My Lessons from 6th Graders: How to Stop Being Comfortably Black

May 30th, 2012

When I returned to my home town of Cleveland, Ohio to promote my new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It:  Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, I was excited. I couldn’t wait to see old friends, some of whom I had not seen since childhood. I was eager to show everyone what I had accomplished over the years. It would be a real coming out party. And it turned out to be just that. It was a great event and I really enjoyed reconnecting with family, friends, and colleagues.

But the best part of the event was not the connection with the old faces (sorry, seasoned faces?…ok, this is not getting any better…). The best part happened when, shortly after the event got started, a seemingly endless line of short people enter the venue. To my surprise and delight, my youngest nephew’s class concluded their school day with a field trip to my book event. And this was going to be great because now, I would also be able to influence young minds, too!

I probably did make some impression on the kids, but if I did, that was the backstory for me. In the hour that followed after they settled into their seats, these 11—13 year olds educated me and the rest of the adults in the audience. I wanted to engage them in discussion about three big ideas about Leveraging Difference: 1) the importance of having a strategy, 2) being able to see, understand, and engage multiple differences, and 3) endeavoring to stay focused on larger goals without being distracted. They stunned us all with their variety of insights, but none were more provocative than their thoughts about distractions and diversions.

Now as we all know, our kids live in an incredibly stimulating environment with video, social media, and myriad technologies to grab their attention. And we all know that attention deficit issues are ever-present in dealing with educating kids, right? Except this groups of kids violated those assumptions. They were certainly regular kids, full of energy, and excited about being in this sun-drenched university meeting room overlooking the Cleveland landscape. There was no shortage of “herding cats” activity going on. But once they focused, they provided a number of gems:

Martin:            …the third big idea: you have to keep your eye on the larger goal. What do I mean by that?

1st student:      Paying attention to what’s really important.

Martin:            What keeps people from remembering what’s really important?

1st student:      People get distracted…like something happens in the stock market and they are not focusing on their business. They’re trying to figure out how to get out from under.

2nd student:     Sometimes, in order to run a business, you have to be able to change things. Sometime people let greed get in the way of their goals. They can be too greedy for money. Like a fool is easily separated from his money? If you don’t lead your business well, you could easily lose it all.

3rd  student :    I believe that personal goals get in the way. In order to do well, you sometimes have to put personal goals aside to achieve the larger goal, or else you sacrifice the larger goal.

OK, so what does this have to do with being “comfortably black?” There was something about hearing these words from the mouths of young people that compelled me to ask myself: what distracts me? I decided to examine what was getting in the way of how I was sharing what I was learning from the book with the audiences I met. I realized that I had two great distractions I continue to work on:

1)    Being the “rock star.” When I arrive at a place to teach a class, give a talk, or consult with a client, I am invited to be the center of attention. This is an awfully seductive position to be in because I know that in these circumstances, I love the spotlight. But invariably, that impulse to bask in the limelight makes it very difficult to actually help my students learn, affect my audiences constructively, or help my clients change. I am preoccupied with what I need to do to look smart, sophisticated and suave (whether or not I can execute on it!)

2)    Being “comfortably” black. As a result of #1, I have been vigilantly challenging myself (especially in my diversity work) not settle into being “the black authority.” I find it appealing to show how knowledgeable and insightful I am by using race as a reference for my teachings and conversations. But the people I work with often want to engage and learn about other differences as well. Many times, these other differences are more important in their lives than race. I have to do a better job of doing my homework and learning about differences beyond race. I have to be open to feeling anxiety, being unsure of myself, even reacting defensively in talking about and working with other differences. I won’t always be the expert; I’ll have to learn, too.

In these situations, I have a personal mantra that I actually speak to myself, under my breath, or out loud: How can I be helpful to this class/audience/client in our time together? Just reminding myself prior to an engagement and then during the encounter helps me to refocus on the larger goal.

I am so grateful to my youngest nephew’s class.

