The case for diversity and inclusion is clearly established: we know that it drives the bottom line, generating different perspectives and ideas, increasing productivity and creating safe, respectful and healthy work cultures. Yet it remains a lasting challenge with scarce representation in leadership, whether it’s on the judiciary, in partnerships, or in the C-suite.
If you asked 10-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew-up, you would have probably heard me list: pilot, chef, or lawyer. Each of those professions connected to the diverse and vibrant communities in which I grew up as an immigrant in Canada. I wanted a career that would allow me to apply my skills while learning, appreciating, and surrounding myself with different cultures and people from all walks of life, whether it be flying to those countries, immersing myself in those cuisines, or advocating for communities facing systemic issues.
Ultimately, it was law that drew me in. After graduating law school, I joined a global law firm on Bay Street as an advisory and research lawyer. It was a unique opportunity and role: my team advised other lawyers in the firm on a range of complex corporate and litigation issues. It certainly prepared me to become in-house counsel, exposing me to the reality of juggling large-scale priorities, managing the expectations of multiple clients, and learning the art of communicating legal advice simply and effectively.
The challenge was finding my fit. As part of the recruitment strategies of many Bay Street firms, there was a conscious effort to recruit “the right fit” — somewhat of a template of the kind of person perceived to thrive in that environment. As successful as I was, I realized that I didn’t fit that mold. This was apparent to me anytime I walked into a boardroom or courtroom and nobody looked like me, or with each request to simplify my name because it was too difficult to pronounce. It was moments such as these that I questioned my belonging. Ultimately, it was a growing experience, helping me to revisit why I wanted to become a lawyer and realize what kind of workplace I wanted to be a part of. It was clear to me that I wanted to use my legal skills to help those same diverse communities where I grew up, while still being exposed to a broad range of challenging and sophisticated work. As luck would have it, I was introduced to CMHC.
How we foster diversity and inclusion through innovation
CMHC’s legal department is 30 lawyers strong, ranging in cultural, professional, generational and geographic backgrounds. We fit within a broader organization that has embedded diversity and inclusion as key pillars in our culture and in our mission to help Canadians meet their housing needs. The last few years have been ones of growth in our department, filled with shifts and re-alignments. It’s opened the door for reflection, allowing us to consciously define our role and structure within the organization, and refine our value proposition. Breaking down silos and increasing collaboration, promoting career autonomy, and offering seamless and timely client service were key drivers in designing our matrix legal environment.
Being in-house counsel at a Crown corporation with a broad mandate covering both public and private law is unique, and we wanted to leverage our respective abilities and skills to achieve our mission. For instance, our department played a pivotal role in CMHC leading and delivering Canada’s first-ever National Housing Strategy, a 10-year, $40-billion plan to help ensure that Canadians have access to safe and affordable housing. We were able to draw on our team’s diversity to help support the design and implementation of new housing programs and partnerships to help build sustainable, diverse and inclusive communities.
As an organization, we know that diversity of thought fosters innovation. We’re encouraged to generate ideas, and to “think yes first”. This doesn’t mean everything gets a green light, but rather we try to ensure that ideas are heard and engaged to encourage new thinking and innovative problem solving. As we experiment with new ideas, we’re encouraged to celebrate our failures. We don’t want to fail, but we know that with innovation sometimes comes failure; as long as we’re learning from those failures we’re encouraged to “fail forward”.
An example of our values in practice is our new work philosophy – Results Only Work EnvironmentTM —selected from a corporate-wide ideation challenge. For us, work now is something you do, rather than somewhere you go. And where job performance is measured by the results achieved as opposed to hours worked or face-time. The location you choose to work is one of several tools, like your laptop, to achieve those results. Gone are the days where you need permission to attend a doctor appointment or your child’s recital. The benefits were instantaneous, unlocking enablement and fostering a workplace that allows employees to find their own work-life integration mix, without guilt or judgment. By innovating how we work, we’ve been able to promote diversity and flexibility, so we can better manage our personal and family demands.
Key to CMHC’s innovation is our people. As a Crown corporation, we strive to ensure that our workforce reflects Canada’s diversity — this is an area that we continue to work on through innovative recruitment and retention efforts. Data and analytics are key to our approach in identifying opportunities for growth and recognizing our achievements.
Some of the milestones that we recently achieved include gender integration in our leadership team with women representing approximately 67 per cent in our executive team, 51 per cent in management and 36 per cent on our board of directors. We also celebrated Pride Month last year by raising the Pride Flag at our Ottawa headquarters for the first time in our history. As well, we established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to find ways that we can support reconciliation and help ensure Indigenous voices are at the center of our decision-making processes.
Having diverse leaders that champion inclusion is also important. As part of our management accountability framework, our leadership team now signs a Leadership Contract, pledging to promote an inclusive, healthy and psychologically safe workplace, in addition to agreeing to be assessed on those values.
As a member of CMHC’s Diversity and Inclusion Working Group, I’m working with my colleagues to find ways to move the needle forward. This coming summer, we will be hosting a diversity and inclusion conference geared towards the public service and financial sector. We’ll hear from visionaries and experts on the emerging trends and research on how innovation can be used to drive diversity and inclusion.
As the dialogue evolves in our respective workplaces on how we can foster diversity and inclusion, it’s important to recognize and share what we’re doing right and to identify opportunities to do better.
Sharmarkay M Hersi is Legal Counsel at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in Ottawa. This is the second installment in a year-long series on innovation at CHMC.