BlackRock: Promoting LGBTQ rights in Asia
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)

BlackRock: Promoting LGBTQ rights in Asia

In this podcast, Robert Ronneberger, vice president for Asia at BlackRock, discusses how the company is promoting LGBTQ rights in Asia and encouraging diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Heidrick & Struggles
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Harry O’Neill talks to Robert Ronneberger, vice president and lead strategist for model portfolios and defined contribution solutions for Asia at BlackRock, the global investment management corporation. Ronneberger discusses how BlackRock is promoting the LGBTQ community’s rights in Asia and how important it is to create a diverse and inclusive culture in the workplace. He also shares how BlackRock is actively encouraging D&I, with both internal and external LGBTQ initiatives.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:01) Why did you join BlackRock, and what was the importance of the company’s take on LGBTQ as part of that decision?
  • (1:50) What challenges do companies face when wanting to be role models and front-runners in promoting social change, especially when it comes to policies favoring rights of the LGBTQ community, and in particular in Asia?
  • (10:10) How is unconscious LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace being addressed?
  • (18:50) When you speak to groups about inclusion and diversity, and in particular with a focus on the LGBTQ community, how do you engage those groups and get across the message that there are real benefits of diversity in the workplace?

Below is a full transcript of this episode, which has been edited for clarity.

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Harry O’Neill: Hello, I’m Harry O’Neill, HR and talent management director APAC in the Hong Kong office of Heidrick & Struggles, and I’m a partner in the Financial Services Practice. In today’s podcast, I’m speaking to Robert Ronneberger, who’s vice president and lead strategist for model portfolios and defined contribution solutions for Asia at BlackRock here in Hong Kong. His decision to join BlackRock was in part driven by the firm’s open support and contribution to the LGBTQ community. Robert, welcome and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Can you tell me briefly a little more about why you joined BlackRock and, in particular, the importance of the company’s take on LGBTQ as part of that decision?

Robert Ronneberger: Yes, sure. I joined BlackRock because the company gives me a great platform where I can leverage my skill set. I’ve spent the last 12 years in the region, and part of my studies as well as my first job, living in different countries, is where I’ve built my Mandarin capabilities. BlackRock and BlackRock’s footprint in the APAC region allow me to really leverage this sort of skill set, so that’s one of the reasons. The other one, of course, is because when I was looking for new opportunities, I was looking for companies that have an inclusive environment for their employees.

Harry O’Neill: That’s terrific. So BlackRock in essence is a role model in the industry. What challenges do companies face when wanting to be role models and front-runners in promoting social change, especially when it comes to policies favoring rights of the LGBTQ community, and in particular in this region?

Robert Ronneberger: Obviously, part of BlackRock’s DNA is diversity; it’s at the front and it’s what the firm stands for. As part of my past four years at BlackRock, I also cofounded the OUT and Allies Network, which is the LGBT network for BlackRock here in the region, and as part of that I was very involved in driving changes internally, which eventually led me to become the cochair of the LGBT Interbank Forum here in Hong Kong. Coming from the perspective of the LGBT Interbank Forum, for a company to want to become a role model or a trailblazer to bring social change to the wider community, it actually has to overcome a lot of internal hurdles.

Now to come back to your point about wanting to be a front-runner, I think a lot of firms haven’t reached that point of wanting to bring change to the wider community, and why is that? Probably because either regional or local management is in disagreement, or maybe internally when it comes to building inclusive environments for their own employees, they haven’t reached a point where they want to reach out and bring that change to the industry or the community itself. That’s one of the problems—what firm feels in a position to bring that social change outside their four walls.

The second thing is, once you have reached that point as a company where you have a decent environment that values diversity and is inclusive, then you need to look at the stakeholders. And, taking BlackRock as an example, our key stakeholders are predominantly our clients, and these clients are governments, they are sovereign wealth funds, they are large institutional clients, whether they’re local, regional, or global. The problem here usually is that bringing change beyond the four walls that might be seen as a little bit controversial, which is usually the case in the context of LGBT—companies don’t want to take that step.