Why I Don’t Really Like MARC

May 11th, 2012

 The benefits of engaging in gender work can be as rewarding as the costs are damaging…

I was recently asked to join a progressive online community called MARC, which stands for Men Advocating Real Change, and to be a contributor to the MARC blog. MARC is made up of professionals committed to achieving equality in the workplace. It empowers community members to engage in candid conversations about gender, its impact in the workplace, and how to lead change through member-generated advice, insights, and best practices.

It seems like this would be the perfect forum for me to contribute to the conversation, especially with the focus of my work being on “leveraging difference,” which includes gender difference. So, I couldn’t understand why it took me so long to start my first blog post for MARC until I realized that I don’t really like MARC. As a man, it can be difficult and unpleasant to deal with gender dynamics and to have to talk about issues like the challenges of colleagueship with women. I’m reminded of my days in graduate school when I decided to join a men’s awareness group. I wanted to better understand women, gender, and myself. (Actually, in retrospect, the biggest reason was that I was dating this remarkable woman who I wanted to get to know better, and I was looking for anything that would help).

I joined the group and it seemed like the right thing to do, but it didn’t take long to realize that I didn’t belong in the group. Not because I was somehow more enlightened than the other men in the group—I most certainly was not. But because what they talked about didn’t really resonate with me. The topics of discussion too often felt like a personal attack. It wasn’t that other guys were attacking me, but more that the subject matter was offensive. I felt like I was being blamed just being who I was, for being a man. The mannerisms, language, and behaviors that were a part of who I was were being talked about as though they were wrong. Moreover, as a man of color, I was not sure that this gender work was not a distraction from the “more important” work of fighting racism. And to top it all off, I thought the men in this group were a little too self-reflective, a little too self-righteous, a little too sensitive and a little too, well, white. I soon drifted away from the group—other more important activities just took precedence.

My experience nicely illustrates a trap that ensnares many men when it comes to doing the work it takes to create a community and society in which gender diversity truly enriches everyone. The kinds of negative reactions I had to that men’s group are both legitimate and common.  And those very same legitimate reactions create the smokescreen that prevents men from experiencing both the costs of the status quo as well as the benefits of something better.

I understand some very clear realities about gender at this stage of my career and my life. On the cost side, my sexism—especially the unconscious, unintentional stuff—harms my women colleagues. Maybe they are mostly small slights, but inflicting many small abrasions is the stuff of torture. Moreover, my sexism harms me personally. I can’t be fully productive and fully collaborative (and those two are critically important career competencies in the 21st century economy) if I am hindered by my gender bias. That bias can take many forms:  feeling uneasy with a female boss, or being uncertain about how to give feedback to a woman direct report, or being pre-occupied by sexual attraction to a colleague, or just being frustrated about having to walk on eggshells when it comes to women and gender. All of these feelings drain time and mental energy from a man in a gender diverse workplace. That is time and energy that is better used for accomplishing the work of one’s organization. An added cost for me as a black man? I can’t fully address and redress the dynamics of racism if I am myself at the mercy of my own unconscious gender biases. Gandhi and King among others have made the point eloquently that all of these biases and injustices are fruit of the same tree.

The benefits of engaging in gender work can be as rewarding as the costs are damaging. If we can really make substantive headway in breaking down the bias and dysfunction related to gender, there is the possibility of experiencing a truly energized, dynamic and diverse workplace and community. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from interacting with the multiplicity of women colleagues when I can do so skillfully, and free from anxiety and self-consciousness that I will mess up or be offensive. I am much better at accepting and learning from women who are smart, resourceful, aggressive, quiet, feminine, tough-minded and all manner of other traits. And, by the way, I’m also better at connecting with other men who share exactly the same qualities. Engaging gender is not just about understanding women—it’s also about understanding the range of maleness that is present in our workplaces, communities, societies, and in ourselves.

I don’t like MARC because from moment to moment, it is challenging to really roll up my sleeves and work on making myself better; looking critically at myself is not an especially fun activity for me. But I will be better for doing the work. And I will help others in my life—both women and men—if I can fully embrace the insights, dialogue, and learning that can come from a forum like MARC. So I’ll work on it—maybe not every day, but most days—and see what happens.

