Note: This article was first published at SmartBrief on Leadership.
Leaders come in different shapes, sizes and from different places. Not everyone came into the workplace, took a few management and leadership training programs, and then overcame the organizational quagmire to get ahead. Leaders also are not always located at the top of the organization. Having an executive title doesn’t necessarily qualify you to be a good leader.
Good leaders come from a multitude of places. Where you sit in your company, agency, firm, department or community does not dictate whether you can be a leader or not. I say this because I had the opportunity to learn about leadership early in my life. The best leaders that I have ever known were my parents.
You may read this and think, “How can someone who has spent over 30 years in corporate America and has seen literally hundreds of leaders come and go throughout her career say that the best leaders she knew were her parents? After all, she’s from a small steel mill town where her father was a teacher, principal, and administrator, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who didn’t even have a job.”
These things are all true. Throughout my career, I have worked with hundreds of leaders, some of them have been role models and mentors from whom I have learned much. However, my most impactful leadership lessons I learned from my parents.
My father was one of the first African American teachers and principals in western Pennsylvania during the late 1950s and 1960s, when civil rights was still in its infancy. It was a time characterized by major campaigns of civil resistance, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, producing crisis situations and dialogues between activists and government authorities.
His passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion was channeled through a fierce discipline and strong work ethic. He didn’t allow himself to be distracted, and he moved forward with his goals to strive for equal rights for himself, his students, and those teachers and administrators of color who were to come after him.
As the CEO of our family, he fought for the rights of his “employees” to make sure that the world we went out into was one where we were prepared to fight and endure any aspects of disparity that we encountered. Because his children went to a neighboring school district and not his own, he initiated meetings with our teachers, coaches, and any other administrators who he felt were not approaching their responsibility as leaders in an equitable fashion.
I never once saw my father raise his voice in any of these discussions, but he was very direct and clear in his expectations as it pertained to his children. He demonstrated some of the strongest traits of leadership: Inner strength and patience, self-confidence, a strong desire to drive change.
My mother was not a corporate executive. She did not start her own company. But she was one of the most formidable forces I have ever known. She was the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer, and the chief HR officer of one of the toughest organizations across many decades: our family household.
During those hard days when my father would come home and be tired from the continuous battle against inequities throughout the day, she would comfort him. She would also provide counsel and tell him that it was going to be all right. She would energize him because she knew that when he left the house the next day, he needed to be armed and ready to fight yet again.
As the CFO, she made sure that the organization had sufficient funds to operate. My father came home and gave the check to my mother. She made sure it was spread out so she could pay the bills, put food on the table, and clothes on our backs. As the CHRO, she made sure that all employees were working together well. She conducted ongoing performance reviews of her five children on a daily basis, providing creative and effective “feedback” to ensure optimal performance.
My mother led with skills of empathy, results orientation, and efficiency while creating an environment of psychological safety for all of us.
So, you can see, I may have come from a small town, but I was surrounded by leaders who were role models for the type of person I aspired to be. They both exemplified very critical leadership skills: empathy, results orientation, efficiency, Inner strength and patience, self-confidence, a strong desire to drive change.
What it means to lead D&I
As leader of a global diversity and inclusion organization, the attributes demonstrated by my father and mother are extremely important. It’s important to have inner strength to be able to push the D&I agenda forward in organizations in the face of adversity and competing priorities.
Many times, a heavy hand wrapped around a bullhorn in loud protest is not always the answer. Often, it is best to listen with empathy and to seek to understand the adversity and the obstacle, and then whittle away at it until everyone is working together to drive change.
Patience is critical because, when we talk about global diversity and inclusion, we are talking about changing cultures and behaviors. Organizational change does not happen overnight. It takes perseverance to plot a course and every day, stay the course until your results are achieved.
Self-confidence is important because not everyone is going to believe in your vision as a D&I leader. There are always those who will question you and pick apart your ideas and solutions, but if you have confidence, you will be able to continue to move your vision forward.
Finally, both my parents had an abundance of faith which they instilled in me. Faith is a very important foundation for the work in diversity, equity, and inclusion — faith that your journey will end in success. Because it’s not about you. It’s about the employees who are counting on you to create a culture where all can feel valued, engaged, and empowered to succeed.
During a recent business trip, I stopped in to visit my god-daughter who was attending one of the local universities. As we sat and talked about her life at school, her classes, and her friends, I became excited for her and the opportunities that lie ahead of her.
I was also anxious for her. I remember how I felt at that stage of my life. I was excited, optimistic, and sometimes a bit overwhelmed, but I looked forward to my career and the life that stretched out in front of me. When I stepped into corporate America, it was very different than it is today. Young women of color were few and far between in the C-Suites and in upper management levels. I didn’t have close family members to talk to or to guide me through the inner workings of corporations. I set out perhaps a bit naively on my path early on in the corporate world. I made mistakes—which I tried to learn from—and kept going, learning lessons along the way.
