The Strength Within: TIAA Uses Internal Culture to Inspire Colleges and Universities to Transform Their Own

Founded in 1918 to ensure that teachers could “retire with dignity,” financial services firm TIAA is not only a leader in providing retirement services for the academic, research, medical, cultural, and governmental industries, but also in driving inclusion in the workplace, workforce, and marketplace.

Natasha Radden
Natasha Radden

“TIAA has a long history that includes diversity and inclusion as a core cultural focus, and we’ve made great strides. You see it in some of our key decisions early on, when we elected the first woman trustee to our board in 1940, the first African American trustee in 1957, and the first African American CEO of a Fortune 500 in 1987,” says Natasha Radden, chief diversity officer with TIAA. “So we have a very rich history, which in some ways makes my job easier. I have an audience that is committed and that’s interested in this work.”

An Internal Commitment
Like many of its nearly 30,000 clients in higher education, TIAA views diversity and inclusion as a strategic business driver — one that helps ensure a positive and understanding relationship between the company and its employees, and thus its clients. “We know that the diversity in our workforce is a reflection of our client base, and so ultimately, hearing from them, hearing their pushback, hearing their perspectives and ideas and about their experiences, helps us to better understand our client base,” Radden says.

Maintaining a broad definition of diversity, TIAA’s workforce has historically had strong representation across all underrepresented groups. But to truly benefit from this diversity, TIAA strives to understand and foster it. “You don’t realize the value and the strategic input of a diverse workforce if you don’t have inclusion,” says Radden.

Through a three-year strategic plan called Journey to Inclusion — implemented in 2015 — TIAA strives to create a more inclusive workplace by increasing employees’ behavioral awareness and educating them on inclusive behaviors. This work, Radden says, helps the company promote increased cross-cultural collaboration among employees and thus ensure better business outcomes.

“[The plan] started off with behavioral awareness, so really understanding those small actions that can have big impact, understanding what inclusion is,” she says. “Inclusion is a very dynamic word; it means different things to different people. So [we focused on] prompting that awareness and encouraging our employees and leaders to think about inclusion, what it means to them, and how they can embody that as they engage with each other.”

Moving beyond awareness to action, Journey to Inclusion attempts to embed inclusive behaviors in participants through training. This part of the plan is broken down into five learning paths, with a track for employees at every level of the organization. Each of these is customized based on the audience, and all employees participate in the training’s core component.

“All of the paths include core training on four inclusive behaviors,” Radden says. “Those include initiate — being curious about others and making others feel connected; invest — looking for common ground and making others feel welcome; inspire — stepping in and speaking up when you see exclusion happening; and influence — challenging stereotypes and focusing on fairness in decision-making.”

The customized component of Journey to Inclusion focuses on areas relevant to a specific group’s role in the organization. For example, Radden says the path for human resources professionals features a consultative component for training leaders, whereas the track for executive committee members emphasizes leadership and role modeling.

Radden believes it’s important to take a tailored approach to training such as this, as roles and responsibilities in a given organization vary. “Depending on your role and in some ways depending on your [management] level, your experience will be different, your response and accountabilities will be different,” she says.

This method for addressing issues around inclusion and improving organizational culture can easily translate to higher education campuses, Radden says, where people of all backgrounds, experiences, and levels coalesce.

“[Colleges and universities] have unique segments within their populations that they are looking to make a connection with. I think that finding the right path for faculty and the right path for staff — and even students — is important,” she explains. “Those are three distinct groups that have different experiences and challenges, so I believe [individualized training] is something institutions could consider as they continue to build their strategic efforts around inclusion. Certainly, the best practices that have worked for us have included tailoring initiatives to specific audiences, and I believe that approach can work for many of our institutional clients.”

Sharing Expertise Externally
With a dedication to serving its customers in more ways than one, TIAA works with current and prospective higher education clients to share diversity and inclusion best practices. The intent behind offering this complimentary service is to help institutions create more inclusive and productive environments for their own constituents. “We frequently share [with them] the importance of connecting one’s diversity and inclusion strategy to business goals,” Radden says. “For us, it’s about illustrating the importance of the three pillars — workforce, workplace, and marketplace — and how they work in unison to drive the organization [or institution] forward.”

There are many similarities among companies and higher education institutions, she says — a fact that has informed TIAA’s efforts to help colleges. For example, employee resource groups (ERGs) — also called affinity groups — are prevalent at both education- and business-focused organizations. Radden says TIAA connects with 25-plus institutions and affinity organizations annually to share best practices. She and her colleagues often present at individual schools or at local and national leadership meetings and conferences, such as at the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources’ conference.

