It started with a cold call. Ann Redler, senior program director for the Rutgers Center for HR and Leadership Development, was on the other end of the line pitching an HR leadership program to Teresa Oakley, LG Electronics North America’s vice president of human resources.
As Redler familiarized Oakley with the school’s offerings, Oakley’s interest was piqued by the topic of women-focused initiatives. Oakley had envisioned a women’s affinity group, geared toward connecting and advancing mid-level female managers in the corporate environment, she told Redler, she just didn’t know how to best execute it.
“I knew I needed some kind of framework. It wasn’t about the what, it was about the how,” Oakley said.
Redler connected Oakley to Glenda Gracia-Rivera, director of professional development and training at the Rutgers’ Center for Women and Work, a female-focused research and education office. Together, they devised a program for 25 of LG’s top performing female employees that would give them a voice on how they could better be supported by the company.
The women, mostly from LG USA’s headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, were given a company-sponsored assignment: identify five things the LG USA should change, improve, or address to support the advancement of women and help figure out how to implement those ideas.
The assignment was broken into segments. In July, the group opened the first of two two-day forums with an exploration of women’s leadership. What does the landscape look like for women leaders in their industry, what does the data show, and what are the barriers? The focus shifted to looking at gaps related to gender equity within their own company using a gap analysis model. After taking inventory of the gaps, the group was divided into five smaller units to figure out what from the inventory they wanted to target.
After deciding what to focus on, the group took a workshop on change management theory—approaches to prepare, support, and help individuals, teams, and organizations in making wide-ranging changes—and were sent home for two months to craft an action plan.
They reconvened in October to present their proposals.
“They came and did these presentations that were unbelievably well-prepared. You could just see the camaraderie. I get inspired by that, because we have such an opportunity to have a positive impact,” Oakley said.
LG USA hasn’t always been as employee-focused. Senior HR Business Partner Winnie Cho, one of the women involved, has seen the culture change. Cho is Korean, just like LG Global. She started more than a decade ago in what she called a “much more male-dominated workforce,” one more conservative and less-focused on diversity.
“As our company progressed, our business got bigger, and they started to see the value of women in the workplace. The perspective changed a lot,” Cho said. “I know we always have room to grow and there’s always improvement opportunity more or less, but at LG we really see the value in moving forward.”
That was the mindset to establish the women’s affinity forum. Although LG USA today is better than the LG USA of yesterday, company leadership like Oakley and Chief Executive Officer William Cho’s support for the program grew out of an attitude that acknowledged the organization’s strengths but acknowledged a need to improve.
Diversity and inclusion programs are growing in popularity, like the one Senior Procurement Manager Zoraida Encarnacion participated in with a previous employer. In that instance, though, she couldn’t say it was successful at creating lasting change.
“There, there wasn’t a commitment from senior leadership. Within the group, it was like the flavor of the month, you did it and it disappeared,” Encarnacion said. “But in participating in the women’s affinity forum, I feel very confident in the character of everyone who was recruited to participate. There’s a strong sense of longevity and that we’re going to make things happen. I’m seeing that and I’m feeling very confident in what our objectives are.”
Though the women wouldn’t talk about most of the specific objectives they landed on—they still have work to do, they said—Oakley said that one of them addressed making certain policies more mother-friendly, and Gracia-Rivera said there was a big focus on creating a formal mentorship or sponsorship program.
“That was a really big one. That came out from day one. The lack of mentorship opportunities for women was kind of a big thing,” she said, explaining that comfort or hesitation causes mentors or sponsors to naturally gravitate toward the folks most like them.
“If there are more men in the workplace, they’re likely mentoring other men. Not to say that men can’t sponsor women or vice versa, but it’s not how it organically happens. If you leave these things to chance, people will gravitate toward folks that look like them,” Gracia-Rivera said. “When you think of putting measures in place that are more formalized, like a one-year mentorship program that pairs people together who may not have had the opportunity to benefit from each other’s experience, that makes a big difference.”
How does LG USA sustain the women’s initiative and keep it from turning into, as Encarnacion described her previous employer’s diversity forum, the flavor of the week? “Having subject matter experts [from the Center for Women and Work] really helped to create formalized process,” said Michelle Fernandez, senior director of home entertainment brand marketing at LG USA, who participated in the forum. “This is something that will have longevity because we have a strategy in place, and I think eventually it’ll be something that’s a part of the company culture, rather than separate.”
“It’s great to be using an expert organization because it’s too important not to get this right for the company and for the employees and the authenticity of what we’re doing to the organization,” said Christine Ackerson, director of sustainability and corporate social responsibility.
So, now that the formal meetings are over, what happens next?
“Now the real work begins. To get to move the needle, we need money and resources and buy in. We’ve got these women that are on fire now,” said Oakley. “The sky’s the limit for us. We will persevere and fight for the things that make sense for the organization.”
HR vet Winnie Cho said after her experience in the affinity forum, she sees a bright future.
“From my past 15 years to my next 15, it’ll be different. Mr. William Cho, we all agree, he’s making good and positive changes to the company. He’s the one who’s advocating, he’s making a big impact,“ she said.