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Elizabeth Apelles, CEO of global healthcare agency Greater Than One, talks about her commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion and how DE&I serves as the foundation of her approach to leadership.
Elizabeth Izard Apelles is the co-founder and CEO of The Greater Than One Group (GTO), a fully diverse, independent healthcare marketing and communications agency. GTO’s digital-first, technology-enabled framework uniquely leverages the convergence of content, media and data to advance your healthcare marketing investment and build powerful healthcare brands.
Ms. Apelles is also the co founder and CEO of GTO’s foundation, GTO Greater Good (GG),1 a 501c3 ”dedicated to giving back" and includes Honeycomb Health, a non-profit created to help people living with rare diseases that was recently was a finalist of the ”8 that innovate” at the Diversity Alliance for Science.
Here, Apelles talks to Pharm Exec about her commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion and how it serves as the foundation of her approach to leadership.
Pharm Exec: What does diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) mean to you, and why are they important?
Elizabeth Apelles: Diversity, equity and inclusion, across every type of human being, every type of behavior and background, means greater thinking and results. whether diverse in gender, race, geography, sexual orientation, gender identity, upbringing, or social activities, including all points of views and experiences forms better products, better service and a better company.
Creating inclusivity and equity with a diverse population can be challenging at times. in many ways, we don’t speak the same “language” which can cause confusion. However, those different “languages” can help to avoid herd mentality and keep a company sharp and innovative. Our people at Greater Than One are open minded and recognize that diversity is a strategic advantage. We embrace the differing viewpoints to build our culture. II believe very strongly that if you have a diverse organization, you get better thinking and better results.
As a sixty-year-old gay woman, I believe it’s just the right thing to do.
What is your approach to understanding the perspective of colleagues from different backgrounds?
Greater Than One exercises a learning culture to improve our organization and people. Whether through a self-learning journey, company sponsored trainings or our culture initiatives to highlight people and diversity, I approach different perspectives openly and in turn model inquisitive behavior for others to duplicate.
I enjoy the self-learning journey as I am a consummate reader and enjoy viewing perspectives from others in my growth. even back in the 90s, when John Gray’s book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus was published, I learned by reading how he articulated the different ways each gender made decisions. Better understanding about people’s backgrounds and tendencies helps me comprehend their encounters and how best to support them. It brings me awareness to their “why” so that I can encourage solutions. So, as a leader of Greater Than One, I think it’s up to me to do the learning I need to do in order to best understand and create a nurturing environment.
How do you get the entire company, including the leadership team, on board with diversity initiatives?
Diversity needs to be integral to any organization if they are to be successful. Greater Than One is no different and we have included DE&I into our leadership and company-wide training. our program is inclusive of awareness and acknowledgement of difference, but it’s also about communications, accountability and emotional intelligence. our executive team is going through a multi-part series to elevate e.g., build collaboration and cohesion, improve communications and engagement and ensure inclusivity of opinions to propel GTO forward. I believe this investment into our leadership will ripple throughout the company and bring us all together, albeit likely virtually.
COVID has strained many of the norms we have all be used to. meeting in person allows us to see below the surface and create connections to reduce barriers. The future of remote work will require more effort, more meetings, more scheduled social calls to support our DE&I programs. ours is a relationship business and we must all invest the time to making our bonds stronger.
What would you say is the most difficult part of implementing a DE&I policy?
Formalization of our programs and cascading of expectations in today’s (remote) work environment is key to maintaining our DE&I vision. “In the old days’, we could socialize together, do activities together, have our happy hours together and DE&I was just a normal factor in establishing who we are. Today, the challenge is competing priorities as we all navigate how the industry is changing and how work environments are changing. At Greater Than One, we must remain flexible and agile and prepared for the changing landscape.
Can you describe a time when you advocated for diversity and inclusion in the workplace?
I have been advocating for diversity from day one of when we opened the company doors. for Greater Than One to live its namesake, I ensured we have representation for gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. and I built practices and expectations to maintain that as a key component of our company’s success.
Have you ever attended formal diversity and inclusion training, or required it?
Yes, Greater Than One provides a pretty robust diversity and inclusion training program, of which I attend every session.
What type of thinking went into the diversity program that you put together?
While Greater Than One has always had a diversity initiative, we recognized that the last 18-24 months have raised more concerns and awareness around DE&I. together with our head of talent and a third party, we developed a comprehensive program to address and augment our DE&I agenda. the enhanced program included team effectiveness from a diversity lens. it touched on stress management during difficult times from an inclusivity approach. overall, it was fabulous, and we are really glad to have this as part of our learning journey for GTOers.
What were your priorities in creating a diversity inclusion program for Greater Than One?
We are a diverse company; we’re woman-owned and LGBT-certified. My main priority is creating a respectful way of communicating with people. To create an atmosphere that nurtures highly functioning, diverse teams that are comfortable in disagreeing and having different opinions but at the end of the day coming up with a solution that everyone is on board with.
Have you ever experienced or witnessed a lack of inclusion in the workplace and if so, how did you address the situation?
I can recall a time prior to Greater Than One whereby I tried to disarm the situation with humor to bring awareness to the parties without causing friction. In the end, it’s about acceptance and creating productive relationships.
As a diverse organization, there will inevitably be a moment where someone will lapse in their inclusivity. As previously mentioned, we all come from different perspectives and different backgrounds. DE&I is a journey and as long as people can learn and grow through interactions, I’m confident we can keep the ship righted and moving forward.
How is your approach to diversity and inclusion different from when you started in the business? Was it even talked about then?
Twenty years ago, when Greater Than One started, it wasn’t talked about as a priority as it is today. For me, it’s always been important — period, and I’ve stuck with that. as the creator of this agency, it was just natural to be diverse and inclusive. I guess you’d say we just started with DE&I at the core of who we are and didn’t really talk about it as an initiative.
In 2020 and 2021, with the societal shifts and heightened awareness of movements like black lives matter, numerous women’s movements or Asian American and Pacific Islander discrimination, it’s paramount that we talk about it, often. The more we can continue to bring awareness to what binds us together and not what sets us apart, the more we will rise as one, better than before.
You mentioned that diversity is not a linear process. Could expand on that?
It’s not linear in the sense that it’s not a one-and-done exercise. as people enter and exit the workforce, our makeup of teams change. We need to maintain an awareness and commitment to always look at who we are and how we grow.
Recognition and understanding of our differences help to keep businesses moving forward. It ripples to our clients and their diverse views which then supports the diverse lives of the person or patient we are trying to reach. starting with empathy, assuming positive intentions and gaining understanding is how we navigate the nonlinear process of DE&I.