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| 11 minutes read

CMO Series REPRESENTS - Terra Davis of Knobbe Martens on Fostering Psychological Safety, Inclusion and Belonging

In this episode of the CMO Series REPRESENTS Podcast, Yasmin Zand is lucky to sit down with Terra Davis, Chief Diversity & Talent Development Officer at Knobbe Martens. Terra joins the series to share her journey, why she started advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion, and the critical role of psychological safety in law firms.

Terra discusses the strategies and programs she is working on to drive change and innovation to create a safe and inclusive workplace where everyone belongs, as well as advice for others looking to promote psychological safety within their firms. 



Yasmin: Welcome everybody to the CMO Series REPRESENTS Podcast. I'm your host, Yasmin Zand, and I'm joined by Terra Davis, Chief Diversity and Talent Development Officer at Knobbe Martens. Hey Terra, how are you?

Terra: Hey, I'm doing good. How are you?

Yasmin: Really good. Thank you so much for joining the podcast today. It's really great to have you.

Terra: Great to be here.

Yasmin: So today on the CMO Series REPRESENTS Podcast, Terra is going to take us on a journey through her career showing us how she started advocating for diversity equity and inclusion long before DE&I became a buzzword, we'll be shedding light on the important role psychological safety in law firms and how Terra is driving change and innovation to create a safe and inclusive workplace where everyone belongs.

But Terra, I know we've talked a little bit and we have some questions prepared. So I think our listeners are probably really eager to hear some of your responses when it comes to your career. So I will just jump right in. So how did your early career experiences shape your path to championing diversity equity and inclusion in law.

Terra: Yeah. So it is funny, it feels like this was always meant to be the path for me though. I didn't know early in my career that it would be the path for me. So when I started my career, I did not start in the legal industry. I actually started in the education sector and I was working at Drexel University within their College of Medicine. And I was very fortunate to work with it for its Institute for Women's Health and Leadership. And that institute really focused on gender equity. So it focused on how to get more women in senior leadership positions within the C suite, on a board? And also, how do we focus on women's health? So we talked about things like getting enough sleep at night and, the health disparities because we were in the College of Medicine, and it was really long before this, about 11 years ago. Now, this was long before, you know, as you said, Yasmin, DEI was a buzzword. So we were exploring some topics and some uncomfortable things that we felt would really help women get to the next level within their career path. And I was deeply inspired by the people that I worked with. I worked with an all women team. So it was a small team but a mighty team. And it was the first and last time that I worked with such a diverse group of people in a professional setting. When I moved into the legal industry, I noticed that it lacked that type of diversity. I noticed that the folks who were representing a historically marginalized community did not really speak up in meetings or participate at the level that I had experienced at Drexel. And it became a very interesting time for me where I started to really challenge and ask questions of the law firms that I was a part of to better understand why that was, I had taken some courses while at Drexel around counseling. And one of the most impactful courses that I took was a class on white privilege. And my cohort and I focused on having really, really tough conversations about what white privilege is. How does it show up in our daily lives? How does it show up in our professional lives? And also what are the implications that could have on people we might be counseling later on? And all of that really helped me when I got into the legal industry to be more comfortable in uncomfortable conversations, especially where the culture may not necessarily fit. And finally, I'll say this, I had some really great mentors who saw something in me and told me early on, like, really told me and encouraged me to build out my leadership skills, my executive presence and also focus on DEI more, like lean into it more in any capacity that I was in. And so I was doing communications and marketing and business development and there wasn't. It didn't at the time seem like DEI fit and I found ways and advocated for myself to find ways for it to fit. And I also, at the same time, spent a ton of time understanding law firm culture and historical references within law firm culture to drive change.

Yasmin: That's really impactful. And I feel like mentors always play a really big role in your career traction, of course, right, like you can lean on those people and they are able to kind of mold you from a younger age and you can really lean on things that you're, you know, naturally more inclined to doing and then also kind of push you to try things that are harder. Something that I wanted to go back to a little bit was when you were talking about your experience at the women's health institute and you said that you felt so safe around such a diverse group. Something that I thought was really interesting when we last spoke was when we talked about psychological safety and why it's so important in a law firm. So would you mind kind of describing and defining psychological safety for us and just explaining what the importance is especially in legal?

Terra: Absolutely. So I recently read a Harvard Business Review article that provided this definition for psychological safety. And the definition said this: “Psychological safety means that it's ok to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions and to admit mistakes all without fear of negative consequences.” And after completing my personal DEI certification with Cornell, I can say that this definition deeply aligns with my own. Psychological safety is more than a fancy term that goes hand in hand with DE&I, it's an organization's cultural foundation.

Yasmin: That's great. And so just in your experience, I feel like you've really taken psychological safety and just it's, it's meaning to you um really to heart and I feel like it's probably something that you can speak a lot on. So what strategies and programs do you recommend implementing to promote psychological safety and that sense of belonging that you were speaking about?

Terra: There are so many strategies and programs that any organization or law firm can do to really implement and promote psychological safety and a sense of belonging. One is engaging in active listening. I would say by beginning important meetings are with ground rules. So have a leader, let folks know that their opinions are important to the conversation and that you want to hear from them. Let them know that there is a reason why they are in that meeting. Hearing this from a leader is empowering and builds team confidence. You let them know that if they have something to say and would like to speak offline. They can do that but the comments made in the presence of the entire team or meeting attendees will be heard without penalty or fault. You can also set the tone in a meeting, letting everyone know that they will be called on to speak and provide on one point of insight. And if they wish to pass, they can say pass. And I think another tactic is to work with your HR and DEI leadership to develop an engagement survey that has questions around psychological safety. And I would say the final thing is use retreat time, many firms engage in annual or biannual retreats, use a time as a way to set the tone and perhaps invite an expert from the outside to walk alongside your firm, the issue spot and build psychological safety and belonging. You know, if you feel like there's no tools, there are plenty of tools and there are trainings that are available and coaching that's available and above all else set the tone in the meetings because the meetings are where you really build that psychological safety and belonging first.

