Carrie Hightman, Chief Legal Officer, NiSource Inc

Hightman has long been an advocate for inclusion and diversity, and is company-wide executive inclusion and diversity champion at NiSource Inc. She shares her experience in founding a women’s leadership program, and the importance of clear business leadership in advancing all areas of D&I.

It bothered me that we didn’t have any kind of support for women, so we started in 2012 by holding a summit in Chicago for the top 125 women at the company – not just lawyers – and we brought in high-profile speakers like the attorney general of Illinois who, at the time, was a female. We had a great program, and it kicked off a three-pronged women’s leadership approach: annual summits – which also included regional summits where we got deeper into the organization with more junior women – a women’s mentoring program, and a women’s employee resource group.

As I started working with women on those programs, one of my close friends became the President of the American Bar Association, and she asked me to participate in the Commission on Women in the Profession. It was through my involvement in that that I actually started to really understand the various ways to manage outside counsel and inside counsel in a way that advances diversity.

When we started this women’s leadership program, of course, I tried to get as many of the women within my department involved, although there was competition with women from throughout the whole company. But within the department, I really tried to make it clear that a person’s diversity of any sort should not in any way impede their ability to influence or participate in activities – and so it was really about leadership and sending the right message from the top.

At the same time, I looked at our outside firms and recognized that there is ‘power of the purse strings’. That being able to choose comes with the ability to ask for things that maybe firms wouldn’t otherwise do. So every year we assess our preferred provider program, and we evaluate business-related aspects of their performance. I started adding in (and this was something that I’d learned through the Commission on Women in the Profession) factors related to diversity – so we would ask the firms every year to provide us diversity statistics for the firm as a whole and for the team that supported us, and I also ask about succession planning: when the relationship partner is retired, who are you training to take over for this business? I make sure that, to the extent possible, client service teams for every matter are diverse.

One thing that I’ve always known is, if you ask people for this kind of information, they are really going to focus on it, and if you don’t ask, then they don’t think about it. So we collect this data, put it in a table every year, and plot it over multiple years. And when the leadership of the client service team, the relationship manager, comes in every year to visit during our annual review, these firms are concerned if their numbers didn’t improve firm-wide and client service team-wide.

It’s funny – the smallest firm in our preferred provider program, which is an 11-person firm, takes it the most seriously, and that was interesting to me. We have lots of conversations with the firms about what we expect, and I see that there is a greater effort to bring women into the teams. I actually even ask questions about compensation and who is getting billing credits – so it goes all the way down; it is a complete discussion. I think it creates a clear expectation on my part and it creates some good conversations, and I think it makes people make changes in how they do things.

The women’s leadership program evolved into a broader diversity program – including ethnic diversity. The CEO asked me to be the executive inclusion and diversity champion for the company – which was great, because I was excited about being able to do more.

Being able to take that role enabled me to push some issues. We expanded the program; we have so many more employee resource groups now than we ever did before – we have Women, Hispanics, African Americans, Veterans, Multi-generational, and Pan-Asian groups. And the last one we created, which I’m really proud about, and of which l’m the executive sponsor, is NiPride – our LGBTQ employee resource group. That was a really big deal.

I think being a woman is what influenced my work in this area. I don’t think being a lawyer is what matters; I think it’s being in a senior leadership role that gives you gravitas and authority, and people listen. You don’t realize how much people listen until you talk about difficult issues, and you get people to listen, and then to follow. People care a lot, but there’s also an element of having the courage to pursue it. It’s really easy to have a passion; it’s also easy to say ‘Well, they said I couldn’t do it’, or ‘They told me no’. You’ve got to have the courage to challenge pre-existing ideas and to move forward, even when it’s not necessarily the popular approach.

One of the biggest mistakes that I made in the beginning was not recognizing that in order to have an effective inclusion and diversity program, you cannot exclude the men – you have got to include women, men, everybody, because otherwise you’re talking to yourself and to the people who already get it. You need to be talking to everybody about the issues, because women alone can’t solve the problem. It’s got to be a conversation with everybody.

One of the things we found when we had the women’s leadership program, was that the men thought we were just going out and having fun, or drinking tea. We had serious, business-focused programming to develop the women based on various issues that they were concerned about at the time – but the men don’t know unless we tell them, right? And that’s the whole point: to let everybody know about the things that are of concern and work together on those issues. We want men to be mentors as well as women. Where does the power lie? The power lies in the people that are at the top and the numbers show that most of them are not women. So if you limit it to just women mentors, then you’d basically be diminishing the value of the program from the outset. It’s about being open and talking about it from the executive level down – and that includes both men and women talking about the issues and supporting what we’re doing.

We have to look outside – if we don’t, we’ll always be getting the same answer. I think it’s important to know what’s going on outside of our company, otherwise we will never make a change, or we might not make the best change. I think it is helpful to have consultants – you bring in outside firms for legal work when they have specialty areas that you don’t have in-house. Even though we have a small inclusion and diversity team at the company, obviously they can’t be up on everything, so I think it is important to have outside help, to know what’s going on and to really understand everything before we make changes – and to understand what changes we should make.

This can never be about just work-life balance issues. If you start doing programs that are founded on addressing those kinds of issues, they’re going to be viewed as trite, as not substantive and not helping the business. You’ve got to show that what you’re doing is going to help meet the business goals and achieve our business objectives. That’s why I’ve always insisted on having really substantive, meaty, development- and business-focused topics for any of the programming we do, and for any of the support that we provide. For example, there was a point maybe eight, nine or ten years ago where the big focus of the company was execution – that was the mantra of the CEO at the time. So our programming was about how to execute. We had speakers on execution for women, how women have challenges in executing compared to men, and so it was about tying the programming to the goals and the needs of the business at the time. You need to have it clear to everybody that it’s all about meeting the needs of the business, it’s not about benefitting women just for women’s sake.