Leading Forward, Leading Bravely – Fear, Race and Inequity

What are our Values and What do we Value?

As we witnessed the horrifying scenes across the country and the world in the wake of the abject tragedy that befell George Floyd in Minneapolis, many wonder and worry about the looting and rioting that ensued in addition to the relatively peaceful protests. Why did so many take to the streets? What are they trying to express? What will all of this accomplish besides creating additional fear and chaos, and forcing a sizeable and costly law enforcement response? Of course, I don’t condone the unlawful acts of a few who became opportunists and shamelessly looted businesses; these individuals should be prosecuted. But we must not let these actions dilute the powerful message that all those who took to the streets are trying to send. Looking at the bigger picture, they are showing outrage at yet another heartbreaking and deadly setback in the ongoing fight for justice and equality for all.

The disturbances, at their core, represent a fight to be heard, to be treated fairly and respectfully. The videos tell the stories of countless injustices over time, some tiny pins, some monumental daggers, some invisible, but all profoundly painful. The fight being waged is a mighty one: it is for inclusion and fair consideration for hourly jobs, salaried jobs, housing, educational opportunities, procurement opportunities, executive management positions and board seats. It’s for safety, the right to jog wherever you want, to bird-watch or stroll in Central Park without being eyed with suspicion and distrust – or far, far worse. This battle has been waged not just for years, but for decades.

People of color, specifically African Americans and Latinos, who work in corporate America feel marginalized, find it exhausting to be authentic on the job, are often overlooked for promotions, endure subtle (or not-so-subtle) racism at work, are viewed as only in their positions because ‘a box needed to be checked’ rather than because they are talented and qualified. They remain virtually nonexistent in upper management roles, creating an “unsettling workplace”, according to the study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. At the same time, the African American employees, who range from longtime workers nearing retirement to newly-hired millennials, feel pressure to work harder to prove themselves, but face “barriers to advancement that are largely invisible to white professionals”.

Consider these telling statistics:

  • On average, 58 percent of blacks indicated they feel racism on their jobs, with the Midwest having the highest percentage at 79 percent, and the Northeast the lowest at 44 percent. This should disturb us all.
  • Thirty-eight percent of black millennials say they are considering leaving their jobs to start their own company. This was my personal path.

What makes me qualified to express my opinion on this? It’s simple: their story is also my story. The recent events are heartbreaking, unsettling, disturbing and touch my core as an Ivy-league educated woman too familiar with the tears of racism. I left corporate America because I did not have faith that my dedication and hard work would be valued. Instead, I founded my own business; today, Robinson Hill is celebrating 25 years in business.

A McKinsey study sheds light on the issue of Hispanic and African women and men leaving companies at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Many companies don’t ask their employees why they are leaving, nor do they collect the data broken down by ethnicity. Yet by gathering this data, and altering policies and culture accordingly, companies could grow stronger and help attract and retain diverse talent.

It is crucial that today’s business leaders nurture their human capital with the same care they manage all corporate resources. Warren Buffett notes that the best investment is investing in ourselves; the next best investment is investing in our people. Companies deploy substantial resources in hiring their human resources; why not nurture and grow their investment by maximizing human capital’s ROI?

True leaders are in the business of assisting all people in realizing their full potential; in doing so, they inspire excellence, regardless of any employee’s ethnicity or racial background. The change we need to see will only come from true leaders, leaders with the power to effect real change and model the behavior needed to create an authentic culture of inclusion and compassion. Authenticity is key here: can companies honestly say people of color feel welcomed? You may not know because you haven’t walked in their shoes and may be unintentionally fostering a culture of exclusion. The CEO of Wells Fargo acknowledged this point, his empathy opens the door for healthy dialogue and change. I have helped organizations define and create authentic cultures of inclusion. However, while crafting inclusion statements, laws or statutes is a strong start, without commitment and measurement, you are left with no accountability and, in turn, no true, authentic change. This is simply not enough.

I applaud the leaders who are leading bravely in this fight. Corporate CEOs are joining Larry Fink and others by making public statements against racism and expressing anger and empathy. However, Mr. Fink has also taken decisive actions for inclusion and acknowledges the value in doing so. I implore and urge other chieftains to reevaluate their cultures, practices and policies. Please ensure that you are quantifying and measuring your results so adjustment and changes can be made where needed. What incentives are in place to achieve success? Can you report statistical results? Is authentic inclusion your true culture? Are good faith efforts truly performed with good faith?

Why do companies seem to always be working at diversity and inclusion? Who is winning? This is not the time to delegate accountability to HR or the D&I Manager. If at no other time, the oversight and voice of our leaders are critical. Your leadership will help guide us out of this turmoil.

The fight against injustice and for equality continues. Some people listen and act, and others turn their cheek as if the subject of inclusion is a nuisance. Sadly, organizations get away with not upholding their own mandates for fairness and equality. No one holds them accountable and there are no repercussions for inaction or failure. We all lose.

Leaders, this fight needs you.

Please use the power of your voice, your brand and balance sheet to help the fight. Be deliberate. Please help effect real change by bringing authenticity and commitment to a fight worth fighting. For those of you who will bravely fight, you will be rewarded. Together, we can do this.

Together, we can balance the scales of injustice and show the world we are the best.