William Blair's Courageous Conversations: Takeaways in Focus at 2019 Wrap-up Event

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Panelists Kwesi Smith, Erika Hullinger, Spencer Crawford, Maggie Nolan, Sharon Zackfia, Ignas Grabauskas, Lee Charles, Joe Leibold, and Kerry Wilkins


Panelists from left: Kwesi Smith, Erica Hullinger, Spencer Crawford, Maggie Nolan, Sharon Zackfia, Ignas Grabauskas, Lee Charles, Joe Leibold, and Kerry Wilkins


William Blair wrapped up its 2019 Courageous Conversations series for employees at an October 22 gathering that featured nine colleagues from across the firm who shared key messages from the inspirational talks launched 18 months ago to nurture an inclusive work culture.

Equity research team leader Sharon Zackfia led the discussion which focused on three themes: engagement, agility, and inclusivity. Panelists discussed how they incorporate those values into their daily work life.

A few key behaviors were cited more than once: keeping an open mind, being collaborative, having empathy. The need to be flexible and finding a work-life balance were also rated highly. Speakers credited supportive teams, community engagement, and introspective programs like Courageous Conversations as important for an inclusive culture.

"What I'm most proud of being at William Blair for nearly 20 years is that we've kept a family feel as we've gotten big," Zackfia said. "That element of the culture goes through all the business units and people really feel that you can rise to whatever challenge."

The Courageous Conversations series has featured renowned social scientists from Harvard, University of Michigan, Northwestern, University College London and the University of Chicago. They have shared their research findings on the ways that personal curiosity, diversity of thought, out-reach to others, and understanding one's hidden biases can boost employee engagement and performance of organizations.

In another popular event in the series, a group of transgender youth shared with staffers how support and acceptance allowed them to thrive and excel.

Acceptance and the workplace

"You feel different when you're around people who accept you," said Kwesi Smith, a research analyst with investment management and one of the panelist. "Whether we're discussing intellectual curiosity, being open minded, or bridging the generational divide, those conversations allow you to get to know your colleagues in a deeper way."

"There's something about celebrating successes together particularly doing it in a much more sincere way," Smith added

University of Michigan social scientist Scott Page led the first talk, presenting his research on the power of diversity. He said that diverse teams out-perform homogenous groups in solving complex tasks, a phenomena he described as the "diversity bonus." Another talk by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, spotlighted the value of curiosity in boosting employee engagement within organizations.

Panelists said they and their teams have embraced those ideas which underscored the value of inclusivity.

"In Equity Research you need to have a great pulse on what all the different investors and stakeholders might be thinking about a company and about a stock," said Maggie Nolan, an equity research analyst. "So part of my day-to-day job is to pull from all those different stakeholders--people on the sell side, people on the buy side, the management team, PWM here at Blair--and really understand how everyone is thinking about a particular stock.

"What I've really gained from that is these conversations are starting to drive what I consider to be some of most interesting research I put out."

Open communications builds strong teams

Lee Charles, who joined William Blair's workplace and hospitality team a year ago, said seeking multiple opinions different from your own helps teams grow. That sharing also helps the company meet a common goal of providing the best experience for all our clients, he added.

Charles said he also valued managers who communicate the firm's highest business objectives.

"That plays a really big part in inclusivity when we're talking about working together as a firm," he said. "It's for all of us to have a clear, transparent understanding of what's going on within our units and within the firm as a whole."

William Blair CFO Jon Zindel told the gathering that Courageous Conversations were launched to move the firm's culture forward.

"This is all in support of our mission, vision and values, which ultimately is the culture of William Blair," Zindel said. "Without an ongoing dynamic culture where we are understanding, enhancing and giving energy to our values and living them every daywe just won't thrive as a firm."

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