Paulette Jagers is the head of strategic initiatives and leadership for BMO Financial Group. Paulette is a former board member of the Chicagoland Business Leadership Network and is a member and former Executive Committee co-chair of ADA 25 Advancing Leadership.
Corporations increasingly recognize that diversity and inclusion is good for the bottom line. Yet companies’ diversity efforts are often missing a critical dimension: disability.
BMO Harris Bank, where I’ve held senior leadership positions for the past 15 years, has long upheld a commitment to diversity and inclusion—it’s one of the bank’s core values. In recent years, we have intentionally focused on making disability a more prominent and visible part of our inclusion efforts. One in four Americans has a disability, meaning disability likely plays a significant part in the lives of many of our customers and employees.
BMO has been fortunate to have the guidance and partnership of ADA 25 Advancing Leadership in our efforts. As a leader with a disability myself, I also have benefited from opportunities to express my own leadership and identity, and to serve as a model and mentor for others.
Partners for change
BMO is a lead sponsor of Advancing Leadership, but our relationship didn’t end when we wrote a check: it blossomed into a true partnership to help realize Advancing Leadership’s vision of people with disabilities leading with power and influence. There are many ways that BMO, as a leading financial institution and major employer, can wield its own power and influence to create greater equity and inclusion for individuals with disabilities.
Advancing Leadership introduced BMO to a host of tools and resources for ensuring that our company is walking the walk and talking the talk when it comes to our inclusion commitments. We benefitted from real-time learning opportunities, such as when we hosted Advancing Leadership’s 2017 Fellows class at our Naperville facilities.
That experience opened our eyes to the fact that BMO’s physical space could be made more accommodating. Things that might seem small—heavy doors that didn’t open automatically, soap dispensers mounted too high on washroom walls—actually created significant and unnecessary impediments for our visitors to fully participate in the program, not to mention simply getting through their day.
The lessons we learned about our space allowed us to reflect on the broader experience BMO creates every day for our customers and employees. When our culture and environments are not welcoming, it becomes incredibly difficult for our customers to do business and our employees to meet their highest potential.
Since BMO began working with Advancing Leadership, we’ve made our physical training space in Naperville more accessible and started an enterprise resource group—BMO Without Barriers—specifically for employees with disabilities and allies. Because any inclusion effort should start with a company’s top leadership, our U.S. chief executive officer and group head, North American commercial banking also attended CBLN’s Disability Summit to gain greater understanding and empathy around disability inclusion.
As a leader with a disability, I understand the stigma that is still associated with disability in the workplace. I did not disclose my disability, which is not visibly apparent, for many years because I did not want to be perceived as any different or less than my colleagues.
It wasn’t until later in my career that I realized the immense benefit I can bring to others and myself by speaking openly about my disability. I can share lessons learned; show others that it is possible to overcome the barriers and stigma; and foster an environment that is much more inclusive and empathetic—one that doesn’t hide disability, but instead celebrates each of us for our individual strengths and contributions to our community.
The experience opened our eyes to the fact that our physical space could be made more accommodating. Things that might seem small—heavy doors that didn’t open automatically, soap dispensers mounted too high on washroom walls—created significant impediments for our visitors to fully participate in the program, not to mention simply getting through their day.
BMO’s representation of employees with disabilities is increasing, but we still have work to do in this area. Getting employees to self-identify as having a disability remains a challenge throughout the workforce, not just at BMO. In fact, one study found that less than a quarter of U.S. employees with a disability disclose it to human resources.
I am proud to have served as co-chair of Advancing Leadership’s Executive Committee for two years and to belong to the Members Network, where I have had the privilege of mentoring an emerging leader with a disability. These opportunities have helped me own my identity as a leader with a disability and show others that powerful things can happen when we make our voices heard.
Toward a more inclusive future
As BMO continues to work toward greater inclusion, we hope that the progress we’ve made will have ripple effects, inspiring other leading companies to undertake similar efforts. I am grateful to Advancing Leadership for assisting BMO in our journey and for helping me leverage my leadership to make a difference in the disability community.