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How to Be An Inclusive Leader With Jennifer Brown – Masters of Product Management

How an Inclusive Culture Leads to Better Innovation, a Discussion with Jennifer Brown

Meet Guest: Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown headshotJennifer Brown is a leading diversity and inclusion expert, dynamic keynote speaker, best-selling author, award-winning entrepreneur and host of The Will To Change podcast, which uncovers true stories of diversity and inclusion. As the founder, president and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, Jennifer’s workplace strategies have been employed by some of the world’s top Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits—including Walmart, Microsoft, Starbucks, Toyota Financial Services, T-Mobile, and many others— to help employees bring their full selves to work and feel Welcomed, Valued, Respected and Heard.

Listen to Masters of Product Management Podcast Episode 056

Read the Transcription

[00:00:23] JJ: Hello, this is JJ Rorie, vice president at Sequent Learning Networks. In our Masters of Product Management podcast, we tap into the experiences of people who work in and around product management, to help you learn and grow in your product management career. Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, you’ve likely heard a lot about diversity in tech—or rather, the lack of diversity in tech. Not just technology companies, but all industries often struggle to have a broad diverse representation amongst their teams. Study after study shows that diversity is good for business.

According to McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity outperform their competitors by 15 percent, and those in the top quartile for ethnic diversity outperform their competitors by 35 percent.

Diverse teams—those made up of people from different races, gender, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and experiences—lead to more creativity, a variety of thought, and more empathy for customers. And as we all know, when it comes to innovation in product development, empathy for customers is paramount for success.


[00:01:28] JJ: One example of this, that I came upon recently, is the True Name Card recently introduced by MasterCard. The product allows customers to have their chosen name on their credit card, even if that name doesn’t match their legal name. So, as you can imagine—for transgender people, for example, presenting a card with a name and gender that does not accurately represent their identity can be stressful, to say the least. Many reported being denied services, and even harassed. MasterCard empathized with their customers and did something to improve the experience with their product.


[00:02:03] JJ: Diversity and inclusion are topics that simply must be top-of-mind for product managers and product leaders. We can’t build products for everyone if we’re not in the right environment where inclusion is fostered. I am so excited and honored to talk with my guest today on this matter. Jennifer Brown is a leading diversity and inclusion expert, dynamic keynote speaker, bestselling author, award-winning entrepreneur, and host of the Will to Change podcast, which uncovers true stories of diversity and inclusion. As the founder, president, and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, Jennifer’s workplace strategies have been employed by some of the world’s top Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits, including Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Starbucks, Toyota Financial Services, T-Mobile, and many others. She is the author of the bestselling book “Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace and The Will to Change,” and the recently-released “How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive.” Both are wonderful books that I love and I encourage you all to read. Jennifer, thank you so much for joining me today.


[00:03:11] Jennifer: Thanks, JJ. I’m happy to have this conversation.


[00:03:14] JJ: Yeah, it’s gonna be an important one. So, before we jump in too deep, let’s set the foundation. Diversity is a much-discussed topic, and I love the way you define the curve of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Can you expound on that?


[00:03:30] Jennifer: Yes indeed. Thank you for inviting me to, because words are put together; but that doesn’t mean they mean the same thing. So, diversity, as my friend Renee Meyer says, is being asked to the dance; inclusion is being asked to dance; and belonging is the willingness to bring—and the invitation to bring—your best dance moves. So, the dance metaphor is helpful.


[00:03:57] JJ: That’s great. I love that.


[00:03:58] Jennifer: When we think—yeah it’s really good. If diversity is the ‘who is invited around that table’ if you think about a business meeting, that’s great; but the inclusion has to be there, which is the ‘how.’ So, how am I going to enable the best work and the best output from this team of diverse professionals that I’ve gathered? And then, belonging might be that ultimate goal, which is that universal sense—which we all know when we feel it and when we don’t. It’s kind of hard to put your finger on it, but belonging is, to me, when I’m most comfortable and most relaxed, and therefore I’m able to bring all of my creativity to bear. I’m totally present, I’m not navigating unconscious bias or stereotypes or microaggressions or inclusion and exclusion dynamics; I just am. I can relax, I can be present, I can contribute—and I want to contribute because I’m not doing so unwillingly; I’m doing it willingly because I have felt heard and seen and valued. So, you could think of belonging as the result, I think, of doing diversity and inclusion well. And the catalytic effect of that ‘one plus one equals three’ outcome. And it’s interesting because some companies are changing the order they talk about these things in, so some companies are leading with inclusion now. They say sometimes “Big I Little D” because they’re understanding that the ‘how’ diverse voices are—how they feel on a day-to-day basis—has everything to do with whether you’ll be able to keep them.