Harry O’Neill: That’s a great point, and it’s also important to talk about the success that that group, the Interbank Forum, had, which, as I understand, is made up of a group of financial institutions operating here in Hong Kong. Having that success goes to show that big companies, when they band together and hunt in a pack, as it were, can achieve social change, and BlackRock clearly is part of that.

Robert Ronneberger: Yes, that’s correct, and I think more and more if you look at the world that we’re operating in, whether it’s the APAC region or globally, I think these global multinational corporations have the responsibility to bring such change to the wider community. And that’s another thing that I really appreciate about BlackRock and our global leadership, including our CEO, Larry Fink. He made clear at the beginning of this year in his letter to CEOs that having responsibly managed companies is really important, and obviously diversity is a really important part of that.

If you think of the millennials, particularly those who are currently studying, there was a lot of research done in the context of what millennials are looking for in their employers and—whether the statistics are from Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, or the US—across the board, 75% of these millennials say they want to work for companies that, first of all, cherish diversity and are inclusive. And that is completely irrespective of whether they’re male or female or their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Harry O’Neill: So let’s move on to your own personal journey. How have you personally dealt with any discrimination that you’ve encountered, either in the workplace or outside the workplace?

Robert Ronneberger: Well, luckily and to my knowledge I was never subjected to any direct discrimination, and I think I have to give credit to my parents here, who didn’t really care about that particular issue. They were very open about my sexual orientation. So I think having that environment and growing up in a family like this gives you a lot of self-confidence. However, starting my first job in Taiwan, I went back into the closet. We always talk about self-concealing. If you think of coming to the office on Monday morning and having to change your story of what you did over the weekend, that was not necessary in the Mandarin environment, because the spoken language is gender neutral, so I think that helped me in a sense. There was no need to come out, because I could share my stories without giving that information away. That was not because the company was not inclusive. However, coming back to the point of why I chose BlackRock over other companies, it is because they are more open and more inclusive when it comes to LGBT. When I joined BlackRock, and literally within that first week here in the Hong Kong office, I just thought it’s now time for me to give back.

Harry O’Neill: And BlackRock was very supportive when you came forward with this idea?

Robert Ronneberger: BlackRock was extremely supportive, to the extent that we have had networks in the Americas and EMEA for quite some time. I think given the experience of working at BlackRock, the corporate culture and part of the DNA of BlackRock is being inclusive. We call it One BlackRock, and I think it’s really the case here. Now when I made the decision to start this network along with like-minded colleagues in the region, I reached out to our chairman [at the time], Ryan Stork, who was extremely supportive. He basically said, “Whatever you need, I’ll give it to you; you make sure that we get this off the ground,” and he was surprised that we didn’t have that at this particular point in the Hong Kong office, in the wider region. Now I still took a strategic approach to this. I wanted senior buy-in at first, starting with our chairman but then also with all the leading MDs [managing directors] who have regional responsibilities. I brought them on as MD Allies, supporting the network even before we launched it officially, just to make sure that, from a top-down perspective, people are bought in to this idea, whether it’s the business case that we talked about or whether it’s just the right thing to do. The next step then was launching the network.

Harry O’Neill: Given that we are known as the invisible minority, what impact do you think that having a network like the OUT and Allies Network has on the LGBT community, particularly those who are still in the closet and perhaps a lot more tentative about disclosing their sexual orientation to colleagues?

