Cedric Ellis of CUNA Mutual Group: Five Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

One of the most important things is also the ability to just shut up and listen. There are valuable insights we can learn from those working on the front lines. It takes a strong leader to know when to take a step back and take that in.


As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Cedric Ellis.

Cedric Ellis is the executive vice president, chief enterprise services officer for CUNA Mutual Group where he leads all the company’s shared service functions including diversity, equity and inclusion.

Previously, he was senior vice president of Human Resources, ultimately responsible shaping HR strategy and ensured that the organization’s people, performance and strategy supported the company’s culture.

Ellis also serves as the president of the CUNA Mutual Group Foundation, the organization’s philanthropic arm focused on supporting organizations that seek to solve educational, economic and racial disparities, advance economic stability and support the sustainable development of the communities where CUNA Mutual Group offices reside.

Ellis graduated from Assumption College with a bachelor’s degree in English and Social Rehabilitation Services.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Cedric! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Both of my parents were sharecroppers from Virginia. They each came from poor families and were deprived of the chance to go to school because they needed to help support their households. Neither could read. My family was part of the Great Migration and moved to the diverse, working-class community of Waterbury, Connecticut. That home was declared eminent domain to make way for an interstate highway. After that, we lived in subsidized housing and in housing projects, which were predominantly Black, but I was bused to elementary school and attended a private high school where almost all the students were white.

These were completely different worlds I learned to navigate between every day. This left a permanent imprint on the way I view things. It also showed me the importance of education in forging my path.

I had great mentors who pushed me to finish high school and go to college, where I attended Assumption College on full scholarship. There were only about 30 other Black students on campus, and I became active in diversity and inclusion at the school during those years. It really helped set the stage for work I’d do throughout my career.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein helps tell the story of how we got here with respect to racial inequities codified into law that affects us still today — especially in relation to where people live. It maps out what systemic racism looks like, and how the cards are literally stacked against Black Americans. This provides important underlying context.

I was also moved by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 Atlantic cover story, The Case for Reparations. Coates really gets into systemic things that have taken away from Black folks’ ability to advance and get a piece of the American pie. This, along with Rothstein, really helped me better solidify why things are the way they are.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

A quote I often think of is from Indigenous Australian academic Lilla Watson.

She said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I think she was trying to capture the idea of shared humanity and I talk about it a lot. The essence of her quote is compelling for what I want to drive around DE&I. We can’t have a white person seeing DE&I as a “them” issue and not an “us” issue. We need to do it together.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership, to me, is being able to take an idea or strategy and articulate it in a way that rallies colleagues to execute it. It also sometimes means making really difficult and unpopular calls. It means taking difficult steps when it may not seem expedient in the moment.

One of the most important things is also the ability to just shut up and listen. There are valuable insights we can learn from those working on the front lines. It takes a strong leader to know when to take a step back and take that in.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I wish I could tell you I knew the secret to preparing for stressful or high-stakes meetings and decisions — I still haven’t reached that point in my professional journey, but I’m okay with that.

There are situations in life that are inherently stressful and it’s important to know yourself well enough to be able to do things to mitigate that stress so you can still bring your best self on any given day. I certainly can overthink or over-research and try to stay aware of that. I try my best to address my own self-care in moments like these by preparing in my own space, staying cognizant of my mental state, and showing up with the right energy to be nimble and ask the right questions.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

I think where we’re at today has been a long time coming. There’s plenty of data on income and wealth disparities, for starters, and if you look at institutional, systemic racism that’s had an impact on every walk of life — mass incarceration, disproportionate unemployment and more — there’s a white world and there’s a Black world and each is a totally different experience.

There’s long been widespread dismissal and disregard for Black contributions to society. The 2016 presidential election was a very polarizing experience for America and the political rhetoric since then hasn’t helped matters. Psychological factors rolled up, too. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, and the footage of George Floyd’s killing was the powder keg that blew over and shook things to the core. Communities of color — particularly Black communities — have had enough.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

I remember my first peek into DE&I at a corporation. I was working for a large insurer and there was a lot of talk about there not being enough representation of Black folks beyond low-level roles. The solution at the time was more sensitivity training, but that was misguided. A lot of programs at the time were primarily focused on addressing lawsuits, affirmative action, etc.

