Christine Kalkschmid: Diversity and inclusion is about meaningful action, not statements

Christine Kalkschmid
Christine Kalkschmid has been hired by Canyon-SRAM to build and lead a comprehensive Diversity and Inclusion programme (Image credit: Canyon-SRAM)

Canyon-SRAM has just begun the first steps in a comprehensive and longterm diversity and inclusion strategy headed by expert Christine Kalkschmid, a lawyer, athlete and health and nutrition coach with years of experience leading diversity and inclusion initiatives at the corporate level. 

Kalkschmid is tasked with building a three-year plan to create and implement measures to bring awareness and education on the topic of diversity and inclusion, personal and team development, and a plan to hire and develop diverse talents at Canyon-SRAM.

Engaging with an external diversity and inclusion consultant that focuses on dialogue and education was listed as part of an action plan highlighted by the team and their clothing sponsor Rapha  (opens in new tab)following controversy over Chloe Dygert’s social media conduct last year, where she appeared to endorse racist and transphobic views on Twitter.

When Canyon-SRAM announced last week that they hired Kalkschmid to build a comprehensive diversity and inclusion action plan, they also stated that the team stands for and promotes open-mindedness, tolerance, respect and team spirit. They stated that the implementation of this new programme is intended to renew their commitment and to expand this attitude by putting a stronger focus on the topic of diversity and inclusion.

Canyon-SRAM recently concluded their ten-day training camp in Girona, Spain, where Kalkschmid introduced the first elements of her diversity and inclusion sessions; deep-level diversity discussions and evaluations. 

In an interview with Cyclingnews, Kalkschmid spoke about her experiences with team leadership in the corporate workplace, deep-level and surface-level diversity, and why diversity and inclusion are about meaningful action, not statements.

Cyclingnews: Tell us about your experience in Diversity and Inclusion consultation?

Christine Kalkschmid: I got involved in Diversity and Inclusion shortly after I started my professional career and Allianz [a multinational financial and insurance services company - ed.]. As a Black homosexual woman with big ambitions to make a career in a big global corporation, I got my first leadership position in 2006. I was usually the youngest, the only woman, the only Black woman amongst male heterosexual, white guys in black suits. That was my first touchpoint with diversity and inclusion.

That led me to participate in a project that was mostly about gender equality in 2008. From that point in time, and onward, and in parallel with advancing my leadership career, it was always something that accompanied me. I just brought the perspectives and then looked into it from a business perspective and team development and performance perspective. 

CN: How did you begin the conversation around diversity in a primarily white and male environment?

CK: Asking the question, how can it be? That among all of the employees, where roughly 50 per cent were women, when I looked at the first leadership level, it was below 20 per cent, the second leadership level was below 16 per cent, and the third leadership level women were non-existent. 

Asking the question, how can this be? And then, not being satisfied with the answers such as women are less ambitious, women don't want to lead, or women at some point decide to have a family. We need to find ways to make it a possibility [for women to take leadership roles] because I have come across so many smart, talented women with great leadership skills, and I wanted to find ways to encourage them to lead and pursue their careers. 

We started with women because when you start with zero, you need to focus on something, so that was the first focus topic, but we extended that to people with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ communities.

CN: What sorts of obstacles did you experience in the beginning phases of this work?

CK: The obstacles are still the same. The biggest obstacles are people being satisfied with easy answers and not trying hard enough.

For example, in my last leadership role, I was the head of Human Resources at Allianz in Switzerland, which included all HR topics, and diversity and inclusion, leadership development, and the recruiting process. I was involved in the recruiting process for the leadership positions. 

First of all, fighting the 'boys club', to be blunt, because there is a tendency to give the best position to the best buddy. So, we needed to ensure a proper job opening, and so that people can apply for this position. 

Second, trying hard enough, which means going one step further and trying to at least see if some women will be equally as good.

For almost every single hire, I had the same conversations. And especially in job requirements, which includes something as easy as how to phrase a job opening to not only attract males. 

CN: Have you noticed a common theme or problem in cycling if you compare it to your earlier years working with diversity and inclusion and leadership at Allianz?

