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Diversity ROI: More than what AAA NCNU Expected

By Scot Robert Forsythe and Barbara Deane

When AAA of Northern California, Nevada & Utah (AAA NCNU) started down their diversity path, they did not foresee how much return on investment (ROI) could be gained. But recent successes are proving the financial and cultural worth of their hard work with eyebrow-raising results.

Values at AAA NCNU

Having diversity as a value is key according to Patrick Vitale. Once you declare it as a value, he says, "It's very hard to take it back when people start rallying around it, the only way you can move is forward."

Vitale, head of Diversity and Engagement (O&E) at AAA NCNU, believes a values-based organization attracts good people, especially when diversity is one of those values. "People mention diversity all the time when they come and apply," Vitale adds, because the reputation of AAA NCNU is one of a "very inclusive culture."

By the beginning of 2011 AAA NCNU will employ roughly 6000 people. Vitale is focused on embedding the value of diversity and inclusion throughout the organization. He came to the company 15 years ago as a manager of training and education with a background in clinical psychology and organizational development, but he jokes that AAA, which started a century ago as a travel club offering roadside assistance to motorists in San Francisco, has always been concerned with matters of inclusion.

At the beginning, Vitale says, "The organization would only provide service to women, if a guy called and needed to have a tire changed or car started, they wouldn't have responded to it." So men hid in the house or in the bushes if they were stranded and had their wives, sisters or girlfriends call and request service. After AAA serviced the vehicle, the service person would ask the woman to get into the car and drive it, and most of the time they couldn't. "So we've had diversity issues all the way along!" muses Vitale.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) evolve/ Laying the groundwork

The groundwork for the company's current success with the practice of diversity began in 2000 when the position of diversity director was created, but Vitale says it took a while for diversity and inclusion (D&I) to become a key business and cultural focus.

By 2003 AAA NCNU had a new CEO and had adopted "vision and values" with a list of six core values. Diversity was not initially a core value, but became so in 2005. Vitale subsequently began raising the heat "from simmer to high," on diversity and inclusion and its emphasis within the company culture and business. "First we looked at it in terms of a business imperative," he says. "Then we developed diversity and inclusion behaviors."

As the company began aggressively and formally promoting diversity strategies, there were already a few employee resource groups addressing AAA NCNU's diversity needs, mostly in the Bay AreaA couple of these ERGs, the Hispanic Employees Association (HEA), and the Black Employee Association (BEA), had existed for close to ten years before Vitale became diversity executive. Other ERGs actively focused on diversity and began forming in the late 90's and early 2000, such as the Pride group (representing LGBT workers), the Native American Indian Association (NAIA), the Women's Interest Network (WIN), the Disabilities Network (AccessAbility), the Asian Pacific Islander Connection (APIC), and a Military/Veterans ERG (MVG).

Some of these groups were very active within AAA NCNU's central headquarters. A few began looking for ways to spread the "love" outward from headquarters. The Pride group for example, started using resources to reach out to employees outside San Francisco, partnering with employees from branches and work locations, such as, Central California, East Bay, Colorado Springs, Utah and Las Vegas. Without realizing it, this outreach effort launched a model that became a go-to example of diversity and community engagement.

The outreach model worked excellently around the metro Bay Area where AAA NCNU was already engaging the community through kiosks and chambers of commerce. However, according to Vitale, it wasn't servicing employees outside of this centralized urban area. At this point, the diversity and engagement office began exploring how it could extend their diversity efforts throughout all locations where they did business and had employees.

Value of ERGs

ERGs provide people with the benefit of "meeting people like themselves," says Vitale. "They learn from their own group and about how to navigate the organization." At the same time, he says people want to learn about others and their different cultures. And AAA NCNU wanted a process and vehicle to promote that benefit across all markets of the company.

