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The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 178: Leading With an Inclusive Mindset with Denise Breaux-Soignet

June 08, 2022  |  By Matt Waller

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This week on the podcast, Matt sits down with Denise Breaux-Soignet, Director of the Tyson Center for Faith-Friendly Workplaces and Clinical Associate Professor of Management at the Walton College, to discuss the Center’s initiative. The Tyson Center for Faith-Friendly Workplaces helps students gain experiences, knowledge, and opportunities to connect with people of different religious and spiritual backgrounds in the workplace. Denise engages in important conversations about how diversity needs inclusion for co-workers and leaders to create great things together.

Get involved and learn more about the Tyson Center for Faith-Friendly Workplaces.

Episode Transcript

Denise Breaux-Soignet  0:00  
What you want is not just to have a bunch of different people, you want to have a bunch of different people who all feel respected and valued and important and that they belong in that place.

Matt Waller  0:11  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College and welcome to the Be EPIC podcast. I have with me today Denise Breaux-Soignet, who is Director of the Tyson Center for Faith-Friendly Workplaces. And she is Clinical Associate Professor of Management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Denise, thank you for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

Denise Breaux-Soignet  0:47  
Thank you for having me.

Matt Waller  0:49  
Denise, what is the Tyson Center for Faith-Friendly Workplaces?

Denise Breaux-Soignet  0:55  
That's a great question. Thank you for having me and for asking me about that. The Tyson Center for Faith-Friendly Workplaces was actually established in the Walton College back in 2009. We were known back then, as the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace. We were established through a grant from Tyson Foods and the Tyson Family Foundation. So John H. Tyson, who's the grandson of the founder of Tyson Foods was at the helm of this effort and of this gift, and was also at the helm of Tyson Foods effort in their own company to create what they call a faith-friendly work environment. And so what we like to say is our mission is to make the workplace of tomorrow more faith-friendly. And we do that by providing all of these opportunities for current business leaders and future business leaders, so particularly our students to have these experiences and gain knowledge and just to have opportunities to connect with people who are different from them in terms of their religious and spiritual backgrounds.

Matt Waller  1:59  
How did you get interested in this topic?

Denise Breaux-Soignet  2:05  
So that's a great question, I like to say I came to the Center because the stars kind of aligned for me. I think that this work definitely fits with my interest and the interest I've always had. But you know, religious diversity and religious diversity in the corporate world was not something that I came to directly. My PhD is in organizational behavior and human resources. And my MBA and bachelor's degrees are also human resource management focused. And I think I've always had a penchant for understanding like, some of the trickier interpersonal problems that we encounter in the workplace, and then helping to make them better, I like to help. I'm kind of a problem solver. And so that's just kind of a theme for me, in general, I like to find somewhere where I can sort of make an impact in that way. And I think people problems are the most interesting ones. And so I came to the center because the college, several years ago, was working through some challenges related to the center and my department chair put a taskforce together and asked for some help, and I happen to be one of those people. And through that process, I just discovered my connection to it, and to the Center and found this passion for being a part of the solution to these particular kinds of problems that we're realizing organizations are facing today. 

Matt Waller  3:25  
Could you give some examples of maybe activities that your Center engages in? 

