I’ve been working with leaders in organizations of all sizes to build inclusive cultures that last, from startup to scale, for over 25 years. I’ve seen leaders and companies come and go.

So, I’m a bit skeptical when I hear an executive talk about how inclusive their organization is, how much they love diversity, and everything they’re doing to promote equity, and then everyone looks alike, sounds alike and lawsuits are piling up.

But two events made me think that maybe VMware is different. I heard Mia Leondakis, VP of Business Transformation at VMware, speak at the Watermark Conference for Women this year, and then I ran into John White, a Senior Systems Engineer at VMware.

Two different people, two different functions, different genders and ethnicities saying the same things about why they love working at VMware.

I decided to delve further and interview Leondakis. Here is what she told me.

"Inclusion is inherent to everything we do. It’s not just an HR program. It is about cultural transformation that involves everyone from the CEO to employees at every level. Diversity is essential but it’s not enough. People have to feel like they are a part of the organization and that they belong in order to innovate and thrive. That is our mission at VMware."

"Our culture values inclusion — providing opportunities for every employee to succeed, and championing and maintaining our diversity so that it is embedded in the mind, body and soul of VMware. It’s in how we think, who we are and what we do."

Some organizations lack accountability when it comes to diversity and inclusion. There is a mindset that once you have representation of culture, race, gender, etc. the work is done, and they’ve achieved DEI Nirvana.

When asked about that, Leondakis said, "Accountability is crucial. All executives have diversity and inclusion goals, are held accountable to our CEO, and we keep track through real-time dashboards. We use tools to ensure that our job descriptions are unbiased, and interviews are conducted by a diverse panel."

Biased job descriptions tend to narrow and discourage people from applying. Interviewers can be biased without realizing it.

Research has demonstrated that a single interviewer tends to be warmer to a candidate that is like them, gets more smiles and more time, even if they ask the same questions. While some candidates may find panel interviews intimidating, they are more objective and less likely to result in hiring bias based on similarity.

I was working with a client whose new hire retention was abysmal, particularly for African-Americans. After conducting an assessment, I found that even though they were hiring more African-Americans, there was no new-hire welcome process.

It’s hard enough to be the "new hire on the block," but when the great majority of employees don’t look like you, it’s even harder. People were leaving and going to organizations where they were made to feel welcome right away.

When asked about it in her organization, Leondakis said, "Every new employee goes through new hire orientation so that from the first day, they know how to get involved, so they can feel comfortable contributing. We know it is easier for new hires to assimilate into the organization when they feel welcome and included from the outset."

During the last couple of years, some companies have gotten rid of employee resource groups because they said they "didn’t work." They didn’t work because they were never seen as integral resources internally and externally. They weren’t empowered to be resources, lacked a budget and actively involved executive presence.

VMware considers Power of Difference communities (PODs) — its version of employee resource groups — key to ensuring inclusion and harnessing the power of human difference.

As the executive sponsor of the Latin POD community, Leondakis is involved with the PODs in a hands-on way and takes her role as an ally to Latino employees seriously.

The company recently brought the POD leaders together from across the globe to meet with the executive team for several days to partner on strategies, share best practices, and align on goals. Each executive also shared their personal commitments to D&I. POD members are also encouraged to be allies for other groups.

Organizations often lack a formal process to integrate new hires that makes them feel welcome, included, and like they belong.

Leondakis stated, "Everybody goes through new hire orientation training and gets to meet everyone. From their first day they are offered ways to get involved, so they can feel comfortable contributing."

Shortly after interviewing Leondakis, I ran into White, the Senior Software Engineer. It’s been my experience that it’s not uncommon for a senior leader to rave to be about diversity and inclusion in their organization, and then to hear a different perspective from employees.

White was saying how much he loved his job, and I didn’t know he was talking about VMware until I asked him. I heard him say, "Unlike other companies that talk about their values and hang posters on the wall but do nothing, my company actual lives the values of inclusion."

He said, "Our values and practices were codified by executives and employees together. It wasn’t just ordered at the top. Everyone was involved. More than one executive has said we need to do the right thing for the customer and also keep our people and their family’s needs in the forefront. If things are not going well at home, they won’t be able to do their best work. I’ve always felt supported by VMware as an individual and part of the organization’s success."

Inclusive organizations have to have inclusive leaders at every level.

Leondakis shared one of her best practices for sustaining inclusion, "Take the time to get to know your team and learn what motivates each person. I spend time with employees to find out about their individual life experiences and what inspires them to succeed. When I understand them on a personal level, I provide the right types of opportunities for them to succeed."

Great organizations have to be led by great people who know how to lead inclusively.

When I heard Leondakis speak at the Watermark Conference about her values of inclusion and her passion for the people at VMware, I was inspired about possibilities. Always look to the leaders of an organization for what works (if the organization works) and what doesn’t (when the organization is not working).

Leaders bring their philosophy and style with them. People love working at VMware, and I have no doubt that wherever Mia Leondakis works, she will bring her leadership style of listening, inclusion and collaboration.