Empowering DEI – Ep.86

Bold Moves – Ep.85
April 19, 2023
A Framework for Inclusivity – Ep.87
May 3, 2023

President and founder of MSM Global Consulting, Maria Morukian discusses strategies and best practices used to empower organizations with long-term progress for DEI in the workplace.

Melyssa Barrett:  Welcome to The Jali Podcast. I’m your host, Melyssa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around equity, diversity, and inclusion. Each week, I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share or is actively part of building solutions in the space. Let’s get started.

As President of MSM Global Consulting, Maria Morukian’s mission is to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create a more equitable and inclusive global workforce and fuel lasting change. For nearly 20 years, Maria has served as a consultant, coach and facilitator providing guidance to organizations and leaders on diversity, equity, and inclusion, leadership development, and organizational transformation. Her firm has partnered with hundreds of clients of all industries and sizes, including the State Department, Hazelwood School District, the World Bank, and the Association for Animal Welfare Advancement. Maria’s work has been featured in Forbes and TD Magazine, and her company was recognized as one of the top 10 diversity and inclusion companies by Manage HR Magazine in 2022. She is a sought after speaker and has presented on the TEDx stage for big tech, federal agencies, higher education and multinational corporations. Her popular DEI podcast, Culture Stew, is in its fourth season.

Maria is an adjunct faculty at American University and the author of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Trainers: Fostering DEI in the Workplace. Maria lives with her husband and two future peace teachers who regularly coach her on how to navigate conflict and manage her amygdala. All right. I am so excited to have Maria Morukian join me today, and I just want to kind of dive in because you have so many things that you’re doing that I’m just really curious to kind of dive into the whole conversation about DEI, because everybody wants to do it, and they’re appointing people at the level executive, chief diversity officer, and now that we’re a couple years out into it, at least, we have a lot of people that are not getting the results that they wanted and all of that kind of stuff. So I would love to hear a lot about what you’re doing, what your thoughts are, but first I do want to ask you a little bit about yourself and how you even got to this stage of your life.

Maria Morukian:  Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for having me on the podcast, Melyssa. A pleasure and an honor to be with you. So a little bit of my backstory, I have spent the last 20 years doing organizational, culture transformation, leadership development, training, coaching, always with a focus and a lens on diversity, equity, inclusion, intercultural competence, essentially all things human-centered, making sure that people have the spaces and the opportunities to bring their full selves to work, to have honest and thoughtful dialogues about identity differences and really try to create workplace cultures that work for everyone. I think part of that stemmed from my educational background and some of the opportunities that I had earlier in my career to be mentored by some really incredible, brilliant people who took me under their wing. And I think even when I go back further and I look at my upbringing, I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, a very prototypical white, middle class, middle income Christian community and family.

And on the surface, I think looking and sounding like a lot of other folks in my space. And yet, I also was exposed to differences in a lot of ways from a very young age. I grew up in a multicultural and multilingual household. My family were immigrants, refugees. And so my dad’s family, actually, they fled Turkey during the Armenian genocide in the 1920s. And at the time, it’s really interesting because many years later, my dad became a history teacher, and he would often say that, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.” And I think the reason at the time that they fled Turkey, they were not able to get into the United States where a number of other members of their family had already immigrated because the US had closed its borderers to anyone who was not a western European immigrant coming over.

And so they went to Cuba, and my dad was born in Cuba, and so he grew up with his mother speaking Armenian, and his name was Varujan, but on the streets of Havana, he spoke Spanish and his name was Florentino. And he had this very interesting sort of bicultural life and upbringing. And then they came to the United States when he was 16 and started all over again, new language and culture. And so I think that experience really strongly embedded in my life and in my sort of core values, this notion that all of us are more than just one thing.

And when we bring curiosity and a willingness to explore people and look at them as multifaceted, it leads to such rich and valuable opportunities. And so I really try to constantly hold onto that. Even in moments where I feel very judgmental of other people and their ideas or their views or whatever their behaviors are and how they’re impacting me, I really do try to pull myself back and that lens of curiosity, what can I learn from these people? And then one other thing that was very important and prominent in my family growing up was, I think because of this background and this experience to always use whatever power or status I have to be a voice for those who are often being silenced. And so that’s been something that has been a driving force in my life as well.

Melyssa Barrett:  Wow. That is incredible. I had to write that down. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Because I’m like, yeah, you can kind of see that it kind of comes around and all of a sudden it’s similar, but maybe not exactly the same, but it feels like it.

Maria Morukian:  Yeah.