Robert Ronneberger: That’s a very good question, particularly because the invisibility of the LGBTQ community is a problem; it’s a blessing but also a curse. A blessing to the extent that, if you look at someone, you don’t necessarily see that he or she is homosexual. In terms of the curse, it’s more about unknowingly discriminating against these groups. And here again it comes back to the point of having senior buy-in because a lot of people are supportive and inclusive. The problem, if you don’t speak it out loud or if you don’t make it visible, is that your team, the people that report in to you, don’t know that you are a very open-minded person and you value and cherish diversity. What we have done here within BlackRock is having people openly speak about events, and it’s part of what we require our MD Allies to do is—announce these events, forward our invitations of some of the activities that we’ve hosted, with a personal pledge of why this is important to you. And you’d be surprised—we have managers in very senior roles who have LGBT members in their family, so again the DNA is there. You want to create an environment where people feel they can be themselves. We don’t ask them to come out, but if I have a junior or midlevel-management employee and I see that my male, white manager is supportive, I feel a lot better. I don’t have to come out, but it’s just a feeling of “I belong here.”

Harry O’Neill: Yes, that’s a great point. You have a situation where people are not being unconsciously discriminated against, and unconscious bias is something that everybody is becoming increasingly aware of. And in relation to the LGBTQ community, it’s something that can be addressed if you have a network that is spreading a positive message about the community and the reason why that part of diversity is important.

Robert Ronneberger: An example of how we went about bringing that change and driving inclusion within the APAC region is through events. One particular example that was extremely successful in creating that relevance was a parent-sharing session that we hosted and in which we invited parents of LGBT children into the office to talk to our audience, which was made up of mostly parents or those who would likely be parents at some point in the future. The parents of these LGBT children talked about their own journey, having their children come out to them, which at the beginning was probably a surprise or even a shock, particularly in the APAC region. But then you see these parents, sitting in front of a corporate audience like BlackRock and talking about their experience—from being shocked to, completely the other way around, driving inclusion—and how you can build environments that your children, no matter what age they are, can grow up in. I think the question we want every employee in our firm to ask themselves is how they would react if their children, their daughter or son, was coming out to them.

Harry O’Neill: How can multinational companies like BlackRock have one inclusive policy worldwide, or, given the very different attitudes toward LGBTQ issues around the world, do you have to have individual policies?

Robert Ronneberger: Referring to my experience at the Interbank, different firms take very different approaches to this. Some of them have very tailored policies that are respective to the Hong Kong market. The way we look at it at BlackRock is that we have a policy in place that’s global, and this policy seeks to protect employees in general but also the minorities and the LGBT community within the firm. This policy is in place in all the countries that we do business, but having a policy on paper is one thing but actually enforcing it is another. Again, we don’t ask people to come out, but what’s important here is that managers within these businesses openly voice their support for diversity and particularly for the LGBT community because it’s invisible. It’s making that support visible, because if people come to work and feel comfortable, that’s really important, and again it goes back to the business case for talent retention.

Harry O’Neill: Why do you think that the financial services community in general has been so supportive? You talk about Interbank quite regularly, which is an association that was formed in Hong Kong of leading financial institutions, both global and regional, that provide support to LGBT networks within their member organizations. Am I interpreting that correctly?

Robert Ronneberger: Yes, that’s correct. While the LGBT Interbank Forum in Hong Kong has been around for quite some time, it was officially founded three years ago. As to why the financial services industry is on the forefront of LGBT inclusion, if you look at the business case for LGBT inclusion, the bottom line is that, if it builds inclusive environments where everyone can be themselves, it has a positive impact on the bottom line, so it’s profit. And if you look at the different aspects of the business case, a lot of it is employee attraction and retention, and the financial services industry is very much dependent on talent. That’s the most important asset that a company can have. So we talk a lot about productivity of employees who are out versus in the closet, and there has been a lot of research done in that aspect. The research says that productivity increases somewhere between 20–30% for someone who is openly out at the office. We have approximately 2,800 employees in the APAC region, and assuming that 5–10% of them belong to the LGBT community, that’s somewhere between 140 and 280 people. Now if you have this 140 to 280 people working with an additional 20–30% of productivity, that’s, so to say, free headcount. It might be a vague statement, but it works with a lot of senior managers who need to be convinced about this particular issue. On the other hand, it’s about acknowledging that we don’t have an environment where people feel comfortable, and we have this 140 to 280 people leaving the firm immediately. So why are financial services on the forefront of this? They are very pragmatic firms, they understand the business case, they want to make sure to hire the best talent, and they want to build and leverage that talent to solve problems that are getting increasingly complex.

