“I Allowed Them to Influence Me Before Trying to Exert My Influence.”

A CASE FOR DIVERSITY Julio Portalatin (center) works to create an environment at Mercer Inc., where “everyone feels valued."

Just over a year after assuming leadership of the $4 billion global HR consulting company, Mercer Inc., Julio Portalatin is transforming the way his colleagues and clients consider inclusion and diversity. Whether through the implementation of a merit-based incentive system or requiring his executive committee members to contribute time and talent to two philanthropic events per year, this visionary CEO leaves no doubt about his dedication to a culture that embraces inclusion and makes the company better for it.

vocesquoteOn my first day of high school, I walked into an environment where it was obvious to others I was different. I enjoyed basketball like my classmates, but I was not asked to play in pick-up games. As I sat on the sidelines one day, the ball rolled my way. I decided I would go on the court with it and put myself into the game. Soon enough, a fight started over what I had done. But, something interesting happened as people took sides. Some of them saw me as an underdog and began to reassess the situation rather than simply judge my physical appearance, and that started an incredible transformation in their thinking.

Growing up, I realized I was different—both ethnically and in terms of my personality. I began to understand how to be effective while being unafraid to express my differences. My dad had come to the United States from the Dominican Republic because he believed in democracy. He always taught his children to stand by our positions and—with logic and peaceful, intelligent means—make a difference in the world. After I took that stand on the basketball court, I went on to make a difference in my school as student council president. Ever since, I have been guided by my father’s philosophy.

At Mercer, I stand by the philosophy that you need to create an environment where no one is advantaged or disadvantaged, where everyone’s opinion matters, and where everyone feels valued and believes they can be successful. Companies who do that have a competitive advantage.

For too long, diversity and inclusion have been thought of as a program or an initiative, not as the core of people strategy. But, it is nothing more than executing on a strategic plan. Moving the conversation about getting the most out of your people to a conversation about inclusion and diversity as an imperative is not easy, but the answer is not any more elusive than practicing the same skills we do for any business strategy.

My first assignment in my first job out of college was to manage a group of keypunch operators. As a newcomer—and a man—in a room full of women accustomed to frequently changing supervisors, I faced the challenge and gratification of finding out how to earn their respect and impart my authority. I learned how to observe and thoughtfully analyze before leading, how to be transparent about what you know and humble about what you don’t. I sat next to the operators for one full day learning about their work. I learned what motivated them and what allowed them to participate in a more meaningful way in the work they did for the company. I allowed them to influence me before trying to exert my influence.

At Mercer … we’ve reengineered our employee resource groups to function as business resource groups. Before, these groups operated under the notion that they were nice to have for our thousands of global employees. Now, we’re looking at how they align themselves in support of our mission, operating imperatives, and what we call our “PRIIDE” values: Passion to be the best, Respect for inclusion and diversity, Integrity, Inclusiveness, Dedication to quality service, and Empowerment for accountability. They will now focus on proactively improving business results, thus ensuring their sustainability.

Now at Mercer, our global inclusion and diversity committee is headed by the CEO. Assuming that responsibility affirms my commitment to implementing inclusiveness and transparency both internally and externally among the clients we consult. Combined, we are turning the people aspect of leadership into a sustainable practice that produces a competitive advantage in our industry and beyond. My father had to be proactive to escape dictatorship and stand up for what he believed in. At Mercer, we are doing the same. This is a journey, but clearly one worth taking. end_vocesquote