Dawne Ballard serves as Alkemy X's people and culture manager, spearheading Alkemy X's continued focus towards optimizing a successful hybrid world culture for its global team. She has a proven track record for cultivating comprehensive people operations programs for organizations across multiple industries, including DE&I programs.
LBB> What drew you to the field of DE&I?
Dawne> I entered the realm of people operations through a path of leadership roles in retail organizations, where I began my professional career. It didn’t take long for me to recognize that I was gravitating towards supporting my team with skills development, hiring and onboarding, wellbeing, and performance. Perhaps most importantly, I was drawn towards fostering and nurturing the critical relationship- and trust-building that helps a team really achieve the psychological safety that’s necessary for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) to live and breathe as a value within an organisation.
As I shifted my career into people-forward/people operations, DEIB became an increasingly clear component of where I wanted my work to travel. Inclusion is at the forefront of where the focus needs to be. Inclusion requires operating with an open mind, building one’s own awareness, as well as that of an organization, it requires a bit of discomfort at times, and it serves as the base for progress - and hopefully, successes - in achieving the diversity, belonging, and equity that we strive for. The field of DEIB is ripe with learning opportunities, and in a way it’s almost guaranteed to offer a rewarding ongoing journey to those who open themselves up to being lifelong learners and advocates in this space. Whether that’s making the case for organization-wide unconscious bias training, or evaluating interview procedures to ensure that equitable hiring decisions are consistently made.
LBB> Before it became your job role, what was your specialism? And how did you get involved?
Dawne> I thrived in and loved the operations aspect of things… making things happen on time (maybe early!), motivating the team, troubleshooting in the moment, welcoming challenges, navigating unpredictable territory, embracing that ever-changing balance of structure and flexibility. Since inclination towards operations involves working so closely with people, it became naturally and abundantly clear that where I was truly feeling energised was when my work was focused on supporting my team - and individual contributors at all levels - in doing their work, learning, growing, balancing the challenges of work and non-work responsibilities, etc.
My first formal people operations roles involved components of generalist responsibilities, which all tie directly to how we support the people that any organization is composed of - ranging between anything from benefits administration, to coaching conversations, to leadership development, to organizational communication routines. Beyond the traditional aspects of the role, I held responsibilities in community partnerships, giving campaigns, team building, and leadership training for new managers entering the company. Within these roles, I broadened my sense of how I could serve the organization, as well as where I truly felt that resonance in what my work/efforts brought to the organisation and team.
LBB> There’s a lot of frustration around the industry’s glacial pace when it comes to improving DE&I across all sorts of axes. What’s getting in the way?
Dawne> I think it’s a combination of people still not fully understanding or acknowledging where we as an industry fall short, not having the resources or know-how to make impactful changes and being fearful of what those changes may mean to the status quo. For folks who haven’t had to deal with challenges around gender, race, identity or differing physical and mental abilities, it may be hard to understand why things need to change. They may be concerned they won’t have the same opportunities they’ve enjoyed over the years because there’s a larger pool to pull from. The flaw in that logic, in my opinion, is that by becoming more inclusive, we will create more opportunities for everyone.
LBB> Outside of the advertising industry, where do you see examples of large-scale meaningful progress (if at all), and what should our industry learn from it?
Dawne> I often find myself assessing progress with examples of increased representation. While strides have been made in the commercial world - I now see relationships that reflect my parent’s mutiracial marriage, my marriage to my wife, or persons of varying physical mobility on TV - there are countless other areas where progress is taking place, even if it might not appear so at first glance, or to someone who may not have felt the impacts of a previous lack of representation. I spent a little over three years in the brewing industry, which is historically fraught with a lack of diversity. Prior to working in the industry, my sense of progress was skewed - formed nearly entirely from the perspective of a consumer. It was eye-opening to learn just how far reaching - and how steadily growing - the brewing industry’s efforts to improve inclusion, diversity, equity and belonging are. The connection and support among those who are working to increase awareness and accessibility was unparalleled to anything I’d ever experienced before.
LBB> In your role, what have been some of the most meaningful projects or policies you’ve been involved in regarding DE&I?
Dawne> In a former role, I co-led the DEI committee at a brewing company in the Philadelphia area. The brewing industry, similarly to the entertainment industry, still has significant work to do, to dismantle and heal from the historically problematic practices and routines that stunt its ability to become a leader in the DEIB space (let alone catch up). The group of people I worked with in forming and leading this committee were some of the most incredible colleagues I’ve ever worked with, and I think the root of that harkens back to the committee members having a shared willingness to be honest, to embrace discomfort as an opportunity, and to hold one another - and the organisation - accountable to doing the hard work, and not just talking about it.
