e001. Trust to Transformation with Taheti Watson

Taheti Watson serves as the Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at Canopy Children’s Solutions. Founded in 1912, Canopy Children’s Solutions provides behavioral health resources, education, and social services to help children and families thrive, despite extraordinary challenges. Canopy is a non-profit organization with 500 employees in Jackson, Mississippi.

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In this episode of Including You, Taheti explains how an internal focus on building trust led to external transformation.

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[00:00:46] Amy: my guest today is Taheti Watson who serves as the chief diversity equity and inclusion officer at canopy children’s solutions founded in 1912. Canopy children’s solutions provides behavioral health, resources, education, and social services to help children and families thrive, despite extraordinary challenges.

Canopy is a nonprofit organization with 170 employees in Jackson, Mississippi Taheti, welcome to the.

[00:01:13] Taheti: Thank you, Amy. I’m excited to be here.

[00:01:16] Amy: I’m excited to have her because, number one, she works with a not-for-profit and a lot of times I hear from not-for-profits we just don’t have the resources to devote time and energy to diversity, equity and inclusion. Number two, it’s a mid-sized company. 170 employees is not a gigantic organization.

So sometimes smaller companies say we don’t really need that. We’re not big enough yet. And third, I’m just going to have her here because she’s an amazing person. You’ve been with canopy for 11 years, four and a half in your current role as chief diversity equity and inclusion officer, can you tell us a little bit about that journey from director of HR to Chief diversity officer.

[00:01:58] Taheti: Sure, and let me just put a little correction in we’re 500, a little over 500. We started out with 200 employees and we quickly grew to 500 providing solutions. And I started out as the HR director and I’ve always been about giving people, the tools and the space they need to grow.

So I like to tell people I’ve always been low key diversity, equity and inclusion just didn’t call it that it was more of where we’re heavily, where we’re we are. We’re knocking it out of the ballpark with our solutions. We’re hiring people. But we need to figure out how to close the back door. Like our back door was like a revolving door and being really transparent.

And so our CEO was like, how can we close the back door Taheti? And I started about looking at engagement efforts, looking at making opportunities for all employees and looking at the gaps. So I really was low key doing some of the work before the, my promotion.

[00:03:00] Amy: I want to pick up on just something that you said there. I think it’s so important because I think a lot of people in companies and a lot of executives in companies don’t necessarily understand why they need to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organization. They may think everything’s fine, culture is good. We don’t have, we don’t have problems. A lot of times when I show up as a trainer of facilitators, a consultant, somebody wants to know who did something wrong that they brought you in.

[00:03:31] Taheti: And that’s not the case,

[00:03:32] Amy: if somebody has done something wrong, that’s a whole different problem.

But this notion of. We’ve got turnover and we don’t understand why people are leaving our organization and we don’t understand why. And it’s hard to grow a company, like you said, from 200 to 500, that’s a lot of work, but it’s even more work if you’ve got to replace half of that 200 every year, because you can’t keep them.

And then you’ve got to replace. 30% of 300 or 40% of 400, like that really taxes and organization, and so this notion that, you were already looking into this and he said, Hey, how do we solve this? And you’re like, Hey, I’ve got it. We need to be more inclusive. So what did that look like for you and for your company for canopy what were you able to pinpoint the specific problem that you wanted to solve? or was it more overall.

[00:04:21] Taheti: You said something about the culture and everything is fine, and I always ask organizations or when someone is asking me, what do we do? How do we give here? Because we seem to be fine, but whose standard, who did you ask? Did you just look and say, oh, they look like they’re thriving.

They’re look like they’re surviving, but did you ask? So we thought we had a great culture. We definitely know the why, but a lot of businesses don’t understand the why, they think it’s just the right thing to do. Broad. And that’s a different subject that we could cover at a different time around the why.

But if you don’t know the real reason why you need to embrace inclusion, then you’re missing the bigger picture, and so we started with a survey with an engagement survey, and I could tell you it was like pulling teeth because there was no trust. So the foundation of building the trust, listening to employees, voices, but before we can listen to the employees, voices, we need to capture them.

How can we capture them if they don’t trust us to do right by them. We expect them to do right by our families and our children and if you in the business of making a product, your customers expect you to do right by the product, be socially responsible for the environment. But if we don’t ask, we can’t assume that we can say a hundred percent that we have this culture.

