Courageous Conversation and Creating

Stronger Workplace Cultures

Emily Koski, VP, Diversity, equity and inclusion strategy lead at U.S. Bank

On this episode, listen as Emily Koski, Senior Vice President | Diversity & Inclusion Manager talks about the importance of having crucial conversations and challenging corporate politics at work. Emily also talks about how her organization’s leaders have authentic conversations on hard topics, and the role employee resource and focus groups have played to build a stronger corporate culture.


Cummings-Krueger: Welcome everyone to the Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. I’m Megan Cummings-Krueger, and for this season we are aligning our podcast with the monthly topics of Menttium’s business education webinars. This month, our focus is on courageous conversations, and as you will hear, that has great relevance to today’s guest.


I’d like to introduce you all to Emily Koski, who is Senior Vice President and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Segment Strategy Lead at US Bank. Emily and her team use data to develop segment specific strategies and implement initiatives that support diverse employees in their careers, including women, professionals of color, employees with disabilities, active military veteran employees, as well as the LGBTQ community. Now, as is common with our mentors, Emily brings a multitude of talents to the conversation. Emily holds a Master’s in Voice Performance and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theater.


In addition to her role at US Bank, she also works as a part-time church music director and voice and piano teacher, and she shared that she leverages her performance and teaching skills to infuse energy and creativity at her work. Emily and her husband and their four children, ages nine and under live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Welcome, Emily. I’m tired just going through that bio!


Koski: Me too!


Cummings-Krueger: First off, thank you so much for taking the time today to speak with us because of course you have a wealth of experience in areas that are relevant for so many of us today. Now to start with, I know that US Bank has been focused on supporting DEI efforts, and that you’ve been able therefore, to be proactive and innovative in your approach to the programs, your communications, et cetera. I’d love to start out by hearing what has been effective for you? Have you seen many changes over your seven years in this area? Can you share some examples for us?


Koski: I like to say I’ve been part of all the different DEI iterations at the bank. I don’t know if that’s for sure true because this work has been going on for decades now. But I like to say I started at DEI 1.0 back probably in about 2013, 2014, and it has been fascinating to see the changes over that time.


One of the things that we do when we talk about our work is we reference the Bersin Model. It started out as a learning organizational maturity model, but there are DEI versions of this. Level one is compliance. It’s your baseline and I feel that’s where DEI 0.2 was, at least at the bank, which was, we do it because we must, because the government tells us we must, and that’s a great place to start. You must start there.


Level two is programmatic. That’s things like building out our business resource groups (BRG’s) and that’s when I really started joining in the team, when we got to that level two around 2015 and we did DEI roadshows and leader training. Level three is where we get to have some fun. Level three is where leaders own DEI. That is things like making sure that they have scorecards, that they have access to data, that it’s embedded in our people leader goal, which it is now. It is expected that’s how leaders lead with inclusion.


Level four is even more fun, and that’s where everybody owns DEI. That’s where it is just how we do business. We don’t even have to think, is there a DEI component to this? We’re just thinking inclusively and behaving with belonging in everything we do. That’s the maturity model we follow, and it’s been such an honor to be with the bank in this capacity as we’ve gone from level one to level two, level three, and now in some pockets of the organization, we’re approaching level four. So that’s been a lot of fun too, to witness and to be a part of.


Cummings-Krueger: Do any examples come to mind for you of programs that are successful now that might have been more challenging seven years ago?


Koski: One example that I’d love to share, this was maybe DEI level two going into level three. We were in that programmatic stage where we were doing road shows, but we were trying to help people go into the next level, which is leaders taking ownership of DEI. The head of DEI at the time, who is my manager now, was doing a roadshow going out and speaking to big groups of leaders, probably more employees too, but certainly many leaders were there. He was talking about DEI, the business case, groups that have been underrepresented, and that’s where we were going to focus on.


During the Q&A portion, a white male leader raised his hand and asked the question that we’re all thinking, what about the white straight men? That wasn’t exactly his question, but it was something like that. And the DEI leader got off his chair, went down off the stage, and hugged him, which probably was not the answer or the reaction this brave soul was expecting. But the first thing that the DEI leader said was, thank you. Thank you for asking the question. Thank you for being brave because that’s what this work is all about. It’s about challenging each other. It’s about asking the questions that we’re all thinking.


