Nzinga Shaw on the Importance of Diversity Leadership

On Wednesday, April 8, The Center for Civic Innovation welcomed Nzinga Shaw, the new Chief Diversity Officer for the Atlanta Hawks, for our monthly Leadership Breakfast series. The morning started off with Nzinga talking about her life and career, growing up as a child on Long Island and attending college at Atlanta's very own Spelman. Nzinga's pre-NBA work history includes being an HR coordinator at Essence Magazine, HR management for the Yankees, wrangling diversity initiatives for the NFL, and overseeing diversity at Edelman. 

With Nzinga coming onboard, the Atlanta Hawks has become the only team with a Chief Diversity Officer, and she plans to set the example for diversity efforts across the whole NBA.

Just a few months into her job, Nzinga has started a Diversity Council, a best practice that she brings from her work at the NFL. Most of the NFL's big diversity initiatives started with the Diversity Council, and Nzinga feels that a diversity council should be employed at every organization to foster inclusivity, get to know stakeholders better, and understand what they want and need and what is important to them. It's also an important step to ensure that diverse employees understand that they are a vital part of the organization and feel supported.

The new Atlanta Hawks Diversity Council is a 50:50 mix of people from within the Hawks and people from the community, another best practice that Nzinga feels strongly about. Most companies have diversity councils of people from within the company, but community members help add a layer of accountability, transparency, and perspective that are important. 

Nzinga's goal is for everyone to feel part of the Hawks, for everyone to feel welcome at games, and for employees to feel welcome and happy at work. Among her future plans are implementing a ticketing strategy that ensures people of all socioeconomic strata can enjoy the Atlanta Hawks.

Following Nzinga's introduction, breakfast moved on to a Q & A session. Some questions and highlights:

How should diversity be implemented?
Diversity in an organization should be championed from the top. When diversity decisions are moved through multiple layers of organizational hierarchy, that when diversity implementation fails. A chief diversity officer should report directly to the CEO, and the CEO should be the one to make the final call on whether or not dollars should be invested in a certain idea.

How does conflict management factor into your job?
Nzinga pointed out that there is a fine line in organizations between diversity, inclusion, and human resources management, but it's there. Conflict resolution is more HR-related. Her role is to build high-performance teams, not focus on conflict.

What is the message that the Hawks are trying to communicate to the fans and city of Atlanta?
The CEO of the Hawks wrote a letter to the city of Atlanta, which started off with a public apology, acknowledging the fact that they were wrong, why they went wrong, and why they thought it was important for them to deal with the issue. The letter also outlined action steps that would be taken over time in order to correct the situation. One of the action steps was to hire a CDO and the other was to implement a new ownership system. The new owners would be selected very carefully to make sure they have a code of ethics: to see how they conduct themselves morally. The organization has been very active in the community since she has started, connecting with people in a new way and meeting with people across various community to listen and understand their feelings

How would the situation be different if the Hawks were losing?
While having a winning record was important because everybody wants to be a part of a winning team and it makes people feel better, it wasn't going to erase social issues and tensions: that needed to be addressed head-on. The important thing is not to be distracted by the wins and think that everything is okay because the Hawks have a good record.

What are best practices for inclusion?
Nzinga's goal is to build a team from various demographics in order to make sure it is representative of the community. Inclusion is the hardest piece, so it's important to make sure that people are interacting and working together. She accomplishes that by starting interdepartmental teams to work togther on business problems.  Talent management is also important, supporting diverse employees by making sure they have high-profile assignments and the chance to take the lead on big assignments.

What does success at the Hawks mean?
For Nzinga, retention is huge: are new communities sticking around? Is there a deeper bench of diverse employees? 5 years from now, are the networks the Hawks have created sustainable? What do our fans look like? Do we have a gay couple on the kiss cam embraced by other fans?

What will be the role of the players in diversity initiatives?
She thinks players should advocate progressive change and positive change by using their stature, limelight and their access to multiple fan bases in different communities to speak on issues of social importance.

What is good leadership?
Nzinga's response: "There are leaders who are honest and transparent, are level during good times and bad times, and then there are people who are titular leaders, not leaders in the true meaning of the word. The true leaders are those who are inspirational: those who lead during bad times, when the team is losing, when ticket sales are falling. A good leader is one who gets in the trenches with the rest of the team and becomes as big, if not bigger, a catalyst to change as the rest of the employees."

At the end of breakfast we made sure to ask our favorite question: "who is your biggest hero or heroine?" Nzinga's answer: Oprah Winfrey, who was 35 years old when she started her own show, has accomplished so much in the past 30 years, and gives back through her philanthropy.

Major thanks to Nzinga for an awesome and inspiring breakfast!