CK: I also have a background in professional sports. I came from rowing, which was a very elitist and white sport. The common theme is general awareness. Usually, when we talk about diversity, we think about a majority level or an organisation. Organisations that are beginning with diversity and inclusion will discuss what it is, the benefit, and why it's important.

CN: How did you get involved with Canyon-SRAM?

CK: I'm involved in the Orvieto Academy for Communicative Leadership, which was founded by the former head of global communications of Allianz, who was a mentor during my professional career. Orvieto Academy is a network of experts for different topics, where I'm an expert for team and leadership development and diversity and inclusion. Whenever one of the companies they work with needs an expert in these fields, they ask me. The co-founder of the Orvieto Academy had worked for Canyon for many years on communication topics.

CN: Can you talk about the long-term project of building diversity and inclusion at Canyon-SRAM and what that entails?

CK: It was important for me to take on this mandate. I didn't want to present a diversity and inclusion training programme out of the box with everyone and say, "I'm going to do this training with all of you, and then we're good." What I learned from my career is that changing minds and opening up perspectives simply takes time.

What is also important to me is to not only talk about surface-level diversity, which is you being white and me being Black, male or female, but that we also talk about deep-level diversity. I have a passion for team development and team performance, so I think it's important for a cycling team to speak about deep-level diversity.

At the first Canyon-SRAM camp, the focus was on team development. We did a deep-level diversity assessment with the team about emotional needs, orientation, and things that are deeply anchored in the Olympic brain. These are the main influencers in how you think, make decisions, what communication you need to understand what someone else tells you. 

We analysed this deep-level diversity and discussed each of our differences with the team. So, even though all of the riders and team members, apart from me, are white, and all of the riders are female, we are all still totally different. We are starting from our personal values to developing a value statement for the team in total. It includes a vision and mission for the team to have a holistic picture and direction. 

The next step and the next session will discuss diversity and inclusion as a sole topic, which is surface-level diversity.

CN: Has the team released their new values statement, and can you share that statement?

CK: Yes, we came up with our values statement, and everyone signed it, so it was a great session. Every team member came up with their personal values first. We put them all on a wall and discussed which of these values are the joint team values, and what differentiates Canyon-SRAM from any other teams. I know the team will share it soon. The riders have asked to have this value statement in huge letters across their team bus. 

CN: The team stated that their will be measures to create awareness and continuing education on diversity and inclusion. There will also be personal and team development and a long-term plan to hire and develop diverse talents. Can you walk us through these three steps?

CK: Personal team development is referring to the deep-level diversity assessments to learn about the team. Even though the team looks quite homogeneous, we learned how different team members still are and how differently they think, their emotional needs are different, and what is important to each of them is different. We discussed specific situations that were important for the team to help understand their teammates and why people react in a certain way, think in a certain way, and act in a certain way.

I asked the team: What does being part of the team mean to me? To fully leverage my potential, we need to continue…? What do we need to start doing? What do we need to stop doing? It was interesting to see that these questions' answers closely matched their various types of personalities and their values. We will continue to work on the topic of personal and team development.

The awareness and continuing education on diversity and inclusion are something that we have had some initial discussions on, and we will have another session tomorrow [January 28]. We are going to get further into the details during our next training camp in February. 

Their homework is to tell me what they already know about diversity, what diversity and inclusion mean to them, what they think we are already good at, and what they think we can do better. I need this information as a starting point to know what kind of training and information they need that is relevant to them. There is nothing worse than giving training and information on things that are not relevant - it simply won't work. We will be starting with the awareness and then moving into continuous education.

The topic of developing and hiring diverse talent is the longest-term project, and we have been in discussion about a development team. We've discussed what this team could look like, and it includes basic things like; how to plan for future hires and how to ensure that we get the broadest and diverse possible range of applicants for every single position.

CN: I'd like to speak about the incident that happened with Chloé Dygert in which the team and clothing sponsor Rapha viewed as an endorsement for racist and transphobic views on social media. How has this been handled internally, and what does diversity and inclusion training look like following an incident like this, which has happened on other teams, too?