There is a clear difference between my experience and that of my goddaughter; she has family that she can reach out to for advice because the landscape has changed and today there are more women of color in managerial and leadership positions than there were when I was coming out of school.
So what would I tell my goddaughter – and any other young person starting out on their journey?
1. Be authentic.
Look for a career and a path that will enable you to be your true self. When I was young in my career, I remember being told how I should behave while in the workplace, what I should say and how I should say it, and who to emulate. At times, I felt there were many different versions of myself and some of them were not really me. As I matured, I realized that I needed to be true to myself. There is a lot of truth to the quote from Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “this above all, to thine own self be true.”
2. Don’t limit yourself.
This generation’s women of color have opportunities that were not available to many in my generation or the one before that. The world literally is their oyster. In today’s global economy and technological advances, young women of color can aspire to be and do things in not just traditional roles, but those that have been primarily held by men over the years. You don’t have to be type-casted, stereotyped, or forced into a career or role that doesn’t suit you. You have many opportunities, take advantage of them.
3. Find your voice.
The evolution of the women’s rights movement is one in which we should all be aware. And, the evolution of the civil rights of persons of color is one in which we should all be aware, but it is an evolution, it is consistently evolving, stretching, twisting, and turning. Things will not be static; they will not be flat, black and white nor cut and dry. It will be important for women of color to speak for themselves to ensure that their voices, rights, passions, thoughts, and desires are heard and respected.
I know that this next generation of young aspiring women of color will be a powerful force in shaping our ever-changing global landscape. I look forward to watching my god-daughter and all these young women of color flourish and grow!
We all understand the important role that mentoring plays in strengthening the workforce within companies. Mentoring provides an opportunity to cultivate strong leaders and professionals within the organization.
So I don’t appear to be presumptuous, I’ll level set on how I define mentoring. Traditionally, mentoring is a relationship between a more experienced leader and an employee, focused on supporting their professional growth and development. Typically, the two meet to discuss issues, challenges, and opportunities the mentee may be facing.
In times such as these, this is an important aspect of mentoring that sometimes is ignored in traditional mentoring programs.
In this day and age, mentoring relationships can become strained. For example, in the #MeToo era, men have voiced concerns over mentoring women for fear of false accusations of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. Business leaders might be hesitant to mentor employees from other countries for concerns of cultural and language challenges. White leaders may have concerns of mentoring those of different ethnic backgrounds for concerns of offending or being insensitive to concerns they face in their respective communities. Baby Boomers sometimes shy away from mentoring those from different generations.
On the surface, these concerns may seem extreme, but nonetheless, they are valid to those experiencing them. Here are a few suggestions to help overcome these challenges.
Address them head-on, through courageous conversation and inclusive dialogue.
If you are a mentor reach out to a peer (or a D&I leader) who you trust to talk about your concerns. I have had males talk to me about their concerns mentoring women and we start with understanding the basis of the fear and then expanding the conversation from there until we can get to some solutions.
If you have a longstanding mentor-mentee relationship currently, talk to your mentee about how you are feeling and listen to their perspective on the situation. There is no rule book that says that a mentor can’t learn from their mentee.
Look for opportunities to stretch your inclusive muscles as a leader.
There are plenty of articles, books, webinars, and podcasts on inclusion and inclusive leadership that you can learn from.
Set up coffee with an employee who is “different” from you and get to know them and learn from them, contract with them ahead of time as to your purpose and I’m sure they would be proud to talk about their heritage, their culture, their background (and while you’re at it, ask them about their career aspirations as well to make it a two-way conversation).
The mentoring relationship is too important as a component of a company’s inclusion strategy to be eroded. The mentor is a critical source of support and a valuable tool to helping to grow our future leaders. We must do whatever we can to preserve this aspect of our employee development practices.
On May 25, 2020, many people’s paradigms shifted. For many, there was a realization that many people did not have the same experiences as they had. They realized that in some communities, life had handed down some harsh realities that seemed unfair and unjust.
For others, it was not something new. It was simply a replay of events that had plagued family members, friends, and colleagues in their community for decades and in some cases for centuries. The inequities they had been experiencing were exposed, raw and unfiltered for the world to see.
While this singular event involved the death of George Floyd, an African American man at the hands of a police officer, it was just a punctuation on events happening across various groups of people worldwide: The xenophobia and hate crimes inflicted on Asians, the homophobia against the LGBTQ+ community, the disparity and violence against women, the indifference shown to persons with disabilities and Native American and Indigeneous peoples, the isolation of those of different faiths.
