“Hey, Mike. Good to see you.”
“So, what’s up with Black people?!”
(Pause. Shock. Squirm.)
I was speaking with a CEO after a multi-session anti-racism program his organization just completed. We developed a connection during the training, and I offered to meet with him about my own journey towards allyship. To hear these words from him after the powerful experience we all just had together made me wonder what feelings he had about Black people before the training.
It was the summer of 2020. Black Lives Matter (#BLM) protests were sweeping the globe, and companies were scrambling to both demonstrate support for #BLM, and giving serious attention to inclusion, diversity and equity (DEI). DEI budgets ballooned and by September of 2020, there were over 100,000 open DEI positions on LinkedIn. In part, our engagement at his organization was a result of George Floyd’s tragic murder and the moral awakening that men like us had after witnessing it.
My first conversation with Mike following the program was very enjoyable, with each of us talking about our lives, purpose, values, families, faith and careers. He must have felt very safe with me, because at the outset of our second conversation, he opened up with “So, what’s up with Black people?!” Which of course is a hell of a way to begin a discussion about allyship.
I would discover, over the course of that conversation and more, that he wanted to make sense of the racial unrest, the impoverished state of many BIPOC communities, his commitment to inclusion, his conservative politics and his role as company leader. He was looking for coherence and a path forward to be an ally to BIPOC folks without abandoning his conservative values. He valued individualism and personal responsibility, and was having trouble squaring it with the new knowledge of the role that systemic racism plays in tilting the tables against African Americans.
He was also a consumer of state and conservative media that had been painting #BLM as a violent, lesbian, socialist domestic terror organization, and suggesting that Anti-fa supporters were both lazy libtard snowflakes, and also, magically, a dangerous domestic terror organization. All of which are completely untrue, e.g., 93% of 2020 protests were not violent (CNN, 2020). To activate one’s allyship and reconcile it with the 2020 edition of conservatism is a heroic choice. It would be far easier to look the other way.
More importantly, he was beginning to see how a lack of inclusion was morally abhorrent to him as an American and a man of faith. Nowhere is it written in the Bible, Torah, Quran, Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad Gita or Upanishads, that a human life is unworthy of dignity, acceptance, and opportunity. Indeed these sacred texts say the opposite. I could feel the tension in his heart and mind. On one hand he wanted all the #BLM stuff, the protests, the riots, the lawsuits, etc. to just go away and on the other hand he knew it couldn’t until justice was served and equity was achieved.
And he felt deep down that leading inclusively was a personal expression of his Christian faith and values and his citizenship. He was called into service on this front, but unsure how to square it with his conservative beliefs, and the expectations of his board and pressure from investors.
Of course, he’s not alone.
Many American leaders heard the call to lead and activate America’s purpose in 2020, however few answered it. In light of the prevailing over work / meritocracy / always on / rat race ethos of America’s work culture, the endless pressure from board members and investors to beat earnings estimates, and organization inertia, it’s understandable to ignore the call.
It’s understandable to want to look away from the fact that if success was only about hard work, then the executive suite would look like a Benetton ad and 1st generation immigrants would rule the world. Unfortunately, the leaders who courageously answered the call to create inclusive cultures, and activate the twin purpose of the United States, were also not effective.
For example, the last two decades of DEI (hiring quotas, mentoring programs, employee resource groups, mandatory bias trainings, anonymous reporting systems, etc.) has failed to produce results for our BIPOC, female and LGBTQIA+ team members. The now famous Harvard Business Review study of 800 organizations’ DEI efforts revealed that , on the whole, the field delivered neutral to negative outcomes (HBR, 2016). And this is after sinking $8 billion a year into DEI (McKinsey, 2017).
In part this failure was due to the moralizing and compliance-driven nature of these trainings, making people in power (mostly straight white men) feel attacked. And what do people do when they feel attacked? They resist and fight back. And they did. So leaders are right to be skeptical of playing God with their cultures.
And yet, this is the tension. Leaders know that culture matters and they can no longer stay silent on social issues, as 62% of adults now demand that companies take a stand on social, economic and environmental issues (Accenture, 2018) and 87% of consumers believe business should put just as much attention on social issues as economic results (Edelman, 2017).
They’ve also seen culture issues torpedo M+A and other critical strategies, and be at the source of scandal and corruption. They’ve seen the resulting missed hiring, retention and performance goals. They’ve seen top talent flee for startups and organizations with inclusive cultures, great Glassdoor ratings, and B Corp designations.
Leaders are stuck between taking the laissez faire approach to culture ensuring the same white guys get hired and promoted, resulting in lawsuits, missed targets and customer and employee churn, and actively crafting culture which will take a bunch of time and money and is unlikely to succeed. Until recently, this was an unsolvable tension.
In 2020, as VP of People Science at ion Learning, I co-authored a research study in partnership with Golden Gate University, to measure and assess a unique culture change method with a global biotech company with 50k+ employees. This method involves forming small, diverse peer learning groups who learn something together over time. We saw outstanding results: 95% course completion (vs. 5% industry completion rate, Jordan, 2015), 85% behavior change and 76% new daily habit formation rates (ion Learning, 2020).
Further, 98% of participants experienced respect from their diverse peers, 96% experienced empathy from their diverse peers, and women and BIPOC employees reported increases in organizational commitment of 11.3% and 13.6% respectively.
When this method is used to activate employees’ purpose and values, both people and organizations thrive:
There are new tools and approaches now available for leaders to achieve their performance goals and reduce risk and employee turnover by activating purpose and belonging in small, diverse groups. In so doing, they also activate our nation's twin purpose. Before we explore this proven pathway, we’ll look at why organizations are the front line in the fight for our nation’s purpose (Chapter 1).
In short, America is deeply segregated racially, economically, geographically, generationally and politically, and it is only at work where we connect across boundaries and have a shared commitment to learn and grow together. We’ll also look at a unifying mythology to activate the common bond between leadership, investors, employees and customers and among all people of our nation, and then lay out the robust purpose and belonging value proposition (Chapter 2) and the key trends driving the business case (Chapter 3).
We’ll look at the skin you will have to put in the game to realize this return (Chapter 4) and how the fate of your people and our nation depends on it (Chapter 5). We’ll explore how the old way of doing Learning and Development, DEI, Wellness and Culture is a huge waste of time and money and actually creates greater division and disengagement, and how the new way - building authentic, high-trust and diverse relationships across an organization - delivers better results and enables unprecedented productivity, innovation, information transfer and organizational commitment (Chapter 6). We’ll conclude with a roadmap (Chapter 7) of how to activate a culture of purpose and belonging in your organization, and a vision for our shared success as a nation (Chapter 8).
Chapters will be published each week. Subscribe below to receive an email notification of newly available chapters.