Yasmin: You presented us with like with three incredible kind of, you know, programmatic ways to address psychological safety. What are the typical challenges that you kind of see when you're trying to implement that? So even with active listening, you know, how do you tell leadership you need to start listening and you need to give people the space to, you know, feel heard for sure.

Terra: So I think before I can get into the challenges, I have to address law firms have a cultural history embedded in waiting your turn. That is based on power and influence that comes with seniority and a book of business. It's just the nature of the law firms, especially law firms that have been around since the 1800s. So in considering DEI these have not included the folks who represent a historically marginalized community. So it's really important to look for folks that do represent a historically marginalized community, bring them into the fold, provide them with the tools and keys to become influencers and folks with more power and also observe where they may stand in the background. So observe when you, when you do see them in meetings or you see them at firm events or activities where they might retreat or they might go into wallflower mode because like I said, historically, traditionally in a law firm setting, it's better to be in the middle or behind the scenes than it is to be in front. And especially if you're a person who doesn't have power or influence. And again, that power, influence and seniority usually comes with a book of business. And those people don't always look like they come from a diverse background. So I think that in looking at key challenges, you have to take the historical context into consideration of how law firms have been built and how they have continued to sustain that and protect that in ways that can be harmful.

Yasmin: Definitely. And I feel like there have to be, you know, there are some law firms I think who are doing a great job at recognizing that historical, you know, problematic kind of like waiting game of like, you know, the longer that you are quiet, the better you will be, you know, in the long term. But for, you know, other firms who are really starting to engage in DE&I efforts and just trying to understand, okay, like what, you know, what can we be doing better or like, you know, what's the risk here? Like how do you evaluate that? Like what is the risk for firms who don't really address psychological safety? Where are people missing that and what do they stand to lose?

Terra: So they stand to lose money. I'm not talking about just financial gain built through revenue that is client driven. I'm talking about employee engagement and losing folks who are high potential employees and who can bring a lot to the table. Every time an employee leaves the company or organization, that company or organization loses roughly three times that employees salary and that's based on research that is pretty current. Think about it this way when an employer can't retain its employees because that employee isn't being heard or feels threatened if they do speak up, that employer must go through the hiring process all over again, which is risky. They spend six months to one year training that new employee to be just as good, if not better than the person they're replacing. They also end up increasing the salary to remain competitive in the job market where if they were able to build stronger psychological safety within the organization, there's a higher likelihood that not only that will that person stay, they will also contribute in ways where they provide revenue driven initiatives and ideas further. Again, they'll be able to provide revenue driving initiatives and ideas further. So at the end of the day, they stand to lose money.

Yasmin: I love that. I love the way that you position that as well. I just think that, yeah, I totally agree, there are so many opportunities for people to be able to, you know, expand and grow and then when people leave a firm, it's just so hard on everybody else as well. So just making sure that, you know, the people inside are happy and feeling safe, I feel like it just makes the world of a difference. So thank you for sharing that. So we're at our last question, Terra and this is kind of one of my favorite questions that I get to ask people, what's your one piece of advice for professionals looking to foster psychological safety, inclusion and belonging in their firms?

Terra: Oh, I cannot stress this enough. Yasmin. Remember that it requires intentionality. You cannot sit around and wait for these things to happen from the top or from the bottom. You have to train everyone, supervisors and leaders, especially, on leadership management, building stronger teams that are centered around psychological safety, inclusion and belonging. I think the blessing of the unfortunate events of 2020 is that there's so many experts out there who can coach internal teams on how to do this effectively and each organization and its needs are different. So the brown bag one time lunch training may not be effective enough. This could take a year to build someone holding the entire firm accountable to make real meaningful change or it could take many years. And so you have to be patient in that. But one of the things that I think really frustrates folks, especially folks who are representing communities or leaders within the DEI space is that patience is long-suffering and so firms will use it as an excuse for why change is not happening at all. They'll say we'll just be patient and you have to wait. And that's why I have to go back to the number one piece of advice is it requires intentionality. So you can't just sit around and you can't just use the excuse of being patient. Yes, it requires patience and yes, it's coupled with patience, but more importantly than that is there needs to be a demonstrated intention behind it.

Yasmin: That's so impactful. And I think, you know, that's why Terra, you're kind of leading the charge in all of this is there's so much intention that's needed and you need somebody who's going to drive that. So thank you for sharing that. That’s something I'm going to take home with me today as well. So I'm gonna wrap us up here. I know that was only a pretty quick episode, but Terra thank you so much for taking the time out of your very busy day, to chat with me. I feel like there are a lot of really good takeaways for folks who are listening. And I know that, you know, you're gonna be continuing to drive the change. So I'm very excited to see what goes on at Knobbe Martens.

Terra: Yes. Thank you, Yasmin and thank you to the Passle team as well. It's been a pleasure to be a part of this series and I hope that some folks will be able to listen during their lunch hour or on their way to work in between their favorite podcast or show and be able to take these quick bites of what I hope to be advice and wisdom and bring that back to their firms.

Yasmin: Thank you so much. All right to everybody who's listening. Thank you again for joining, and we hope to have you all back very soon. Thanks, everyone.



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