Having learned from its own experiences and successes, TIAA works with colleges and universities to demonstrate the value added by ERGs and how to best leverage them.

“We have found that affinity groups are very in tune with their community and have insights that can help inform recruitment and retention strategies,” Radden explains. “For example, [we have demonstrated how] we work closely with our veteran’s ERG to learn more about how military roles can translate into business [positions]. This kind of collaboration helps the organization recruit and hire veterans, while better ensuring a strong fit between an individual and a new position, ultimately leading to higher success rates.”

TIAA also shares with schools its strategy of asking members of ERGs to review communications to be used with similar segments of the public in order to get their feedback and to improve and better target messages. “They understand aspects of culture, benefits, and the workspace that will resonate with certain groups,” says Radden. “They are also able to share feedback on policies and programs, encouraging improvements that ultimately make the workplace more appealing.”

“Last, ERGs [can] serve as welcoming committees for new employees,” she adds. “They [can] join on-boarding sessions to share information on their programs and events.”

All of these practices, Radden says, can help colleges and universities devise their own strategic framework around ERGs to drive greater engagement and ensure better outcomes, such as improved recruitment and retention of diverse groups.

Over the last three years, she says that TIAA’s interaction with university diversity and inclusion offices has increased, and many have asked about the five Journey to Inclusion learning paths — specifically, how the company has engaged senior leadership. One way TIAA has accomplished this engagement is through storytelling.— another internal effort that has informed the company’s consulting work in higher education.

“Stories that are personal and authentic can be a powerful tool in driving a more inclusive culture, especially for senior leaders who cast a large and important shadow; their [experiences] have the potential to shape [an institution’s] culture,” Radden says. “Through stories, we are all better able to understand where people come from, how our behaviors can be perceived, and how we can impact others [through] our own personal successes or failures.”

Internally, TIAA implemented the Nice Bucket Challenge, a supplementary activity around Journey to Inclusion to help employees adopt inclusive behaviors. Through this initiative, TIAA encourages individuals to share their personal stories and experiences with inclusion in the workplace via the company’s social media platform. Radden says that a number of colleges have implemented similar storytelling programs, including Rhode Island School of Design, which created and shares online videos of people telling their personal stories of inclusion. “That transcends any industry — when you’re able to make a connection with those around you through sharing your personal experiences,” she says.

Beyond providing general examples of effective initiatives and best practices to current and prospective higher education clients, TIAA has often collaborated with individual institutions. For the last two years, the company has partnered with the Masters in Human Resources Program in the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business to assist with the onboarding of new MBA students. Through a workshop, TIAA “helps students understand diversity and inclusion in the business context,” says Radden.

“The workshop covers the business case for diversity and inclusion and TIAA’s best practices and then engages students in a case study,” she explains. “[This exposes] students [to the] practical application of practices used to understand and address dynamics of inclusion and exclusion for employees. The case provides the ‘real-world’ experience of analyzing and identifying leadership and business dynamics that affect employee engagement, talent mobility, and business outcomes.”

TIAA doesn’t charge its higher education clients for the engagement it provides, and Radden says that she is always looking for new ways to work with university partners. In addition to connecting with all types of institutions as well as directly with chief diversity officers and diversity offices, TIAA often hears from groups of senior leaders interested in specific topics, such as ERGs, unconscious bias, and the art of storytelling. In many of these instances, Radden and her colleagues will host workshops covering these subjects.

“The institutional leaders raise great questions that spur new thoughts and ideas. We learn about their experiences and the strategies they have built and deployed,” says Radden, adding that these sessions also benefit TIAA. “While we enjoy sharing our best practices and lessons learned, we also walk away from these experiences stronger diversity and inclusion practitioners.”

Radden hopes that going forward, TIAA will be able to help its higher education partners experience growth much like that achieved by TIAA; one year after implementation, the company saw a 17 percent increase in the representation of both female and minority employees in senior levels of the organization.

No matter the type of organization or its primary service or product, Radden believes that acknowledging and appreciating the unique characteristics, talents, and perspectives of all constituents will lead to greater overall success.

“If you respect the fact that there are many differences and you remain curious about those, you can get so much farther,” explains Radden. “Ultimately, if you look at those differences and understand that they are a reflection of your client base, then you [will be] able to harness those and build better products, better solutions, better curricula, or whatever it is that you are delivering.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.