Melyssa Barrett:  So that’s awesome. I love the fact that you’re talking about this complexity of people, because I think a lot of people, we have the census that makes us check a box and everything doesn’t fit in a box.

Maria Morukian:  Right, exactly. Just to your point about the census, I often find myself so frustrated with having to check those boxes. And yet I also recognize enough to acknowledge that. It’s important for me, recognizing that race is a social construct. It’s kind of made up to divide us, and yet at the same time, it’s very real. And so if we don’t have these conversations about our racial identities, especially those of us who are in the racial identities that often carry more societal privilege, then that continues to reinforce the stasis that we’re in in our society.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah, so true. So true. You ended up in working in DEI, and I know your practice, MSM Global Consulting, really kind of develops and implements strategies to create more equitable and inclusive workforces. I know you were doing this work, even as George Floyd and all of those things were happening. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like for your teams in terms of what you had to go in and do once consciousness was actually raised and I had a lot of people reaching out like, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know.” So what was it like for you and for the team? And then maybe you could talk a little bit about what has been learned and some of the things that you’ve been doing.

Maria Morukian:  Oh, so many.

Melyssa Barrett:  I know that’s loaded, huh?

Maria Morukian:  So many feelings. As I look back now, one observation I have is that for years, I felt like I was pushing a boulder uphill to try to convince people in leadership positions that having frank discussions around diversity, equity, inclusion, talking about unconscious bias and holding people accountable for their behaviors that may be contributing to folks feeling excluded, it often fell on deaf ears, or it would be, “Okay, Maria, we’ll let you do a one-hour unconscious bias training, but try to keep race out of it, or it’s not just about race. So we talk about this in terms of generational differences because it was what felt safe.”

Melyssa Barrett:  Diversity of thought. Yes.

Maria Morukian:  Diversity of thought, exactly. Cognitive difference is absolutely very important dimensions to talk about. And I felt as though, like I said, I was just constantly pushing against that institutional tide of keeping things comfortable and safe. And then 2020 happened, and all of a sudden there was this not only desire, but expectation to dive into the deep end of DEI and to have these meaningful conversations and also to engage in systemic change, to do it like today.

Melyssa Barrett:  It’s like last week it should have been done.

Maria Morukian:  And so acknowledging and celebrating that momentum and at the same time, trying to help people recognize and see that we’re not going to dismantle hundreds of years of oppression overnight. And that doesn’t mean that we can’t put things in place now, but it requires a lot of self-reflection and self-work first for all of us, regardless of the identities that we’re bringing. So I think just kind of balancing that sense of urgency with what we recognize and know is required to create the foundation that’s needed to actually make long-term progress was something that I think a lot of my colleagues and I were struggling with. And quite honestly, and I think your question about how my team and my colleagues and I were experiencing this, also, we’ve had numerous conversations about just the emotional toll that it takes on DEI practitioners, because out of nowhere we’re being asked to do this for everybody’s coming out of the woodwork and either asking for it or as we have been seeing.

And again, history rhymes, the inevitable backlash and resistance and those voices very loudly sometimes creating misinformation or just misunderstanding what this work is about. And so I think a lot of us did at that time and continue to struggle with the sense of obligation to take advantage of this moment in time before it disappears and try to make as much change as possible and respond to the demand and the desire for this change. And at the same time that burn ourselves out. And so that’s been something that I think, I don’t have a clear answer. I’m still working on it too, but I’ve tried really hard over the last three, you ensure that my team is taking a step back to breathe. 

Melyssa Barrett:  Well, I mean, it’s so real, right? Because even though you’re focused on DEI, we’re people, we’re going through it too. So just being able to spotlight the fact that sometimes we have to just slow down, just stop and make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves as well. That’s awesome. And I know you do a lot of training, and I know we talked a lot about just embedding DEI into everything because I think people were like, “Oh, we need DEI.” But not necessarily what does DEI in marketing mean, or DEI in legal or in all of these different places in our business, what does that actually look like? And a lot of people just put DEI in HR.

Maria Morukian:  Yes.

Melyssa Barrett:  So are you seeing any best practices for folks?

Maria Morukian:  Yeah, absolutely. I think first and foremost, just what you said, Melyssa, addressing that misnomer that DEI belongs solely in HR. Absolutely. HR leaders need to have that as a part of their repertoire. But it can’t only live there, because then it just gets cornered. And also what we’ve often found is that even have people who are either brought in or promoted to that C level, chief diversity officer, it’s what we often see, and this is particularly the case with folks that are coming from minoritized identity groups, that they tend to be hired or promoted into these positions that are not necessarily very stable and they’re not necessarily given the resources to be successful. And there’s actually a term that’s been coined, the glass cliff, to talk about this idea that we talk about the glass ceiling a lot, but actually the glass cliff is one where people from these minoritized groups are placed into these leadership positions. And it’s sort of like, you should be so happy that you’re here, but we’re not going to give you the resources or the staff or the leadership support to be successful. And then when we don’t see change happen, we’re going to push you out.

