Leesa Hill, Partner, Human Capital & Head of DEIB, LEAD3R

Ask the Expert: Modeling Inclusive Leadership with Loyalty and Compassion

Articles Jun 6, 2024

Through our work with hundreds of clients, The Diversity Movement has connected with thousands of fascinating people who are creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces and communities. For this “Ask the Expert” series, we invite leaders to talk about their DEI journey, lessons they’ve learned, and what inspires them every day. 

Leesa Hill, Partner, Human Capital & Head of DEIB, LEAD3R 

Leesa Hill, Partner, Human Capital & Head of DEIB, LEAD3R  Headshot

Leesa Hill has over 25 years of experience in the Human Resources industry with deep expertise in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB), and Learning and Development. Leesa is currently Partner of DEIB & Leader Effectiveness at LEAD3R, a Human Capital Consulting organization. Prior to LEAD3R, she worked in human resource roles at Biogen, Pfizer and Kforce Inc. Leesa has a Certificate in Diversity & Inclusion for HR from Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School and is certified in the ED&I 360 & Inclusive Behavior Inventory Assessment. She was also recognized on Mogul’s list of the “Top 100 DEIB Leaders in 2022.” 

Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share the story of how you came to your current role? 

I have been working in both official and unofficial roles in the DEIB space for over 20 years. It’s the work that fills me. For the majority of my career, I have been in the HR space within pharma/biotech organizations. Working for mission-driven, patient-centric companies made it really easy to come to work every day because of the medicines we were creating to help people.  

Nearly five years ago, I shifted from an in-house HR role into the consulting space. This move has provided the opportunity to not only continue doing the foundational work of DEIB (e.g., Employee Resource Group standups, DEIB Councils etc.), but also parachute into hundreds of different organizations to think more holistically on embedding DEIB into HR programs, practices, and policies across the enterprise.

How are you working to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in your community? 

While the lion’s share of my efforts is focused on my role as a consultant, I also serve on the education committee for the LGBT Center of Raleigh and am a member of the HRC and ACLU.   

I am currently studying to become a menopause coach and receiving my certification to be a Mental Health Workplace Ally. I have also served as a mentor to several colleagues interested in the space of DEIB, and I’ve acted as an advocate and sponsor for two underrepresented women in my former organization. 

Can you describe a personal experience that fuels your passion?  

I have often told the story of the moment I fully understood what race can mean. As a White woman from the South, my road was pretty smooth. The occasional misogynistic comment at work about how I didn’t know how to use my brain or how fun it was to watch me get fat when I was pregnant—the usual suspects. But in general, I didn’t hit many barriers, even when I married someone who didn’t look like me, because he was “only” a dark-skinned Asian man. There were some ignorant comments directed towards us in public, with multiple people thinking I was the girlfriend or wife of my husband’s White friend, but still nothing really made me “get it.” 

It wasn’t until I was pregnant with our second child that the bottom dropped out. My 20-month-old and I were at a playground, and he was off watching a couple of 10-year-old girls on the swings. I was talking to a friend when I was jolted upright with what I heard coming from the swings. I stopped and listened to check if I would hear it again. And sure enough, the girls on the swing were pulling their eyes and chanting a racial slur at my child. At first, I could not understand what was happening. When it finally registered, the rage that filled me was like nothing I had ever felt. In that moment I realized that I was in a biracial marriage, and that meant I had biracial babies. How they looked could mean consequences, bias, prejudice, harm, and pain.   

That night as I played it all out, I knew I had to do something that changed the path for my boys (my toddler and his brother growing inside me in that moment) for a more equitable and inclusive future. That pivotal moment was 22 years ago; what a gift these boys and their father have given me. 

Can you tell us about a DEI win that you are proud of? It doesn’t have to be big, just meaningful for you. 

One of our clients is a large pharmaceutical company and they have had DEI seemingly imbedded in their day-to-day operations for years. In working closely with one of the business unit’s DEI councils, I discovered that the optional use of pronouns in their email signatures was not something folks commonly did. In sharing this observation with the team, they determined it was something they wanted to include as one of their annual goals, and I helped them build the business case to present to their executive committee for approval. With a bit of vetting with HR and Legal, the executive committee was supportive, and we were able to launch this campaign across their global business unit. Many executives modeled this for the organization as well. 

Although the use of pronouns might seem like table stakes, it actually isn’t. It was so heartening to see that with a bit of effort and a solid business case as to why this kind of inclusion matters, we were able to shift the culture of the organization. A total win. 

Character is so important today in our professional and personal lives. Which character trait do you think has been most helpful in your journey? Can you please share a story or example of that trait in action? 

I am the definition of “loyal.” If you are in my circle of people I love and care about, there is little I won’t do to protect and honor you. This sense of loyalty has served me well at work and in my most meaningful relationships. 

A few years ago, I took a giant leap of faith in joining a start-up HR consulting organization. I was a lifelong in-house HR professional and pretty risk averse, but my dear friend asked me to join his company, and I stepped off the cliff. The company had many highs and gave me opportunities I could only dream of. But we also had many lows, including several rounds of layoffs, pay cuts, and delayed pay. This company was everything to my close friend and although he would never ask directly, I wanted to be in the trenches with him (even when it was so painful) to help keep things afloat. I am happy to say that earlier this year he was able to sell his company, and we are now in a much more resource-rich situation. I fully believe that our loyalty to one another is a big reason for that success. 

What does inclusive leadership mean to you? 

The best leaders I have experienced show up authentically, vulnerably, and lead with empathy and intention. This to me is the core of being an inclusive leader.  

And being a model of inclusive behaviors is what it all boils down to for me. Whether asking a question for someone who isn’t comfortable doing so themselves, calling someone in for a comment or action that was harmful during a meeting, or bringing attention to inequitable parental leave policies, people are watching, listening, and learning.

As the Head of DEIB, I have to be vocal about learning, unlearning, and relearning every day. I make sure folks know it’s a brave space to make mistakes: When you know better, you do better, right? 

How can people follow you online or connect with you? 

Please connect with me in whatever way works best for you, I’m here for all of it. 

For more on inclusive leadership and how it drives employee engagement in any industry, look for The Diversity Movement’s new book, The Inclusive Leadership Handbook: Balancing People and Performance for Sustainable Growth, by Kurt Merriweather, VP of Marketing, and Donald Thompson, CEO. TDM has also created LeaderView, a leadership assessment tool that uses cultural competency as a driver for improving whole team performance.

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