It’s one thing to bring talent in; it’s another thing to keep that talent and enable that talent to thrive. It’s a very different question.

And that gets to culture and engagement and workplace environment, and all of our roles in creating that kind of environment where we can do our best work, and where everybody else around us can as well.


[00:05:57] JJ: Yeah. That’s so on point. I know I can personally literally pinpoint the moment in my career where I felt like I belonged; I got to that point. I remember it and I probably always will. It was a particular leader that I had. My personal story is, I’m a gay woman, and I had a partner at that time—a wife now—and I was in the interview, actually, for this company. This was probably 12; 15 years ago, and the interviewer, who became my boss, asked me something about, “So you’re moving to this area. Did your husband get a job?” And I said, “Well, my partner; and yes, she—-” blah blah blah blah, and did not miss a beat. She did not miss a beat in the conversation. And again: 12; 15 years ago, that was—not today, right?


[00:06:56] Jennifer: Exactly.


[00:06:58] JJ: But then, as she became my boss—I got the job, and so on—literally not a moment of that environment that I didn’t feel I belonged. So, not to get too personal here, but I can pinpoint the moment that that changed in my career. And frankly, from that point forward, my career blossomed because I was able to bring myself to work. And all of that creative energy that was used by pretending what I did or didn’t do over the weekend, and who I was with or who I wasn’t—and all those little bitty things that that add up, right? It’s very interesting. And again, not to get too personal, but I think that’s a really good way to say it. A lot of organizations have diversity programs; but there’s a big difference in getting to that next level, and then even the next level. So thanks for talking through that.


[00:07:52] Jennifer: That’s right. And I’m so glad you even had one leader that made you feel that way. Some people go an entire career and never really have a leader who sees them, truly, and who is doing their homework to adjust their language to make it more inclusive; to keep learning. I think, sadly, it’s kind of the rare boss. And remember: people leave bosses before they leave jobs or companies. That direct manager has so much to do with whether or not we feel that we can thrive. And so we spent a lot of time thinking about how to equip managers, and we lovingly say—not so lovingly, the frozen middle in the middle of organizations is where the rubber hits the road; but it’s also where I think the diversity and inclusion conversation gets really watered down/almost ignored. And yet, those managers have everything to do with whether that diverse talent wants to stay, and feels that they can bring their full selves to work, and that it won’t be job-limiting or career-limiting.


[00:09:02] Jennifer: Managers are really so important; they’re such a linchpin. And unfortunately, for every change effort—not just diversity, but every [change], whether it’s I.T. or some big adoption of any kind of program—middle management is always a struggle because of the day-to-day stresses of being in that position: the to-do list; the execution focused. Some kind of things can get lost when they don’t feel like they are the urgency of the day. And so, that’s why we, in my world, think a lot about middle management; calling it the frozen middle, but also really tasking ourselves to figure out: how do we have this conversation in a way that keeps it on people’s to-do list? They see it as important to their own success, to the success of their teams, to their success as leaders—and, by the way, as human beings too, because this stuff is—this will make you a better human. It’ll make you a better parent. When you start to really wake up to this, you realize that it’s all around you, and it’s in your own family; so it’s not just about who you are at work, but diversity’s touching all of us in more and more ways. And that’s never gonna go away, at this point. It’s only going to accelerate.


[00:10:16] JJ: That’s right. Absolutely. So let’s build on that a little bit. Many managers; business leaders erroneously—in my opinion, and obviously yours as well—think it’s better to keep personal challenges out of the workplace. In one of my favorite parts of your book “How to Be an Inclusive Leader,” you argue that there are benefits to employees being able to bring their full selves to work. So tell us what that means to you: specifically, maybe even how you think employees in a product role—how that may help them; if they’re in an inclusive environment, how that may help them make better products for the market and for their customers.