And if we say that, does that match our retention? and so we started out with an employee engagement survey.

[00:06:04] Amy: that’s really important. And one of the things, that I’m very fond of is number one measurement, right? Because you can’t measure, you can’t manage against something that you don’t have a baseline measurement for.

So if you don’t know what your turnover, so if you’re listening to this and you don’t know what your turnover numbers are, go find out. If you don’t know what your, time to close position is go find out if you don’t know your average longevity in a role, go find out if you don’t know who’s in your organization, because you’ve not captured demographics.

Self-reported demographic information go find out because if you don’t have any numbers, you have no idea. If you’re moving in the right direction or not. So that’s the first takeaway I got from this. But the second thing that I took away is something that, that I tell people a lot. Every organization is inclusive for somebody, but very few organizations are inclusive for everybody.

And so the question isn’t are we inclusive? Are we not inclusive? It’s who are we inclusive for?

[00:07:03] Taheti: What’s the definition that the organization is using for diversity, equity and inclusion and being in the south. When I first moved into this role, we toyed with the name diversity and then engagement and being in the south, when you talk about diversity and I’m not just saying this is just conducive of every state that’s in the south. I just know from my experience saying that I am the diversity officer for canopy, then some people will say, oh you guys don’t have any. Employees, are you trying to hire for diversity?

And so it’s beyond the black and white lens that we often look at. And just because I can look at a person and say, oh, they fit that category. I really don’t know the ethnicity. And like I said, if you’re not taking the data, the metrics to say, yes, we have different representation. Now I can go back and look at my gap with my talent acquisition or to say we’re missing this in our recruitment effort, and then internally, if you looking at leadership, yes, we’re missing this in our leadership, but we can’t go in and where we don’t have a roadmap or not knowing where we’re going. And I think a lot of organizations miss that, like I have a diverse workforce, I’m looking at them.

And so what’s the definition of your diversity? What’s the definition of your inclusion? I love that, inclusion is not for everyone. Have you really invited everyone to be inclusion and inclusion is intentional.

[00:08:28] Amy: Absolutely, and a lot of people will say we have a diverse workforce, but what they don’t realize is they may have hourly workers and salaried workers and the distribution of people and the representation of people in those hourly roles is different than the representation of people in salaried roles or people who are represented in leadership may not match the entire employee population or their employee population may not match the community or the markets that they’re serving ,and so where they can find those gaps between their intention or what they think they’re doing and what they’re really doing.

I think there’s some power there because then people’s eyes are opened. So you did this with an employee opinion survey. And then what did you find that surprise you in that.

[00:09:16] Taheti: What we actually started, and this is not a plug for any platform. We just tried to find the best platform and partner with us.

We started out with Gallop and Gallop gave us those 12 questions for engaged, disengaged, actively disengaged. So we use that platform for a very long time and it just, for me, it just scratched the surface. Are you satisfied with your role? Are you connected to the mission? Those basic questions that we often ask in a survey.

And so we use that platform for a very long time, and I was thinking like, this is really not capturing everything that I want to hear from the employees. And that’s when we moved to the great place to work, because it drilled down to a lot of the diversity equity and inclusion categories Comradery like injustice, like equity, and then it allowed us to, which was scary for us.

And it’s probably scared for a lot of employers to ask those open-ended question. What have we went in at and what have we missed the mark and how can we improve? And so when you do that, you have to be ready to answer. And so it told us when we started with Gallop, that we had quite a few disengaged employees, and I’m not talking about those disgruntled employees.

I’m talking about those disengaged employees that come and do the minimum. I’m not bothering anybody. But I’m definitely not going the extra mile. I’m coming in on time and I’m leaving on time. I’m definitely not sharing knowledge either. I’m doing the bare minimum. And so from that platform is when we started to build out our framework around leadership development.

What are those skills that our supervisors need to be a great supervisor for their teams?

[00:11:11] Amy: And so you moved from, if I’m understanding this correctly, you started with this notion of turnover, right? We have too much turnover. What’s causing that. People are disengaged. Why are they disengaged? Leadership’s not engaging them, so we need to train our leaders. And I think that’s, I think that’s a very common journey.

You mentioned though, at the beginning of this, that you were struggling with trust, how did you overcome that trust barrier between what people were really thinking and what they were willing to share with.

