e036. Associate-Centric with Noël France

Noël France (she/her) is the Vice President, DE&I of Avantor. A Fortune 500 company, Avantor is a leading global provider of mission-critical products and services to customers in the biopharma, healthcare, education & government, and advanced technologies & applied materials industries. Avantor employs 14,000+ employees globally.


Including You Interview with Noël France

Full Interview Transcript

[00:00:35] Amy: Welcome back to Including You. I’m your host, Amy C. Waninger. My guest today is Noel France. She is the Vice President diversity, equity, and inclusion of Avantor. Avantor is a Fortune 500 company and is a leading global provider of mission critical products and services for customers in a variety of industries, including Biopharma, Health Care, Education, Government, and advanced technologies and applied materials. Avantor employs about 14,000 employees globally. Noelle, welcome to the show.

[00:01:08] Noel: Thank you so much for having me, Amy. Happy to be here today.

[00:01:11] Amy: I’m excited to have you. It’s always neat when I get to talk to somebody who’s in a global role serving employees and a mission that is beyond a single country’s borders. I think that’s really exciting.

[00:01:22] Noel: Yeah, it is a big job to have, to have the global responsibility for DE and I, but one that I really am honored to be in the position to lead and to have the opportunity to really understand what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to our associates. Across the globe,

[00:01:40] Noel: I think we have our definitions at the organization level, but that really comes into light and into life differently depending on where our associates live and work. So, it’s been really exciting to be able to develop this strategy from our associate input and continue to collect that feedback as we go to inform that.

[00:02:02] Amy: I think that’s great. I want to start with why is this work so important to the company? Why invest with a, in a company this large, why invest in diversity and inclusion initiatives, programming? I’m assuming you have a pretty big infrastructure for that amount of people to do this work. Why make that investment at all at Avantor.

[00:02:24] Noel: Yeah, it’s one of our strategic pillars, and I will say that it started with our CEO making the commitment back in 2020 to have DE and I be a strategic focus for the organization, recognizing the impact that it has on our internal team and also to the customers that we support. So really, it’s something that’s a part of…

[00:02:48] Noel: …the fabric of who we are and tied most closely to our value of respect, which is one of the guiding principles of our eye care values at Avantor. And the value of respect really speaks to ensuring that everyone is able to feel seen and recognized and valued for who they are and show up as their whole selves to work.

[00:03:09] Noel: And so, we know that it’s a journey for DE and I and we will continue to evolve this culture that we have here to ensure it is one that’s fully inclusive and creates equitable opportunities for all of our associates to learn, grow, and succeed.

[00:03:26] Amy: And so, with that many associates and all of the work that you’re doing around the globe, what do you feel you’re doing that’s really working, that’s really moving the needle for your company?

[00:03:36] Noel: Great question. So, a number of things. We have designed our de and I strategy around five different pillars. So focusing on culture, talent and development, community and giving. Policy and communications, and I can point to a number of successes in each of those areas, though I think one of our largest successes has been within the focus on culture standing up now, just in the past two and a half years…

[00:04:03] Noel: …eight different employee resource group. So, we refer to those as our associate centric teams or our ACT.’s, and they’re representative of a number of different communities, including the black community, LGBTQ, women in Business, young professionals, Latinx, and we have this area of focus led by our associates in these…

[00:04:23] Noel: ..groups to be able to elevate the feedback from across the globe from our associates in terms of what issues are important and unique to the communities that are represented by these employee resource groups. But then also to welcome everyone, whether you identify with that community or not, to participate in these ACT’s,

[00:04:45] Noel: And one of their larger roles is hosting educational opportunities, activities, things that can be very fun and interactive, like a bingo game, or we’re going to a watch party of a Netflix documentary together to also having some really safe-space, crucial, critical conversations where people have an opportunity to share their personal stories, share their experiences in a way that builds community from those who have a shared experience,

[00:05:13] Noel: but then also educates those that are allies, right, that are a part of the community, so that they can learn how they can better understand that community, expand their own perspective beyond their individual experience, and then use that to show up at work, and hopefully in their personal lives as well, as an ally for that community.

[00:05:32] Amy: This notion of storytelling makes such a big difference because stories, I say this a lot when I talk to corporate groups or conference audiences, stories build trust.

[00:05:41] Noel: Absolutely.

[00:05:42] Amy: Trust builds relationships and relationships are how we get everything done at work.

[00:05:46] Noel:  Yes.

[00:05:46] Amy: And I’m wondering what kinds of results you’re seeing from this storytelling that’s coming out of your associate center teams or your ERGs.

[00:05:55] Noel:  Yes.

[00:05:56] Amy: How do you know that it’s working?

[00:05:58] Noel: Yeah, I see it both working on a micro level and a macro level. So, of course we look at the metrics in terms of what percent of our population have joined these ACTs, what’s their growth over time, and how are we seeing those people that are members of the groups engage in these activities?