Our company is a microcosm of the world around us. The convergence of different beliefs, ideals, and value systems is at an all-time high and the “employee awakening” that has happened forces us to look at ourselves and make change…sustaining, long lasting change.
I believe we have taken a hard look over the past year at our organization, what we were doing well and where we needed to improve and this has shaped our future work in diversity and inclusion.
We had just rolled out the new evolution of the company’s GD&I strategy in January 2020 and were implementing the priorities outlined in the strategy: increasing the representation of employees within the organization, ensuring accountability to drive an inclusive culture, continuing to leverage diversity & inclusion to ensure business value and working to transform the external environment, culture, and business landscape. The events of last year helped to confirm our belief that diversity and inclusion would be growing in importance over the next few years.
Our company has made continuing strides to ensure we are prepared for the future. We have taken a close look at the past year and have grown.
We counteracted the distancing across borders, organizations, and individuals with a focus on inclusion, leveraging the pulse surveys to determine where we needed to focus our efforts for ongoing change. We introduced Bold, Inclusive Conversations to management teams and employees to ensure that we had a framework for engaging in productive dialogue on issues impacting the workplace.
We have made collective statements of solidarity and made efforts to learn more about diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have become allies to all, joined Employee Business Resource Groups, and worked to understand those who look different from us.
Our leaders focused on capabilities to help them to lead in a much more dynamic work environment with more engaged and empowered employees.
We re-emphasized the need to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion were foundational cornerstones of the company. We knew that our investors, shareholders, employees were demanding more from companies in the way of social and people responsibility.
Moving to a virtual environment enabled us to participate in diversity and inclusion events from all over the globe. We saw employees engaging in webinars, Webex meetings, Microsoft team events, and Zoom calls to learn more about diversity and inclusion.
We know that this past year has been an unprecedented time of change, but we have taken a hard look at ourselves. We are learning from the past year to mobilize the organization, prolong the passion, and ensure lasting change.
I won’t forget March of 2020. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would be living in a world where we had to take shelter at home, shut down offices and for most of us, work virtually from our basements, attics, living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchen tables. We have been working virtually for over a year now and as unbelievable as it was, we survived. We made it through the summer, we pushed through the fall and winter with hopes that we would return to something resembling a normal existence.
Then we heard our leaders say “we will be inviting employees back to the office” during the summer months. The day that many were wishing for months ago has arrived, and many of us are looking at each other and asking, “how is this going to work?”
It’s a natural reaction to the world around us, but I would venture to guess that as we started wrapping our heads around returning to the workplace, we had many questions. Many of those questions are issues involving diversity, equity, and inclusion.
There are many concerns and needs of our employees that need to be considered. These concerns will vary across different populations. For example, persons with disabilities might be concerned about considerations for accommodations. Considerations will have to be made for moms and dads who are wrestling with decisions from school districts about plans for fall. Managers may require additional training to support their teams. Concerns around favoritism shown towards those who opt to return to the office as opposed to those who can work virtually will have to be addressed.
These are just a few of the concerns to be considered. These concerns have diversity and inclusion implications. Safety, unconscious bias, equity are all areas that will need to be addressed for employees who are most at risk across the many dimensions of diversity that exist among our employees.
One way to address these concerns is to listen to the voice of your employees. Provide regular opportunities to hear from employees, gain feedback on how the work environment is or isn’t working for them, and try to adjust where possible along the way.
We are moving to a hybrid reopening model. With these types of situations, some employees will be coming to the workplace on some days while others may be able to and opt to continue to work virtually. If this is the case, it will be important to try to mitigate “Distance Bias,” which is our brain’s natural tendency to put more importance on things and people that are closer to us than farther away. The impact of distance bias, if not dealt with properly, can seep into all aspects of the employee-manager relationship, from onboarding and orientation to performance assessment and development.
We have developed a lot of those skills to mitigate distance bias over the past year working virtually and we can continue to practice them with those colleagues who will continue to work virtually.
Demonstrating inclusive management practices is essential during this period of transition. Clear and transparent communications of expectations, providing for ongoing feedback during regular intervals, allocating individual time to each of your employees to discuss specific needs and questions are some actions to ensure that you are fostering an inclusive work environment, hybrid or otherwise.
As we look to implement a workplace reopening strategy, we have opportunities to redefine the ways we work and engage with each other. We have a unique opportunity to learn from the past year and create a version of the “next normal,” a version that will be enhanced by making diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority. We must ensure that our workplace strategies are inclusive of the needs of all the employees, not just the chosen few.
We have come through a very tumultuous time over the past year, as we transition and begin reopening our sites and facilities, let’s make sure that we take the time to eliminate as much stress as we can. Doing so will ensure a successful transition to this next phase of our professional journeys.