[00:10:58] Jennifer: Yeah! We love to think about diversity—of thought and identity and background—as such an important ingredient and guiding star whenever you’re pulling a team together. We’ve seen blunders by companies who, for example, come to market with a product that—it’s very clear that the right people weren’t around the table informing the design of that product, or the marketing of that product. The example I tend to use is the PepsiCo ad that had one of the Kardashian kids in a faux Black Lives Matter protest. And suffice it to say it involves the passing of a Pepsi across the picket line to a policeman.


[00:11:46] JJ: Yeah, that worked out well!


[00:11:47] Jennifer: And it was so—yeah it was not so great. It was pulled within 24 hours. So, I thought it was such a good object lesson about—and I don’t know how it was made; I don’t know who was advising on creative. I don’t know if it was an agency partner. I don’t know how it got to the point of actual release without someone saying, “Time out. This is not going to be received well. This is a lot of these general concepts thrown together in a mash up. This doesn’t work, and it’s going to be responded to really badly.” And what’s interesting, speaking of diversity and inclusion and belonging: you might have had diversity at the table, but then that’s not enough. Were diverse voices listened to in the design and the creative process, and then were they actually heard? And was that input acted on? To me, there are multiple levels that have to be in place in order to ensure that the products that we’re bringing forth to, by the way, a very diversifying world of customers and clients, that it’s going to resonate with them. There’s nothing that matters more than that, but you have to rewind into the process of who was involved, and when, and were they not only involved but were they meaningfully involved?


[00:13:25] Jennifer: And then, if they felt comfortable enough expressing their input—which is a big if—was it then taken into account? Was it woven in? Was it taken? Was it really heard? And then, was it championed in terms of directing a creative process?

I want to save companies from making a big mistake—publicly, certainly—and having checks and balances along the way, where they’re really, really like— this is their hygiene. It’s literally like a muscle that they’ve built.

It is an obvious question, and it’s a question that’s asked: “Who’s at the table? When? What is our process? How is it inclusive? How will we deal with differing opinions? Whose perspectives are we missing here in this team, or in this creative process? And if we have leaders that asked all those questions, then I think that our products would be more innovative, they would be more resonant, and I think that it would be a safeguard against those very expensive and very embarrassing situations like PepsiCo found itself in, which was really unfortunate for the brand.


[00:14:14] JJ: Yeah. I think that’s such a great way to say it. The example I used earlier—the True Name Card with MasterCard—when I heard about that and read about it several months ago, I thought, “Wow, they got it right!” And somehow, the folks around that table had to have either been—their experiences themselves, right? There were transgender people, or people who had dealt with that in their own lives, and so they were around the table, making those decisions. But even if that were the case, then that product idea had to go through the process. I build products for a living, so I understand the process; it doesn’t just happen overnight—lots of approvals and lots of bureaucracy, even in the most innovative of companies. And so MasterCard, as an organization, got that right. And I think so often that Pepsi commercial was a good example where, the first time I saw it, I thought, “How did this get through? Who in the world didn’t see this?” And there’s no telling how many months of ideation and process—


[00:15:20] Jennifer: Yes! Oh my gosh, and the money spent on the consultants probably hired. It’s very interesting; agency partners need to be ahead of the curve. When you’re advising a big corporate client, you may be more clued in than your client is, or vice versa. I’ve seen the reverse be true as well. So really, it applies to the whole ecosystem, that you’re creating products from within. You have to think about all the players. And this is why it’s really interesting that companies more and more—when they’re selecting an agency partner, or a vendor in a certain area—they want to look at the internal diversity story in that partner, and say, “So, who is our client team, and who are we going to be working with? And do you understand our market and our customers?” And that question is becoming more and more important.


