How to create a fantastic work culture: “Learning to embrace inclusion in your personal life will make it much more natural to be inclusive in the workplace.” with Paolo Gaudiano and Chaya Weiner

Chaya Weiner
Jul 11 · 18 min read

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paolo Gaudiano, CEO of Aleria, President of ARC, and Executive Director of Quantitative Studies of Diversity & Inclusion (QSDI) at the City College of New York. These three organizations combine Paolo’s decades of experience in business, technology and academia, to revolutionize how people think about diversity and what they do about it — and ultimately to make our society more inclusive and equitable. Paolo is a Forbes contributor on Diversity & Inclusion, and has written for and been interviewed by a number of other media outlets, including HBR, Quartz, the Dow Jones’s SectorWatch and the CBC. He holds degrees in Applied Mathematics, Aerospace Engineering and Computational Neuroscience. He was a tenured faculty member at Boston University, has taught at Tufts University and currently teaches at CCNY.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I had been interested in diversity & inclusion for many years for personal reasons: for one thing, I was born in Italy, have lived in four countries and speak five languages, and my wife is from central Asia, so diversity & inclusion has been an integral part of my life. Also, I saw how my daughter (who is now 29) left her job in finance only a few years after graduation because she hated the culture. More than 10 years ago I began attending sessions on gender and race at conferences, and was perplexed by two things I observed: first, because most conferences I attended were related to STEM, all the main sessions would be dominated by white men, but the sessions on diversity would have mostly women or people of color; second, during these sessions I heard people give very detailed, personal examples of problems they faced, but all the solutions proposed were vague and general, such as “we have to change the way businesses are run” or “we have to fix the education system.” It made me feel as though my only choices were either to be an activist, or to do nothing. Then one day in the summer of 2015, during one of these diversity sessions, I had a light-bulb moment: I realized that my analytical work, which I had used to understand the interplay between individual people and their workplace, had the potential to quantify the impact of inclusion and diversity. I literally dropped everything else I was doing and started focusing all my energy in this space… and the rest is history.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Working in diversity & inclusion, I have become sensitive to the many excuses that people from privileged groups make to rationalize some of the problems that we see. One of my pet peeves is the idea that there is a “talent pipeline problem,” i.e., that one reason why companies don’t hire more women, or people of color, or people with disabilities, or members of the LGBTQ+ community, is because they are so hard to find. I knew that this was not true from attending some of the most amazing events in which I was one of few — if not the only — white man in the room: events by organizations such as Black Women Talk Tech, Digital Diversity Network and Lesbians Who Tech, to name a few.

In the fall of 2017 I was looking for someone to run product for Aleria. I needed someone who had a strong enough technical background to manage teams of developers, who had experience with SaaS platforms, and who could appreciate the importance of diversity & inclusion. Knowing the preponderance of men in technical product management roles, I decided to focus on job boards, slack groups and other communities where I would be likely to find women. I also used textio to make sure that the language in my job description would not be gender-biased. Partly because of the focus of my search, and partly because of the social entrepreneurship angle, I received 85 applications, 81 of which were women. In the end, I hired Lisa Magill, who has proven herself so invaluable that she is now officially Aleria’s co-founder, and is also the co-founder of our newly formed non-profit, ARC. I have to say that the success of my effort surprised even me, and frankly it did not take a lot of work.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Right now we are working with the Financial Women’s Association, an organization that aims to accelerate the success and leadership of women across the financial community. All of the FWA’s member companies have been actively pursuing initiatives to support and increase diversity in their organizations, but were asking the same questions: what is inclusion, how do you measure it, and how does it impact the retention of women in financial services? Our work goes to the heart of these questions because it looks at how day-to-day workplace experiences impact someone’s happiness, satisfaction and sense of belonging, and how these factors ultimately lead to someone’s decision to stay with or leave a company. In other words, we understand that inclusion is what actually matters — diversity is just a measurement of the personal characteristics of people employed by a company. With the FWA, we are gathering data through a survey that will help our team identify situations that make women feel excluded, which of these situations are most common, and how they are tied to retention. After analyzing the survey responses within our framework, we will help the participating organizations understand exactly where the problems are, and what they can do to address them.

