Sitting at the Table

December 2020 DEI Article
“Sitting at the Table”
Written by Adrienne D. Berry, CP

Today, there are two crises facing us front and center: COVID-19 and its disruption in the corporate world for women, including mothers, senior-level women, and black women. One in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to COVID-19.1

This made me wonder if I knew anyone who may be affected by this crisis. I immediately reached out to a good friend from college to get her take on diversity in the workplace as a senior-level, black woman in the South. Martha Emmett Sims has been a “mover and shaker” since her days at the University of Alabama. She is a proven leader who brings years of experience as a proven HR professional – as a strategist, designer, and administrator, to name a few – in the field of health and welfare plans for national and global companies for over 25 years.

Diversity is a part of her daily work. She takes that experience to make her own seat at the table, as well as presenting and facilitating professional and technical skills to diverse organizations, both in size and industries.

These days, the question is: What is Martha not doing? She manages the BXS Career Development program, which trains career coaches, coaching staff, and management colleagues through a personalized career development plan. Martha is also the Director of Strategic Programs for Bancorp South in the Birmingham, Alabama, office and is responsible for implementing management strategies that enable Bancorp to recruit, train, and retain a high performing and motivated workforce. In addition to her professional roles, Mrs. Sims is also a philanthropist and very committed to civic service within the state of Alabama. She is past Chair and a current member of the National Conference for Community and Justice of Alabama Board of Directors (NCCJ) and Corresponding Secretary for the Birmingham Chapter of the Links, Incorporated. She is a member of the REV Birmingham Board, a member of the 2019 Class of Leadership Birmingham, and recently completed her term as Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Mrs. Sims about the role diversity has played in her professional life. The following recaps our conversation.

AB: In your opinion, what are the most important attributes of a successful leader?

MS: We are often put into leadership positions because we have strong technical skills. But I believe that we become successful leaders because of our interpersonal competencies. These are the skills that allow us to communicate and build productive and trusting relationships. Those with interpersonal competencies often possess values like honesty, integrity, dependability, and empathy. They understand the importance of collaboration and inclusion, and know that diverse thoughts and opinions are game changers for their teams. Teams feel their support and trust their abilities to lead.

AB: You started working in a predominantly male-led industry, but you have risen through management. Now that diversity, equity, and inclusion have become more of a focus, do you think we will see more women in leadership roles? 

MS: I believe that more women will rise to leadership in my male-dominated financial industry. The national focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion has motivated many talent management professionals to be intentional about sourcing diverse candidates in an equitable manner. Also, I’ve witnessed talented female leaders within my professional network break down cultural barriers that inhibit women to rise to success. These barriers include a lack of positive affirmations and mentorship from senior management, for those in pursuit of historically male roles. As a female leader, and in my position as Vice President and Director of Strategic Programs, I manage a career growth and development program that supports many female employees. I also help to build strategic programs that attract and retain talented women who are beginning their careers, seeking a career change, or seeking a better position within the industry. We are proud to have women at every level of management within my organization.

AB: As a black woman in a position of leadership, what do you do to make sure others are included or have an opportunity to “get a seat at the table”?

MS: I have a passion for mentoring young women, and I’ve always advocated for those with a desire to challenge themselves and accomplish their goals. I utilize my professional and civic leadership networks to connect people to opportunities. I unapologetically include black women in my succession planning for professional positions and board positions whenever possible, and I encourage others to do so. After all, we are often the least represented demographic.

AB: I see that you also mentor up-and-coming professionals. Who do you look to for your own inspiration?

MS: I have several mentors that I look to for leadership advice. Not all of them are industry professionals. However, they all have strong communication and relationship building skills and our interactions help me to cultivate my own. Some of my mentors have formally accepted the title, but others are unaware of their roles and simply, what I call, “passively” mentor me. They are individuals within my organization, those serving along with me in civic organizations. I take note of their strategic professional moves and effective leadership, and how they maintain their value systems through it all. Our trusted relationships allow candor for discussing both personal and professional issues.

AB: Briefly describe the climate of diversity at your current position. Also, what has your impact been in this position?

MS: I serve as part of a team responsible for recruiting and retention at my current organization and am able to ensure that a diverse selection of candidates is fairly sourced and vetted. I mentioned earlier that I manage a career development program. I encourage all employees to join, and I train the program’s coaches to provide resources to help ALL participants reach their goals. I train managers on topics like Diversity and Inclusion and Team Dynamics with emphasis on inclusion. I privately mentor young, black professionals and I’ve also provided mentoring to industry professionals within the National African American Insurance Association (NAAIA). In my community, I remain accessible to young, black professionals via organizations like the Urban League Young Professionals. I look forward to frequent invitations to address the group and speak on topics to ensure their professional success.

Although it does not appear Mrs. Sims is or will be affected by the crisis facing some women in the workplace, I think she is helping build a better workplace for those she has the opportunity to work with, recruit, train, mentor, and coach. Her company, Bancorp South, seems to be one of the companies staying ahead of the curve – as seen through the professional description of Mrs. Sims’s responsibilities.

Mrs. Sims is not new to the topic of diversity in the workplace. It has been part of her professional life for over 25 years. Not only does she have a “seat at the table,” she is also making a way for others to earn their seats as well. I have watched and admired Martha’s rise in management, as she shared her knowledge and expertise in the field, in the community, and in the state. She is definitely one to watch here in Alabama.


Adrienne D. Berry, CP
NALA DEI Committee Member
Member of the Alabama Association of Paralegals, Inc. (AAPi)