[00:16:11] Jennifer: And RFP’s are being won and/or partially lost, based on a company’s answer to that—like, have you really been doing your work; have you been walking the talk? Have you been thinking about how you diversify your staff, and your employees, and your client-facing teams, and your leadership? Because I think, more and more, it’s being used as this bellwether for, on the client side, to say, “Well, look, our customers are—maybe our buyers and decision makers are more female than male; maybe they are largely nonwhite. When we think about the changes in the public in general, and then we’ve got companies on the other side that really aren’t reflecting the world that we’re doing business in, from a demographics perspective—particularly in the leadership level of companies. We could say we’re 50/50 women in our company; my question to that, as the consultant, is, “Well, 50/50: let’s look at the distribution. Do you have 50 percent of the executive level? Do you have 50 percent on your board?” Typically, you’ll see the most diversity in the bottom third of the organization, or in certain functional areas.


[00:17:20] Jennifer: So anyway, I’m very heartened that there is some pressure coming from partner-to-partner or client-to-customer, or vendor and supplier; there’s pressure being exerted in the ecosystem that I think is certainly making my job easier, because that’s something we would call the business case versus the moral case for diversity—which is: oh, it’s the right thing to do. That’s going to work with some people, but it’s not going to work for everybody. So sometimes we need to kind of make it a bit more dollars and cents; bottom-line-related, ROI-related. And the kinds of things we’re talking about today, which is better products, fewer PR disasters—and I love the MasterCard example. I want to say about MasterCard’s—being able to choose your name and customize your experience with the product is so important, and for LGBTQ people who haven’t really seen themselves reflected—either in marketing, advertising, products—this is a really, really big deal to have a company anticipate that you’ve never felt—you have to put up with the system as it is, and not having that system reflect who you really are and how you identify. So it was beautifully done. And my guess is their internal LGBTQ affinity group of employees was at the table, like you said, saying, “In the perfect world, here’s what a credit card would—here’s a personalization that we would be able to do.” And I’m sure that it was driven from that. I’m quite sure they had a hand in that, and they felt comfortable enough to give their input. And they were invited to the table, and they were invited for their input, and the input was listened to. So that’s how it should work.


[00:19:01] JJ: Exactly. I love that kind of circling back because—my original question was going to be, “Why is it so difficult for organizations to get it right?” But you answered that. I mean, it’s not just, “Okay, we’ve got diverse people at the table. Woohoo. We win!” It’s so much more than that.


[00:19:22] Jennifer: Check the box; we’re good!


[00:19:24] JJ: It’s so much more than that; it’s the affinity groups. It’s having them at the table. It’s being listened to. It’s feeling comfortable that they can bring those issues to the table, and then actually getting through the whole process. So that’s a great way to say how to get it right. I also am hopeful with—like you said, the ecosystem in organizations like yours—even when companies understand that they don’t quite get it, the understanding that they don’t quite get it is actually a good first step. If they bring in folks like you, if they look at their agency partners, et cetera—to know what you don’t know is a good first step.


[00:20:06] Jennifer: Oh my gosh, yes. Awareness is so much of the battle. If I have clients who are aware that they don’t know what they don’t know, that they might have an issue or are anticipating having an issue in the future, and that it’s hurting their business, and it’s hurting morale and their culture, and their ability to attract and retain talent—which is another really hot-button issue; it is a war for talent. Unemployment is at historical lows right now. It’s still very intense out there. And so you really can’t afford to lose people, because you bring them in and you’re all excited—and then they leave two years later, because they just don’t feel that they could succeed and thrive and grow their career, and somehow someday achieve the level that they’d like to. And what do we say in HR? We say it costs up to three times somebody’s salary to lose them. At that point, a year or two in, it’s very expensive; but it’s one of those costs that I think is not tracked explicitly, or known and talked about. And if it were, it’s absolute bottom-line impact, but it’s something that—people throw up their hands and they say, “Oh, well, we don’t know why we’re losing all the people of this demographic, or why they’re not making it through.”


[00:21:23] Jennifer: And that’s what we help companies to see. Let’s diagnose that; let’s talk to the people who do have one foot out the door, and say, “What is it about this environment that makes you cynical about your opportunities here, and that you’re going to be treated fairly; that you will be supported equally? And what is it that discourages people of your identity to come here and to stay here long term?” And those are the questions we ask in focus groups. It’s really interesting data. And when you come back to a senior team with that kind of data, people are just blown away and embarrassed, shocked, ashamed. They feel like, “Wow, I didn’t know that this was how people feel in the organization that I’m a leader in.” So that can be pretty uncomfortable for people because—I say this in my second book: we want to believe we’re good people, and we want to believe that we’ve created the kind of environment that everybody feels they can thrive in—especially if we felt we could thrive in it, right?