[00:11:37] Taheti: It took a while. It took almost three years. So our CEO shameless plug, because I just love our CEO, John Diamond.

He started what he likes to call MBA school with the core leaders. And so our core leaders are those who are in director roles that are responsible for different solutions and departments. And so we went through a series of reading books. And having conversation. One of them was good to grade the ideal team player.

There’s no meeting after the meeting. So we had to model those things that we expect our employees to model. But the first foundation of the trust is that, I told you that when we took our first survey, it was like pulling teeth, didn’t, we didn’t have very many people that responded.

And that before I came on board, it could have been trauma. It could have been trauma from when they came from a different organization and to say, somebody don’t matter, we could give our voice, but nothing’s done. And so our CEO and I was like we’re not getting very much traction. And the senior team and the CEO said whoever responds to the survey.

We need to make sure we move from awareness to action. And that’s when we started the ground working, build it, tilling the ground for trust because we took the information with 30% of our workforce, which is not very much from my very first survey. And we started to,

[00:13:00] till that land and we started to move from awareness to action.

We started to take some of those voices. So the next year. Some of the employees like they kept, they word is. So every year we begin to see an increase of responses from our employees, but we didn’t just stop there with our survey. We realized we wanted to put other mechanisms in place that were valuable to our employees to listen to their voice.

And so along with trust comes transparency, and so we added some other layers around our employee engagement effort, starting with our evaluation and not just your job satisfaction, are you satisfied with your role? Are you satisfied with your your salary and your benefits

[00:13:58] Amy: So it sounds like some of the metrics that you were looking at then were increased survey participation, number one increased satisfaction within those survey results. Number two, but then the one that you started with was turnover. What happened to your turnover over this three year?

[00:14:14] Taheti: The turnover decrease in our retention, increase and employees.

And let me just back up a little bit, because we know we had turnover. You’ve been at HR and if you don’t know, and you supervising these people and you don’t know you have turnover, I don’t know what rock you’re living under. Maybe you don’t understand the definition of turnover. So I noticed when I would want to meet with our best employees who decided to exit our organization they were reluctant to tell me the reasons.

And so some would say, I want to tell you, I know it’s about, burning bridges. Cause I may have to come back or I may see someone and another organization that I used to work for. Now I’m reporting to them again because people don’t leave roles all the time. They leave people.


And so we looked at the trends. I started to send reports to our director stating that you have a supervisor on your team who has a high turnover. And so when we started with that piece, we started with the state interviews, and I know we don’t have time to cover a lot of the initiatives that that we put in place.

But I really believe those steps that we put in place leads to true inclusion. It gives transparency. It builds trust and it opened the doors to find out who have we missed in the underrepresented to category. That we assume that we gave them what they need. Like someone with autism, someone that has a disability, that’s not saying we have a few employees that were at some entry-level positions doing training.

We realized there wasn’t comprehending whales. So we, we put in

[00:16:00] place like some of those universal. Supervisor come along beside them and help them work through that process without shame and without blame. And so we just started to put in place, we see the retention and our retention began to increase with over time.

We still, we found out our turnover was happening within one to two years. And I do know between one to five years, the turnover with our younger millennials. And our gen X, they just don’t really, they don’t really stay with an organization very long. And I know that could be a serial, stereotypical comment coming from an HR person, but I have seen those percentages where they move around.

It’s not, and it may not even be anything against the supervisor. It’s just, I wanna, I can’t grow here. I don’t have a pay up here. And but having a turnover in the first year, Was alarming because you spend so much you do train [00:17:00] any one organization, you spend so much money on onboarding, a new hire and off boarding is just as expensive.

And so we try to make sure that the roles was not a real unrealistic preview because we are in the behavior health working in the communities, but it really was. A link around given our supervisors too. So as we grew and our knowledge and create an inclusive work environment, we did lose some people along the way that just could not get with embracing the new culture.

We had people that had been with our organization for a very long time that decide to exit. So I don’t want to really do that. Hammer on those between one and five years, we did have some that were five and Yun. When we started to change the culture that they no longer felt that they were a good match.

[00:17:57] Amy: And I think, going to this notion of turnover, some

[00:18:00] turnover is held in an organization, right? Because you want people who. Who are not going to re-engage or who are not going to stay engaged. You want them to go find someplace where they feel purpose. And you want to replace them with people who feel purpose in that spot.

