Tai Wingfield 21 Sep 2020 // 8:49AM GMT
You have already, this year, written the first lines of your 2030 letter to shareholders. What do they say?
In response to increased awareness of systemic inequities in our society, you may have made a statement of solidarity, or conducted employee “listening sessions.” Maybe you tweaked your Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) strategy, donated to the NAACP, or pledged that your company will do everything in its power to uphold a just, equitable society. These actions are the current corporate playbook, and they are all worthwhile.
They’re also not enough.
They’re not enough now, and they will not be enough a decade from now when it’s time to report on your company’s success against the commitments you made in 2020.
The discussions we are having right now, with our clients and within our own agency, focus on what it takes to reimagine a company as an anti-racist organization. This is not an exercise in social activism or branding. It’s not about programs and metrics, or the $8 billion a year that companies spend on bias training.
It’s about people. And changing minds and hearts takes time.
Every organization must consider and address its unique challenges, culture and role in perpetuating inequities that have implications on every person their organization touches – from their people, to their customers, to the communities they do and should serve.
There is no playbook or one-size-fits-all approach to building an anti-racist organization. Rather, companies will need to do the on-going work to evaluate where they are on their journey and take appropriate action.
The benefits are clear. Our research shows significant differences in key performance metrics for “DE&I Laggard” companies to those considered “DE&I Forward” – defined by a clear demonstration of fair treatment of all people regardless of their race, gender, age, sexual orientation or cultural differences – from higher engagement and retention rates to improved recruitment and brand perception.
You have ten years to achieve your 2030 aspirations, but the journey starts now. And no matter where you are, there are three imperatives that all organizations must consider, all of which position people at the center. This approach is rooted in the belief that tangible actions and effective communication drive engagement, understanding, trust and sustainable change.
Seek out the Truth
Being an anti-racist organization requires first taking a hard look at how every aspect of your business influences day-to-day practices, with an eye for how it impacts the people you touch. Many organizations are facing the troubling realization that they have blind spots when it comes to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I); to affect meaningful, sustainable change you first need to authentically commit to understanding what’s broken.
To best identify these blind spots will require a comprehensive audit of both the “soft” stuff – the prevailing attitudes, perceptions, beliefs and behaviors that build or breach an equitable and inclusive experience for your internal and external stakeholders – and the “hard” stuff – the policies, processes and systems embedded in your workforce, business, products, and services that stand in the way of serving as an equitable employer, business leader and contributor to society. In this way you will have the most accurate and comprehensive information from which to identify your organization’s roadmap for real, measurable progress.
Completing this process should be a public commitment. Results should be proactively and transparently communicated, and on an annual basis to drive accountability. So too must they lead to action, in a more thoughtful, targeted way that improves outcomes and reduces reputational risk.
An audit is the first, critical step to lay the foundation for charting a path toward the change that needs to follow. The next two steps, the “hard” work, need to occur simultaneously. As Cindy Robbins of Salesforce noted with respect to equal pay, “There is no finish line.”
Dismantle and rebuild the systems that benefit some to the detriment of others
Inside-out transformation requires a holistic shift in how organizations operate and behave, across internal and external practices, policies, and systems.
This level of transformation requires a vetting and revamping that goes way beyond learning and development, leadership practices and a business’ pipeline. It could include changing commercial practices, reimagining products and services, and analyzing a company’s cause-related initiatives, philanthropic efforts and partnerships. It requires engaging with employees in new and varied ways. It could also mean addressing a company’s inadvertent involvement in advancing racist legislation – and as a counter, its strategy to advocate for legislation and policies that address societal inequities and impact the communities and people they serve.
Consider your company purpose, values, goals, products and services, stakeholders and the inequities identified in the audit to determine how your company can move forward in a meaningful, holistic and measurable way. Here, BlackRock can be held up as a best practice in linking commitment to values, as CEO Larry Fink has publicly laid out a multi-pronged, multi-year plan for addressing DE&I both internally and externally.
Changing systems that have been in place since the founding of your organization and demonstrating results will take time. That said, core to your success is establishing and nurturing strong relationships with your diverse set of stakeholders through every step in the journey. Failing to do creates a breeding ground for disengagement, mistrust, complacency and resentment.
Bring everyone in your sphere along on the journey with you
This is the piece that is often overlooked, but it is the glue that makes change stick. Reengineering the way your organization operates and behaves will require listening, learning, understanding, communicating and engaging regularly, competently and thoughtfully with every stakeholder your organization touches, and in new ways. It requires building and fostering trust with existing and new partners and communities and holding yourself accountable.
- Be transparent: Acknowledge where you are on the journey and give an indication of your current performance – and where you see the biggest opportunity to do better for immediate and long-term impact. Articulate how your company is addressing structural racism by stripping inequities from its processes/systems, divesting from certain efforts and processes, and contributing to society to counter-balance past inequities. Acknowledge shortcomings as Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky did in acknowledging his company’s failure to cut-off discriminatory practices on his company’s platform and address how you will course-correct, where and when needed.
- Provide context: Help stakeholders understand why you set the goals you set, enabling them to decide if they are aggressive enough. Additionally, give some insight as to how the commitments were developed and aligned on (i.e., after listening to employees, customers, consulting experts in the field; evaluation of DEI performance; benchmarking; etc.). For example, when Gap, Inc. announced its commitments to DE&I, company leadership both tied future goals to business strategy and actively solicited and created space for on-going feedback.
- Strike a humble balance: Acknowledge that while you are making firm commitments, you do not know all of the answers. Provide assurances that there are programs in place to hold the company accountable. For example, after initially banning Black Lives Matter apparel, Starbucks listened to employee feedback, updated its policy, and doubled down on its commitments.
- Make everyone part of the story and storytelling: More enlightened, more inclusive dialogue (in addition to action) is critical to help eradicate inequities. Share regular updates about your progress, setbacks and learnings. Make your journey the core of your corporate narrative which is highlighted in all internal and external communications as well as broad reach marketing initiatives. Broaden the conversation to ensure that their stated values and behaviors aren’t just words on a page but are actively lived and visible. Here, Netflix serves as an aspirational brand who is putting in the work to serve diverse customers, acknowledging missteps along the way, and elevating diverse talent, recently upping the ante by investing directly in Black communities.
Former American Express CEO, Ken Chenault said that developing others was integral to leadership; he evaluated people based not only on what they achieved, but who they developed, and who followed them. It’s a view that looks beyond traditional notions of performance, shaping destiny through empathy, purpose through sponsorship, impact through belonging. In this of all moments, we have an opportunity to rethink our world; as we think about bringing others along, we must, similarly, expand our horizons.
How will what you do today influence how you are perceived in 2030? Will the statements, donations, and commitments remain just that – measures that reflect a moment in time? Or will it mark the first (or next) step in an ongoing process of introspection and renewal? To drive systemic change, addressing racism needs to be treated as a business imperative, and measured and resourced accordingly, because it is. Organizations that are asleep at the wheel stand to lose competitive advantage, customer loyalty and top talent.
Racism as a concept was not born out of hate. It was born out of a desire for economic gain. It was born out of a story. The effectiveness of that story has plagued nations for generations. There is an immense power in storytelling, in communicating and in understanding and influencing behaviors to drive change. As communicators and as business leaders, we have a responsibility to challenge oppressive narratives and rewrite them. What we do now will have untold consequences. So the critical question is: how far will you and your company travel over the coming decade in pursuing structural and racial equity? And how will you tell that story?
Tai Wingfield is a United Minds senior VP who heads the Weber Shandwick management consultancy's diversity, equity & inclusion offering.