Time for business leaders to rise up, take on the moment and make real change.
Photo credit: Clay Banks
“...arrest the thugs. Everyone, please, black or white, I don’t care. Just shut up, get back to work, and stop whining.”
Let that sit for a second.
This message was not from some anonymous tweet or comment in a Facebook post or even a talking head in some obscure Youtube video.
It was an email response, sent to my UCLA alumni chapter network as part of an email discussion that started when a very legitimate question was asked about why the topic of social turmoil engulfing our city (and country) was not being discussed at all in our alumni network (or at minimum via the email distribution list we regularly use).
To be honest, when I first read that message, it floored me.
I just couldn’t believe that this type of rhetoric was being uttered in this forum and by an alumnus of the same school and community where I've truly enjoyed being a part. Now, this message was definitely in the minority and it gave me hope to see so many of my fellow alumni jump into the discussion in support of this critical moment to drive real change. But the more I thought about the comment, two things came into focus: First, the grim reminder of how large a gap we have to bridge to address the social injustices and diversity inequalities that have plagued us for so long. And second, the importance of addressing this gap not just in political and social spheres but within the walled-gardens of our businesses, industries and even alumni communities.
Too many times, we’ve ignored social and racial issues in business forums placating ourselves by the polite excuse of “keeping politics out of it”. (Which is actually a much nicer way of saying a similar message to the one above.) And while I appreciate the interest of keeping things focused on business, in all industries our businesses are about people, whether they’re employees, partners or customers.
Racism, bias and inequality are all people issues. They impact everyone, not just black and brown people and therefore affect every facet of your business.
The “national conversation about race” that we so often have heard quoted by commentators - as if it were some important but distant reality - is finally here. In this moment, there is a real opportunity to engage and take actual, concrete steps towards meaningful change. Many have written on this, but I especially liked this piece from the Harvard Business Review on the steps that businesses must take against racism, and the emphasis it places on ACTION.
My fear is that business leaders may not go beyond the obvious, or easy.
Is not good enough for a business to put up a social post supporting #blacklivesmatter when it is not a staple of the company’s culture or strategic priorities. This dynamic becomes all too clear when customers begin to ask these brands and businesses to share what their board of directors and executive teams look like. Ouch.
But even beyond staffing, what does the talent development pipeline look like for diverse leaders? How is the company integrating diverse perspectives and insights, from the very beginning, into the strategy and development of products or services, and not just when it comes time to create the multicultural ad creative?
Inaction, lip service, and old diversity modalities are simply not good enough.
To put it into business perspective:
“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near” - Jack Welch
I would argue this quote not only applies to business innovation but also to diversity and representation. This is why it matters and why as business leaders we have to tackle this head on. There are no shortcuts, it's hard but critical.
For those of you that need help, ask.
A few weeks back, at Black//Brown, we started a series called #NextNormal... it was meant to be our take on the implications of a post covid world, still an important and relevant conversation. But it is hard to argue that the issue of our collective response to racism and inequality isn’t a more important issue that we have to solve, together, now.
This last week has been particularly difficult for many of us, so many emotions. From anger and outrage in seeing the video of George Floyd’s death and the inaction of those who watched it happen. To frustration in witnessing the destruction caused by those who want to take advantage of this social movement. To disbelief with comments such as the one that began this piece.
But above it all I have hope.
Hope when I see so many different types of people taking the streets, expressing their voices, hungering for real change. As business leaders and entrepreneurs, we also need to hunger for change. And not just the superficial type, but that deep change that impacts structure, strategy and the future.
We can’t stand on the sidelines and wait for someone else to solve it. It’s on us.