Melyssa Barrett:  It’s your fault. Yeah, exactly.

Maria Morukian:  So I think that’s where, to your point, DEI has to be co-owned across the organizational structure. And I think what has stopped a lot of organizations in the past from doing that is one, just I think a lack of recognition that that’s what’s needed, but two, a lack of skills and abilities on the part of leaders in these other corners of the organization. And so absolutely, training can be highly valuable to support marketing leaders, to support procurement leaders, to support customer service leaders, so on and so forth, to know what does it look like for us to bring that DEI lens to our decision making, our strategy, the way we contribute to the business. In order for that training to be successful, though, people have to know that this is real and that they are going to be held accountable for those results. And so it comes back to leadership and accountability. Do we have a clear vision? Do we have a clear sense of what progress would look like across the board? And do we have DEI embedded into our performance metrics, especially at those higher levels with the people who have the purse strings and the power to get the work done?

Melyssa Barrett:  Oh my gosh, you just said a whole mouthful. That was awesome. Because I can’t even tell you how many people was like, I don’t have the resources, I don’t have the people, and they get put in these positions, and there’s this expectation to deliver. So I love, love, love what you’re talking about.

Let’s pause for a moment. We’ll be right back.

Can you talk a little bit about measuring results and what that looks like? Because I think there are folks struggling to figure out what do I measure, how do I measure it? And essentially, how do I hold these leaders accountable when maybe I’m not measuring things properly? Because transformational change when you’re talking about people, it’s hard.

Maria Morukian:  Yes. Oh, there’s a lot. And I’m really happy to see the increasing attention to metrics. And so I think there’s a lot more research out there and a lot more direction that’s being provided to leaders and organizations. And yet it’s also not a one size fits all. And I think oftentimes what happens is we go for what’s the most easily measurable identifier representation. So let’s look at our, how many people are we interviewing and hiring into our organization that represents some of these minoritized or marginalized identity groups? Absolutely that’s critical, especially in some industries and organizations that have been predominantly super homogeneous for a long time. And my question is always, are you looking at the exit interviews? Are you looking at attrition rates?

Melyssa Barrett:  Yes.

Maria Morukian:  Because that would indicate to us that maybe we’re able to bring people in but they’re not staying. And I would want to know why. So that’s definitely just from an HR perspective, looking at the full extent of the employee life cycle. Where are we recruiting? How are we doing the recruiting? What do our interview processes look like? What do our job descriptions look like? And who might they be leaving out because they are bringing a biased lens even to who might be qualified for the position. All the way through to who has opportunities for career advancement? What sort of mentorship and sponsorship are folks getting, especially those who are not representative of the majority of the workforce. In addition to all of that, I also think looking at, and it’s on the organization, on the industry, but the communities you serve, your customer population, for example.

I’ve been doing a lot of work, actually, my team and I have been partnering with the Association for Animal Welfare Advancement. And so we’ve had the opportunity to do some pretty deep data gathering and analysis with the field of animal welfare overall. And this is specifically focused on companion. This is humane societies, animal shelters, as well as law enforcement, animal control organizations. And what’s been really powerful, we started that process with an assessment, and we actually put out a survey and conducted a number of interviews and focus groups with folks representing the broad swath of the profession of animal welfare. And we asked them a lot of questions to gauge what does diversity look like? Does your organization’s workforce adequately reflect the populations in your area, for example, and then inclusion. How do people feel being a part of this organization? Do you think that people have a level of comfort being able to talk about diversity issues?

How are conflicts resolved? So looking at it in terms of inclusion, engagement, belonging, and then equity, in terms of equitable practices, and do people feel like they have opportunities to report issues of bullying, harassment, discrimination, microaggressions? Do they feel like leadership takes proper action to hold people accountable? So we look at a whole number of different potential indicators for DEI, a whole set of learning experiences and resources for targeting different identity groups and different job functions across animal welfare. Fast-forward, two years later, we haven’t yet done a follow-up assessment, although that will be coming next, because we want to hopefully track progress over time. But what I have noticed, just kind of anecdotally, and here’s where I think, you can measure those specific quantitative markers, but you can also measure… We went to a conference, one of the conferences for the profession that thousands of people attend on a yearly basis.