The project has special meaning for me because of my daughter’s personal experience in this field, and even more so for my co-founder, Lisa, who spent several years in finance and has lived many of these experiences in the first person. And although the project is focused only on gender and only in financial services, the approach can easily be generalized to other facets of diversity and to other industries.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I believe there are various factors that contribute to this discouraging statistic. For one thing, our education system does not prepare us for our careers: most people graduate high school and even college with little or no idea of what career choices exist, and end up taking jobs that they do not enjoy. And once people enter the workforce, there are many types of workplace discrimination based on personal traits — race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, religion, and so on — that lead to negative experiences, creating more unhappiness.

One might ask why corporations allow these negative situations to fester. I think in part this is because

corporations are so focused on shareholder value that, in most cases, employee satisfaction becomes an afterthought. But I think the real problem is that corporate leaders have historically lacked the quantitative tools to understand the relationship between individuals and the organizations to which they belong. This means that nobody really understands how employee happiness impacts company performance. As a result, even if leaders care about their employees, it is difficult to justify initiatives that make employees happier. And even when these initiatives are implemented, they tend to be the first things to be cut when the company encounters challenges.

Being unable to quantify the relationship between employee satisfaction and overall company performance also means that it becomes impossible to compensate workers based on what they actually contribute to the company’s overall performance. This further drives employee unhappiness by creating unfair disparities — whether it’s the gender pay gap, or more generally the growing gap between the compensation of employees and executives.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Again, I believe this boils down to being able to understand the relationship between the individual and the entire company. There is a lot of evidence that employee happiness and engagement have a profound impact both on employee health and wellbeing, and on their work productivity. But I think that most leaders fail to grasp the complex interactions and ripple effects that exist within any organization.

To clarify the importance of these concepts, I like to use a simple thought experiment: suppose you have a team of ten people within your company, and that all ten are working at their absolute peak performance, both individually and as a team. This team will be operating at maximum performance. Now suppose that something happens that causes one team member to perform below peak. Clearly, the overall team performance will drop. And if two people are performing below peak, team performance will drop further. That, in turn, can create problems as the other team members have to pick up the slack for the underperformers. Further, if the team as a whole is then penalized because of the decreased productivity, morale will drop, and productivity will decrease further as the team members’ health and wellbeing are impacted by stress. And then some of the team members will decide to leave the company — especially the best ones, who have the greatest number of options available to them. This creates further disruptions and inefficiencies as the company has to recruit, onboard, and train new team members. At the same time, the company’s reputation may be tarnished as churn rates increase and employees report negative experiences.

Hence, even when leaders intuitively understand that a happy, healthy workforce is critical to all facets of company performance, these complex interactions make it virtually impossible to use intuition alone to quantify the tangible impact of employee happiness and wellbeing. But based on my research and simulations it is clear that leaders consistently underestimate the negative impact of an unhappy workforce on virtually all facets of company performance.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Based on what I said earlier, managers and executives should be looking for evidence of any situations that cause employees to be unhappy, and try to identify the sources of the unhappiness and fix them.

First, you need to surround yourself with people who can help you spot problems. Too often, managers and executives are not aware of issues faced by specific employees — especially when it comes to personal issues related to diversity & inclusion. I recently moderated a panel of successful women leaders. One of them, who runs a rapidly growing emergent-market intelligence company whose leadership is mostly women, told a story of being approached by a colleague who pointed out that the company’s brochure featured a blond woman. Given the focus on emergent markets and that the company leadership and staff was highly diverse, it was pointed out that this choice could be uncomfortable both for clients and for employees.

A second, related suggestion, is to encourage open communications within the organization — even when these conversations may seem difficult. As a personal example, in one of my earlier startups I had a manager who was very good at “managing up,” always bright and positive when speaking with me. One of the employees came to me and pointed out that when I wasn’t there, this manager was always negative, criticized other people in the company, and generally created an atmosphere of depression. After speaking to a few other people and realizing that this was in fact a significant problem and not just a matter of animosity between the two individuals, I acted quickly to replace the manager, and quickly noticed a significant increase in happiness and productivity.