Leveraging Difference Makes a Competitive Difference

March 13th, 2012

The following blog was written by Robert F. Bruner, Dean of the Darden Graduate School of Business, and posted on his blog site March 5, 2012.

“Civilizations should be measured by the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained.” — W.H. Auden

It’s challenging to find institutions today that harness the diversity of its participants really well. This should be of paramount interest to CEOs and leaders of all kinds because those who harness it well sooner are likely to gain advantage in their competitive space. Such is the gist of a special Town Hall session for students faculty and staff to be held tomorrow, “The End of Diversity as We Know It: How to Make Diversity Efforts Really Matter,” from 3:30-5:30 in Abbott Auditorium. And it is the focus of a new book by Darden Professor Martin Davidson, The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed. I encourage readers to draw on both of these resources.

I see the relevance of this topic most vividly in two spheres: the management of global businesses and the education of the next generation of global leaders. In respect to both spheres, W.H. Auden got it right: success is a matter of embracing the diversity within institutions and doing so in a way that generates strategic strength and focus on the things that matter.

On the basis of results, the former Soviet Union would be a leading example of how not to leverage diversity. So would Zimbabwe—indeed, the potential list is long. Diversity was thought to be a uniquely American problem of dealing with differences in race and gender: “we don’t have a diversity issue here” is a statement I have heard in many countries. Yet, a little conversation will often reveal material divisions in virtually all countries. As I write this, I am in Ecuador, a small nation of about 15 million people, which displays classic issues associated with diversity along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language, and tribe—this is not to criticize Ecuador, but rather to suggest that leading a constituency that contains material difference is a universal challenge.

So, what is the leader of a diverse organization to do? Stop thinking of difference as a problem and start thinking of it as an opportunity; find ways to leverage difference as a strength.

At Darden, our purpose is to “improve society by developing principled leaders for the world of practical affairs.” Leveraging difference is a conscious element of our strategy. To my knowledge, we were the first business school to appoint a Chief Diversity Officer (he is Peter Rodriguez; his predecessors were Martin Davidson and Erika James). We organized special Dean’s advisory councils on diversity and on global affairs to assess the curriculum and climate of the school in light of best current practice. We partner with a number of organizations that help us to recruit top diverse talent—indeed, for two years, I chaired the Board of Directors of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. We host a range of social events that celebrate the diversity in our community, and learning events, such as tomorrow’s session on “The End of Diversity.” We formally survey faculty, staff, and students on the climate of inclusion in our community—and based on the survey results, we adjust as warranted. I make no claim that Darden is perfect in respect to diversity and inclusion; but I do claim that by pursuing these and other activities sincerely and vigorously, we strengthen Darden’s ability to fulfill its mission. From all the metrics I follow, I conclude that Darden’s strategy on leveraging diversity is working and that the Darden Enterprise is growing stronger as a result.

Faculty, staff, students, and the extended Darden Community are supporting our efforts to leverage difference. As a result, we are creating more compelling learning experiences for our students. We are preparing them to prosper and lead in a world that is only growing more diverse. And we are responding positively to the needs of the business profession that we serve. This is creating a legacy with long positive impact into the future.

How ESPN Could Have Avoided the “LinSanity” Diversity Crisis

February 22nd, 2012

I like sports. I like competition, winners and losers, and displays of excellence. But I also like sports because they have been a rich context for talking about differences.  There are iconic stories about racial integration, gender parity, cross-national growth, and making the most of disabilities.

Now enter Jeremy Lin.

For those not especially tuned into the professional basketball world, Lin is a player for the New York Knicks team who has performed exceptionally well the past couple of weeks, earning him mad media attention.  He is also one of a very small number of Asian or Asian American players to ever play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Adding these two elements together—heavy media attention and Lin’s ethnic background—created a nightmare for the multimedia sports network, ESPN, last week. The company issued an apology for a series of racist actions  (probably unintentional, but still racist) related to coverage of Jeremy Lin.  They noted “three offensive and inappropriate comments made on ESPN outlets during [their] coverage,” the most infamous of which was the headline under a picture of Lin making a mistake on court that read “Chink in the Armor.” You could argue this was simply an isolated mistake (or actually three) that just happened—essentially the explanation ESPN adopted. But if you did, you would be plain wrong.

