Written by Wendy Bowman Tuesday, January 29 2013
Snapshot: Mark Pizzi, President and COO, Nationwide Insurance
Although he leads an associate resource goup (ARG) for African-American women at Nationwide Insurance, President and COO Mark Pizzi is the first to point out the obvious: He is neither an African-American or a woman; he is a white male. But that hasn’t stopped the 57-year-old executive from ensuring that the African-American women in his company — as well as all of his employees – get the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
As executive sponsor of AWARE (African American Women Active and Ready to Exceed), Pizzi provides guidance and open and honest perspectives with the members. He also exposes the members to other Nationwide senior leaders and shows how they can be leveraged as a resource.
There are 18 ARGs in total at Nationwide, including groups targeted toward Latinos, Asians, LGBT, Special Needs, Military and Gen Y.
Womenetics: How invested are you in making sure that you provide an equal playing field and create opportunities for success for all of your employees, particularly women?
Pizzi: I bet this is an answer you’ve heard before. The single-most influential thing that caused me to be more of an evangelist on this issue was the birth of my daughter. Once a father has a daughter, his attitudes change toward women, as far as them being successful.
Also, when I became a director in my first bigger leadership role with the company in 1980, I worked with a woman who was the first underwriting manager that Nationwide ever had. That’s not that long ago. She was a phenomenal manger and leader, so I think it’s one of those things where it just creeps up on you.
As you get older and get toward the end of your career, you start to think of the legacy you will leave behind. The legacy I want to leave is having changed the fabric of the company and to leave it a different kind of company than it was from when I got here.
Womenetics: Why is gender equality so important in today’s workplace?
Pizzi: It’s kind of like, ‘Why not?’ In my mind, at least today as the person I am, why not be dedicated to equality, period, in the workplace? It’s not about just gender equality, but if you don’t get that one right, you can’t get the others right. It’s about business. So many more households are run by women, more businesses are being run by women, and more business decisions are being made by women. Even if you’re not committing to it for personal reasons, I don’t know how many companies could not be committing to it for business reasons.
I’m a history kind of guy, and I like to look at these kinds of things as iron versus steel. If you look at iron, it’s a wonderful product that moved us into a new age, but you couldn’t build a skyscraper with it because it was too brittle. So, someone comes along and inserts another material – carbon – and now it’s steel, and now you can build skyscrapers. That’s the reason this country is as great as it is. There are different kinds of cultures, and when you keep them separate it doesn’t work, but when you integrate them they become stronger. If you don’t fully integrate people, it’s the same thing… All you’re left with is iron.
Womenetics: How has the role of women changed in the workplace over the recent years. How important is their involvement in a company’s success?
Pizzi: My team at Nationwide literally had the company’s only – and the first –underwriting manager in 1980. I knew there were female superiors, but the first underwriting manager is a big deal because underwriting is such a big part of what we do. Now you look around, and it’s commonplace to see women in leadership roles at Nationwide. There’s always more work to be done, but it’s one of those things where she was an anomaly then, and this is not an anomaly now. When people come to visit Nationwide and we start filling the room with leaders, they are not surprised when more than half of the people in the room are women leaders.
You’ve gone from work being a second-income role for women and the WWII impact of women being income-earners to it being commonplace for women to be in leadership positions. That’s exactly what our goal should be. I want this to be commonplace. There is a difference between compliance and commitment, and I think this company is committed to diversity.
I don’t want to just be in compliance. Compliance is well intended but leaves you with unintended consequences. People have innate canine capabilities, and they can smell the difference.
Womenetics: What made you particularly conscious of the need for everyone – especially women – to be equal in the workplace?