When I say, “we all”, that changes based on the group that we’re thinking about. But in that situation, probably a lot of leaders are thinking of that same question. If we don’t at least get it out in the open, we’re never going to make progress. That’s one of those defining moments. I’m sure there are many of those moments that happened, but that was just one in-person event that changed the way our culture has evolved. Our whole US Bank culture, not just DEI, but the workplace culture is more like; let’s work through it, let’s have challenging interactions, let’s ask the tough questions, and then let’s deal with it.


That’s one of those examples of a few years before that if that leader would have asked that question. Now, if somebody asks that question, I don’t know that they would get a hug and a thank you. Maybe they would, but I feel like in a lot of places we’ve even evolved beyond that.


Cummings-Krueger: I just love that story. Thank you so much for sharing that. I love that immediate positive feedback to that employee who did have that courageous bravery to ask the question that people were thinking, and I imagine that had a wonderful result for the rest of the audience as well. They always say it’s that second person that starts the tipping point. You’ve got that brave first soul and I imagine what a difference that made.


That’s a perfect segue into what is our topic on our business education webinar this month, and that is courageous conversations. Doing DEI work entails many courageous conversations at many levels, whether it is dealing with peers, direct reports, dealing with executives. What have been some experiences for you around courageous conversations?


Koski: Love the topic. I was excited to hear that was your topic this month for the business education webinars, and I was fortunate enough to have some time to go back and listen to some of last season’s episodes. This came up in at least one, maybe even more.


There are many ways to think about courageous conversation. The first thing I want to do is level set on what we mean when we say courageous conversations. I’m sure there are many definitions, but I think a courageous conversation is when we decide, whether it’s an individual, a company, or a team, to discuss something that we’d rather avoid. I think there’s an added layer that now when we say courageous conversations, there’s an expectation that it’s diversity, equity, and inclusion focused, although not always. It can be we’re having a tough situation with an employee, and we must address that, but that’s how I define it. Is that what you think of at Menttium or what you’ve been hearing?


Cummings-Krueger: I would say both of those are true. I think at its core it absolutely is conversations that take courage, conversations that are authentic, and where you’re being vulnerable. I would agree in organizations right now, probably one of the primary topics that has taken a lot of courage and has been occurring has been around DEI.


Koski: We’re on the same page with that, which is great. I think of it in a few different buckets. You have your 1:1 courageous conversation. Then you have a little bit broader, maybe a team conversation where we’re bringing it to a team meeting, maybe five to ten people. Then we have what I call our large-scale courageous conversations. Toya Werkheiser did an episode last season, I believe it was episode twenty-two, but in that episode, she gave vulnerable examples of when she had those 1:1 interactions. I don’t know if you remember that episode.


Cummings-Krueger: Oh, very well. I was interviewing her, and I remember. We’ve had so many great podcasts, but I absolutely remember that podcast.


Koski: Talk about having courage as Black women in corporate America, and she was on a call with a vendor, so an external person, and that person used the term “straight off the plantation”, which it’s a little shocking, right? I can’t believe I just said it out loud on a podcast, it’s going to be recorded. But this is something that she came across and she said, you know what? No. We’re going to have this conversation. She had the courage to have a 1:1 later and went through a whole list. It sounds like she has a science to how she goes about courageous conversations, and it turned out to be a positive experience. If you want to hear about 1:1 conversations, I highly recommend that episode with Toya. That was great.


Because I’m on this enterprise DEI team, we get involved with 1:1 and small team conversations. But where my team plays a lot is on the large-scale. We’re an enterprise group. That’s where we play and that’s where we have the biggest impact from our organizational position. Prior to 2020, courageous conversations were certainly happening, but I don’t know if the term was used as widely or understood as widely as it is today. I certainly have been using it a lot more. In the DEI space, it’s gained traction and popularity. But interestingly, at the beginning of 2020 before COVID and the racial justice movement exploded, we were having a courageous conversation.