The ESPN/Lin story underscores how challenging it can be to build what I call a “Leveraging Difference Capability.” In my new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It:  Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, I describe this as what happens when an organization becomes so diversity-savvy that everyone in it develops processes for (and habits of) dealing with differences skillfully, even unfamiliar differences. Errors like those ESPN committed are evidence of an organization that lacks the Leveraging Difference Capability. If they had it, they would have created processes and procedures to prevent these mistakes. For example:

  • All of the eyes that reviewed any headline would have sensitivity to language and idioms that could be even remotely racist;
  • There would have been red flags, thanks to that awareness, followed by channels for information gather and discussion
  • There would have been lines of communication with people who would understand the experiences of Asian American professionals
  • There would be have been consultation with  people who are “firsts” in their industries and organizations

No reputable news outlet would describe a Mexican baseball player’s bases-clearing double as a “Spic ‘n Span” hit. Nor, as one radio commentator I heard suggested, would you likely see an outstanding run by a white football player who barrels over opposing players as a “Cracker Barrel” guy.  The reason these would be unlikely occurrences is that most people know better.  And if a writer misses it, her editor will pick it up.  It’s not about one person being vulnerable for making a mistake.  Rather it’s about an organization not knowing how to institute the checks and balances to make sure that mistake just does not happen.

By the way, the corollary here is that the punishments of those involved (firing the headline writer and suspending an on-air broadcaster) were probably too harsh. If this really was about a systems breakdown and not some rogue headline writer, it’s wrong to punish only the writer. That doesn’t properly deal with the cause of the problem (meaning it will happen again). Moreover, it sends the message that “We’re OK; we just had to get rid of the bad apple.” No, you’re not OK.

An Asian-American as a budding star and as media phenomenon is unprecedented in NBA history. There is no good roadmap for what to say and do and what not to.  But those are precisely the best reasons to develop a Leveraging Difference Capability, especially in a globally diverse world. People and organizations will constantly be faced with new differences and new challenges.  Having a way of operating—a mindset—that skillfully deals with those differences will prevent the kinds of public relations crises that ESPN is dealing with right now.

And it will make for much better sports reporting.

How You Can Manage the Future

January 31st, 2012

Darden’s Black Business Students Forum—the school’s celebrated network organization with the mission and goal of building a stronger community around Darden, UVA and Charlottesville—has gotten ambitious. This year, the organization is launching the 24th Annual BBSF Conference, “Manage the Future,” on February 10, 2012 to answer some bold questions: What lies ahead for professionals entering the hypercompetitive global marketplace of 2012 and beyond? What skills must you have to be successful? What landmines will you encounter? How do you navigate around them? And these aren’t just career issues—they have critical personal ramifications.

The conference presentations and discussions will help you understand the key trends and craft strategies to be successful in the midst of them. But that may not even the most valuable takeaway from the conference. The highlight of the day just might be the Leap of Faith Workshop and Celebration Reception. The BBSF undertook an initiative of the same name in 2011 to explore how Darden alumni have navigated difficult and risky decisions in their careers. When you don’t have perfect information and the stakes are high, how do you step into the future? This workshop will answer that question.

The “master weaver” of the day will be Keynote Speaker Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade James Cheng, who will push participants to face the “brutal facts” about what is ahead, but not to fall into negativity or pessimism about them. He’ll share insights—drawing on his personal experience—of how to do just this. This conference is not to be missed. Register now.

Drive Toward Oneness

January 16th, 2012

On August 24, 2011, I first posted this blog that I had written for The Washington Post‘s On Leadership series, on our perversion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. As we celebrate Dr. King today and this week, I feel like this message is worth sending again.

Our perversion of Martin Luther King’s dream

In reflecting on celebrations of the new monument commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I get queasy.I get the same uneasy feeling whenever the King holiday rolls around.The reason is that these become occasions when speakers and pundits routinely tarnish King’s dream.

