Dear CEOs: America Needs Your Leadership

Chief Executive Officer

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It has been just over a month since America watched in horror as George Floyd uttered those three harrowing words, “I can’t breathe.”  Even today, it’s still hard to get that picture out of our minds. Since that time, there has been a steady build-up of disturbing incidents that have put racial injustice clearly on display in our nation. In cities large and small around the world, protests, demonstrations and sometimes riots show us the visceral pain and outrage of the Black community about the horrific racial injustices they still face. To add insult to injury, this is against a backdrop that is in stark contrast to the way white people can live. Rarely is their value or their place in the world questioned. Rarely, if ever, do they wonder whether the nation they live in is meant for them.

It is clear that there is a racist division of power in our country that must be dealt with. It will take all of us. Among the best places to start is with the true leaders in our nation, CEOs, who are instrumental to when, where and how fast change happens.

The time to react is over. Now, it’s time to respond and here are a few practical things you should know and can do:

1. Lead as a human first and CEO second. Your Black employees are traumatized, they are hurting, and they are scared. Being witness to the callous murder of George Floyd, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, and the egregious act of Amy Cooper, who, in a nanosecond used her skin color as a shield and weaponized Christian Cooper’s blackness, reminds Black people of the fragility of their lives.  Additionally, they may also be grieving due to the disproportionately  negative effects of Covid-19 on Black communities.

2. Create a safe space for uncomfortable conversation. Racism and racial equality and especially the Black lived experience are hard subjects to talk about, but you have to keep the conversation going. Black people may be reticent at first—and that’s okay. Blacks have been taught their whole lives that it was our job to put white people at ease with us being in their space. In the workplace, Black people are often afraid that if they speak up they will be labeled “the angry Black person who makes everything about race,” and they worry that if they speak up they might lose their jobs. Make it clear that everyone has a voice in your company and that their views are respected. Open communication promotes better employee engagement and increased productivity, which leads to a stronger business.

3. Recognize that the problems within your organization are not only due to a faulty Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program. Solve the racism problem first by addressing it head on through open and honest conversations, making your position known that there is no room for racism in your company and taking action with employees who violate this belief. Make sure you aren’t a Lone Ranger and that your leadership team gets it and leads by example. Equally important, review your policies, programs and actions for systemic bias. Eliminate racism and how you need to alter your DE&I programs will become very clear.

4. Don’t just say it—show it. Make concerted efforts to diversify your leadership team, workforce, supply chain, customer base, office locations and the types of products you make. Be honest with yourself about how your company approaches recruiting and diversity. Recognize it is not a pipeline issue, it’s a systemic bias issue. Change it. Some companies are going so far as to remove all references to gender and race on recruiting forms and in recruiting and hiring decisions. Diversify your leadership team now—make commitments with deadlines and meet them.

5. Be authentic and honest. Try to be brutally self-reflective about how your leadership style might be contributing to the problem. Solicit feedback from others if needed.

6. Lead your company to a place of anti-racism. Read Ibram Kindi’s How to Be an Anti-racist and make it mandatory reading for your executive team.  Create an Allyship program that promotes inclusion and collaboration.

7. Understand what “White Supremacy” really is. While many believe White supremacy is relegated to a small population of radical, violent haters, in truth it refers to a political or socioeconomic system in which white people enjoy a structural advantage, or privilege, over other ethnic groups, on both a collective and individual level. Ask yourself if this exists in any form in your organization. If it does, you have work to do.

Affecting and rooting out racism and bias in the workplace is not going to be as hard as you think—it will be harder. It will be a marathon, not a sprint. Companies that get this right will emerge as leaders with admired brands, stronger reputations and thriving businesses—and they will achieve the most important, if elusive, corporate value: trust.

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