In 2019, we started our Women’s Advancement Initiative. We launched this enterprise-wide initiative because we were going to increase the number of women in senior leadership, and we had this huge plan. We were not just going to focus on women, but we were also going to focus on the role the manager plays, bias, and the system. And this is something we’re still working on today, so it was a big darn deal. There was a lot of momentum launching that in 2019.


In doing that, we also had honest questions come in that first year. What are we doing about the gender pay gap or pay equity? What about women of color? Are we talking about women of color specifically? Not yet, but we should probably be doing that. How are men going to get involved in this? I’m getting a lot of pushback from men, what are you doing about that? We even had the question from men and women, are we swinging the pendulum too far the other way? We’re focusing on women, but what about everybody else?


One thing you’ll get to know about me Megan, if you don’t already know, is that I like to keep it real. For the one-year anniversary we said, you know what, we’re going to put it all out on the table. We’ve had a whole year of this, and we are going to have an honest, authentic, challenging conversation. And you know what? We’re going to do it in front of the whole company. I don’t even know if I would call it a courageous conversation, but at that point, that’s what we did.


We said we were going to have an honest, authentic conversation. I give so much credit to our leaders. They were sitting on a panel in-person in Minneapolis in a convention center, which sounds crazy now. We had C-Suite men and women, we had our CEO, and we had a leader fly in from Europe. There was great representation, a lot of diversity, very senior leaders who were in front of about a thousand people answering tough questions. What I loved about it is they were authentic responses. Things like, “I don’t know”, “that’s a good point”, or “I had never thought of it that way before”.


There were some raw responses to the question of whether the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. One of our leaders said something to the effect of, I’m looking at the representation data and I’ll let you know when we’ve swung too far the other way, but we’re not even close. That one got applause, right? But it was a real candid conversation in a way that we had never seen before on a large-scale at the company.


We received positive feedback. In fact, employees said we could have gone farther, we could have spent more time, so it was a good test run. And then literally the next week, the entire world shut down. A month or two after that, George Floyd was killed in our headquarters market in Minneapolis. Then a few months after that, it was back-to-school time. And then our moms, largely moms but not always, but largely the women in our organization, we’re trying to figure out, how am I going to balance teaching my kids at home and doing work? I feel like I can’t have the kids in the background because people will think I’m not committed to my job. We had a lot of opportunities to test out what we had just piloted earlier that year and that was the baptism by fire if you will, on making this large-scale courageous conversation format work.


Cummings-Krueger: I would imagine you inadvertently without knowing what was coming, you planted the seed. You were proactively doing it. I imagine that makes a difference when you know leaders are authentically, honestly, and vulnerably answering questions, that has a tremendous impact on culture.


Koski: It’s funny you said the impact on the culture, because just before this, I was talking to a woman in our consumer banking division, who’s been at the bank for more than ten years. She’s been doing a lot of work in and around DEI, and she said, we saw Andy, who’s our CEO, get on a call, a courageous conversation after George Floyd was killed, with other executives. And again, we heard a lot of those answers, which is, I don’t know. Do you hear leaders say, I don’t know? Not very often, but that’s what the answer is. Sometimes the answer is, I don’t need you to solve, I just need you to listen. Those leaders demonstrated that.


I’m not even joking, the call right before this one, she said unprompted, I saw Andy and our leaders do that. And I thought, well, they opened the door and here I go. And she started. That was the impetus for her to start pushing people in a respectful way, obviously, but pushing people, challenging people. I brought courageous conversations to my team. I started having 1:1 courageous conversations because I saw it happening at the top. And if they can do it, certainly I’m allowed to do it.


Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely. That message from the top, I think a lot of times senior leaders don’t recognize just how powerful their role modeling can be, and it’s incredibly powerful.


Koski: We did a back-to-school session. We had two of our women C-Suite leaders, who are the co-executive sponsors of our women’s BRG, and we talked a lot about the resources at that point. We were trying to change our policies, just make sure that everyone had as much help as they could going into this back-to-school season. It ended up being a cathartic experience for everyone to hear that they weren’t alone and to hear it from our most senior women, the management committee. They were telling stories about how at the beginning of COVID their roots had grown out two inches and the men hadn’t shaved for three or four days. Both got so much feedback afterwards, positive feedback, from people saying I was crying because I wasn’t alone, and I thought I was alone. There was so much positive feedback from them just telling real stories and it had an impact on the women at the bank.