Luckily, work they had already been doing served as a guide. When the SF/Bay Area Pride group started encouraging events outside of the Bay Area, (such as getting involved with the Fresno and Las Vegas Pride celebrations) the idea of forming regional councils on diversity began to form. Councils would unify similar efforts under a cohesive company policy.

The local AAA NCNU employees that got involved in these community events didn't exist yet as ERGs or any formal organization, but they had shown an interest in the safe space provided by ERGs and diversity. It was clear that the benefits of diversity and inclusion could quickly be passed from workers to the company in the form of productivity, retention and community engagement.

Councils take shape

To this end, the Diversity and Inclusion strategy of AAA began telescoping outward in 2003 along "three arms:" Workplace (the culture of the organization), Work force (representation), and Marketplace (members and customers). All funding came out of Vitale's D&E budget, and was always determined by three questions:"What do you want to do, how is it aligned with our enterprise strategy and diversity strategy, and where do we get the biggest bang for the buck?"

These initial steps led to the creation of regional diversity councils, which are designed to partner with ERGs to support local diversity initiatives. Building upon the pioneering organization and outreach of ERGs, like the HEA, BEA, APIC and Pride, the councils provide resources, funding and training for local diversity leadership, company leadership and employees. This makes it easier for employees throughout AAA NCNU to engage themselves and the company in diversity-focused community events or to start new ERGs in their area.

Councils vs. ERGs

Vitale describes the characteristics that differentiate the regional diversity councils from the employee resource groups. An ERG will typically have 4 to 6 people of the same ethnicity or group affiliation, although not a requirement and often is mixed. In the regional councils, people could appear more different from each other. This can create opportunities where, in Utah for example, Gay and Lesbian members might sit side by side with Mormon co-workers, discussing diversity, and most important, inclusion initiatives.

Collaborations can also emerge, such as the successful Brother Outsider event, put on under the aegis of AAA NCNU's San Francisco regional diversity council in a joint effort between the BEA and Pride ERGs. Vitale praises such examples citing the level of maturity and openness that the regional diversity councils and ERGs exercise when working together. "It is a compelling show of collaboration," he says.

And it is all starting to pay off--literally. The AAA NCNU team has put in place a D&I strategy that supports and encourages the formation of new ERGs throughout their markets in Northern California, Nevada and Utah, and their partner states Arizona, Colorado, and Idaho. Their hard work is underscored by extraordinary financial success; and when this cooperative effort began to pay big dividends, the company's senior leadership began paying attention.

Early diversity successes and building momentum / ROI

While Employee Resource Groups continue to serve their valuable purpose of fostering a safe open place to discuss differences and find common ground among AAA NCNU's diverse employees, another benefit has quickly become visible.During this recent recession where every penny is under scrutiny, ERGs working together with local communities and the support of the regional diversity councils, have consistently contributed to substantial returns on investment.

Last Year in AAA NCNU's Market 4, "The Central California Trailblazers," the company's booths and lead generation at the Hmong Festival, an LGBT film festival, Fresno Reel Pride, and the Hispanic cultural event Dia del Nino, turned out good promotion and impressive lead generation. A $4000 investment in these three events, paid from Vitale's D&I budget generated a return of over $51,000.

Involvement in the Persian Newroz Festival through the East Bay Council brought in a $16,000 ROI from an initial outlay of $1025.

Market 1 (Nevada and Utah regions) joined forces with local communities in California and Nevada to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and returned $30,000 from an $800 investment.

Sponsorship and participation in the Bay Area Dragon Boat Races, organized through APIC, (Vitale has been a regular AAA Flying Dragon's paddler) turned a $1000 investment into $40,000 worth of new business.

These partnerships with AAA's D&E office have made it easier for people to connect with and mirror the communities they serve, enabling collaboration on diversity-focused events such as cultural awareness celebrations and multi-cultural community events.

With extraordinary returns on investment, it's easy to see why this is a model well worth studying.