Pizzi: There are lots of different events I can point to, but the most recent example for me that has continued to energize me around the subject was when I was asked to be executive sponsor of the AWARE group. A year ago, when Gale King, our executive vice president of human resources, came and asked if I would do that I said, “You know I’m not a black woman?” She said, “I know, but it would be good for you and them.” I joined up with the group, and I pointed out to them that I’m not a black woman, and I told them that I was nervous. I’m a pretty frank person, and I have a point of view. I didn’t know how receptive the group would be. They embraced me and my thoughts and ideas. At least with the board, I’ve become very comfortable saying the things I need to get said.
AWARE is appropriately named, and I’ve met a lot of people I didn’t know before. I’m not going to say I’m stunned or shocked, but you keep running across these high-caliber females, and you just get confident in Nationwide’s future. I also can guarantee you that I’ve learned more from them than they’ve learned from me.
Right now, I’m also mentoring an Asian female from China who is very interested in getting ahead. Our mentor sessions are more for me than they are for her. I have come in every session, and she teaches me about the Asian culture and the difference between Chinese, Korean and Japanese. By sharing so much information with me about her culture, she has nearly given me a master’s in this subject.
Womenetics: Why do you think women, in particular, should get the same opportunities in the workplace as their male counterparts?
Pizzi: It’s back to the answer of ‘Why not?’ It’s an issue of business strength, an issue that ultimately I don’t believe is equal or fair. I use the word opportunity. Everybody deserves the same opportunity. That’s the country we live in. We fought wars with ourselves over that issue. So, I view this from a business perspective. You also have to view this from a personal perspective because I don’t want my kids to be given any less of an opportunity to prove they are or are not capable of certain roles.
It’s not so much about being equal but about seeing opportunities and knowing what to do with them.
I have eight direct reports and five are females, and we’re better for it. They’re not just good and strong leaders, but provide a perspective that would not exist otherwise. It’s really the ability to look through eyes that I can’t look through.
When we were working on building our direct capabilities, for example, the person running our direct Internet was female and a working mom. She talked a lot about simplicity and the speed our Internet needed to have. It was an interesting angle. She has two kids and is a working mom, and they want to be with her when she gets home. If she’s on our website, she doesn’t want to have to get up and get a copy of the title for her car and driver’s license. So, we need to make it as simple as possible because the people visiting our website for insurance quotes are busy. That’s the kind of feedback I get from having a more diverse perspective.
Although I realize that this is a huge stereotype, in my experience I also find that women are generally more sensitive not just to women’s issues, but seem to be more sensitive to other groups than men are because they themselves had less than an equal opportunity not that long ago. For white males, because of our paradigms, it’s hard to see things that are very evident to women. There’s no handicapping here. We don’t handicap anybody. We don’t say, “You’re a woman, so we’ll give you an extra 10 points.” We’re about results here. I have found the good strong leaders who are women don’t want a handicap. Those who do aren’t successful business people.
Womenetics: How exactly do you go about creating and ensuring an equal playing field for everyone?
Pizzi: It’s forums that allow for talking and listening. We need to talk more and speak more frankly with one another. We need to have an environment where males are comfortable giving the male perspective and women are comfortable giving the female perspective. I like to remind people that they can’t look through my eyes, either. If I can give them a white male perspective, that helps them move their ball forward.
Day to day, we have been working hard to create an environment where women are comfortable speaking their mind and men are comfortable keeping their mouths shut and listening and then asking questions. It’s hard to replicate because it’s so ambiguous. I think this is about commitment, and if you’re committed to this, it becomes obvious you need to learn and listen. In the end, I don’t think we can make effective business decisions if we don’t listen to everybody.
Womenetics: What are the ways a workplace might unwittingly be contributing to an unequal situation for its employees?
Pizzi: Because it’s unintentional, it’s hard to recognize. The biggest mistake all people make, whether they are women, men or African-Americans, they all look at the world through their eyes. As long as you look through your eyes, you’re always going to be looking through a straw.
I don’t think anybody’s evil on these issues. For the most part, these are just paradigms that need to be shattered. The first place to start is to recognize that no matter who you are and where you come from, you openly have a straw view of the rest of the world. The first thing you have to do is start listening and learning. Diversity in the people around you will help you to make good business decisions. A good leader has to be able to balance all the information that comes to them because the potential for landmines is incredible.