Denise Breaux-Soignet  3:32  
Absolutely. And so, broadly, our mission is making the workplace more faith-friendly. And we think that, as a university environment, we have this really unique audience and this unique way to do that, because what we're doing is we are educating and training the future business leaders in our country and in our world. And so a lot of what we do, focuses on our students, they're some of our most important stakeholders. And so many of the projects that we do, and the things we've implemented are directly geared toward them and toward giving them resources, giving them opportunities. So we offer coursework, one of the first things that we did as a center was to create a course where our students, we've got business students, we've got non-business students, a place for them to come together and learn about people who might be different from them. Many of our students tend to come from Christian backgrounds, and many of our students don't have a lot of exposure to religious diversity in general, and they are going to have exposure to religious diversity in the workplace. And we want to give them the opportunity to learn about that diversity to learn about people who have come from a different environment in terms of their religious upbringing. We want them to understand why it is that people believe what they believe and why those things are important to them and how they impacts who they are, how that impacts what they think about work, you know, how they view their jobs and kind of the grander scheme of their life. And so in the course, they're learning, and they're learning about various traditions, but then they're also interacting a lot. And so we focus very heavily on giving them opportunities to have conversations with people who are different. So we bring in lots of guest speakers, we do various projects that give our students the chance to sit down with someone who they may not have sat down with before and just have a conversation. So that's one thing that we do other things that we do relate to providing, like financial support. And so we've got lots of great RSOs on campus, or Registered Student Organizations, many of those relate to our student's religious backgrounds. And so we provide grant funding for these RSO events that the group's hold. Some RSOs hold three or four events in a given semester, just kind of depending on on what their aim is. We provide them with financial support, so that they can have really great events. And our only requirement is that everyone is included, and everyone is invited to join those events, that gives everyone on campus, all of our students a chance to learn more and to participate in some of these activities. So we've got grant funding, we've got thesis funding opportunities for our undergraduate honors thesis students, some of their projects involve collecting data or traveling, things that require funding. And so we provide opportunities for that we also support research for our PhD students, anything that relates to the mission of our center, and there's lots of different things. There's lots of work being done that that relates to that mission. So we try to do whatever we can to support people learning more about people around them who may have a different religious background.

Matt Waller  6:51  
So when you think about being a leader, there was an article in the Harvard Business Review that I really liked. It was called In Praise of the Incomplete Leader. And I won't go into the details, but part of what their research showed that was that four primary ways that leaders lead is through relating, sense making, inventing a path forward, and visioning. You know, you think about those from a leadership perspective. Like if you're managing a bunch of workers that are from multiple, you know, faith backgrounds, and you have no idea about their faith backgrounds, it actually can be hard to relate to them in certain circumstances, which would hurt your ability to lead. So I could see how what you're doing would help people develop skills for relating, that would make them better leaders. But also, when you think about sense making, which is one of the four, sense making is, you know, taking things that are in the environment around you, and being able to interpret them and explain them in a way that would make sense to your group or organization. And I think, again, there's things that happen in the national news, global news, frequently that involves faith related kinds of issues. And I think that your sense making ability is very limited if you're not aware of these different faiths and so forth, and really visioning, visioning, most people when they think of visioning, they think of casting a vision for the future, where are we going? But really visioning also includes explaining why we're doing what we're doing today. In our case, like for faculty, it'd be, why do we teach? Why do we do research? Why do we engage in service? All these things? For students, why are you hear studying, etcetera. But the ability of a leader to vision is, again, it's limited if you don't have visibility to the different faith backgrounds that people might have. And all these things affect, he said, you know, leaders do three things, they set direction, they gain alignment, they provide motivation. So it's different than the four things I just mentioned. Those four things are what leaders do. He talks about how leaders lead. But at any rate, you think about it, being able to get people on the same page, being able to motivate them. So I know, it's really easy to miss this for people. But as our world has become more global, we're constantly, our alumni are constantly thrown into situations where they're dealing with people from India and China and Africa and South American and all over the place. Because you know, we have students that get out of here and within a few years they're managing amazing teams, it's always surprising to me. But I could see how your Center's work could really help them succeed in terms of leadership. Is that very much a part of the purpose of what you're doing?