 Nearly 50years ago, Dr. King spoke of his dream that racial inequality—as well as other forms of inequality—would dissipate with time and people would be judged only by “the content of their character.” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

 Many people think they are leading toward Dr. King’s dream in politics, education, business and other social domains when they argue against separating people into categories by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.  They worry that highlighting these different social identities is the antithesis of King’s vision.  They say we can’t treat people based on the content of their character (or their qualification for a job or political office) if we remain focused on the color of their skin or the sound of their accent.

 But few things pose a greater threat to King’s dream than this drive toward “oneness.”   Pretending that differences don’t matter is not the same as having differences no longer matter. The push to make us all just human has two benefits for people who espouse it.  First, it’s comfortable because it avoids the hard work of negotiating differences.  People retreat to the familiar place of just assuming that “deep down other people are just like me.”  But a lot happens on the way down to deep.  Peoples’ background and experiences, many of which are shaped by their social identities, make them not at all “like me.”  And that means that if we really want to get to the place in which our differences are unimportant, we must roll up our sleeves to do some work, starting with an honest exploration of how we are different.

Our society is made up of people with vastly divergent experiences, perspectives, backgrounds and talents. Often those differences are defined by the structural inequality that exists today, just as it was in King’s day.  A Gallup Poll of more than 1,300 people nationwide found that 90 percentof whites and 85 percent of blacksthink civil rights for African Americans have improved in their lifetimes. Yet wide gaps between blacks and whites remain in average income levels, and access to housing, education and employment.Similar statistics can be found to make the case for gender and class inequities.And a few sound bites from contemporary debates on gay marriage reveal how far we are from treating people of different sexual orientations equitably.  On the positive side, differences that are well embraced can generate the breakthrough innovation, community cohesiveness, and the commitment to making society extraordinary rather than merely ordinary.

 The drive toward oneness—toward “we’re all just human beings”—tends to discount both facets of difference.  It rewrites the story of structural inequality as one in which the Promised Land has been reached.  We hear things like, “We are post-racial.”  “Discrimination is not as bad as it used to be, and it’s getting better.”  “Young people don’t worry about this stuff the way the older generation does.”

 This denial infuriates people who live a life in which their experience of being disenfranchised is glibly attributed to them being oversensitive.  And it creates privileged but vulnerable people who think they live in a world where everything is really getting better, leaving them unequipped to deal with the discontent of the disenfranchised.  The drive toward oneness also deprives us of the opportunity to come up with new ideas and perspectives because it makes it undesirable, or even dangerous, to express a novel and unusual way of seeing the world.  It becomes bad to be unique.

 Of course, it is possible to foster divisiveness by overemphasizing differences. Poorly executed diversity initiatives like hiring or admitting candidates based too heavily on skin color or gender is not good for a company or school, nor is it usually good for the person of color or the woman who enters the institution.  Overemphasizing social identities can relegate people who are different to being seen (and feeling like) one-dimensional aspects of the people they truly are.  King’s dream comes to fruition only when we neither ignore nor overinflate the importance of social identities in how we engage differences, whether in neighborhoods or schools, businesses or government agencies.

Getting to King’s“content of their character” place requires more than just leveling some metaphorical playing field.  This place of clarity, in which people truly see one another for who they are, comes from being willing to engage—not avoid—our differences.  It comes from letting go of the mindless habit of looking for similarity and commonality, and cultivating the ability to open oneself up to looking for and learning from difference. This is the leadership charge we should hold before us as we memorialize Dr. King’s legacy.


Making Diversity Work: Leveraging Difference is the Right Thing to Do

December 27th, 2011

With the recent release of my new book The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed  I thought it would be valuable to reiterate some of the key leadership points by posting this piece that the Darden School did in their “On Thought” series last year.