Cummings-Krueger: This is what we hear all the time, and particularly in the last couple of years where we’re all dealing with so much for many different reasons. We hear from mentees that they are feeling overwhelmed. Again, if they’re mostly virtual, maybe the hybrid workers who are starting now, you’re even more isolated and its human nature to think it’s just me. I always loved, I think it was Margaret Mead, the anthropologist who said, the most important thing that everyone needs to know is that they’re not alone. That is the core. That’s absolutely what we see in mentoring. It’s reflected in what your leaders were doing and the response to that. It humanizes them. And again, leaders tend to be a modest group, so sometimes they don’t realize what a difference they can make.


As we’ve been talking about already, for a variety of reasons, courageous conversations have become such a topic of interest for our mentees, especially considering the hybrid virtual world we’re all living in. So, what best practices have you developed around ensuring that courageous conversations occur?


Koski: It’s been a huge part of our work on the DEI team. Specifically, I lead our segment specific strategies and you hear, like I shared from women, or from our Black employees, or people with disabilities, where there are accessibility implications for when you’re going to work from home, or downtown to work, or what have you. So, we’ve been hearing from our employees. On the flip side of that, we’ve also been hearing from managers in general. Like, I get it; I see that leaders are having these conversations; I know that I want to do it too, but how?


So, a couple things. One is that we have been building infrastructure around the concept of courageous conversations. For example, providing ground rules. That was one of the first things we did. No matter what the topic or the angle is, if I’m talking anything DEI, I usually pull out my courageous conversation rules because it level sets; engage in dialogue, not debate; be okay with discomfort, assume positive intent, and be willing to admit mistakes. That helps me to share.


If you’re a little uncomfortable, good. That’s what we’re trying to do here, is learn and grow, and you must grow from a place of discomfort. So that’s the first thing we did. We got out these courageous conversation ground rules to at least level set with everyone. We also created toolkits. We worked with an external vendor to put them together, and these are structured on unconscious bias or allyship. There’s a facilitator guide and a PDF of the learning objectives. That’s a different style that some people gravitate towards. They really want the facilitator guide if they’re going to engage with this and that’s great.


The other thing that’s more recent is we’ve been working with some folks in HR to develop case studies; actual situations that we hear and see happening at the company. Because again, sometimes people might not be willing to say, this is something that I see, and I need to address it. But they might be more willing to engage if it’s a hypothetical situation that we can work through together. So those are a few resources that we’ve built to have different engagement points so people can engage where they feel the most comfortable. Then, not only the resources, but the platforms. I already talked quite a bit about the large-scale company wide. Those are all virtual. I can’t think of one that we’ve done in person, except for the first one I said before COVID.


We also have support circles. We’ve had these for years, but they’ve really taken off and covered things like invisible disabilities, LGBTQ support, or women in the workplace. Sometimes the topics lend themselves to different formats. I’ll give you an example. Roe vs. Wade was overturned. I am the women’s segment lead. There were a lot of feelings, a lot of passion, and a lot of requests for support. By this time people were saying, when is the courageous conversation? Because we’ve set that precedent in a good way and people expect us to address these issues head on.


We decided this topic is very polarizing. There are a lot of feelings, strongly on both sides, all sides I’ll say, and I’m sure there are not just two sides to anything. But we didn’t say we’re not going to talk about it. We’re still going to talk about it, we’re still going to give people an opportunity to express their need for support, but we’re going to do it in our support circle framework. We have a workplace wellness for women’s support circle. That’s where we’re going to talk about it. We’ll bring it up because if we don’t bring it up, it’s going to come up anyway.


It’s called Workplace Wellness for Women. We set up a version of those courageous conversation ground rules and we said we’re going to frame this and say that this is a support circle. We are here to support each other. We’re not here to judge each other. We’re not here to start an argument, but we are here to say, hey, I’m affected right now. Here’s what’s going on with me, and this is a safe space. We were still able to have the conversation and it was just a slightly different format, but it’s because we already had the platform built that we could easily pivot on something like that. You can’t build a platform in a day and address those situations. So that was a cool way that we were still able to have the conversation, but the format just couldn’t be that large-scale because that would not have been productive. This was productive.