And every single conference session and every single panel discussion, explicitly brought forth the importance of addressing DEI as mission-critical. And in talking with people who are coordinating the conference, they said, “We’ve never done this before.” And it’s now just now in 2023, that we feel like there’s a level of readiness across the profession for people to hear this and demand it and want to be a part of it. So I think even just like that, when we think about metrics, what is the quality of the conversations that are taking place when people gather, and what can that tell us about what is happening at that cultural and systemic level to shift us forward?

Melyssa Barrett:  I love that. Yes. Yes. And I think it’s so powerful when we have those conversations. And what I’ve found, even with The Jali Podcast, is I talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but it’s in everything we do. And so I find myself talking to so many different people, getting so many different perspectives about what they’re doing in DEI to make an impact, but literally, it allows you to shift your lens in a way that even for people who think they’re woke, there are more glasses to put on when it comes to DEI because there’s so many layers to it. So I love what you’re talking about. What do you think is needed in terms of just fueling lasting change? Because people can measure stuff, but when you think about 10 years from now, you talked about what’s our vision for diversity and how do we know we’ve even achieved it. We have all these measurements, but at the end of the day, I mean, what does that mean?

Maria Morukian:  Yeah. If you had asked me that a couple decades ago when I first started doing this work, I probably would’ve said, “Oh, well, my vision is to work myself out of a job.” That way…

Melyssa Barrett:  I hear that a lot.

Maria Morukian:  … conversations. And I came to realize that should never be the intent. Because if you look at any other aspect of what makes an organization run, for example. You look at IT, and in terms of we don’t update our IT processes and then say, “Cool, we’re good forever now.” We update them and then we update them again, and then we update them again, because technology evolves and needs change, and we have to adapt to those changes. Same with marketing and advertising. If we hit a certain expectation or goal, we don’t say, “Cool, we’re done. We’re not going to put any more effort into this.” We just look at, “Okay, so what’s the next level that we take this to?” How do we make sure that we’re maintaining our success or even building upon it? And so I think if we bring that same mindset that DEI is a strategic framework from which we need to look at every decision for the future of our organizations and our industries, that’s what I want to see us moving forward, that’s what’s going to lead to sustainable change.

Melyssa Barrett:  I love it. That’s awesome. So now, I know you have MSM Global Consulting, but if I recall, you also have all sorts of things that people can learn from books and all sorts of stuff. So tell us a little bit more about what you’re doing, and how we can join in.

Maria Morukian:  Yes. So I had the honor of being able to write and publish a book for the Association for Talent Development Press in January, 2022. And the book is called Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Trainers: Fostering DEI in the Workplace. What’s been really fascinating and gratifying for me is even though I wrote this book with a training and talent development audience in mind, the point of it was to write a comprehensive guide that quite honestly, I wish I had when I first started doing this work that I had to sort learn by trial and error. And so just giving people a sense of how do you engage in DEI efforts in a way that’s going to make them sustainable, in a way that’s going to be kind of holistically embedded across the organization.

But what’s been really gratifying is that I’ve heard from people who have never done training, whose job descriptions don’t have anything to do with HR or talent development, who have found the book to be really valuable because they said, “I want to be able to understand myself, learn more about this myself, but also to be able to have these conversations and just informally help my team and my organization navigate this. And I’ve found so many great practical tools in the book.” And so that’s been really helpful for me to kind of reframe that all of us can wear the hat of the learner and the educator, and it doesn’t have to just live within people who have training in their jobs.

Melyssa Barrett:  I love it. That’s fantastic. I mean, then that’s really what we want, is for everybody to pick up the book and go, “Oh, I could think different, look different.” Just kind of, “I didn’t look at it this way. Now, maybe I have that different lens.” So I think that’s fantastic. And then I know you also have a podcast.

Maria Morukian:  I do. Yes. So it’s called Culture Stew, and it’s in its fourth season actually. And the premise behind the title Culture Stew is that one, I think that all of us, regardless of where we come from, probably have some ancestor’s recipe for the family, some sort of soup or stew or there’s something about just all of the ingredients that get thrown together Sweet, spices and that we often will take that recipe and then make it our own. And I think similarly, when it comes to our identity, we bring that intergenerational collective identity with us, and we sort of add our own little extra spice in there on what we want, and we pass that along to others. So the podcast, the focus is on bringing guests, some who are in the DEI world, many who are not, but who bring those multicultural, multidimensional perspectives, have a story to tell, and also can help us look at these issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion from a variety of different vantage points. So our focus is often on storytelling, knowledge sharing, and also a call to action. So that almost feel a sense of like, “Hey, what do I do with this new information now that I have it?”