October 13th, 2010
“Unfortunately, ‘diversity’ has become a dirty word. When all is said and done, it just doesn’t work in our company and I don’t care what all the zealots say, facts are facts.”
Fortune 100 corporate executive

I interviewed a large firm’s leadership team recently that had abruptly ended virtually all of their traditional “Managing Diversity” work. This company’s leaders genuinely want to create a more inclusive and diverse environment, but the CEO was fed up with years of dead end initiatives that had done little to create meaningful change. That firm is far from achieving the change the leaders say they want, and ending all of their existing activities was probably not the right approach. But their discontent was legitimate. If leaders really do want some kind of shift toward greater inclusion in their companies and if they don’t really see compelling value from Managing Diversity efforts, then what should they do?
My work on Leveraging Difference—which I explore in much more depth in my upcoming book, The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed—lays out some critical principles for moving forward the right way:

Strategy first (and I don’t mean diversity strategy). The greatest challenge that diversity professionals grapple with (and HR professionals, too, incidentally) is having command of the business’ strategy. This is important because doing diversity right requires an enterprise view—not just a talent or HR management view—of the company. The starting point for doing diversity well is having the same understanding of the business strategy that a senior line executive has. That way, exploration of how difference can make a difference is well aligned with the purpose of the company. This step has two powerful implications. First, any activity that is well aligned with the business strategy is much more likely to last! If you are looking for sustainable change in diversity, this is where to start. Second, and more challenging, is that this means that the common diversity agendas, like closing racial or gender disparities, may not be the most important work for an organization to do. Instead, their focus may be on greater diversity of educational background, or age, or level of divergent thinking. The best diversity work comes from following the business strategy.

Let all differences matter. The corollary to the “strategy drives diversity” principle is that the menu of differences that can be pursued is big. In the U.S., the “rule of 7 to 11” has traditionally applied to diversity initiatives. Diversity activity is restricted to incorporating roughly 7 to 11 traditional types of differences into the mix: race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, age, religion, etc. But in leveraging difference, leaders get to step back and explore what differences really matter to achieving the organization’s goals and what differences don’t? If learning style diversity is more important for a consulting firm’s success than gender diversity, it’s legitimate to pursue the goal of integrating people with diverse learning styles as the primary diversity agenda. Here’s the caveat. Across the world, I continue to see one powerful reality for doing difference work: there is a tremendous amount to be learned from dealing directly with societal “hotspots.” Those differences that are most charged and contentious in a society are the most fertile ground for learning how to leverage difference. It’s hard to build a personal competency and an organizational capability for engaging difference if you aren’t willing to deal with tough differences directly.

Be a leader who sees the larger goal. To be the driver for leveraging difference, you have to clear your head and heart. What undermines sustainable difference work is the difficulty people have in subsuming their personal and emotional agendas to what is best for the whole organization. Diversity resistors are convinced that diversity is bad and they adamantly refuse to attend to the irrefutable evidence of the benefits that diversity—skillfully engaged—provides for their organization. Diversity proponents often avoid dealing with the legitimate discontent expressed by the executive I quoted at the beginning of this post, and advocate for—and bully people into acquiescing to—a diversity agenda. Both of these stances destroy the opportunity for the value of difference to be realized in organizations. Leveraging difference leaders take a realistic view of where and how difference helps and then drive that message through the organization with meticulous analysis, social adeptness, and the boundless energy that derives from doing work that really helps the organization do better and be better.

Jim Collins identified the “Level 5” leader who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” That same blend is critical for anyone who wants to leverage difference.

Five Myths That Doom Diversity Efforts

November 27th, 2011

Greater diversity does not easily translate to greater performance. It takes work to make that happen. Yet many leaders are content in the illusion that symbolic activities and underfunded training classes will turn their increasingly diverse organizations into world-class performers. Understanding why diversity is so often mismanaged requires debunking five strongly held myths about diversity:

Myth 1: Having diversity will increase performance and profits

Why it’s a myth: Having greater diversity in your team and in your organization only helps if you understand what to do with it.  Bringing together people of different ethnicities, genders, or sexual orientations and saying “go to work” is a blueprint for failure and several studies bear this out.  The key is being strategic about what kind of diversity you need to get the job done and going after it.