Third, while it is true that unconscious or implicit biases can create problems, I believe that more serious problems often come from having processes or policies that allow these biases to fester or to impact multiple people. I once consulted for a mid-sized company whose product serves an industry where most buyers are women. Accordingly, most of their sales team members were women. The company was concerned about an unusually high churn rate that was costing them millions and creating a negative atmosphere. As it turns out, the company was founded by men and the leadership was entirely male. They created procedures, such as early morning meetings, that were difficult for many of their female employees. But what really tipped the scales was when they expanded to a larger building, and in order to minimize internal disruptions, they placed the entire sales team on its own floor. Hence these women were physically cut off from the rest of the company, reducing communications, and creating an environment where resentment festered. Leaders should look for structural biases of this type, because they can cause damage on a much broader scale than individual biases and misbehaviors.

Fourth, always treat people with humanity and respect. When times are difficult, this will help keep morale up and get you past rough patches. Many years ago while running a startup, I ran into problems and knew I had to cut about a third of the 20 or so employees. I spoke with each of the employees whose roles were in danger, I explained the situation, and I offered them a choice: they could leave immediately and take one month of full pay, or they could drop to half-time work for two months, and I would help them to look for alternative positions. This gave them the opportunity to search for work while still officially employed, it reduced their anxiety by giving them more time to do the job search, and it created extra productivity as they kept working with me. This approach also had positive implications for the company: for one thing, it removed the internal stress that comes when you suddenly see a third of your colleagues disappear in one fell swoop. Second, a few weeks later, a new contract came in that required additional staff, and I was able to switch some of them back to full time.

Finally, a word about work-life balance. I believe that the very notion of work-life balance is actually flawed for several reasons. First, the very idea of placing work and life on two sides of a scale gives the sense that these two things are in opposition to one another: doing more work takes away from your life. And if your employees are unhappy at work, they will in fact feel that coming to work is interfering with their lives. Is that how you want your employees to feel about working for your company?

Instead, I urge leaders to realize that work is an integral part of every employee’s personal life — after all, most of us spend more than half of our waking time at work. Leaders should create a culture that values and prioritizes the personal lives of each and every employee. That can mean allowing individuals to take breaks to do personal tasks, providing on-site childcare, offering flex-time and remote work options, giving generous vacation time, and so on. But it also means acknowledging — and educating your managers — that “face time” and in-person meetings are not as important as companies typically think: it is always possible to allow for flexibility and still meet deadlines. When you give your employees flexibility, you will benefit from their increased happiness and loyalty.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I could encapsulate all of the examples and suggestions I have mentioned above with one word: inclusion. Inclusion — or inclusivity, or inclusiveness — is the idea that everyone should be treated in a way that makes them feel good about coming to work. Inclusion is about making sure that your company creates an environment in which everybody is given a chance to perform at their peak.

It is interesting to me that inclusion is almost always mentioned in the context of diversity, but in fact it is a principle that transcends race, gender, sexual orientation, physical and cognitive ability, age, religion and other personal characteristics. Each of us is going to be different from everyone else in our company, and any time that we suffer in our workplace because of any of these differences, the entire company suffers.

And this is where society comes in: inclusion is not something that is limited to the workplace. We can learn to be inclusive in all facets of our lives. We need to realize that living in a city that does not make us feel included is just as bad — if not worse — than working in a company that is not inclusive. Conversely, learning to embrace inclusion in your personal life will make it much more natural to be inclusive in the workplace. I truly believe that embracing inclusion will have a profound, positive influence both on our personal lives and on our workplace. And I believe that, once corporate leaders figure out the value of inclusion, the “inclusive enterprise” will dominate.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I suppose after what I just said, I should describe my leadership style as “inclusive.” But what does it mean to be inclusive?

First and foremost, it’s about treating everyone with respect, and doing so all the time. I want to underscore “all the time” because being respectful to everyone, from the janitor to the CEO, is relatively easy. What is difficult is to do it even when things get tough, and even when dealing with people who may be doing things you don’t like. I once had a colleague who did what seemed like pretty horrible things, to me personally and to the company as a whole. My first reaction would have been to fire him, but with the help of a great coach I realized that I had been oblivious to some differences in communication styles, and I had done some things that made the other person feel disrespected and uncared for, even though that was not my intent.

Second, I believe in surrounding myself with people who complement my strengths. This requires humility, because you have to acknowledge your own weaknesses and be willing to work with people who are better than you. I could give hundreds of examples, because I believe that most of the people with whom I have worked are better than I am — whether it’s about a very specific skill, or people who genuinely could have taken my place.

