Leo Q & A

“Committing to change: even in ourselves,” a conversation with Leo Burnett’s DE&I team

In 2019, Leo Burnett created a unique tripartite model to lead DE&I efforts. We sit down with this leadership team to understand how they are driving cultural fluency and establishing trust within Leo Burnett Group.

Increasingly, diversity, equity and inclusion have become a focus for organizations of every kind and scale—a big responsibility that often becomes the remit of a singular ‘D&I Officer’. But Leo Burnett Group decided to take a different approach, evaluating the specific territories and operations that drive DE&I impact internally and externally—and creating a collaborative model for making that impact more focused, more real.

Following a year where DE&I efforts were particularly challenged and accelerated by societal issues and WFH orders, Leo Burnett’s DE&I team—Deirdra Donahue, VP, Director Equity & Inclusion, Melissa Healy, SVP Employee Belonging and Participation Lead and Michelle Mahoney, VP, Director of Social Impact—sat down to discuss their integrated roles and growth areas they’re focused on in the year ahead.

What has it been like building this initiative?

Deirdra: Organizational and cultural change is enormously challenging—and no matter where you are, there will always be pushback. Having three of us on the team, working together, allows us the unique opportunity to reach many people across the agency, and Leo Burnett has a lot of people who are either already engaged or interested in engaging in the work to create change.

Michelle: Working directly with Deirdra, Melissa and our executive leadership team to build an innovative and strategic approach has been a very collaborative and rewarding experience. I love that we are able to contribute as a team to advance each of our pillars. This approach has amplified my area of focus and our commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility which plays a critical role in advancing our DE&I initiatives.

Melissa: Even though the three of us have different influences, we have a tremendous amount of trust in each other. We are intentional with our actions in our own pillars, but also know how to work with each other—it’s unique to be able to have this more holistic and multi-faceted approach. It’s powerful because it can reach so many people in different ways.

Deirdra: I am grateful for Leo Burnett’s forward-thinking approach, as it gives each of us the opportunity to focus on specific parts of what is a very big job. No one person is spread too thin and all of the important elements of this work are addressed in unison all of the time.

With each of you having your own focus area, how do you work as a team to form the bigger picture?

Melissa: ‘Who we are is intrinsic to what we make’ is something I say that is true whether you are a creative director, in business leadership or finance. It is imperative that we understand people and what drives them. HumanKind is Leo Burnett’s operating system (OS)—which at its core is about the power of creativity to transform human behavior and people’s lives. We all believe in this ethos, so working together happens organically. We are constantly bringing each other in on different initiatives or programs, or just bouncing ideas off each other. The three of us are also part of the TE&I Council and the TE&I Braintrust, which is a DE&I collective within the Groupe with the common mission of advancing and expanding our diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. The three of us are deeply committed to shifting culture with positive impact and we are keenly aware that that can only happen when we work together and support each other.

Deirdra: Yes, Michelle, Melissa and I all concentrate on a specific area of DE&I work but each is part of the larger whole so it’s natural that all of the efforts come together for the bigger picture. All of our respective work is done with the same common goal of shifting the organization’s culture by moving people to commit to behavioral change. We must all understand and then mitigate our biases, work together to eradicate institutional racism and humanize each other through kindness.

Michelle: One of the really cool dynamics about our team is that we come from different career paths and life experiences. While we have different roles within the agency, we are committed to the goals we set together. Our pillars need to work together and independently in order to be successful, and that comes from respecting each other’s perspective, contributions and ultimate passion on what drives each of us on a daily basis.

Melissa: I would use the word trust—you cannot move forward if you don’t have trust. The three of us have it, and we work to build it within the agency.

How is Leo Burnett trying to create a more diverse talent and leadership pipeline?

Deirdra: Creating new talent pipelines has been in place for a while, but there is more fire under it than ever, and the recruiting team works diligently to identify people who may not come through the traditional channels.

Michelle: Talent is everywhere, opportunity is not. Our team helps to strengthen new and existing opportunities whether at Leo Burnett or through Publicis Groupe programs such as Open Apprenticeship on Marcel. Relationships with our non-profit partners and community leaders can help us identify diverse talent, bringing with them an established level of internal and external support.

Deirdra: This also means that we have to keep our talent by creating a culture that they want to be part of and by offering growth and developmental opportunities so they want to stay.

Melissa: From the inside out, we are establishing the norm that DE&I is everyone’s job. And we are looking at structural and tangible changes that impact our talents’ career trajectory. We are reimagining reviews, evolving our approach to learning, creating new systems of peer-influence that directly impact the work, and we’re consciously breaking the cycle of that’s-how-it-was-always-doneness. Pipelines are foundational—creating systems of support and advancement are where we can be revolutionary.

Deirdra: How are you showing up? Where do you show up? Can you show up differently? It starts with you taking stock of how you’re participating. We need to start holding people accountable. What we do at 35 W. Wacker can influence the rest of the industry.

What would you like to see from Leo Burnett and the industry, as a whole?

Deirdra: I would like to see the complete break down of systemic barriers and an increased level of cultural fluency both at Leo Burnett and the advertising industry at large.

Michelle: I’d like to see continued evolution, growth and commitment toward CSR. By strengthening our non-profit and community partnerships we can continue to make a difference together with our pro-bono clients, employee volunteers and those who are recipients of our purpose-driven and charitable giving. From an industry perspective, I’m proud of our “By Chicago. For Chicago” commitment where we, along with other local ad agencies, have endless opportunities to bring creative social impact solutions directly to the Mayor’s office.

Melissa: My entire career I have said that fear is the enemy of creativity. And if you are afraid—whether that is physical safety or mental safety—you won’t be able to bring ideas into the room. You can’t tell your story or your brand’s story if you’re afraid. Removing that fear, or at least interrupting it, drives everything I do. I hope to foster connections beyond org charts; I hope to create spaces where our relationships are trusting and meaningful so that our talent and our creativity can thrive.

Thank you to Deirdra, Michelle and Melissa for their time and commitment to transforming DE&I at Leo Burnett. Their combined leadership is furthering a culture of kindness, creativity and inclusivity for the agency, its partners and the industry as a whole.