Handbook and policy reviews and revisions is also another key pillar that I’ve had experience with. This is something I’ll happily dive into, and is an effort we’re within the process of doing internally right now at Alkemy X. It’s an exercise in stepping back and looking at our opportunities, e.g. taking a lens to the language we use, and making sure that we’re universally using gender neutral terms, removing words that may invoke gendered connotations even if they are not (spaghetti strap, short skirt). In a similar vein, we’ve already made some changes, as we continue to evaluate how we can use more inclusive language both internally and externally. For example, last year, when streamlining updates to our company email signatures, I worked with our IT/Engineering team to offer our team the opportunity to add gender pronouns to their email signatures. Even seeming ‘small’ changes like this help us become an increasingly inclusive organization.
What role are clients playing in holding agencies accountable and driving better DE&I (e.g. via RFPs)? Is this something you are seeing or would like to see more of?
Sue Fallon (EP, Creative Studio)> There has been a bigger push with initiatives such as Free the Work, which is a great step forward. There’s still a long way to go though. What I often see happen is a request for a diverse director comes in, reels go out and the award goes to a white male identifying individual. Since people in marginalized groups haven’t had the same opportunities, they may not have the strongest reels. It’s a vicious cycle.
LBB> We often see DE&I siloed or pigeonholed as an HR issue - what’s the key to ensure that it’s embraced as an agency-wide or industry-wide responsibility?
Dawne> A culture of workplace inclusion starts with an organization's senior most leadership.
Those in people operations roles are often best positioned to lead a significant portion of an organization's DEIB efforts, but they should never be - nor can they be - the only ones to do so. Leading by example has a deep impact, when it comes to company culture, and the opportunity that senior leaders have to set, stand behind, and actively uphold a positive example internally, is invaluable. From my seat, I’d argue that the internal leadership and modeling is most critical, but if I fuse in my business lens, the power and obligation that we have in our industry - with clients, with peers, with competitors - to make our stance known, is equally critical. We change more when we work together. Progress is borne of teamwork, collaboration, and broadened perspectives and understanding.
We are only as strong as the worst conduct we tolerate.
LBB> Covid-19 changed things up across the industry. On the one hand it opened up remote working, opening up opportunities to those who can’t afford city living, but on the other hand it’s had a notably negative impact on other groups, notably mothers. Now that some time has passed since the extremes of lockdowns in most territories, what’s your assessment of the positives and negatives to come out of that time of disruption?
Dawne> The changes and resulting challenges that the pandemic brought on would have been nearly impossible to forecast, so perspective is key, here. We were forced to pivot in many ways, but pivoting also required us to evaluate, and once we had a moment to breathe, we were able to reflect.
Positives: A new understanding of flexibility and how we work, and the understanding that there is never going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to the best meeting style, the best PTO policy, the best work day schedule, etc.
Negatives: It’s been difficult to part with the ‘old way’ and the things we miss about pre-pandemic work. Shifting our thinking has been a primary business challenge, and a challenge for people leaders. We don’t necessarily need to ‘get back to’ the way things were. We need to shift our focus to understanding where we are, what our needs are, and where we need to make adjustments so that we’re set up to feel supported, and in turn, do our best work.
LBB> What resources/platforms/programmes have you found useful on your DE&I journey and would recommend to our readers?
Dawne> I’m immensely grateful for the support of friends and family members who work in people operations and/or DEIB fields, as well as the communities at HR Advisory, at SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), and for the network I was privileged to build as a business school graduate student at Temple University.
Outside of those more personal resources, I’ve greatly appreciated the tools and resources that the following organizations provide:
- Facing History & Ourselves
- DEI Resources from The Communications Network
- The Harvard Business Review - access to scholarly thoughts, business-minded reviews, etc has been unbelievably helpful.
Finally, the value and power of leaning on your closest colleagues for support in your own DEIB journey cannot be understated. These are often the folks who know that you’re stressed before your significant other does, who help lift you up after a tough meeting, and who may very well be the added layer of support that you need in your work life - which is integrated with your life!
Your DEIB journey will never mirror someone else’s, and it will never mirror that of your team or your organization. That is a good thing! Our differences are the core of our diversity. In your DEIB journey, give yourself grace, recognize and celebrate progress, and embrace discomfort as an opportunity to learn. It’s our awareness of those opportunities that carry DEIB work forward, and we each help to move our industry forward by being willing to call out opportunities when we become aware of them.