Cummings-Krueger: First off, the structure, all the tools, the thought that went behind that. We know at Menttium that structure makes a huge difference, especially in the beginning when you are getting, as you say, uncomfortable. Whenever we’re stretching, that’s not a comfortable position. Whenever we’re stretching ourselves with learning and new behaviors, it’s always going to be uncomfortable and structure, tools, direction, I’m sure all your researchers know this, but when you’re making change happen, that is pivotal.


I also appreciate the recognition that you all have, there’s a saying we use in the mentoring world that oftentimes a mentee needs to let it out before they will let you in. A lot of times our mentors are seasoned, so they know where it’s going. They’ve had the experience, doesn’t matter. But being able to have that voice, being able to be seen, knowing that you’re not alone, that sounds to me like you’ve really been touching on a lot of these points.


Koski: I’ve never heard that before, but I love it, especially for people who are struggling. Whether they’re struggling because they think DEI doesn’t belong in the workplace, or they’re struggling because we’re not going far enough, fast enough, and we’re not supporting them the way they believe a company should support their employees. Regardless of where you are on that spectrum, I love that saying and it completely applies.


I must give them the safe space to just give it, I’m not going to be hurt. Share it, give it all to me, and then I’ll say thank you. And I’m going to acknowledge that I’ve heard this before. You’re not the only person who feels this way. I mean acknowledge it, right? Whatever makes sense in that situation. Then we can talk and maybe have a courageous conversation. I can give some reasons like; did you ever think that this might help your business? Let me tell you about population growth. Our retail footprint is 97% multicultural. Does that change how you might think about this? It’s not in a mean way, but it’s like, let’s talk about it and see if we can come to a different understanding. But the first step is they must feel safe, like that guy at in the beginning to say, what about the straight white men, and then get a hug. What we’re trying to do is give a bunch of people virtual hugs regardless of where or what the feedback is that we’re getting.


Cummings-Krueger: Then they’re in a position where they’re better able to perhaps reframe, change that perspective, and hear that. It occurs to me, with the courageous conversation’s world, but also the DEI world, there’s been so much research over the last ten years about how we used to have annual reviews and they were not effective.


More and more we’re understanding, first it was, maybe we need a quarterly review. Then maybe we need a monthly review. The reality is, it needs to be in the moment, not always and not in all cases, but the closer to the moment, if not the moment, the more relevant it becomes, and more learning goes on. It strikes me that when you have that courageous conversation in the moment, such as Toya had that example in the other podcast, they dovetail. These two areas align strongly.


Koski: This is me with my manager hat on, it makes everything easier if you go through the hard work of getting comfortable with the discomfort.


You hear that a lot, but it really is true. It’s so much easier when you get to the year-end performance reviews that you still must type up and you’ve blocked three days in December just to get through your performance review write-ups, and it helps a lot. Not only for the employees, like you said, but you as a manager. You get good at being quick to the point. Always with that assumed positive intent, and I’m here to help you get better. That makes it feel like you need a little less courage to have the courageous conversation if you do them quickly and in the moment.


Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely. Again, those courageous conversation rules, they’re a great way to pause and reset and with our current pace of life, just pausing is a relevant experience. Then being able to reset and look at things with those rules, which everyone would agree with. As you think about the success you’ve had in this area, what do you feel are some of your habits, or what do you think has allowed you to have the success you’ve had in a challenging area?


Koski: This is part habit and just part of my personality, but nonetheless it’s helpful and that is that I take almost nothing personally. I was preparing for this, and I thought, let me think of an example of something I took personally, and I could not think of one. Because whether it’s at work or at home, I’ve developed thick skin. And part of that is, like you mentioned at the beginning, my performance background. If you’re going to be a performer in front of a bunch of people, especially when you’re preparing to be in a show, and people are critiquing you constantly, you get thick skin, you say, they’re just trying to make me better.


No matter which way you slice it, it’s a controversial space. I get a lot of feedback. I’ve heard feedback is a gift. One of my leaders several years ago would tell me feedback is a gift. I really do believe that having thick skin and taking almost nothing personally, professionally, I’m able to take criticism and improve, right?