[00:06:18] Noel: And we send surveys after each of them to gauge how the response was to the content and what people gained from most value of the session. So we certainly have those measures in place to track our success, but the things that are most impactful to me are what I call the moments of magic that really happen in…

[00:06:36] Noel: …those sessions where you can see the light bulbs literally turn on and you can hear people exchange conversations between each other saying, “I never thought of it that way”, or, “I had no idea that was your experience,” or, “I finally feel so completely seen by someone that is in this organization,” or, “it’s the first time we’ve had these conversations here.” And the people who contact myself or ACT leaders after these events to share that feedback as well, really show me that this is working to build the trust, as you said,

[00:07:10] Noel: people are sharing and letting people into their lives in a corporate space. So, it’s building that trust and it’s also changing hearts and minds, which is part of the work that’s so important, in addition to that other parallel line of changing your processes and systems. The other work is really changing the hearts and minds, and that’s how I know that it’s being effective.

[00:07:30] Amy: I love that term, moments of magic.

[00:07:33] Noel: Yeah.

[00:07:34] Amy: Because there’s, there are– in a lot of the work that we do, it’s– you feel like, it’s– you don’t always see progress. And sometimes you think you’re making progress and you realize that you’ve just opened up a can of worms you really weren’t expecting. And every once in a while, you see those, what you call moments of magic…

[00:07:51] Amy: where somebody gets it and they say, “oh, I have a role to play here.”

[00:07:55] Noel: Yeah.

[00:07:56] Amy: Or, “I didn’t realize that I was not showing up the way I intended,” or, “I didn’t realize there was space for me here.” And in those moments, I think there’s so much– those are the moments I live for. Cause it gives you hope, and it makes you feel like, okay, this matters…

[00:08:12] Amy: And tomorrow, if I can do that again for somebody, it’s gonna make a difference.

[00:08:16] Noel: Absolutely.

[00:08:17] Amy: how are you seeing this work that you’re doing within the ACTS then translate back into the real world of work? Sometimes ERGs or employee resource groups or as you called them, ACTS…

[00:08:29] Noel: Yeah.

[00:08:29] Amy: Sometimes they can be a safe space that’s almost a respite from the real work of the organization, and sometimes things that happen there, stay there, for better or for worse, and sometimes they don’t, how do you see that rippling out? What are, what’s the evidence that you’re seeing progress outside of those little microcosms?

[00:08:48] Noel: Yeah, I think it’s the model we have set up for our ACTs to support and promote the work that we’re doing across the DE and I office as a whole as well, because from that aspect, we are supporting different trainings that we have, for managers and for individual associates across the organization, on topics like unconscious bias and microaggressions, and how to remove bias from any of the hiring processes and behavioral interviews and those types of things.

[00:09:19] Noel: And our ACT leaders help to share that information across the globe, not just within the teams that they support, but the regions as well. So, it really helps us to spread the word about the programming that we have as well as to be very visible leaders in the DE and I space where they live and work. So, because a large population of our team are onsite working in distribution centers and production facilities and laboratories, we really want to provide opportunities for everyone to engage equitably and these conversations and activities.

[00:09:54] Noel: And our ACT leaders helped to spread the word and awareness at these locations so that people do have a chance to participate, right? And it’s also elevating the feedback that they’re hearing from people in those conversations where they are visible as allies and leaders that I can take that feedback and ensure that it’s incorporated into our overall strategy for DE and I and the programs we support across all of the pillars.

[00:10:21] Noel: And so they’re really the megaphones, I like to say for our strategy as a whole.

[00:10:28] Amy: I love this notion of megaphone, and I’m curious because you brought this up about distribution centers. My guess is that you have a good mix of salaried and hourly employees in your organization.

[00:10:38] Noel: Yes.

[00:10:39] Amy: How do you manage that?

[00:10:54] Amy: Because I know a lot of companies struggle with what I’ll call extracurricular programming and hourly workers. How do you balance that need to be on the floor, moving– I’m sorry about my dog—

[00:10:49] Noel: Yeah.

[00:10:50] Amy: Moving widgets, but, and not to downplay the work, but, and not to down play the work–

[00:10:54] Noel: Sure.

[00:10:54] Amy: Right, the work is to move the widgets versus, where knowledge workers can of take, take a seat to that and incorporate it in, and then use that knowledge to inform their work.

[00:11:03] Amy: How do you balance that and how do you make that case to those line managers that are saying “I’ve got 10 less widgets now because of this event.

[00:11:10] Noel: Yeah, absolutely. I think it began for me in my role as a DE and I leader in my first weeks of stepping into this position where I had a conversation with someone who I’ve known for my tenure with this organization who’s a material handler in one of our distribution centers who called me up and said, congratulations…

[00:11:30] Noel: …so excited to see you in this role in our organization, focusing on this, and I also wanna feel the impact at this distribution center where I am. And so, he really inspired me to start what I called roadshow to travel to all of our distribution centers and manufacturing sites, and talk to our associates and our site leaders…

[00:11:49] Noel: …face-to-face and gather their input in terms of what doesn’t a fully inclusive culture look like to you? How can we engage and have the time and the opportunity for you to participate and really collecting it at the source and working with our site leaders to create opportunities to dedicate time where we might have a virtual…