So it does, for some turnover is healthy for an organization and that fence. But I think it is important to note that sometimes when we make big changes, when we change the focus or we our values as an organization evolve. There are people who are going to resist that to the point where they opt out.

And I think going back to that one, if we lose one person so we can keep 20, if we lose one person so that we can grow profitably, if we lose one person so we can serve our community better. Those are the kinds of trade-offs we’re talking about, right?

[00:18:48] Taheti: Yes.

[00:18:50] Amy: And so I’m curious because you work in the community and because you serve families and children specifically, what changed?

You did all this work to change on the inside.

[00:19:00] Of your organization. What impacts did that have externally for your organization? What did that do for canopy in terms of its ability to serve clients? Its ability to show up in the community demand for services. What did that look.

[00:19:16] Taheti: We did not have any issues with children and family needing services.

We did have a few pockets of areas where our employees were not giving their very best and those, the ones that found the exit plan, or we found an exit plan for them. But I think the bigger story is learning to embrace diversity and health equity and inclusion from a standpoint, understanding it within our organization.

It’s always impactful for our community because we do have different ethnicities and race, race and ethnicity and gender working in communities that are different. So if you don’t really understand those

[00:20:00] stories and understand those backgrounds, it’s really hard to connect the family with a kid.

Who may be struggling, but they may be raised by their grandparents who think that they’re just bad and not really understanding. And having that conversation with that grandparent coming from a therapeutic solution environment, but being able to connect with that grandparent. Because they understand the background and they understand the culture.

So that’s what I’m doing now in the space we like to column sitting and learning and curiosity. So we had a different lunch and learns, bring in different perspectives to the table and I’m conducting a lot. And we don’t call them training. I come on listening sessions because I don’t want people to feel while you’re doing DNI training.

And that’s a checking the box. There’s always something after a DNR learning, because

[00:21:00] I learn from hearing and sitting in some of the trainings that if you don’t have a grounded understanding, it leaves you empty and it leaves people with questions. Maybe they’re not from. The black and brown community.

And that session was about that, but you didn’t have any follow-up. And now that particular group is afraid to ask a question. So I think having a greater understanding of what the NIH means to that employee is going to be helpful is going to be impactful for the children and family that we serve externally.

And we are one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Mississippi doing the mental health and behavior health for children. And we have an autism clinic. We have an outpatient clinic, and so we’re doing some really great groundwork, but we have to remember

[00:22:00] because our communities don’t always look like us.

We need to know how to communicate within those communities. And so that’s the work that we’re doing internally within Canopy.

[00:22:14] Amy: So it sounds like if I can recap what I think I heard you say you’ve developed this capacity for empathy internally, among employees, for each other, that empathy then has expanded into the services that you provide in the way you provide those services to your clients, your stakeholders in the community.

And then you’re also able to teach those. Tools for empathy across difference to the families that support the children that you’re supporting. So you’re modeling the behavior internally first to your clients second and within the broader community third, is that correct? Yes, that’s correct.

Amy: You’ve had a remarkable impact.

Think about that all from that one.

[00:23:00] All from that one question of why are people leaving our organization? You’re transforming the environments that children are growing up in, in Mississippi. From that one question. That’s phenomenal.

[00:23:15] Taheti: And when you say it out loud, that’s another thing like we, sometimes we forget to celebrate the good things that we’re doing and that just this very emotional, because you talk about the trauma that our employees bring to the workplace.

And if we don’t start a healing and given space for mentally health issues and how do we expect our employees to do that for our children, our families, and our communities. We can’t, the pandemic has brought a lot of this to surface. It’s almost like a therapy session. Like you come out like, gosh, I knew it was down there, but I need to bring it out.

And so we have to be realistic when

[00:24:00] we’re building that foundation to embrace all employees. And whatever category they fall into, we get to, I know we didn’t say this earlier, but we got to remember the mental health aspect of trauma that people bring to work. And how do we maneuver around that? What are some of the resources that we need for our employees, especially if you’re in this work and you’re expecting that employee to go out and serve that child and that family.

[00:24:31] Amy: Absolutely. Oh, to Taheti. Thank you so much. I look forward to more conversations with you in this space. I want to thank you so much for bringing so much of yourself to this interview and being so candid with us about your journey. Thank you so much.

[00:24:45] Taheti: Thank you so much, Amy. By inviting me. It was my pleasure.

I enjoyed it.

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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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