This week The Glass Hammer is publishing a series of profiles on top leaders in corporate diversity. Check back all week long to learn about the women making a difference.
By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
“At Mercer, our primary focus is helping our clients maximize the potential of their human capital,” began Deb Wheelock, Partner and Global Talent Management & Diversity Leader at Mercer. “Unlike other companies, we don’t produce widgets. We market the professional knowledge of our people. They need to be our competitive edge.”
“Thinking back to my tech days, another way I put it is ‘our people are our next killer app,’” explained the former e-learning specialist. “Diversity is becoming an imperative because we have people of different backgrounds with diverse approaches and innovative solutions to bring to our clients.”
She added, “You just don’t get that level of innovation from a homogenous workforce, no matter how bright they might be.”
Wheelock believes diversity is undergoing a generational shift. “We’re seeing a change in what our colleagues are bringing to work in terms of their outlook as well as their biases. That pushes us toward inclusion – from tolerating differences, to appreciating and leveraging those differences.”
Career in Talent Management
After graduating from college and holding a few roles in corporate communications and public relations, Wheelock took a position in human resources, spending the next 20 years there. She started in traditional learning and development, and then got involved in technology-based learning. Over time she held increasingly more senior and more global roles, ultimately becoming the leader of Mercer’s Global Talent Management & Diversity Center of Excellence.
So far, Wheelock’s proudest achievement is leading a global function in a truly global firm. “Right after this interview, I am counseling a business leader in Brazil and an HR colleague in Chile. Then, I have a one-to-one meeting with a team member in Shanghai. The ability to think about talent globally and create strategies that address the unique challenges inherent in a global firm is really interesting work.”
Aligning the senior leaders of the firm with the strategy of the CEO is key. “A few years back, I developed a senior executive development program. Developing and managing our transformational leadership program for 300 senior managers – all in one calendar year – was a challenge, but definitely worth the effort.”
Currently Wheelock is working with Mercer’s new global diversity council chaired by the company’s CEO, Julio A. Portalatin. “The Diversity Council has a lot of exciting things going on right now. For example, we would like to see growth in the number of women in leadership. With guidance from our internal workforce analytics group, we are analyzing the policies and procedures in our people strategy with the aim of reaching this goal.”
The Diversity Council is also working with Mercer’s employee resource groups on how to grow the number of women and employees from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, she added.
Additionally, she said the company is just rolling out a new flexible work education pilot in the UK. Wheelock explained, “Many leaders think of flexibility in a narrow scope, as something for women, for maternity leave. But flexibility is about so much more than that. For example, because of the Olympics recently held in London, we knew people were going to be impacted in terms of their ability to get into the office.”
She continued, “This provides an opportunity to educate our colleagues and supervisors about what flex work really means.”
“You have to think creatively, and having a major event like the Olympics impact one of our big offices makes it definitely not just about women, but pushes the conversation to the business continuity side,” she explained. “We already have many flexible work policies in countries around the world, including in the UK, and we need to increase our employees’ awareness and understanding of them.”
Finally, Wheelock said, talent mobility is a topic of increasing importance. “People tend to think about mobility in terms of full relocation. But we think about short term assignments and moving the work to where we have talent. We’re developing talent with a breadth of experience around the world, so we can be more responsive to our clients.”
Power of Relationships
Wheelock says she wishes she had learned sooner the power of relationships. “I think it’s true that who you know is as important as what you know.”
She explained, “It’s not enough to be smart or capable, you also have to invest time in building relationships. No one individual can know everything related to their job. But having those connections makes it possible to accomplish so much more.”
This is a common challenge for women, she pointed out. “Women tend to be really hard on ourselves if we don’t know everything. But being able to get the context or resources is just as important as trying to know everything yourself.”
Challenges for Professional Women
Wheelock believes that unconscious bias around hiring and promotion can be a challenge for professional women. “I think there are preconceived notions or unconscious biases that leaders have when making talent promotions or hiring decisions.”
She continued, “We have a well-established talent review process, but sometimes assumptions are made about whether someone might be willing to be mobile because of where they are in their life. Sometimes people arrive at these conclusions without asking first. We have to keep educating our leaders on why having that conversation is so important.”
Mercer coordinates a number of diversity programs. Wheelock mentioned one called Appreciating Differences and another for supervisors called Managing Inclusion. The company also offers a program specifically for women but open to everyone called Influence to Impact. “It’s around communication and influence style based on what you’re trying to achieve.”
She explained, “We have some programs aimed specifically at women, but we work hard to ensure our approach is inclusive of everyone. In order to advance, you need to both educate women and adapt the environment in which they are operating.”
Wheelock added that for the first time, Mercer’s US leadership team has more women than men. “We’re proud of that,” she said. “We’re also working on forecasting the impact of different approaches, to identify the kind of hiring, promotion and other models we need to implement in three to five years, so we see the benefits in the next five to ten years.”
“It is fantastic to work a CEO who cares deeply about diversity.”
Wheelock also pointed out her company’s work in social responsibility. “There are a number of things that Mercer does, and that our parent company Marsh & McLennan does, like our work with Plan International.”
She continued, “I’m proud to work for a company that has that commitment.”
Under the MMCo banner, the company supports the global campaign Because I Am a Girl, working on a number of fundraising initiatives. “Our offices in Australia raised enough money to sponsor a school for girls in Shenzhen, China.”
The firm also partners with clients on social responsibility initiatives, she added.
In Her Personal Time
Outside work, Wheelock says she enjoys spending time with her family. “I’m the only female in my house. We spend a lot more time camping than at the ballet or theater, which are things I enjoy!” she said with a laugh. “We have a lot of global friends and I think it’s important for my boys to understand the responsibility of being a global citizen and giving back. We try to introduce them to different experiences outside suburban life.”