Myth 2: If you increase the number of women and people of color, you have increased your diversity

Why it’s a myth: Of course gender and ethnicity play a role in the way people see things. But the value of diversity doesn’t come from the appearance of a person.  Rather, it comes in taking advantage of diverse perspectives to create business results. You can have a group that very much looks like the rainbow, but thinks pretty much the same.  In that case, you haven’t increased your diversity at all.

Myth 3: Diversity efforts always benefit women and people of color

Why it’s a myth: White males are the generally the dominant group in the U.S. workplace and often believe they have the most to lose—jobs, promotions, status—when it comes to diversity.  But women, people of color, and other people who are different also resist when diversity rhetoric and norms of behavior single them out and put them under a microscope.  If diversity is only about counting heads, neither the organization nor “diverse” employees benefit in the long run.

Myth 4: A diverse workplace is ideally a harmonious and integrated workplace

Why it’s a myth: When diversity is working at its best, people are constantly bumping up against new ideas and perspectives that challenge long-held beliefs about how they see the world.  I don’t know about you, but that activity usually unsettles me.  A workplace in which differences are being leveraged is dynamic, energized, emotional and rarely boring.  If you think that the ultimate vision for true diversity is constant harmony, think again.

Myth #5: Corporate leaders who want to increase race and gender diversity will make it happen 

Why it’s a myth: Leaders constantly juggle the need to meet business goals with the need to meet diversity goals. That causes them frequently to make choices between a focus on either increasing race and gender diversity, or focusing on corporate performance.  Because diversity is not well-linked to perfromance, they have to choose which will take precedent and diversity efforts almost always fall by the wayside.  And an added cost: these leaders—who really want to do the right thing—end up worried that they will be seen as biased because they aren’t making progress with diversity.  The only solution to this is to make diversity efforts and corporate performance one in the same.  Leveraging difference, not managing diversity, can do just that.

How I Learned to Be Black (Part II)

October 18th, 2011

(This is the second of a five part series of unconventional reflections on race)
Lesson Two: On not being black

One day, in a land far, far away, I realized that I was not black.

The pivotal experience for me was a trip I took to Shanghai several years ago. I led an MBA class abroad and that was the occasion of my very first trip to Asia. On my first day there, I was walking down a busy street and seeing the many Chinese people of all walks of life along the way. Some were curious to see me, others polite, but most were indifferent. As I walked, I noticed myself becoming mildly uncomfortable for no apparent reason. I just felt uneasy and the feeling intensified with every step. At one point, I came to a crosswalk and on the other side of the street I saw a tall white man standing there. He looked to be about 35 years old, around 6 feet tall with straight brown hair and pale chalky complexion. As soon as I saw him, my heart leapt. I thought to myself, “Look, someone just like me!”

In that moment I laughed in delight. At no other time in my life had I instinctively identified with a white man like that. Just like me? That experience shifted the way I thought about myself as a black person. So strong and unyielding was my sense of myself as black that I could not have conceived of viewing myself like a white person. Don’t get me wrong. I can understand intellectually the commonality I have with white people. Truth be told, some of my best friends really are white and I love them deeply and profoundly. And in my younger days, I may have tried to fit into white environments by acting like a white person. But I have never been under the illusion that I was ever one of them. In China, though, I experienced this instant of being the same as that white stranger and it captivated me. It spurred me to ask the question of what if my existential certainty that I was black was not as steadfast as I had thought. Hell, I was in China for one day and I thought and felt (if only for an instant) like a white guy. And by the way, I have no idea if that guy was an American. He was just a Caucasian from somewhere. Who knows, maybe I was identifying with a German white guy.

Prior to this trip, I had lived a life in blackness. Like being a fish in water, it never occurred to me that there was life outside of my color. Intellectually, I guess I could imagine it, but why bother, when it ain’t ever gonna happen. I had traveled to Africa, Europe, and to different parts of the Americas and everywhere I was in the middle of a race/color story of some kind. As the backdrop, all of those places had black slavery in their cultural stories. In addition, my experience in each region had a color-coded flavor. In Europe, I was the exotic black American, beloved for my creativity and my insights on oppression. In Africa, I was cautiously engaged by black Africans. They saw me as similar in skin tone and in experience related to it, but very different by virtue of my national origin (which was usually far more problematic for most of those I talked with).

