What Does It Take to Develop Diversity?

diverse group of coworkers collaborating on a project
Dionne R. Jenkins Photo
VP/diversity & inclusion
Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union

8 minutes

Reaching out, listening, getting leadership backing, funding and being in it for the long haul

When you mention the words diversity, equity and inclusion at a credit union, you immediately see a myriad of thoughts floating around in a person’s mind. 

The executive team may think: Are we offering a diverse array of products for our members? How much equity should a business have in order to be approved for a loan? What information should be included in our mailers and social media posts?  

Employees may see DEI as HR’s responsibility. They may think: It does not affect me. Therefore, I will remove myself from the conversation. 

Members, on the other hand, may have questions that are more personal: Why are there no staff members in my branch that look like me? How equitable are these loan rates? Is my voice being heard on those internal surveys? 

When I became the first VP/diversity and inclusion at $1.8 billion Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union in Chattanooga, Tennessee, almost three years ago, I found the words DEI meant growth, great potential and new opportunities. I believed those words were the gateway to exploring our hiring practices, policies and procedures, marketing efforts, products and services, volunteer opportunities, vendor management services, community involvement, and so much more. They were words that would allow me to expand my mind and the minds of others. The new role focused on DEI was a chance for me to train, educate, inform and build a business case for diversity in the workplace. 

Quickly, I learned that while the word diversity might close a door for some, inclusion would open it back up. Some did not see themselves in the word diversity, but everyone wanted to be included. Taking this job was a challenge I had prepared for my whole life, but I was still unsure of how to apply my thoughts about DEI at the credit union. 

Whenever I walk into a room, I seek out the diversity inside. What are the physical attributes, like race, gender and ability, of the people there? At a community event, I look at what organizations are represented. Are there attendees from different economic sectors? Is the meal being catered by the same popular franchise, or is a local small business getting an opportunity to showcase its offerings? Are the same people coming to every meeting, or is someone new invited to provide a fresh voice? What role does race, gender or sexual orientation play in the attendee invitation process? 

If it is an internal meeting, I take note of what departments have been invited and if there is someone there serving as the voice of the member. Are we missing growth and development opportunities by not inviting mid-level managers to various meetings? How is unconscious bias playing a role in the group’s conversation? DEI is so broad that the conversations and opportunities are limitless. 

What I enjoy most in this role is educating others about the unlimited possibilities. My job is to ensure that DEI is always top of mind in every conversation and decision. Are we being fair and equitable to all? Who are we leaving behind?

Dionne R. Jenkins
VP/Diversity & Inclusion
Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union
Credit unions committed to bringing about real and effective change need to invest in a position fully dedicated to championing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Year One: Community Experience

At Tennessee Valley FCU, our employee handbook states, “We have built a reputation as being a financial institution that cares not only about its members but also about its employees as well.” After a few months at the CU, I decided to spend my first year working in the community.

To understand how to be effective, I thought it was important for me to learn what the community had experienced from our CU, and what their expectations were moving forward. During that time, some members expressed their genuine pleasure with the CU, while others enlightened me on the pitfalls. I also received strategic feedback from the community about being more inclusive. “I think it would be great if you had a branch here to better serve the Black community” … or, “I think you should sponsor this event that targets the Latino population.” 

What I learned early on was that the organization had a great reputation for supporting community events. There is support for technology-related initiatives and lots of effort surrounding financial literacy. Our business bankers are known for adding their personal touch in providing great service, and the lending department offers the best rates for auto loans. Our commercials are diverse, engaging and provide a platform for spotlighting local artists. 

Being affiliated with an organization that is highly respected in the community, I wear my logo wear with pride. In our communities of color, members shared how pleased they were to see that the CU had added a role specifically focused on DEI. The effort demonstrated Tennessee Valley FCU’s true commitment to turning words into action. Being intentional with our community engagement efforts has allowed us to expand our outreach into new areas.

Year Two: The Needs of Staff

In year two, I shifted my focus and began doing a deep dive internally to learn more about the needs of staff, their desires for growth and advancement, and how my role could help improve their engagement, retention and overall job satisfaction. In Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger wrote, “You change the DNA of any living organism through birthing something new. The new birth won’t be all you or all them but a new creation, a new living culture that is a combination of the past and the future you represent.” In other words, to be a successful leader, you must listen to others to gain better understanding.  

It was also important for me to establish myself as an authentic leader. In Leadership, Peter G. Northouse describes such leaders as “having the capacity to open themselves up and establish a connection with others.” Building a solid rapport with the staff was the only way for me to create true buy-in for my efforts and be the change agent the organization needed. 

Being diligent, intentional and open-minded were the strategies I implemented to garner respect. It was imperative that I listen to our staff, so as to not make recommendations for change that would have a negative impact on the culture. As a team of one, I formed an inclusion council with eight members to help advance the work of my department and to keep the employees’ voice present at all times. 

A way we incorporate the voice of the employee is through coffee talks. These informal, off-site, one-on-one meetings with me allow staff members time to share their concerns, suggestions or build rapport. 

The success of these meetings stems from the relationships I have built over time. Employees see me as their advocate and someone who will ask the tough questions on their behalf. All conversations are confidential unless we uncover a situation I am obligated to share. Despite our code of conduct, oftentimes employees are afraid of speaking up for fear of retaliation. I am able to review their concerns while keeping their identity confidential. At first, I would initiate a coffee talk by randomly inviting people for a meeting. Now, employees request coffee with me when they need to talk.

Managers may call me if they notice that an employee’s production has slipped, a new employee is strug­gling to bond with the team, or if an employee experienced a tragic event and suddenly seems disengaged.  

Initially, I had coffee talks with each senior leader to learn more about their departments and goals. Now, leaders may reach out to me if they want to brainstorm ideas, or if they are having concerns about an employee and would like for me to assist. Whatever the case or whomever is requesting dialogue, I never miss an opportunity to have great coffee and conversation.

The only way for any DEI program to be effective is through leadership commitment. Effective leaders know that you need to surround yourself with people who will be truthful, authentic and willing to challenge your ideas to find better solutions. If those around you are in constant agreement with you, it is time to surround yourself with new people. Innovation is stifled by groupthink.

Another way to foster sustainable DEI efforts is by expanding employee demographics. CUs looking to recruit candidates with a diversified skill set must start internally with their human resources department. The best way to attract diverse candidates is by showing the diversity among your team. When diverse candidates attend a job fair, they are more open to approaching your company’s booth if they see diversity among recruiters.

Employees want to know that there is room for growth and opportunity within your organization. They need to envision themselves as a part of the team. If your staff does not represent the diversity they are looking for, they will take their skills and talent elsewhere and you will miss out on an essential employee hire.

Diversity comes in many dimensions. CUs committed to bringing about real and effective change need to invest in a position dedicated to championing DEI. Part-time effort for full-time work simply will not do. The strategies and initiatives implemented at each organization may be different, but the outcomes will produce unimaginable benefits. cues icon

CUES member Dionne R. Jenkins is VP/diversity & inclusion at $1.8 billion Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, Chattanooga. She works collaboratively with senior leadership to increase staff diversity and advance the CU’s mission and vision through recruitment, retention and community engagement. Jenkins earned her B.S. in business administration and her MBA from Bryan College. Her motto is, “I want to inspire people. I want someone to look at me and say, ‘Because of you, I didn’t give up!’” She and her husband, Don, have a daughter and two sons.

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