by Clint Boulton

LGBTQ IT exec: Why inclusion is critical to corporate culture

Feb 19, 2021
Diversity and InclusionIT Leadership

Mindy Ferguson, a managing vice president at Capital One, discusses the importance of senior leaders fostering a feeling of belonging, which is often missing from diversity and inclusion efforts.

Mindy Ferguson, managing vice president of technology, commercial digital channels, Capital One
Credit: Capital One

Interviews for technology leadership positions help hiring managers to get a feel for a candidate’s technical chops and leadership skills. But for Mindy Ferguson, meetings for such a role at Capital One in 2018 felt different than others throughout her more than two decades in IT.

That’s because the manager, Mike Eason, asked her questions about what she liked to do in her spare time. Ferguson quickly realized that Eason was interested in getting to know her rather than just survey another candidate whose tech bona fides he needed to vet.

“The entire interview process felt incredibly different,” recalls Ferguson, who openly identifies as a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community. “It was about getting to know me as a person.”

Ferguson left the interview feeling as though she belonged at Capital One. And as it happened, Ferguson also made a positive impression; she won the job and began her role as managing vice president of technology, commercial digital channels, that August. But Capital One’s courting of Ferguson is more of an outlier than the norm.

Underrepresented groups need to feel welcome

Corporations are turbo-charging diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives these days, but many still fall short in making employees of underrepresented groups feel welcome, especially for communities where the diversity quotient goes beyond race and ethnicity. This holds especially true for the LGBTQ community, in which 46% of employees hide their identity at work, according to January research from Gartner. For LGBTQ candidates, questions such as “How was your weekend?” can put closeted employees on edge out of fear that they might be judged or discriminated against, according to the researcher.

Ferguson knows this all too well, having worked in companies where she felt she had to change pronouns while discussing what she did over the weekend and with whom — or avoided such conversations entirely. For D&I efforts to succeed, employees must feel not only that they are the right culture fit for the role, but that the company wants them as people.

Ferguson felt wanted at Capital One and she credited Eason, then the CIO of commercial banking, with initiating and welcoming frank conversations. She felt comfortable sharing, for instance, that she and her wife are moving to a new apartment. And she sees this comfort level as she looks across the company to other members of LGBTQ community.

“Having those conversations about real things that are happening in my life, brings you a lot closer to the ones you work with and your business partners,” Ferguson says, adding that this feeling of inclusion and belonging permeates Capital One’s entire culture, not just a pocket within leadership. “There is this belief that we can be our true, authentic selves.”

This was critical for Ferguson because it freed up her focus to be on her work rather than worrying about the context of her identity around the rest of her team and business peers. Embracing this culture of candor, Ferguson adopted these practices for her own leadership stance. She feels a responsibility to be that role model as a strong female leader and LGBTQ member, which ideally empowers other Capital One associates to do great work and carry the culture of inclusion and belonging forward. Key to this is affording colleagues the “psychological safety” of knowing they can be themselves.

Among the most tangible of Capital One’s D&I efforts are its seven business resource groups (BRGs) for underrepresented groups and allies, representing Black associates, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Hispanic and Latinx associates, women, military associates, people of different abilities and, of course, LGBTQ, of which Ferguson is a member. Ferguson says the BRGs, which also include tech-specific groups for women, Blacks and Hispanics, provide a great foundation for inclusion and belonging.

Banking credibility is key

As a senior tech leader, Ferguson has accrued significant cachet, playing a key role on the team that led Capital One’s migration from data centers to public cloud software from Amazon Web Services (AWS) — a transformation that forged a blueprint for other finservs. For her part, Ferguson led the creation of technology to send and receive digital files to and from external partners during the effort.

“That was an incredibly proud moment,” says Ferguson, who in previous roles at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance and Experian built mobile software and other digital services to create an omnichannel experience for consumers.

Such triumphs paved the way for Ferguson’s promotion to work on the company’s decisioning, fraud, and main street card businesses as a managing vice president in 2020. She credits her success to her ability to think like a customer, adding that “diversity is so key” to delivering new products to market.

However solid Capital One may be on the D&I front, the corporate sector at large needs to do more work, Ferguson says. One of the problems is that companies too often rush to fill a diversity quota, or hit secret hiring targets for women, Black, Hispanic, LGBQT and other underrepresented groups, that they ignore the inclusion part of the equation, she adds.

And here’s another, critical word you need to know: belonging. Employees have to feel the corporate culture accepts them as people, rather than as checkmarks in boxes for D&I efforts. Failing to make people feel that they belong can decrease engagement and increase attrition.

“A lot of places are stuck in diversity being a numbers game, but we have so much more to do for inclusion and belonging,” Ferguson says. “That comes from making sure that people have a voice and a seat at the table.”