CK: I came to the team after the incident happened, and that was basically the starting point. The conversations that I have now are more in terms of; [when riders ask] what if I get asked this question and how should I handle it. The fact is that people are super unsure and don't feel comfortable giving interviews because they might be asked questions that they won't be able to answer. There are also many people around who are not interested in getting an answer but in starting an argument. 

I have prepared a language guide, which is not a guide that says "you are only allowed to say this and not allowed to say that," but a guide that provides context to certain things. For example, what is inclusive language and why it's not OK to walk into a room and say "hi guys" if there are both women and men, or why is it not OK to refer to the team of riders as "girls" when they are all adults. 

[The guide] explains, gives definitions and adds context to why we should not use certain terms because they are not inclusive or are offensive. It also gives historical background on some phrases some people still use simply because they are not aware of what's behind their meanings. It gives some guidance. 

CN: Does a team have a responsibility to be transparent, authentic and honest about how they handled an incident like this, for example, an outline of the actions and steps that were taken?

CK: Yes and no. I think that some transparency is good. For instance, to share that Chloé is in discussion with USA Cycling, in discussions with us at Canyon-SRAM, and that we have definitely taken action - this is important to know. To be honest, I am not willing to share every single action in detail or the slides that I present to the team. It is like a soccer game where you have all the perfect coaches at home with a beer in their hands, and they are all good at saying, "this is good and this is bad," and I don't like it. 

There are several ways to tackle things like this, and I think the people that are directly involved and who are in direct contact with the respective team should know best what is appropriate for them. We had a lot of discussions when I first got involved at the end of November. We laid out a plan of how the whole project could look over the next three years. 

There was a lot of pressure to say, "you have to do [diversity and inclusion] training, you have to do this, and you have to announce that - now." I said, "I could do this, but this would not change anything because if you really take a topic like diversity and inclusion seriously and want to change something within the team, then it takes time."

During the training camp sessions, we started slow and very low-key. First, I needed the team to get to know me before discussing basic emotional needs and things close to their hearts, why some values are important to them and why other values they don't agree with. First, you need to earn trust to be able to have these kinds of discussions. 

It's a different [approach] than just doing basic D&I training: here are the slides, and I explain all the facts, why it's important, and I tell you want to say and what not to say, and then we are all good. That would lead to people not being attacked for something they say or post because they would be super hesitant. It would not lead to a state of education that I want to achieve, where people learn the context and apply the general rules to any other situation. That is what I'm trying to achieve, and this simply takes time, but it's way more sustainable. 

CN: Are you confident that in three years, through this process, that Canyon-SRAM will be more diverse and inclusive?

CK: Definitely. Three years is enough time to change the culture in a way that diversity and inclusion become normal. So that everything and every single process ensures that we are diverse and inclusive. 

CN: Should more teams and organisations within cycling implement similar steps to become more diverse and inclusive, and to help move forward and become a more diverse as a sport?

CK: I think diversity and inclusion programmes would definitely help the sport become more diverse. The more, the better. 

CN: What more should companies, organisations, sponsors, teams and individuals in cycling be doing to bring better representation and diversity into the sport?

CK: You can state whatever you want, but if no action follows, then it's just words. We experienced this in November [following the incident with Chloé Dygert]; everyone asked us for a statement every single day, and we said, "let us first take meaningful action that changes something, and then we can talk about it." 

Many companies and organisations make statements on their websites about diversity, equality, and inclusion. Basically, they have all hired the same company to write their statements, and they read the same. It's a super nice statement, but in the context of everything else, you can see that it's just words. 

Think about the companies that use Black models and female models, and then look at the leadership team, top management and board-level at the same company. How many of them are women, Black or people of colour at the board-level? Usually, there are none. It's the classic [corporate] blackwashing of a company pretending to be super diverse and inclusive, but they are actually not. It's what does the most harm to developing into a truly more diverse and inclusive society. It's pretending, writing nice words and showing nice cover models and pictures, but not really changing anything. 

Our approach is the opposite; first, we change from within and then we show it. The sad thing is that we get attacked a lot because we are not saying enough and stating enough. Diversity and inclusion are never about statements; it's about meaningful action and really changing things. 

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Kirsten Frattini
Women's Editor

Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.