When it became clear that the investment team at Baird Funds, a family of fixed-income and equity mutual funds, would have to decentralize in response to COVID-19 protocols, it was a test not just for leadership, but team members as well.
Mary Ellen Stanek, Milwaukee-based president of Baird Funds and the founder and co-CIO of Baird Advisors, one of two groups making up the asset manager, said the team discovered a level of resilience they didn’t know they had.
“It can be easy to take culture for granted, right?” Ms. Stanek said. “We talk a lot about communication and bonding but when everything changes in a single day, you realize how important it is to have that foundation in place. To be able to trust that everyone is going to continue to do their part even if they’re doing it from home or another location is just so important.”
Employee respondents to the survey agree. Open communication, treating each person as an adult and workplace flexibility were often cited as key components of the culture at Baird. Employees also noted the effort senior leadership makes to reach out to employees and get feedback about how to improve. That feedback was especially important during the pandemic but also during 2020 — a tumultuous year in general.
“We do a lot of data gathering from our employees and we use that data to make adjustments in our policies,” Ms. Stanek explained. “Particularly after George Floyd, we wanted to understand the experiences of our employees of color. We also looked at other groups, our (LGBTQ+) employees, our veterans. We had nearly the entire firm, almost 3,000 people, go through listening sessions in 2020 to understand how we could improve.”
As a result of those listening sessions, the company expanded some of its awareness training and philanthropic activities, and started a reverse mentoring program where senior management were the mentees and the mentors were junior employees. “It’s been really powerful to have those experiences and understand at a deep level what our employees are experiencing,” Ms. Stanek said. Baird plans to keep the program going as a result of the experiences of the initial cohort.
Baird is also bringing this new understanding to its internship program with the goal of continuing to diversify each cohort of interns. Last year, the company had 200 interns from 77 universities; more than 60% of that group were women and/or people from various racial backgrounds or ethnicities. Ms. Stanek noted that the goals of the internship program are not only to bring in a broader cohort each year, but also to provide an experience that makes diverse young people want to work at the company. About 14% of new hires in asset management come through the internship program — a number that Ms. Stanek hopes to increase each year.
“We want to provide valuable professional experiences throughout the program,” she said. “But we also want to be able to show interns that they can bring their whole selves to work and that there will be a place for them based on the current experiences of our employees.”