I use it to improve. I always try to use it to improve and personally, I’ve got a busy life. I have four kids, I have two jobs, I have a big job at the bank here. I don’t have time in my mind like I used to do. That’s the habit part. I used to rehash what I should have said, or I can’t believe they said that, or what did they mean by this? I just don’t have time for it, and so it’s freed me up to be in a more productive energy flow as opposed to when you take things personally and you are taken aback a bit. It can rob you of valuable energy.


Cummings-Krueger: I’m impressed that you have reached that point. Again, some of this is how we’re wired and some of this is habits and training. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the Four Agreements, but they talk about four different things that are essential and one is to take absolutely nothing personally. And that is challenging for almost all of us. But you’re right, it’s redirecting the energy. So, I imagine that’s been a tremendous gift in the work that you.


Koski: And I get a lot of practice.


Cummings-Krueger: I’d like to end on just a final question as far as what advice would you like to share to up and coming leaders? This can come from any direction, but this is your time to collectively mentor anyone who’s listening to this podcast. What would you like to share?


Koski: I mentioned this earlier, but this is what I try to live by; just be real. You might hear people say lead with authenticity or bring your full self to work. There are different ways to say it, but the simplest way I’ve found is just real whenever possible.


Strip away the corporate jargon. It’s great, I speak corporate too, but I get a lot farther in what I’m trying to accomplish if I take away the fancy sounding words, and I strip down the corporate slang. It may sound obvious, like I can just be real. But I had two separate people in the last week who thanked me for talking to them, and I’m not joking, they said like a real person. And I thought, how are other people talking to you, what else would they say? But I think what they meant is that they feel like they don’t need to put on airs. They feel they can take away the mask, especially in corporate America, where you must have a little bit of that mask on.


They feel like when I’m “real”, and this is true, I truly believe I’m just a gal. I’m on the DEI team, I’m a corporate leader, and I’m on the journey with everybody else. I don’t have it all figured out. And I’ll tell you I don’t have it all figured out. Again, a lot of that is my personality, some of it is that I’ve had a lot of practice, and some of it is that I’ve made the decision that’s how I’m going to be. But it can take a lot of courage and a lot of vulnerability and frankly, a lot of risk for people at different stages of their career to take off that mask and be down to earth and real.


But it’s the best and quickest way I found to connect with people, gain trust, which is huge in any business that involves people, which is every business, and building relationships and frankly, it makes my job easier and more enjoyable.


Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely, wonderfully said. You and I talked during our prep session and not surprisingly, we share a love for Brené Brown. I know some of the listeners certainly already know about her, but the one thing I will recap, and if you haven’t seen her TED talk on the power of vulnerability, I highly recommend it. But basically, she did not want what was so important for any kind of leader to be the ability to be vulnerable, because she didn’t like being vulnerable. She said I wanted to beat that back with my ruler because I didn’t like that answer. But that is what she found with the research. It’s wonderful to hear you echoing that.


Any finial thoughts, Emily, before I let you go?


Koski: I am just so thankful for this opportunity. This is an unsolicited Menttium commercial break, I’ll say. I was lucky enough to be a mentee and, in my intake, I had big ideas, right? I wanted a male leader because I led the women’s initiatives. I wanted someone in a business line role who was super senior, who was in the Twin Cities in person. Menttium, through your amazing wizardry of your matching found me someone who hit every single one of those. He was in a church music choir, and I’m a church music director, so I thought, wow, there’s something special going on at this organization if they could find this unicorn of a mentor for me. That pairing made a big difference. Thank you for the work that you all do at Menttium. It’s been an honor.


Cummings-Krueger: Thanks so much Emily. Just everything, the stories, but also your open vulnerability. This was a great conversation. It was rich in examples of how to approach what can be challenging topics.


I also want to thank everyone listening to this Menttium Matters podcast. We have other excellent guests like Emily lined up for the season, so I want you to make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any episodes. Next month our topic will be around personal brand. For any additional resources, you can find show notes on the Menttium website. We look forward to having you join us next time. Thanks everyone.