October 27th, 2023 at 7:18:50 AM

Driving DE&I Transformation: Helena Tronner's Quest to Establish Knowit as an Inclusive Powerhouse

Today we're talking with Helena Tronner, Vice President at Knowit Insight Accelerate. Helena shares her journey in transforming Knowit into one of Sweden's most gender-equal and inclusive companies, and gives advice for leaders looking to embark on their own DE&I journeys.

Helena Tronner

Helena, could you please share some insights about your career and your current role?

I have a background in industrial and organizational psychology. I must admit that when I began my journey in psychology, I had the misconception that diversity and equality weren't relevant to me because I assumed that I wouldn’t experience the negative effects personally. However, this perspective changed significantly when I regularly experienced the negative consequences of male-dominated workplaces and unequal work life. One pivotal moment I particularly remember was during a customer meeting quite early in my career. Despite my expertise, the customer directed all their communication toward my male manager, and the customer’s colleague commented on this. This experience was an eye-opener for me, highlighting the critical importance of feedback and boundary-setting linked to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). I began working with DE&I in 2006 in different organizations and encountered numerous challenges and learnings along the way.

In 2013, I joined Knowit, which today comprises 4,400 consultants. I, along with two colleagues, started up a subsidiary focused on transformation. At that time, Knowit was primarily composed of white, middle-aged men, and most of them even dressed the same way. I felt like an outsider not only in terms of gender, but also due to my educational background as a psychologist in an IT firm. The lack of understanding regarding my perspective was particularly striking. After a few years of observation and reflection, I started a conversation with top management and advocated for a change.

At that point, Knowit found itself on the red list published by Allbright, a Swedish foundation that assesses companies based on their gender equality and inclusivity. I managed to convince the top management to address this issue and started a program aimed at transforming the organization, starting with the management team. Four years later, Knowit won the Allbright prize as Sweden's most gender-equal and inclusive listed company. The journey was not just about expertise in DE&I; it entailed changing behaviors, developing leaders, and fostering cultural transformation.

Even though setting specific gender recruitment targets was not our approach, during the second year of the program, 66% of new hires were women. This was achievable because we worked on the culture, involved leaders and secured the full support of our management team. An example of this was our leadership training program, which was the first mandatory development initiative within Knowit. However, if any manager could not attend the suggested dates and additionally missed the repechage heats presented, they were required to engage in a personal education process with me and the CEO, Per Wallentin. This approach ensured the success of the program.

That's quite an extraordinary journey. Could you elaborate on how you approached DE&I at Knowit?

I proposed a pitch to the top management, emphasizing the significance of addressing unconscious bias and presenting facts and statistics. I suggested that, rather than fixating on metrics and goals, we should view this transformation as a cultural shift. Therefore, we focused on leadership within the organization with a top-down approach and then cascaded it through all levels of leadership. One of the elements of leading inclusively is evaluating individuals from diverse backgrounds in a consistent and fair manner. That required knowledge and self-insight from all leaders. Inclusive leadership means ensuring equal participation in meetings, valuing different perspectives, directing ideas to the relevant people. Inclusive leaders actively listen, accept diverse viewpoints, and embrace the possibility of failure as a learning opportunity. Creating an environment where experimenting and learning from mistakes are encouraged is key to innovation and inclusion. One key aspect of this endeavor was the willingness of our CEO to acknowledge his lack of expertise and wish for development in this area, which is why I spent 1.5 years coaching him.

The emphasis on psychological safety truly resonates. Did you apply these principles to recruitment as well?

Yes, absolutely. We based it on research, which stressed the importance of describing context in job advertisements, balancing candidate requirements, and eliminating language that was coded in a masculine manner. We encouraged women and minorities to apply for positions. Research has shown that women typically apply for the roles only when they believe they meet all the requirements, while men tend to apply even if they meet only 50-60% of the criteria. To make the process more inclusive, we reduced the number of "must-have" qualifications and transitioned some to "nice to have."

In many recruitment processes, network-based referrals are common. However, this can exclude minorities who may not be part of the core networks. To address this, we identified sources for recruiting women and minorities. For example, in the tech environment, minorities and women participate in various forums. We decided to engage with these forums and sought input from minorities within our organization regarding their networks.


We also trained leaders and recruiters to make them more aware of unconscious bias and its influence on decision-making, addressing issues like performance biases, competence/likability trade-offs, and discrepancies in self-esteem between genders.

Some people have concerns about prioritizing diverse candidates over others. Did you encounter these concerns?

Yes, we did face concerns initially. That's one of the reasons why it was so important to start with the top management. They had to be convinced that this approach was the right way. Through education and training, we helped our team understand the importance of a more inclusive culture and that our approach was not about favoring one group over another, but leveling the playing field for everyone.

Considering recent AI development, do you think AI can make better decisions than humans?

