10/04/2021 | by

Significant and persistent racial and social injustices have led to a heightened focus on accelerating diversity and inclusion efforts among REITs and commercial real estate companies across the United States.

For its part, storage and information management services company Iron Mountain Inc. (NYSE: IRM) hired Charlene Jackson in April as its new global chief diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) officer.

Jackson is leading the company’s DEI strategy, practice, and programs, including its employee resource groups, and will work closely with the company’s leadership team. Jackson has broken barriers herself and has been a DEI champion of racial equity and gender parity for more than two decades, working across several industries.

REIT magazine spoke with Jackson about what Iron Mountain’s DEI efforts will look like going forward. She addresses obstacles that oppressed cultural groups have faced and the benefits of diverse teams to represent the broader demographics of Iron Mountain’s customers, employees, shareholders, and board members.

Why are DEI efforts important to Iron Mountain, and what do they mean operationally?

For years, Iron Mountain has emphasized DEI and has made good progress and strong commitments in this area. This includes achieving gender pay parity within 5% across all organizational levels for worldwide employees by 2025, having women represent 40% of global leadership by 2025, and having people who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) represent 30% of U.S. leadership by the same year. 

However,  the company recognizes there is more work to do. I am eager to accelerate and amplify the company’s evolving culture of acceptance and belonging and make it a place of equal opportunity for people of all backgrounds. 

Charlene Jackson, global chief diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) officer at Iron Mountain
Charlene Jackson, global chief diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) officer at Iron Mountain

As a company, we have the opportunity and responsibility to move the workplace forward. While diversity has always been important, the time to make a difference intensified after George Floyd’s murder and the social movement his legacy ignited. But we need to be intentional with our work and be accountable to our people to drive meaningful change for the good of all stakeholders, so we progress toward the future as a more creative and dynamic organization.

Where do minorities fit within commercial real estate today?

We fit in everywhere—at all levels and in every business. The issue is underrepresented groups don’t always have opportunities to participate. 

While I am new to commercial real estate, I am not new to the corporate world, having come from the financial services sector, and more recently, the nonprofit sector. Across these different fields, I’ve observed similar challenges and gaps. Change is often not deemed possible, so the takeaway is that leaders must be intentional to invite and engage people in the dance. 

Additionally, they have to go one step further to be open to a new dance or new ways of working, so underrepresented individuals feel seen and heard, bringing their whole authentic selves to the table. 

You often hear leaders claim, “We can’t find underrepresented people to fill senior positions.” I beg to differ. The pool of minority candidates is plentiful, but you’re not going to find them if you are looking in the same places. 

Beyond the senior positions, companies need to think about training and coaching new BIPOC hires so they are well-positioned for career opportunities and growth. To quote Iron Mountain President and CEO Bill Meaney, “You can’t grow or innovate if everyone has the same walk to work.” It is essential to bring a diversity of people and experiences to the workplace to deliver more value for our customers and be the most prepared, nimble, and dynamic organization we can be.

What factors have held back minority participation in the industry?

Despite inviting people of color to the dance, and asking them to dance, the issue is he or she may not know your dance. In other words, a new dance may be needed. So, I often think of inclusion and belonging as a symphony. A good orchestra makes room for the unique sounds of each instrument, creating harmony. If someone has an instrument that isn’t in tune at first, the group must collectively adjust to create harmony. 

Bringing this back to the workforce, leaders should not expect underrepresented employees to change their tune to fit in with the organization; this signals a flaw in the company’s culture that does not allow the individual to bring his or her whole self to the workplace. Rather, leaders must listen to and learn from the unique perspectives of these employees to create a better harmony. 

Additionally, existing leaders must be available to new leaders at similar levels to advise them and ensure two-way communication and collaboration. As an African American banker on Wall Street working in an industry predominated by white men, I did not have a partner and collaborator at my level. While I thrived in this environment and successfully charted my own career pathway, it should not be like this. I believe it is incumbent upon the hiring organization to embed these advisory roles within their leadership teams so new leaders are not left out of tune and out of harmony.

What are some of the major challenges of increasing DEI in the industry?

The two biggest threats to DEI success in any organization are a lack of commitment and accountability. 

Leaders, and the companies they work for, must be intentional about doing the hard work daily to achieve progress over time. Too often, the news cycle shifts and priorities change, but your commitment should remain steadfast. You can’t legislate people’s hearts, but you can influence people’s behaviors. Progress toward a more inclusive culture isn’t going to happen overnight. It can take years. But being intentional about your goals and making progress against them means your journey toward a more diverse and inclusive culture will not suffer. 

Additionally, being accountable, especially internally, is key. Your employees want to see action and change in motion. Once you demonstrate accountability, you are on the path to credibility. This starts from the inside out, where you will benefit from recognition for your internal actions. 

What are your main priorities in this new role, and how do you plan to go about implementing change?

I plan on building upon what’s been accomplished to date to amplify a culture of belonging. I’m passionate about helping people find their pathway to success. And I am passionate about achieving true cultural transformation that has a positive impact on all of our stakeholders: customers, employees, shareholders, and board members.

I have begun compiling all of Iron Mountain’s great DEI work into a strategic framework to guide our path forward. My team is evaluating processes, policies, communication, and behaviors to make sure our actions match the ambition of our DEI goals. We also are holding ourselves accountable to our people to ensure equity at all career levels.

At Iron Mountain, we regularly ask ourselves, “How is our landscape changing? Is it inclusive of everyone?” Our true test is creating an environment that allows everyone to bring their most authentic selves to work. All have a role to play making sure we can be the best Iron Mountain we can be, and I am ecstatic to be accelerating our cultural transformation. 

What are some past achievements that you’re most proud of?

After raising my beautiful daughter, I am proud to have returned to school to receive an MBA from the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University and a JD from Harvard Law School. 

In my professional career, I am proud to have been the first African American female managing director at Salomon Brothers (now Citigroup). One of my most memorable achievements at Girls Inc., a nonprofit that inspires and empowers girls and young women, was spearheading an effort to develop a framework consisting of quality standards and best practices by which all 80 of our affiliates would be evaluated annually. I was told a single standard could not be achieved, but that’s not new for me. I charted a new course and worked with all of the affiliates for two years to establish and socialize this standard, and it is still in place today. 

We can solve any problem. I get particularly excited about those where fixes have never been attempted before. Tell me something can’t be done and to that I’ll say, “Watch me or my team do it.” 

Do you believe this is a time when meaningful change could happen in the industry?

Now is the time, but as I stated before, organizations need to be intentional about their actions. 

I also believe our millennial workforce plays an integral role in advocating for change. Not only are these employees more open, accepting, and disruptive, they give us the best shot at getting it done. They challenge the status quo. 

While the topic du jour is always evolving, we have the power to make DEI a part of our DNA at Iron Mountain. Change won’t happen overnight, but if leaders are intentional, committed, and willing to be held accountable, we are on the right path, and this will establish the most meaningful future for people of all backgrounds.  

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