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Diversity Driven Performance

Katherine McGrady builds a world-class culture at CNA through a commitment to diverse perspectives
2021 Member Excellence Award winner Katherine McGrady (center) and staff at the 31st Arlington Best Business Awards. Photos courtesy of CNA.

When Vistage member Katherine McGrady first interviewed with the Arlington, Virginia-based CNA, she had never heard of it. At the time, McGrady was exploring job opportunities when CNA visited the University of Michigan. She’s a chemist, so typically she would not have been wearing an interview suit, but fortunately, she was that day.

“I had no idea that organizations like this existed,” says McGrady of that day in 1988. “But I liked that they wanted to use my analytical way of thinking about problems.”

Fast-forward to today, and McGrady is now in her seventh year as President and CEO of the nonprofit think tank, which includes leading the federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) that serves the U.S. Department of the Navy. Since taking the helm in 2015, McGrady has focused CNA on enhancing its analytical and intellectual rigor in its dealings with the Navy — from operational warfighting and data science to military and security intelligence.

McGrady during a deployment to Saudi Arabia in 1991.

She’s also established and grown CNA’s non-defense business by working with other U.S. federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and its divisions, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). CNA also partners with law enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local levels to analyze ways of providing system-wide improvements in the administration of justice.

When McGrady first became CEO she had several goals, one of which was holding herself accountable to her employees. Another was focusing on CNA’s initiatives on diversity, equity and inclusion. “I’m a chemist. I’m in a field where there aren’t a lot of women, and I went through the experience of feeling like I didn’t really belong,” she says. “I’m deeply familiar with how that feels and the negative impact it can have on your performance.”

Our work depends on diverse points of view. We’re asked to solve really tough problems.

McGrady upgraded CNA’s initiatives with a focus on workplace diversity, building an inclusive environment and equipping leaders to address and maintain those standards. She encouraged the development of employee resource groups at CNA and employee-led working groups focused on improving diversity in CNA’s hiring. CNA also has a speaker series built around key DEI issues.

The benefit has been two-fold, she says. Not only has McGrady seen a more inclusive and comfortable staff, but she’s also seen a richness in the analytical work that comes from having various perspectives.

“Our work depends on diverse points of view,” she says. “We’re asked to solve really tough problems. And that means that the standard approach or conventional wisdom about a particular issue has already probably been put out there.”

And as new challenges arose, McGrady empowered her staff to create new programs and processes. Following the death of George Floyd, CNA launched “Unmute Yourself,” a monthly series of conversations where employees could talk, listen and share their experiences.

What’s particularly special about the sessions, McGrady says, is that they are virtual — part of CNA’s staff works remotely — and that meant more employees could participate.

“The sessions have been on Zoom, and I wonder whether or not the very candid and open conversations we are having are happening more readily because we’re not face-to-face,” she says.

Still ongoing, the sessions are connected to the company’s work with law enforcement agencies, which has become a catalyst for growth in non-defense-related work.

“Departments are really working their way through these issues,” she says. “And word has gotten out about the type of work we do, and how we focus on the data and the need to be objective. Employees want to be part of the effort.”

Despite seeing that unexpected gain from the pandemic, McGrady says the company’s DEI efforts can improve. She likens their mission to both asking someone to the dance, and then asking them to dance, and believes that doing so will ensure that excellent analysis will continue.

“I think we’ve gotten better at helping people feel included,” McGrady says. “Are we more diverse as a population than we were before? The answer is, ‘not in every aspect,’ and I feel strongly that I have to push on that point.”

from Debbie Tyler, McGrady’s Vistage Chair:
Discuss through a non-judgmental lens

Bringing an interested, diverse and fully present perspective to conversations leads to more open and respectfully varied discussions.

Recognize those electrifying the workforce

Katherine employs a variety of ways to share good news and acknowledge outstanding work, which has been shown to result in higher performance.

Trust is paramount

Trust grows from consistent behavior and holding oneself accountable to commitments. Katherine has delivered on her promise to improve DEI at the organization. When a leader shows what optimum behavior looks like, others believe and follow.

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