Organisational Design

DEI a vital tool to building culture at CalPERS

A clear focus on and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is helping the $480 billion CalPERS support its senior staff and managers to optimise the performance of the teams it already has, as well as providing a valuable framework for attracting and recruiting a diverse range of new talent. 

When CalPERS chief diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) officer Marlene Timberlake D’Adamo presented a DEI activities and accomplishments review to the $480 billion pension fund’s board of administration in January, she could reflect on 18 business plan initiatives, 18 strategic measures and 57 deliverables across the 2022-23 year. 

These were achieved across the fund’s five DEI pillars: culture, talent, health equity, supplier diversity and investment. CalPERS’ DEI roadmap for 2023-24 encompasses 20 business plan initiatives, 21 strategic measures and 95 deliverables. 

It’s a full program, and one on which Timberlake D’Adamo provides regular progress reports. 

“We go to our board, and we provide updates of all the activities that we’re doing, where we think we’re going, where we’d like to go, with the work that we’re doing,” Timberlake D’Adamo says. 

“Our framework is centred on our mission, and our mission is to pay pension and health benefits to members and their beneficiaries. We’re a [$480 billion] pension plan, as well as we have a health program that is very significant. We cover about a million and a half people in terms of health benefits, both active members – so those are members that work for the state and local municipalities – as well as retirees.” 

Timberlake D’Adamo describes her role as “the architect, conductor, quarterback, if you will” of CalPERS’ DEI activities.  

“Our framework has five different pillars that we’ve identified as what are the things that are critical to us being able to deliver on our mission,” she says. 

“What we do during the course the year is, really underneath the framework, different initiatives that are geared toward improving the efforts that we see and the impacts that occur with respect to those five pillars.” 

Among the range of initiatives and deliverables outlined in its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Activities and Accomplishments Review, dated January this year, CalPERS said it ran “uncovering unconscious bias in recruiting and interviewing” training, and used an augmented writing tool to reduce biased language in job ads and descriptions, with the aim of attracting candidates from a broader pool of talent. 

Timberlake D’Adamo says CalPERS is interested in “making sure that our leaders are bringing the most positive things that they can to their teams”. 

“I’m thinking about different opportunities for training, say, that we have about inclusive leadership, and thinking about different ways that we actually can help our managers,” she says. 

“A lot of times, as a manager, it’s really hard, because you’ve got a lot of things that you have to do. Sometimes a team member who is asking a lot of questions, or just doesn’t seem to be going along with the program, slows you down.  

“A lot of what we do is…like building a bridge, between the manager, who really is focused on getting the work done and making the results, and the team member who is focused on the same thing but is just seeing it in a different way.” 

Timberlake D’Adamo says CalPERS creates opportunities both formal and informal for training managers. 

“There’s leadership training, but then there’s also opportunities to have dialogue with managers, opportunities like bringing in speakers that we do on an enterprise-wide basis that helps folks to understand how do you make sure that you’re actively managing your team in the best way possible,” she says. 

But Timberlake D’Adamo adds that “the best way possible” is necessarily a subjective assessment. 

“One manager might feel they have certain things that they want to see or expect; and then another manager maybe has different expectations,” she says. 

“A function of bringing all that together into the organisation [is] how do we allow managers to operate independently, as they do with their teams, but then also set some clear norms.” 

Timberlake D’Adamo says the benefits to CalPERS as an organisation, or to any organisation, from equipping senior staff and managers to understand and integrate diversity, equity and inclusion into how they manage teams is clear. 

“The team is more engaged, I think that there’s better communication, there is an opportunity for the team to really thrive,” she says. 

Timberlake D’Adamo says that a clear and committed DEI focus helps the organisation support employees, who at the end of the day “want to have value, they want to have input, they want to be heard”. 

“If there’s one thing that I’ve realised, it is the extent to which people really want to be heard – the need, actually, the drive to be heard,” she says. 

“The benefits of getting it close to right or right, if you’re able to do that, is just that: creating a team [ where] people really feel valued, they feel respected.  

“And again, those are the things that people should feel. When you’re on a team, and you’re really contributing, it creates an opportunity for that to be felt. That that helps the organization. It definitely helps the organisation.” 

Recognition of DEI issues not only helps an organisation make the most of the teams it already has, but it’s also a critical tool in improving the strike rate of new hires. Timberlake D’Adamo says all organisations are looking for ways to make better decisions on who to bring in, to reduce the complexity, cost, and hassle of turnover from not hiring the most suitable people in the first place. 

“What everybody is trying to do in their own way is trying to get some insight and some intel so that they can make a decision, a hiring decision…they’re not going to regret at end of the day,” she says. 

“Everybody’s trying to figure out how do we make the most out of the opportunities that we have in terms of creating a team. [If] there’s 10 slots, how are we going to pick the 10 best people that fit into this? What is the matrix? What is the combination that we’re going to build that is going to get us that result?  

“Turnover, as we all know, costs a lot of money – not just money, but think of time and think of historical knowledge. It is 100 per cent one of the most important decisions that organisations make.” 

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