Denise Breaux-Soignet  10:16  
So much to unpack and talk about there. Absolutely. I like to think broadly about inclusion. So what we're doing certainly fits into the whole idea of diversity, equity and inclusion. And to me, when I think about those things, you know, diversity is just differences, that having the presence of differences that is there, everyone around us is different. We're managing people who have different abilities, and strengths and religious backgrounds and all sorts of differences. Having diversity doesn't get you anywhere, other than to say that you have diversity, it's what you do with it, that matters. And so, you know, that equity piece is where those of us in the HR area think we will go and think about, well, you know, we have to have equitable practices and procedures and things that allow us to treat that workforce fairly, and allow us to make decisions about people based on what they bring to the table, as opposed to maybe characteristics of their identity that we sometimes make decisions about for the wrong reasons, right. So when you manage that diversity, well, what you're trying to get is inclusion. What you want is not just to have a bunch of different people, you want to have a bunch of different people who all feel respected and valued and important, and that they belong in that place. And there are so many things that come in that prevent that from happening, and religion is one of those. And so what we've seen not only in the corporate world, but also just like in our court system is it's kind of the last taboo, we kind of shy away from asking about religion, from talking about it, because we are afraid. This relates to other things as well, right? We don't engage with someone because we are afraid and maybe that we are afraid, not of the person, but we're afraid to say the wrong thing. We are afraid we're going to offend them, we are afraid we're going to break a law. And so we just kind of cut it off. And what that does is a couple of things, right? It, it prevents us from having relationships that could lead to really amazing things for our organizations. If we don't talk to someone, how will you ever know if we could collaborate with that person, the two of us together may come up with something incredible, but if we never talk we ever get there. So we stifle innovation, we stifle growth. It also leads to people, a lot of people feeling really excluded and feeling like they're not a part of things. And maybe I don't talk to you because I'm worried I'm gonna offend you. But the way you see that is I don't talk to you because I'm discriminating against you or because I don't want to talk to you, I don't value you, I don't think that you're important. For leaders to be able to build a climate in an organization that is inclusive, where people who are there feel like they are valued, just as they are. Their background, their skills, their knowledge, their abilities, their perspectives matter. And in fact, they could bring something to the table that no one else could because they have a completely different set of experiences. I think that's so important for leaders to be able to do that. And a big part of how they can do that is by, I mean, setting the example but then giving their employees opportunities to build these connections and to have these kinds of conversations with people so that we understand each other a little bit better.

Matt Waller  13:18  
I know that you have changed the name of the center, would you talk about what the name was? Why you changed it? What it is?

Denise Breaux-Soignet  13:28  
Yeah, so something that I realized in my first couple of years directing the Center was that I was spending a whole lot of time explaining to people who we were not. So the conversation was always, our name is the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace. But I want to be clear that we are not a religious advocacy center, I had that conversation over and over. And I realized through a little bit of time, that that was really important. So language is important and what we communicate in terms of the name of our Center is really important. Religious advocacy was never the purpose of the Center. This is a center that is here to help organizations to be more inclusive of their employees, regardless of their religious background. And that includes people who are atheist, people who are agnostic. It is not a center that promotes religion at work. We are not here to advocate that people be religious at work. Many people have a faith background. And for many people that's very, very important. Not everyone wants to bring that into the workplace. Not everyone, you know, wants to talk about that part of their identity, but it's important to lots of people. And so we want for workplaces to simply be an inclusive space for everybody, regardless of what that background is. And we realized we needed to do a better job of communicating that with the name of the Center, we wanted the name to really clearly reflect the mission and the purpose of the Center. So we started thinking about what that language needed to be and we kept coming back to this phrase "faith-friendly." It's at the heart of Tyson Foods efforts to be inclusive It actually started with Dr. David Miller. So David is a close friend and adviser to John Tyson. And he is the director of something called the Faith and Work Initiative at Princeton University. Back in the early 2000s, David was writing about this distinction between faith based companies. So companies that are built on like a particular religious foundation versus faith friendly companies, this word that he was using this phrase was meant to imply a company that recognizes that religion and spirituality are really important to a lot of people. And that, you know, our companies should respect that, the centrality of that and provide an environment that's welcoming and respectful and inclusive. And so that's really always been at the heart of what we do. And the name change really accurately reflects who we are and what we do, and will help to communicate that to people.

Matt Waller  15:51  
If a student's listening to this and they want to get involved. What steps should they take next?

Denise Breaux-Soignet  15:58  
We would love to be a resource for our students in any way that we can. So we always encourage them to reach out to us. I love getting emails from students saying, "I want to know more." Even if it's just, "I don't know what you do and I just want to understand more," just to get your foot in the door. We love having our students involved in any way that works for them, we like to say that we do a lot of throwing spaghetti against the wall. We're very sort of entrepreneurial and startup in that way. And that just because we're not doing something now for students doesn't mean we won't be doing it in the future. And students are often like the best source of of ideas. They know what they need, sometimes more than we do. And so if there's not anything happening that a student identifies with, but they would like to be involved in in a different way, we would love to know what that would be so that we can support them.

Matt Waller  16:46  
Well, Denise, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me today and thank you for the great job you're doing running the Center, and then teaching in the Walton College.

Denise Breaux-Soignet  16:56  
Thank you, Matt, thank you so much.

Matt Waller  16:58  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching. Be EPIC. B-E-E-P-I-C.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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