In the South America, remnants of color bias were apparent, too.
But in China, I felt racially irrelevant. I was unable to tell if anyone cared that I was black and they really didn’t seem to. And in that moment when I lost my mind on the street corner when I was so very surprised I had to laugh? That was true liberation.

How I Learned To Be Black (Part I)

October 3rd, 2011

(This is the first of a five part series of unconventional reflections on race)

Lesson One: How I Discovered I am More than Just Black

I gave an informal talk last month to a group of leaders on what I have learned about myself and my leadership over the past seven years. I reflected on how I have used the tools and techniques I learned from attending leadership seminars facilitated by Learning as Leadership (LaL), a San Rafael, California-based leadership development organization. There, I participated with managers and executives from all over the world to learn how to grapple with my unproductive habits and behaviors and how to institute new ones.

On this day, I was inspired to talk about being black. I was one of only a handful of black people in this largely white gathering, but this was important, I thought. I had always taken comfort in the fact that I’m a black man. Even though being black in the U.S. is challenging, seeing myself that way has provided a source of clarity. When I needed that boost of self-confidence, I could remind myself that I was an intelligent and strong black person. When I needed social support, I knew I could rely on other black folks—even those I didn’t know—to offer it. When unjust events happened to me, I could explain them as a consequence of the intentional and unintentional racial bias that permeates this country.

But the comfort of my blackness has also held me back. When I undertook this leadership training, I entered with the goal of deepening my understanding of myself and of diversity. I expected the exercises and reflections to help me with this. To my surprise, though, over the course of the 12 months in which I participated, race came up infrequently. I found myself much more preoccupied with new concepts like “desired image” which captures behaviors I’ve taken up—both consciously and unconsciously—to try to get others to see me in a particular light. Or the “driving idea” or prevailing anxiety I hold that deep down, I’m really a fraud and not as capable or competent as I think, and worried that others will figure it out and I will be exposed. This was very weird stuff that may have been affecting me in my work and my relationships. With these kinds of things on the table, race fell into the background for me, important, but not central. Had being focused on myself racially kept me from attending to these other really important issues?

The real “aha” emerged when I learned about my “mattress.” That is the term for the psychological habit of preparing ourselves for failure in the activities we undertake. In short, we all have ways of thinking that protect us from the painful thoughts and feelings that emerge when we fail at something we really want to succeed at. A mattress, like a soft landing surface, does just that. One of my stronger mattresses is that that the odds were so stacked against me because of my race that I just couldn’t succeed this time. In fact sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t. At times, I am the victim of systemic biases that favor others and disadvantage me. And sometimes I just didn’t prepare well enough. And sometimes (heaven forbid) I’m just not good enough. The beauty of the mattress is that these more ego-based, painful options disappear in the outrage of the blanket assertion that I could have been successful if factors outside my control weren’t conspiring against me. In other words, “it’s not me, it’s you. Or him. Or them. Or the system.

My insight that I have these habits does not negate the fact that real discrimination happens and that I and other black people suffer when it does. For me, that is a fact of life and if you don’t believe it, I have a long list of resources to help you with that one. What I realized was that I was not always skilled at knowing when the real discrimination was happening (and needs to be fought) and when I was protecting myself from feeling pain that had little, if anything, to do with my race. This was not about “playing race cards” or any other such nonsense. It was about learning to be skillful in separating my authentic but incorrect belief that I was suffering because of discrimination from really suffering from discrimination.

I felt like I was beginning to have an experience of myself as larger that only being a member of my racial group. I realized that with expanding and deeper understand of history and culture, my blackness was becoming a huge and nourishing vessel in which to live. And as I said, it helped me in many ways. What I was beginning to explore was that there may have been an even larger, more nourishing vessel in which I was embedded. I was beginning to understand in a much more profound way that I was more than my race. That was lesson one in learning to be black.