[00:22:30] Jennifer: The problem is, though, that for many of us—particularly if we’re male, if we’re white, if we’re cisgender and straight—the workplace might have felt very much designed for us, almost to the point where a you’re a fish in water; you don’t even know what water is because it’s comfortable. It’s something that you’re used to. And I think that big “aha” moment is, “Wow! This same exact environment feels completely different for somebody else.” And if I could just generate an understanding about that, then I think either empathy will kick in, curiosity, humility of, “Wow, I was wrong. I don’t know.” And failing that, the business case and the bottom-line impact of having people feel that way in an organization is a tremendous drain on productivity. So I think we have to be prepared to make this argument in a million different ways, because everybody’s different and everybody will resonate with a different approach.


[00:23:26] JJ: Yeah, that’s actually quite profound. I love what you said: that the exact same environment will feel different to different people. And I think if everybody got that—myself included; I’m learning! I’m quite woke—and I’m way too old to say that, by the way, but I try. [laughs]


[00:23:48] Jennifer: [laughs] Exactly.


[00:23:49] JJ: But I learn every day. And I think if we can take that in our daily life—the same environment that I’m comfortable in may not be comfortable for someone else—and that will breed that empathy that we need. So, building on this just slightly: one of the things I loved in this latest book, “How to Be an Inclusive Leader,” was your take that everyone has a diversity story, even the middle-aged white man. So tell us what you mean by that.


[00:24:17] Jennifer: Yeah. Well it comes from a real “aha” that I had in reading some research called Uncovering Talent by Deloitte. And it’s the report is downloadable online. It talked about this concept of covering in the workplace, and it’s what we do. We often think of bias as something that happens to us, but covering is something we do to ourselves to avoid triggering bias in others; it’s a minimizing or downplaying that known stigmatized identity. And some of us have multiple stigmatized identities. And so we sense that is not going to be welcomed, and that actually it will trigger some negative reaction if we highlight it too much: if we lead with it, if we embrace it, if we even talk about it. So ask any person who is closeted in the workplace, and they know all about this, because we stay closeted because we’re worried that it’s going to impact us.


[00:25:13] Jennifer: So, in this report, it talks about the covering that black women do, that Asian talent does, that veterans do, people with diverse abilities do, LGBTQ people of course, women do. And it also talks about the covering that white straight men do as well. So they were included in the data set. And there are covering behaviors for that community that are similar to some of the others, and yet slightly different as well. It was a big “aha” for me, and I always include it now in my keynotes. For me, the stories that I’ve heard have really brought that to life because I find myself presenting to rooms that look like they’re full of straight white cisgender men. And I say “look like” because those people have all kinds of stories and all kinds of…actually, sometimes all kinds of knowledge about how diversity—and exclusion, in particular—has felt for them in their lives. But, like so many of us, we don’t know how to talk about that or surface that in the workplace, and there is something that’s very strict, which is the Man Box that Mark Green talks about; Tony Porter talks about in his TED X, which is this very constrained straight jacket of, what does that executive presence look like? What does a leader look like? Who comes to mind when we think of leaders? It’s usually a man; it’s usually a white man. It’s usually somebody that has all the answers. It’s very confident, totally infallible, and the furthest from vulnerable—and sometimes authentic, because there’s authenticity in vulnerability, of course.


[00:26:53] Jennifer: So it’s just this huge “aha.” And men in my rooms will come up to me, or they may—if they’re brave, they’ll share their covering stories in the room. They’ll share that they grew up incredibly poor, with not enough to eat; single-parent violent household, or addicted family member, or family member with a disability, or that they are in a mixed-ethnicity marriage or partnership with kids that don’t look like them, or having a transgender kid that they don’t talk about, which is actually more and more common as a story. Different faiths: I’ve had a Jewish leader stand up and say, “Hey, I’ll share. This is a largely Christian management team and I’m Jewish, and when I was new here, we scheduled a meeting over my high holidays and I went home to my wife and I said, ‘Should I say something?’ And we decided that I wouldn’t.” And that was a year ago.