It's important to be cautious because AI inherits biases from its training data. There is no coincidence, for example, that Google's AI struggled to differentiate between two Asian people or had initially trouble separating black people from gorillas. Or when translating gender-neutral language like Hungarian, there can appear gender bias. There was a case with COMPAS software, which was used by courts in the US. Its task was to recommend risk levels as a basis for sentencing based on data, but it was found to introduce racial profiling.

There’s also a problem of "black boxes" - aspects of AI models where it's unclear how algorithms operate and what data they rely on. So AI may become biased if the data it relies upon is already biased, and AI is influenced by the demographic profile of those who contribute to its development.

Returning to your career, could you share the journey from your initial epiphany to transforming an organization as significant as Knowit in terms of culture and diversity?

DE&I has been an interest of mine since I realized that I had to experience what many other women and minorities have experienced. I started reading extensively about DE&I. My background in organizational psychology has been helping a lot since change management is an important part of leading the change. Having worked on DE&I in numerous organizations and made every mistake possible, I have also learned what works. So, in my dialogue with Knowit's top management team, I was uncompromising in my approach. Therefore, in the case of Knowit, the journey began with training the top management. This was followed by the creation of a project team responsible for leading the entire program. This team included our CEO, the manager of the largest business area, myself, and a management consultant. An essential factor was the CEO's and management team’s dedication to allocating time and effort to the program. In many organizations, top management express the importance of DE&I but fail to be actively engaged. In our case, it wasn't a matter of choice. We extended training to all leaders within Knowit in Sweden, Norway, and Finland, and the CEO or other top management members attended every training session.

Assumptions within the organization surfaced and were challenged. The assumption that men and women were equally satisfied with the existing culture turned out to be untrue: one-fifth of women and an even larger percentage of non-binary individuals felt they needed to adjust themselves to fit into the culture. Similarly, the belief that women lacked the desire to become leaders was proved wrong. It was revealed that more women than men aspired to leadership positions, but women often doubted their qualifications, while men were more confident.

We created workshops and toolboxes for leaders. After the training, we established experience groups where leaders met in diverse teams to discuss and share their achievements and navigate challenges. Our CEO observed that these managers became more confident beyond DE&I, handling complex matters such as profitability challenges: this approach enhanced psychological safety in general.

Knowit comprises 80 companies. After working with the top management, we urged them to ensure that their organizations embraced DE&I. We implemented a 3-tier approach to support leaders of different levels of readiness for this change and launched a development program "Grow" for young women and non-binary individuals in the early stages of their careers. If we had initiated this program without first involving all the leaders, it would have faced resistance. But the initial engagement with leaders created a positive environment for this initiative.

We also implemented reverse mentoring programs, where young individuals mentored senior leaders. This helped senior managers understand the perspectives of younger generations. We assessed the recruitment process, discrimination, harassment, and career development, but only after working with the leaders.

From your viewpoint, what were the business benefits realized by Knowit through this diversity program?

When we initiated this journey, there was only one woman in the top management team. There were no women among the line managers. Currently, 2 out of 4 business areas are led by women, including the most technical and the largest business area. We transitioned from a situation where women represented only 12% of leaders to 40%.

After receiving recognition as Sweden's most gender-equal and inclusive company, it has been much easier to recruit. Additionally, we saw significantly fewer long-term sick leaves, particularly among women. Eventually, our revenue has grown 5 times. While I can’t claim a one-to-one correlation, the transformation positively impacted the company's success and brand.

Could you recommend any further reading materials on DE&I?

Catalyst is a good resource, as well as studies by firms like McKinsey and Deloitte. Verna Myers is also a noteworthy author and speaker on DE&I.

Study the concept of psychological safety and how to cultivate an inclusive environment. This is a knowledge area, and not something you inherently know because you represent a minority.

If I'm a company leader looking to make my organization more diverse, where do I start?

You call me :) On a serious note, you need to find someone who will help you with not just knowledge around DE&I, but also with leadership development and how to work with change in a structured way.

Critical reflection and periodic learning experiences are great tools. Don’t treat DE&I as a short-term, intense initiative. Instead, make it your organization's strategic priority and maintain a continuous effort. This transformation will take time, often years, to yield substantial results. Make sure your top management team is fully committed and actively involved.

Start with yourself. When I started working with the top management team, our CEO said: “It's not really for me, this is mostly for my team members.” Then we did an exercise, which was to write down who you informally network with between the meetings during a couple of months. Our CEO felt ashamed because on his list were only white middle-aged men, who also shared his interest in sports. At this point, he realized that he had to network informally with diverse types of people. He began altering his behaviors, and this change was quite noticeable. Consequently, he set a remarkable example in two ways; not only did he modify his behavior, but he also had the courage to openly share that experience, both internally and externally.

Helena, we really appreciate you sharing your insights and experiences. Your journey is a great guide for anyone wanting to create more inclusive and diverse workplaces.

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