One of the things missing in all of the equality issues is tolerance for different points of view. It’s interesting that a group that is trying to be heard and trying to find it’s own way and wants their opinion to be viewed and listened to is often intolerant of those who have a different view than they do. It’s come to a point where we can be so politically correct in a company that we don’t have these frank conversations with each other. Some of the conversations that go on in these ARGs are great because they’re a safe place to have a conversation.
Womenetics: What are your responsibilities to the AWARE group?
Pizzi: In our case, there are 412 members, and it’s constantly growing. When I go out in the field to visit the agents or associates in a region, I’ll try to have a lunch or dinner with the AWARE group. I’m trying to get folks out in the field to feel part of the greater AWARE network.
Our current board chair is a vice president with Nationwide. The group is focused on membership and sponsorship for 2013 in order to create visibility of the successful African-American women at Nationwide. There is a great cross-section of African-American women from vice president on down in the organization. Their primary effort right now is finding mentors for every member across the country.
Womenetics: What type of successful outcomes have these groups had at Nationwide?
Pizzi: When building out our website, the Hispanic/Latino group reviewed our bilingual paperwork and sales literature. We have a company that creates the English to Spanish translations, and while they are translated into the correct, Spanish language you’d learn in college, that’s often really not how it's generally spoken. The members of our Latino Connection ARG provide us that kind of input. It may appear mundane, but you need to get that stuff right.
The AWARE mentor program also is phenomenal. Up until a year ago, they had a small mentorship team and basically mentored themselves, and I suggested to them maybe having African-American women mentor African-American women is appropriate but not enough. If they are interested in mainstreaming into the organization, they need to get mentors who come from backgrounds other than theirs. We’ve got a very eclectic cross-section of executives who are now mentoring the group and teaching them how to get ahead and the difference between sponsorship and mentorship. It’s giving our African-American women a visibility that they’ve been looking for and the answers to “How do you get ahead?”
Womenetics: If companies make an effort to value all of their employees and make sure everyone is on an equal playing field, can that boost their bottom line? How and why?
Pizzi: Absolutely. It kind of goes back to the issue where we’ve all seen companies make mistakes. Often these are unintentional and come from not fully grasping and understanding the diversity of the audiences they may be attempting to sell a product or service to. At Nationwide, without question, if you look at the diversity of our commercials, it came from the inside.
If we can’t see ourselves in our commercials, how do you think our potential customers will? There is no question we make fewer mistakes, and we’re a stronger company making smarter decisions because we have people in the room who pull the cord on the production line. The ideas that we get and thoughts we get are because people have different straws they are looking through, and you get more creative when you get a great group of people together.
Womenetics: How can business leaders make sure they are not holding back women, people of color, etc., in the workplace. What advice would you give them?
Pizzi: If I could speak to all senior leaders in an organization, I would tell them that it’s their personal responsibility to make sure the leaders under them are listening and talking. A leader, whether it’s the president, CEO or senior vice president, needs to set the example of that and also watch for it and talk about it when they don’t see it happening and reward it when they do see it happening.
If a company has the resources to have ARGs and is willing to commit to it rather than just comply because it looks good, they’re crazy as business people if they don’t support some form of an associate resource group. If you’re a small business, your ARG might be all of your associates in one group. But if you’re a small business owner, knowing what I know today, I would be setting time aside with my associates and say, “For this hour we’re going to talk about you as a resource group why you like to work here, how you can help grow the company, and how we’re treating our members.
More on women in corporate America:
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Wendy Bowman is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance journalist. She spent 15-plus years as a writer and editor for Atlanta Business Chronicle, covering nonprofit business, homes and lifestyles, Atlanta visitors market and more. She currently writes for Riviera Orange County, The Atlantan and Men’s Book Atlanta magazines.