[00:27:54] Jennifer: And these stories just sort of come out, and I’m pretty confident that nobody talks about these things when I’m not around, making them talk about it. So it’s really a moment, and it’s a beautiful vulnerable moment and it’s at—to me, that is the heart of the learning that has to happen, which is that we actually all know something about diversity. I think the way we’ve talked about it in the past has, somehow, been very focused on gender and ethnicity mainly. And so, if you are a man and if you’re white, you have felt like, “I don’t know what my role is in this. I don’t know what my connection is into this conversation. I don’t know what from my experience or background relates to this.” And these days, I have a lot of white straight men say to me, “I don’t want to take this space up. I know that this is a really important moment for voices to be heard; and I think the last thing I’d want to do is talk about what diversity means to me, and suck up all the oxygen in the room and potentially mansplain, you know?” So that, to me—that’s a great thing to say because that shows tremendous self-awareness. And I love that. I’m like, “Okay, we can work with that. Let’s dive a little deeper into that, and talk about the balance between utilizing your platform and whatever access you have looking the way you do, to actually create space and make space for those stories and identities that haven’t been seen and heard and included.”


[00:29:28] Jennifer: But at the same time, that doesn’t let you off the hook from sharing your own diversity story and doing that personal work. And I do believe that usually, give me, like, five minutes with someone and we can get to a really interesting place. Whether they’re ready to talk about that, and where, that’s—in the book, I really talk about this sort of finding of your own connection, and then the exploration of that in private and in specific rooms and environments, where it’s a place—it’s an okay place to try to tell your diversity story, particularly if you look a certain way, and people are very skeptical about who you are and what voice you really should have in this whole thing. You have to kind of construct that in a very mindful way—particularly in the beginning, as you’re finding your voice and starting to get involved. And then as you progress, and you become more comfortable, and you figure out, “Okay, here’s where I need to talk about my story, and here’s where I need to center the stories of others,” then you progress along the continuum in the book all the way to becoming an advocate, which is Phase Four, which is: brave, bold, courageous—like, “I know exactly when my voice is needed. I also know which voices are missing and how to use my platform to make sure those voices are heard.” It takes a while to get to that point, where you can be most of service and where it’s for you to speak up, and where it’s particularly important for others to be heard. And it’s such a balancing act. I don’t think I can wrap it up in a nice little bow, but even just like we’ve been talking about: the awareness that this is the journey, and these are the dynamics, is half the battle.


[00:31:15] JJ: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a great way to end this amazing conversation. It’s awareness, it’s—we’re all in this together. Everybody has a story, right? And everybody has a part to play in making this world a better place for everyone.


[00:31:29] Jennifer: We need everybody. The fact that so many people haven’t really felt included in this conversation—it is nobody’s fault. It’s like, where do we go from here? And really, many hands make light work. So if you look at yourself and you’re saying, “Well, I’ve always thought that was the diversity team’s job,” or “That’s for the women’s network to tackle,” or as a white person, “What could I possibly say about the lack of people of color in our company, or at certain levels?” I really want to invite people to actually reevaluate that, and read the book, and think about: how do you use your voice, and whatever privilege or advantage you’ve had in your life? I think that’s the animating question for me, even as a member of the LGBTQ community, is to say, “I also have privileged identities that enable a certain level of access; truth-telling. My ability to challenge; to speak truth to power, in particular, without getting penalized.” And so my question every day when I wake up is, “What can I do with that? And what can I do, that’s easier for me, that’s harder for somebody else to do? Where can I shoulder that burden a bit for a while?” And to me, I think that’s the future we have to figure out: what is our part to play in all of it?


[00:32:49] JJ: Absolutely. So, just a wonderful discussion. Thank you again so much, Jennifer Brown, for sharing your expertise on this topic and helping us understand why fostering an inclusive environment is so important, and how we can get started in making this world better, and where we can play. Thank you so much.


[00:33:07] Jennifer: You’re welcome, JJ.


[00:33:08] JJ: And thank you for joining us on Masters of Product Management, powered by Sequent Learning Networks. I am JJ Rorie, and I look forward to speaking with you on the next episode.


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