Harry O’Neill: Looking toward the future, what do you think is needed to keep fostering and increasing awareness for the LGBTQ community and their concerns in the workplace?

Robert Ronneberger: Many firms have come a long way in building environments that are welcoming diversity in general. What I want to stress, and what I’ve seen within the Interbank, is that there are many incidences where this conversation, the dialogue about LGBT inclusion, stops, maybe because senior management is changing or because of turnover in the LGBT working group network, and that stops the dialogue. This is bad. It’s bad in the sense that driving inclusion within your four walls, or maybe even the broader financial services industry, requires an ongoing educational approach, an ongoing dialogue, an ongoing sharing of experience. So it’s not a one-off; it’s an ongoing process. And that’s what we see fail in some of our peer firms, because of change within the firm.

Harry O’Neill: So it needs to be institutionalized to be able to outlast the efforts of any one individual or even a small group of individuals who may, as in your own case, start an initiative.

Robert Ronneberger: That’s correct, and I think institutionalized in the sense of building a framework; building a pipeline of future network leaders; making sure that, once you are progressing within your own career, other people can take over. That’s a great learning experience for anyone.

Harry O’Neill: And do you think this is the same for society as a whole? We live in an environment where the LGBT community is not necessarily fully understood or always welcomed.

Robert Ronneberger: There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. And looking at society overall, you have different groups that have different stances when it comes to inclusion of LGBT individuals in society. We have a long way to go when it comes to this, but the good news is that all the younger folks, all the millennials who are studying and who will enter the workforce or who have already entered the workforce, come with a mind-set that’s very different from some of the more mature parts of the population. In other words, the conversation that we’re having today might not be as relevant in 10 or 20 years, because these young people have taken over the leadership roles, and that will change society.

Harry O’Neill: Talking about 10 or 20 years in the future, what would a fully inclusive society look like to you?

Robert Ronneberger: To talk about a fully inclusive society, I think we have to take a step back and consider what inclusion means in a social, economic, but also political context. We’ve covered the social part, but politically and economically, we’re still lagging behind. What does the perfect society look like? If I walk down the street and I see an interracial couple, for example, I still find myself thinking, What’s going on here? How did that happen?—all these unconscious biases that every one of us has. Having these second thoughts just shows you that we are very far away from [a perfect society]. A perfect society means that we don’t have these second thoughts, that we maybe got rid of these unconscious biases. And where things like having a same-sex partner is mainstream, it’s common, it’s being seen on the street all the time, so you don’t have these second thoughts, and people don’t judge you.

Harry O’Neill: Robert, you often have the opportunity to speak to groups around the region about inclusion and diversity, and in particular with a focus on the LGBTQ community, how do you engage those groups and get across the message that there is a real business value in this?

Robert Ronneberger: The most important thing that I do with pretty much any bigger audience that I talk to is to show them how LGBT is relevant to themselves. A lot of people don’t know that it’s actually relevant to them. So I ask three questions right at the beginning. The first question I ask is for everyone to get up who’s part of the LGBT community. In many cases, it’s only me standing up because everyone else is a little bit too shy. The second question that I ask is for people to stand up if they have friends who are part of the LGBT community or part of their family belongs to the community, and usually you get quite a decent proportion of the audience standing up, usually somewhere between 20–30%, and in some instances 50%. And the last question that I ask is if they have colleagues or peers in other firms [who are part of the LGBT community], and that usually gets the entire audience to stand up. And if someone is still sitting, I usually point to them and ask them for a coffee after the presentation.

Harry O’Neill: Robert, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today.

Robert Ronneberger: Thank you very much for having me here today.

Harry O’Neill: And thank you for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast.

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