Third, I believe it is extremely important to be willing to admit when I have made a mistake, not be afraid to acknowledge it, and be willing to change my mind. This too can happen at multiple levels: I may realize I was impolite or disrespectful to an individual and offer an apology; I may realize that a suggestion I made about a specific product feature was wrong; or maybe I made a strategic decision and realize a few months later that it was a mistake. Showing your team that you are not infallible and that you are willing to accept responsibility for your mistakes, in my opinion, gives them much greater confidence and sense of responsibility.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There have been many people who have had a significant influence in getting me to where I am today, but two in particular come to mind.

One person who really helped me understand what it takes to be a leader is Maryellen Towle of KaiZen Coaching. Maryellen and I met through our kids close to 20 years ago. In 2007 I was going through a critical junction in my career and knew that she had recently become a coach, so I started working with her. I worked closely with her for many years, got many of my colleagues at multiple companies to work with her, and to this day, if I have a really vexing problem, I might give her a call to ask for her opinion. One of my favorite things about Maryellen is her ability to ask me questions that stump me: I might go on ranting about some problem I am having, and after listening patiently she will ask me the one question that really forces me to think and to realize what I am doing wrong and how I can improve.

The other person who has had a profound influence on me, and really shaped my path to becoming an inclusive leader, is Scarlett Sieber, a former colleague and dear friend. Scarlett was hired in an administrative role for a startup I founded 7 years ago, shortly after graduating college. As I started working with Scarlett it became clear that, in spite of her youth and limited experience, she had amazing potential. Over the span of a few years she rapidly advanced to become the single most important person in the company, eventually taking the role of co-founder and COO. When that startup faltered, she had made such amazing strides that she was hired by the global bank BBVA as Senior Vice President of Open Innovation. Since then, she has held other leadership positions at the intersection of finance and innovation, and has been recognized globally as a FinTech expert, influencer and advisor. Scarlett has credited me with being a good mentor, but I firmly believe that she was instrumental in my growth as a leader, and that I learned more from working with her than she could possibly have learned from me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

A little more than three years ago I had that light-bulb moment when I realized that the analytical work that I had been doing for nearly three decades can provide the missing link between individual performance and business outcomes, and that this creates a unique opportunity to drive a profound change in the inclusion and diversity of corporate America, and ultimately on society as a whole.

Since that time, I have also come to realize that — as a straight, cis-gender, white man with a good education and significant accomplishments — I have many privileges. One of these privileges is that virtually any corporate leader will listen to me, creating an opportunity for me to help them shift from being part of the problem to being part of the solution. In order to leverage these privileges for the good of society, I have launched a software startup, a research non-profit, and an academic initiative.

While we are still at the very beginning of our journey, my passion is fueled by the belief that I have a unique opportunity — and a great responsibility — to change the way people think about diversity, and in so doing push our society toward greater inclusion and equality.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Growing up in Italy until my teenage years, there were a number of proverbs that stuck with me. One in particular is something that often comes to mind: “chi si offende è fetente” which translates to something like “if something offends you, you are probably guilty of it.” If someone criticizes me in a way that offends me, my reaction is to ask myself why it offends me, and whether it’s possible that the criticism is well-founded. If I feel that, in fact, the criticism is unfounded, I shrug it off and conclude that the person criticizing me is the one that has a problem. And if I realize that the criticism is fair, I see it as an opportunity to figure out what I can do better.

This attitude has been tremendously helpful in two ways: first, most people who work with me realize that it is extremely difficult to offend me, and that makes them feel more comfortable about giving me feedback. Second, I believe this attitude has been a key to my ability to grow as a leader, and to continue to do so.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would like people to get out of their comfort zone and expose themselves to people who are different from them. I believe that racism and other forms of discrimination are rooted in ignorance about others and our innate fear of strangers. Traveling the world has certainly been a key factor in my mindset, and something I highly recommend. But especially in this country, you don’t need a passport to expose yourself to other cultures: visit neighborhoods with residents from different cultures; read books by women and minority authors; listen to music or watch movies from different countries; make an effort to attend events related to inclusion and diversity.

And even in your professional life, there are many simple things that you can do: check your social media to see if you follow enough people who are different from you; share and “like” content from these people; join Employee Resource Groups even if they are for groups in which you don’t belong.

Anything that can make us more comfortable around those who are different from us will have a significant positive impact, both on our personal lives and in the workplace.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Chaya Weiner

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Writer, Mom, Photographer.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.