Fast-forward to 15 years ago, when I was joining CUNA Mutual Group — I asked a recruiter where CUNA Mutual Group was in terms of diversity. The answer relayed to me was that CUNA Mutual Group wasn’t ready for diversity. I had a bit of a vile reaction to that. Recruiting is the gate to any organization, and I was being told the gate was closed.

We have come a long way in the last 15 years, thanks to the unwavering support of our current CEO. We work hard on creating equity, in addition to our diversity and inclusion efforts. So many organizations leave this part out because it’s where the hard work really comes into play. When I think about equity, I think about the actions and attributes that help create a more level playing field. How do we ensure that everyone has equal access to opportunities? Building an equitable system takes into consideration that not everyone starts at the same place. We are intentional in our efforts to try and level the playing field. While we are still on our DE&I journey, I am proud of what we have accomplished and am confident that we are committed at every level of the organization.

Overall, I’d say the biggest challenge around DE&I comes down to the bottom-line. I’ve run into resistance in the past because of sensitivity to bottom-line and the expense associated with standing up a diversity practice. It’s important to understand that companies that are diverse have better performance, and there’s a great deal of data that supports that.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

There are many reasons, but I’ll focus on three:

First, making sure there are a plurality of voices in the room ensures there are a wider array of lived experiences to draw from in solutions to business problems. As a team, we definitely produce better strategies when we have diversity at the executive level.

Second, when it comes to hiring and retention, having diverse members of the executive team is a force multiplier. If you have a person of color on the leadership team, it helps others see a future path for themselves and that helps with retention. When you have retention, hiring diverse talent gets easier.

Third, there’s often racial anxiety that exists between white managers and persons of color that report to them. White employees can be anxious about providing direct feedback to employees of color one performance issues, for example. Having a person of color within leadership gives people a vehicle to tap into. There have been countless times our engagement resource groups have come to me in situations such as these.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

The challenge with DE&I initiatives is that most organizations want the quick fix or what I call the “just add water” approach. To be effective and authentic, one must do the work to better understand the challenges that we face with race in our country. To answer the question more directly, context is key. We all have bias we bring everywhere, but these steps can be important for eliminating roadblocks for DE&I:

  1. Ensure leaders aren’t perpetuating the sense of inequity, discrimination, or systemic challenges: Often, employees of color have white leaders. If we can come to terms with the fact that we all have bias and challenge these notions about who is being burdened versus helped, we can go far.
  2. Examine your organizational purpose and align DE&I strategy to that: You need to build the why. Be clear about what you want to accomplish, and why. For example, at CUNA Mutual Group, we believe a brighter financial future should be accessible to everyone. Inclusion is built into our purpose.
  3. Build a baseline level of training and education for front-line leaders: This dictates how DE&I is embraced and will most directly address how systemic racism is dismantled in the community. If you’re trying to build an anti-racist organization, it starts with front-line leaders to influence overall culture.
  4. Be deliberate about your recruiting efforts: Move beyond the usual suspects and think about where diverse talent that without your usual pedigree might be, because those pedigrees probably don’t have diversity you need.
  5. The most important step of all is to have a CEO who is onboard and is a champion for DE&I, and believes it is linked to success and isn’t afraid to talk about it. This sets the tone for DE&I to be successful.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Over the past few years, I must admit that my hope in humanity was diminishing. I felt as though there was little empathy and understanding of our shared human condition. The current civil rights movement has lifted my hope as I look at the sea of people in many of the protests. They are not just people of African descent, but people from every shade and every walk of life. This has restored some of the hope that I have that we will all connect in this shared humanity.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I know this is going to sound cliché, but I would like to have dinner with President Barack Obama. I would want to have that dinner after his memoir is published and I’ve had time to read it. Like many other people and particularly Americans of African descent, I was amazed at all that he accomplished despite the obstacles and challenges put before him. I was speechless at how he exemplified excellence despite the overt racism he experienced during his presidency. But I would love to have a chance to have a deeply personal discussion about how he endured through all of it. On some level, I can relate. Like him, I was raised to understand that being average wasn’t good enough. You had to be excellent.

How can our readers follow you online?

I am most active on LinkedIn. It allows me to stay connected to our customers, our employees and the industry. It’s a great tool for learning and sharing.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/cedric-c-ellis-3355b213/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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