A Conversation About Diversity with Walter Manley

I sat down with one of TNL’s most beloved facilitators, Walter Manley, for a candid discussion about diversity today. It’s always a thrill to speak with this thoughtful and engaging man.

Brigid: Walter, tell me how you got into diversity training.
Walter:In the 70’s, I traveled to Africa as an actor with the US Information Agency (USIA), performing in Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon, and Zaire (now Congo). I then worked as an interpreter for the Zairian National Ballet during their US tour. I speak French, Spanish, Italian, and I’ve studied African linguistics. An administrator from the Peace Corps saw me on TV translating and invited me to do cross-cultural training for the Peace Corps in Senegal, Mali, Benin and Togo. I also taught a course called “women in development”, empowering the poorest women in the poorest villages to market their products and build small businesses.

Brigid: You then brought the cross-cultural training work back to the US, didn’t you?
Walter: Yes I drew on what I learned overseas to create a social literacy program for African American and Latino youths in NYC. This was under the auspices of The City University of New York Research Foundation, the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Employment. We focused on cross-cultural dynamics, conflict management, communications skills, pre-employment work-readiness, and male/female relations.

Brigid: So you went from acting in multiple languages, to translating, to cross-cultural training in Africa to training kids in New York City. What prepared you for all these transitions?
Walter: My father was a career military man, so as a kid I traveled…a lot. We had to make friends quickly and adapt to new environments. I’m sure that had a huge impact. Brigid, you had a similar upbringing, didn’t you?

Brigid: My father was a professor which meant I moved back and forth from the U.S. to England and Ireland, always going to local schools. My parents’ philosophy was sink or swim. It was just as tough fitting back into US culture after a year overseas as it was adapting to English and Irish schools. Moving a lot isn’t the easiest way to grow up but it taught Walter and me how to jump into new situations and connect with people quickly.

Walter: Yes and it gives us empathy for anyone on the outside looking in. We’re both deeply experienced in both the theory and practice of what we do—but we’ve also got skills we can teach that come from direct experience. Brigid you started out as an actress in New York City, didn’t you? How did you end up head of a Diversity and Inclusion firm?

Brigid: I was acting at night and working for Burson-Marsteller Public Relations by day. I then taught speech and writing at The City University en-route to my PhD. I left academic life in 1983 when I began offering communications coaching to the folks at Bell Laboratories (AT&T). My clients ranged from scientists and engineers preparing speeches and publications to Union workers. This was my first introduction to the politics of difference in organizations. I got to meet many highly talented women, minorities, and non-native speakers who were being frozen out of the mainstream. That’s what got me started on some of the earliest women’s initiatives and diversity training programs. Clients also began asking me to help them with team training and executive coaching; I got training in these disciplines as I went along, until I’d built up quite an arsenal of skills in the fields of Organization Development, Team Building, Group Dynamics and Diversity Training. And then we started working together!

Walter: When we first met, there was an instant connection–we’d both trained as actors, both taught communication skills, and were both passionate about diversity and inclusion. We have a great time together, and have always wanted to bring that joy into the workplace.

Brigid: We both disliked the confrontational, guilt-inducing diversity programs that were being offered at the time. We believe in building on the similar and then embracing difference rather than the other way around. How can people find common ground if they begin by emphasizing what they don’t have in common?

Walter: We worked together during the trivestiture of AT&T, the most significant organizational restructuring in the history of corporate America. People were angry with each other, afraid about the future, and needed to work through a number of issues together.

Brigid: Although we were called in to do “Diversity Training”, we understood right away what we really needed to do was inclusion work. We needed to help various groups connect and support one another before they self-destructed. We did it by getting people to access the creative parts of themselves and appreciate one another. We were able to help a lot of people through a very difficult time. AT&T’s failure to embrace change and learn from differences is one of the greatest tragedies in corporate history, and is well documented.

Walter: As a white woman, and a black male, Brigid and I demonstrate a creative partnership that allows people to see possibilities they haven’t seen before. We’ve had people come together from different levels, functions, units, and organizations. With our encouragement, people who refuse to speak to each other have discovered their shared needs and goals.

Brigid: I remember we’d look at people at the start of the day, and they’d be nervous they were going to be blamed for something. We took to saying at the start of every session: “today you’re going to have a wonderful time, we’re going to have fun, you’re going to learn about yourselves and each other, and we promise you’ll be glad you came.” It was a lot to promise, but it always came true. It’s a promise we continue to make today. So what’s next for Walter Manley?

Walter: I want to continue promoting inclusion and engagement through our Count Me In® and Success Circles™ programs. I find these offerings to be transformational, even spiritual, in helping people connect and grow. This work can be extremely beneficial to people in my own community as well as incorporate and non-profit settings. And what about you Brigid? What’s next for you?

Brigid: Anyone who watches Walter and I do a keynote can see we haven’t given up our passion for theatre. I’m experimenting with new ways of communicating about diversity and inclusion issues through a one-woman show. It draws upon my own personal experiences and those of many senior-level women I’ve coached over the years. So far, reactions have been great, and I feel this is what I’m meant to do.