Lessons learned / Maintaining the ROI

One of the key factors in forming successful regional diversity councils and partnering with ERGs is having business-savvy leaders. In Central California for instance, which has a large Hispanic population, one of the past regional council leaders was president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Buy-in from corporate sponsors and savvy, sometimes handpicked leadership, is always important, as is the principle that religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity should not be checked at the door.

Vitale emphasizes that succession planning is critical for already existing ERGs, and vetting new potential leaders for the councils and ERGs is also important. Recent organizational changes impacted some ERG leadership positions and staff, so now, more than ever, finding and retaining talented people in these positions is essential for success.

"It isn't only hiring people," Vitale says. "A big part of this is retention, we have to make sure were building a pipeline within the organization not just gathering people from outside."

The recent launch of their Oklahoma City branch last year is pretty typical of how this works, Vitale says. "We knew even before it opened that we were probably going to start a regional council there. We identified the leaders who were going into that launch, from Insurance, and from other areas of the organization, and we started introducing the notion of being an executive sponsor or a business sponsor for the would-be regional diversity council." With this mindset already in place when the hiring started, key people were primed to look carefully at the work force to determine who the people with passion and energy were.

Training is also at the core of ERG and council formation. AAA NCNU is currently getting many requests for new ERG charters that could be coast-to-coast, and that will require a continued focus on quality leadership development.

Vitale says that they are focusing on differentiating the leadership program, which provides the basic foundational skills and competencies, from ensuring space to apply a diversity and inclusion lens to a person's leadership. "This means how open you are to encouraging differences of opinion and thinking, to having diverse-looking people on your team, and when you have them on your team, do you actually value that difference and perspective?" Vitale asks.

"It isn't just about looking different," he adds. "It's about embracing and welcoming that difference as the value-add of the team you are leading or planning on leading."


It's been a long journey since 2000, and the push for more accountability for diversity within the organization is gaining steam. AAA NCNU is working on recognizing performance goals in diversity and engagement, and acknowledging that people who participate in diversity and inclusion and/or engagement work are not just doing a "volunteer" job.

The focus is now moving to being accountable and recognizing employees who are actively involved in AAA NCNU's diversity, inclusion and engagement mission. "They have to do their day jobs as well as what they are very passionate about," says Vitale. So an important shift has occurred. Anyone who participates in a council or ERG or engagement team can now apply that effort towards their business goals to the tune of 5 to 10 percent. According to Vitale, this shift allows engagement at every level of the organization around diversity and inclusion, and lets AAA NCNU "hold people accountable for doing diversity work and getting results."

Diversity is engaging!

Vitale says about 40 percent of their people work in contact centers or call centers, and their measurements are very concrete. "Let's say an employee raises their hand and says, 'I'm part of the council in Oklahoma City, we have an hour meeting or an all-day training,' how do I get away to attend these things?' That employee's manager has to know that these activities are not extra-curricular--this is part of their "other" job and the work of the organization!" Vitale says communicating with all leaders about the role and importance of diversity and engagement activities in the ERGs and councils has become top priority.

"Diversity and Inclusion is about getting the employees engaged in a very personal way," Vitale says. At a recent diversity summit, the enthusiasm for D&I work was on display. People in attendance were asked: "Would you still be doing Diversity and Inclusion work if it weren't mandated?" To which 85 percent responded, yes. AAA NCNU's commitment to values will help them maintain this connection between engagement and productivity.

Words of wisdom

Vitale has some words of wisdom for companies looking to duplicate AAA NCNU's hard work and stellar success with diversity:

"Every company has a culture in which values operate; whether those values are above the surface or below the surface can vary for different companies. When an organization articulates formally that they are focused on these values, they can't go backwards after that. So my advice to other companies would be to get their boards and their senior leadership centered around values--and it doesn't have to be diversity, it could be inclusion, integrity or excellence--it will hold them in great stead, and also allow them to hold people accountable."

By all accounts so far, AAA NCNU's exponential diversity ROI is proving an exemplary model of employee, community, and marketplace engagement.


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