Melyssa Barrett:  I love it. You are a busy woman. I know being you are a child of teachers, if I remember correctly.

Maria Morukian:  I am, yeah.

Melyssa Barrett:  So you have that kind of lifelong learning component to you. So I know sometimes when children of teachers, they never can sit still because they always have so much to do.

Maria Morukian:  Exactly. The combination of being a child of teachers and coming from an immigrant family where it’s like that work ethic and focus on education is definitely something I continue to carry with me. Probably there are points in time where I could not take on so much. Not quite so busy. I’m working on that, working on that.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. That’s self-care. We’re going to work on that for you, Maria.

Maria Morukian:  Exactly.

Melyssa Barrett:  I love it. And I know you can get your book on Amazon. Yes?

Maria Morukian:  Yeah, you can order it on Amazon, as well as the ATD website.

Melyssa Barrett:  Okay. And then if they want to reach you, how do they… You are MSM Global Consulting?

Maria Morukian:  Yes. So our website is msmglobalconsulting.com. You can also subscribe to our newsletter there, find out more about our services, and folks can definitely reach me through that as well through email, info@msmglobalconsulting.com. And yeah, follow us on socials. We’re on Instagram and LinkedIn and Facebook and all the fun stuff.

Melyssa Barrett:  I love it. Now before we end, because I try to get you out of here in a timely fashion, but I know you started out doing coaching and stuff with the state department and all of that kind of stuff. How has that been influenced some of the things that you’re doing?

Maria Morukian:  Yes. I spent six years at the Foreign Service Institute, which is the training arm for the state department. And I think it was a really incredible hands-on opportunity to see how these needs and challenges and skills around just broader leadership and management skills, as well as DEI and in particular, looking at it from that global lens. And so many of my coaching clients were American, foreign service officers that were working overseas at embassies that were primarily staffed with local staff. And so trying to create a team environment that was culturally responsive and culturally sensitive was really important to me. And I think to many of my coaching clients. And also just recognizing that for a lot of these folks, they’re only in that space for a couple of years. And so I think helping people to see that the relationships that you build, even when you’re only going to be with that team for a short period of time, are incredibly powerful from a long-term perspective because what you do in that time with them and what impressions you leave on them will carry through to the next leader and to the next leader and to the next leader.

And so that was something that was an incredible learning experience for me, just thinking about how do I coach folks to see their role, not just in terms of who they’re with right now, but the legacy that they’re going to leave and how that can shift not only our cultures but ultimately our understanding across societal cultures. So yeah, it was really cool work.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah, right. That’s powerful, because I mean, especially for somebody who’s in that position for a couple of years, how life-changing that experience becomes. And I always tell people, it’s like, if you have an opportunity to go travel, go to other countries, do it, because there is such an understated value to actually experiencing other people’s culture or other places where culture exists in a different way, is probably a better way to say it.

Maria Morukian:  Yes.

Melyssa Barrett:  Because it’s like you can’t even underestimate just the impact it has on you and your own thought process. So I love all the things that you’re doing. I love that I get the opportunity to celebrate you and all of the things that you are doing. So I cannot thank you enough for joining me on The Jali Podcast today, and I hope everybody out there will go out and get her book, and make sure that you’re also like and subscribe not only to The Jali Podcast, but to Culture Stew Podcast as well.

Maria Morukian:  Thank you.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah, thank you so much for being here. Any last tips and thoughts before you go?

Maria Morukian:  Well, it’s just been an absolute pleasure, Melyssa, and I so appreciate you inviting me on. And I think just final sort of tip from me to anyone listening is don’t give up the work, and when it gets rough, just take a step back, breathe, but recognize that all of us have this incredible power to contribute to the society, the world that we want to see. So yeah.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yes, I love it.

Maria Morukian:  Stay on the journey with us.

Melyssa Barrett:  Stay on the journey. The boat needs to be full, right?

Maria Morukian:  That’s right.

Melyssa Barrett:  We want everyone to join, so that’s awesome. Everyone, Maria Morukian, we are so excited for the work that you’re doing, keep on keeping on, and I’m just excited to see not only you kind of impacting the backlash and the inertia, but also putting your spin on things, you are of course one of the top 10 diversity and inclusion companies. And so I just appreciate you being here, and I’m looking forward to staying in touch and seeing more about what you’re doing.

Maria Morukian:  Thank you so much, Melyssa.

Melyssa Barrett:  Thank you. Thanks for joining me on The Jali Podcast. Please subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. See you next week.