[00:12:11] Noel: …discussion that’s happening on a Monday at 10:00 AM Eastern Standard Time. We know we can’t just stop production and take everyone across the globe off of the floor at that time, and some people aren’t working at that time. So, then we work at the individual site levels to say, we’d love to share this with your team…

[00:12:28] Noel: …either replay a recorded session or redo it. At a time that works for you. So how can we engage with your specific site to do that on a Friday afternoon or during a lunchtime session, and work with the site leadership far enough in advance so that it doesn’t impede the production, but rather provides an opportunity for everybody to participate…

[00:12:49] Noel: ..and also factors in that the employee engagement in these types of activity is going to improve their experience at work. It’s going to improve their sense of connectedness, and ultimately, as we have proven in the business case to our leaders, it’s going to help you with your performance, with your productivity, and with the retention of the associates when everyone is feeling that sense of connectivity to the community and the culture.

[00:13:14] Noel: So it’s worth the time spent, but we really have to work with the people who are leading the work in that local site in order to scale.

[00:13:21] Amy: I think there’s a genius to this because in so many organizations the experience that I see in a lot of companies is executives think they set up a DEI office because there’s a problem they wanna solve a real business problem they wanna solve.

[00:13:34] Amy: They bring somebody in, they stand up a team, they see unconscious bias training happening and they think, great, we’re on it. It’s fixed. Right? And they don’t think about it anymore after that because they’ve, in their minds, right, they’ve checked that box…

[00:13:48] Amy: …in a superficial way…

[00:13:49] Noel: Sure.

[00:13:49] Amy:  …but like it’s being handled.

[00:13:51] Noel: Yeah.

[00:13:52] Amy:  Done. And the middle managers don’t understand that there’s a problem to be solved, and so they don’t fully engage.

[00:13:59] Noel: Yeah.

[00:13:59] Amy:  And what happens is the frontline folks who tend to be the ones who feel the problems most acutely never see that a solution is even being thought about.

[00:14:08] Noel: Yeah.

[00:14:09] Amy: So, there’s this huge disconnect between what the executives believe is happening and what the frontline experience is. And it sounds like you’ve used that middle management point as the pivot point to really make this work in a variety of settings.

[00:14:21] Noel: Yeah, absolutely. I think that is the foundation of the associate experience is to know in their day-to-day experience, the relationship that they have with their people leader is one that they feel is inclusive.

[00:14:35] Noel: And so, it’s about inspiring our leaders to model those inclusive behaviors, giving them the resources and tools that they need in order to do that. And having this circular feedback loop of collecting their input, providing them with the output and the results, and then continuing to improve. Because I’d like to say there is no…

[00:14:56] Noel: …pinnacle of achievement, we’re going to reach with D E and I–we’re never gonna be done with this work. We’re never gonna perfectly understand everyone else’s experiences around the world, so there’s no box we get to check. It’s about that continuous learning. And so, we still have work to do…

[00:15:13] Noel: …and we know that it’s a journey and we want to continue to improve. And it always starts with getting the feedback from the people who. Part of the process, to ensure that what we’re building has the biggest value, has the biggest impact, and is based upon what they’ve told us, is important and aligned to our values.

[00:15:32] Amy: Absolutely brilliant. So, what’s next for you on this journey?

[00:15:37] Noel: Yeah, so much. We are gonna continue the work with our ACTs and continue to expand those and certainly expand from a global and local perspective. And also, we’re really focused on our diverse leadership representation goals and how can we advance the upward mobility of our associates to achieve those goals.

[00:15:58] Noel: We’ve been working with new diverse recruitment partners to ensure that we. Reaching the broadest audience of the highly qualified candidates that we would want to fill our leadership positions. And we aspire to have our leadership represent the composition of our organization as a whole. And so, the other part of that we’ve been really focused on this year and will be continuing that laser focus into 2023, is how can we upskill our existing…

[00:16:24] Noel: Talent that we have in the organization to be ready for those leadership positions. And how can we do so with a lens to diversity, recognizing that very often it is incredibly challenging to be the first or to be the only of your identity in a leadership position. So, we also wanna provide leadership coaching for those leaders that are new into that space to ensure that they not only feel included as part of the culture but supported.

[00:16:53] Noel: Right? Because it isn’t something where you can just create diversity without having that inclusion first, so we know that work needs to continue to happen, and we also wanna have the level of support for our associates at all levels of the organization to recognize what that career pathway can look like for them and how they’re going to be supported throughout that process.

[00:17:16] Amy: Noel, I have to say your 14,000 employees are so lucky to have you leading this charge. And I think that there are so many lessons in what you’re doing for our listeners and viewers. Thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for being part of the show and thank you for the amazing work you’re doing at Avantor.

[00:17:35] Noel: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

[00:17:49] [00:18:24] Amy: That’s it for this week’s episode of Including You. Join me next week when my guest will be Dr. Larissa Estes White from All In Alameda County, California.

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Amy C. Waninger Author Bio

Amy C. Waninger is the Founder & CEO of Lead at Any Level, where she improves employee engagement and retention for companies that promote from within. Amy offers assessments, advisory services, and training on essential skills for inclusive leaders. She is the author of eight books. Learn more at www.LeadAtAnyLevel.com

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