minister level spend a fair bit of time thinking about is how we have responsibility generally for the culture in our organization. And where it is on us to set the tone appropriately and put in place the policies to represent the values that we adhere to and feel are arguably critical to the success of the organization. But are there sort of, what’s your advice to people in leadership positions to really ensure that the cultural change that we want to see happen is inculcated at all levels, and the KPI certainly is an important part of that.

But thinking more in terms of, you know, culture change is brought about through a whole series of things, and that includes leadership behaviours and leadership communication. What’s your advice to us as we are engaging in these exercises?

Antoine Mindjimba: That’s a very good question. And I think that the question: is creating accountability at the leadership level. So what I meant by creating accountability—and it’s a hot subject—is designing some type of KPIs or metrics that are linked to the score card of the leaders, because the risk is we can create a laundry list of stuff that you can do. But at the end of the day tone is from the top. Culture is driven by the leadership team and diversity inclusion, as I like to say. It’s really, it’s about, it’s a cultural trait. Diversity and inclusion are a cultural trait of who you are as an organization. So creating that responsibility and that accountability at the leadership level is key. And I know it’s a difficult topic, but really what I’m pushing for with organizations is to ensure that they will come to an agreement on the components of performance measurement that will be linked to the leader’s performance.

That’s where it gets very interesting, because the organizations, what they need to do is to really think, not simply about D&I and the right thing to do. It’s really thinking about who we want to be as an organization and what place inclusion holds in our objectives, strategic objectives. Whether they are the business imperatives of private corporations, or strategic objectives in a public organization. That’s where you will find responsibility among leaders and that’s where you will help them, equip them to ensure that the various components they will put in place in the organization, and I like to say that second-most important topic is really looking at all the processes from hire to retire through the lens of the culture defining and diversity and inclusion.

So really, the cornerstone for me is not simply to make the leaders responsible for everything; rather, it’s about ensuring that everything you want to do will be measured and that you have created this sense of responsibility within the team of leaders. That is a first component. The second, in my view, which is really very important, is ensuring that there is a good level of knowledge. And for having experienced racism, as I’ve said my whole life, as a child, a young professional, an athlete or a consultant, often racism comes from a lack of knowledge. Recently, I spoke with one of my colleagues who was asking me to explain to her what it means to be a black man; I found that to be a very courageous move. And we talked about what I experienced when I was five or six years old, that on my way home from school, I would get beaten up by bigger kids because I was black. The day I first received my driver’s licence, when I was 18 years old, I was stopped by the police 18 times. 18 times I’d been pulled over on my first day of my driving licence. Up to being you know obviously discriminated by clients as a consultant in front of my peers. So she was she was shocked. She was shocked that that really happened. Yeah. And I think at the same time, I was shocked that she was shocked. How can you say you don’t understand? You didn’t know that. And then I realized that, you don’t know what’s going on. How could she how could she understand what I went through?

Because she’s so far removed from this type of micro aggressions or aggression. So I think that in order to educate leaders in an organization being open minded and educating yourself and listening to these stories, those difficult stories. But what I see, the big change that I’m seeing is that five years ago, when I was trying to discuss a bit about the discrimination I was going through, most of the time I was hearing, oh, Antoine, come on. It cannot be about racism all the time. And usually that sentence was the deal breaker for me. Okay. So there is no way I can have a conversation because they don’t understand. So going back to what I was saying, I think creating accountability at a leadership level to its core part, that’s something they must have. But you need to educate yourself. You need to make sure that you’re going to listen with an open mind, whatever the stories of the various colleagues or minorities are coming to you.

John Hannaford: Yeah, I think that your point resonates. You know, the degree to which you can create an environment where people feel safe telling their stories and just fosters a greater sense of understanding through the system, recognizing that it’s not. It again, it is on us, the senior managers, to be creating that environment. And it’s on us to be figuring out how you foster the strength of an institution in order to respond adequately to this. But by the same token, I really do feel like it’s important that, you know, as we are taking tangible steps in setting up KPIs and attaching accountabilities to this set of issues, that it’s really critical that we are doing it in a way that’s relevant to people who have been most affected by these kinds of issues. And so that that openness just seems to me sort of primordial to the whole conversation. But I guess another piece of it is that you mentioned sort of educating yourself. Are there resources that you recommend, apart from the resources of our colleagues? But are there books, other places that we could look to try to improve our understanding of this set of issues that you recommend?

Antoine Mindjimba: Oh, gosh, that’s a very good question. There’s so many. And nothing is coming to my mind. But what I like to do is I like to simply, you know, Google and find any type of resources around what it means to be black. And I think there are a lot of very interesting documentaries around injustice and the stories of minorities. I think there’s so much. And I didn’t have a clear title, a book or a documentary coming to my mind. But I think that I think it’s more about listening with an open mind. And I would see the opportunity that I see currently, it goes beyond, you know, anti-black racism. I think if an organization of society is discriminating based on the colour of your skin, most likely that’s an organization or an environment that will discriminate against age, sexual orientation and gender. And I think that’s where we can push the envelope. And not only looking at what it is to be black or brown in a country or in an organization is how can we set up an environment that will unleash the power in humans to do the extraordinary? And I think that’s where it’s really, really interesting, because, as I said, I mean, if blacks are not well treated in an organization, most likely women who are much older or more experienced professionals are not well treated. Most likely that the very young are not well treated. So I’m optimistic by nature. And I do see that it’s a great opportunity to accelerate that equity concept.

John Hannaford: Yeah, I completely agree to all of that. And, you know, I think ultimately it is on us to figure out how we make sure that everyone can contribute to the best of their ability, and that will make us stronger organization and a more effective organization.

I guess maybe you just sort of final question. You were a high level athlete, as a goalie at an international level. Anything from the world of sports that you think is sort of a relevant consideration here as we talk about this set of issues?

Antoine Mindjimba: Well, that’s a very good question, and I would say I think elite athletes for elite sports are simple microcosms of our society. And being different, you’re not you’re not protected. So I would say it’s sometimes it’s even more obvious because sports are by nature more physical or more violent, especially, you know, when we talk about hockey or football or basketball. So I would say it helped me understand two things, that first, you’re not protected because you’re an athlete. But organizations are more open to your performance. So I would see maybe it’s easier in sports, in elite sports to fight against racism because either you score goals or you cannot score goals. Either you’re a goalie and you can stop pucks or you cannot stop pucks. I think sports and I and we’ve seen that, especially in baseball in the early 20s. You’ve been able to see some black athletes be successful despite all the hurdles and the challenges they were facing because they were simply good. So I think that’s the beauty of sport is if you’re good, you will be successful. You’re going to face more challenges, but you will be successful. So I think the lesson learned for me is if organizations are really open minded and really they want all your people to be successful, it’s not only going to be good for the society, but it’s going to be good for the organization, for the business, because you will help the best of the best to come to the table and contribute for the greater good.

John Hannaford: I agree with that 100 percent. Well look. Thanks so much, Antoine. Thank you, it was really excellent to have an opportunity to talk today. And we really benefited from your wisdom on this set of issues. So thank you
very much for your time.

Antoine Mindjimba: Thank you. It was a real pleasure and a true honour. Thanks a lot. Goodbye.

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