Archive for July, 2010

Let’s talk about race…not racists.

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

I recently responded to a question posed by the Washington Post‘s “On Leadership” Web series regarding the Shirley Sherrod firing, “How can today’s leaders assess when to move quickly and when to hang back?”

Let’s not be confused. As Shirley Sherrod reflects on the apology expressed and job opportunity offered by Tom Vilsack following the accusations that she was a racist, one could characterize the drama as an example of a bad call—actually a series of bad calls—made when leaders had to make a decision under uncertainty (like an umpire incorrectly calling a base runner safe on a close play in baseball). But that would not explain why we see leaders so frequently make ill-conceived and just plain dumb responses when race emerges.

The real problem is that when it comes to race, leaders all too often suffer from bouts of race reactivity and they play the “zero tolerance” card. The knee-jerk condemnations of Sherrod by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, by the NAACP, and by Vilsack initially reveal how our sensitivity makes any discussion that is racial transform into a discussion about how someone is racist. As we now come to understand what really happened, this situation illustrates that a person can talk about race without being racist. I’ve seen this scenario play out in my research and consulting in all kinds of organizations and social encounters. Our fear and anxiety about having honest and open dialogue on the complexities of race make us play the “zero tolerance” card whenever anyone says something even remotely resembling racial sensitivity. But in fact, we need to have more conversations in which we hold our reactivity in check.

And let me be clear on two points. First, of course some people exploit the knowledge that we are race reactive for political gain. They know leaders are fearful of race and they use that to advantage. That may have indeed been Breitbart’s initial motivation in posting the short video. I don’t agree with Breitbart’s perspectives or his approach, but I’m going to practice what I preach and examine the guy’s behavior and role in this situation before I leap to blame him for race-baiting. He may have been a smart political operative, but he also may have been a guy with a perspective to advocate who was also vulnerable to race reactivity. He may have posted only the short video because that is all he wanted to see and wanted others to see. That tunnel vision is precisely what I am talking about and no single political ideology has a monopoly on it. Remember, the NAACP condemned Sherrod, too.

Second, I don’t like racists and am not all that interested in sitting down for tea with them. But most people I encounter are not racists. They are people who want and need to have conversations about race and they step into those conversations with varying degrees of skill and insight. What was powerful about Sherrod’s foray into race was that she was telling a story of healing and evolution from a place in which racial bias limited her to one in which racial openness led her to do her job exceedingly well. We need to hear more of those kinds of stories, not have them stifled by zero tolerance.

It’s unfortunate that the zero tolerance card has played out in this situation.  Usually, it is white men who are victims of this problem:  they make mistakes related to race or gender and are punished before they have a chance to learn from them.  Here, a black woman has fallen victim to the “card.”  Leaders rush to condemn anyone who makes an “identity” mistake, in part, because it makes the leader look virtuous to do so.  If I call out the racist person, other people are much less likely to label me as a racist myself.  But being intolerant toward people who make mistakes keeps leaders and their constituents from learning the valuable lessons that come from examining the mistakes.  The farmer and his wife in this story actually defend, not blame, Ms. Sherrod because she ultimately supported them during their struggle.  The power of the story that Ms. Sherrod shared is that any of us can make a mistake and recover—even thrive—after the fact.

Stop Diversity Training and Start Difference Training

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

I recently had conversations with senior executives at two of my client companies who said to me (I paraphrase): “I’m glad you are here. I’m tired of all of the diversity training we’ve been doing over the year. I want to get going with something that will really make a difference for us.” One executive even banned all diversity training from his firm!

Executives like these have good cause to be frustrated about diversity training. It is the most ubiquitous diversity-related activity in most companies. If anyone wants to do anything with diversity, get a consultant to come in and train your people. This diversity training remedy reminds me of the man looking for his car keys on a well-lit street corner one night. He was searching for quite a while when a friend who had been strolling the neighborhood that evening walked up to him:
“What are doing?” she asked.
“I’m looking for my car keys,” the man responded with more than a hint of dejection in his tone.
“Let me help you,” she said.
“Oh, no thanks, that’s OK,” he said.
“It’s no problem, I’m really happy to help.” She wanted to boost her friend’s spirits if she could.
“No, really, I don’t want to put you out. Besides, I know the keys aren’t here. I’m pretty sure I lost them farther down the street.”
Now she was puzzled and asked the obvious question, “If the keys aren’t here, then why are you looking for them here?”
“It’s the only place on the street where there was a street light.”

So many companies offer diversity training because it’s found on well-lit corners. There is no end to the supply of consultants willing to offer up training, and if you are all about checking the boxes on your diversity to-do list, what easier way to quantify your efforts than to document the number of employees who took a diversity training class? But what difference does diversity training really make?

Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin, and Erin Kelly addressed just that question in the research they conducted on federal data that tracked workforces of 708 private sector businesses from 1971 to 2002.[1] Companies that tried to drop in diversity training as a way to diminish managers’ biases were least effective in increasing the numbers of white women, and black men and women in the company. The most effective way to make a difference was to have systems of accountability for creating diversity change. In a new study that will be presented at this summer’s 2010 Academy of Management Annual Meeting in Montreal, researchers found that companies enhance their competitiveness when they infuse diversity training into managerial ranks that currently lack cultural diversity; if the company already has a lot of cultural diversity among its managerial ranks, diversity training doesn’t make the company that much more competitive.[2]

To try to help my executive clients get out of their funk about diversity training, I asked them to think about their goals. If they wanted to increase the diversity of the kinds of people they wanted in their company, the research tells us that it is important that diversity training not simply be an activity that you undertake to check a box; it must be embedded within a larger effort to change the culture and systems of the company. But this is just the pre-work, getting people onto the playing field.

The larger, more important goal is to turn the differences in the company into results (getting the players on the field to perform as a team!)
Learning how to leverage the difference in the company is where the real action is. And the differences aren’t just the ones that might come in by way of response to the first goal of increasing representation of women and people of color. There are lots of valuable differences already in every company I’ve ever worked with. Difference-Training should focus on helping employees build a set of skills they need to turn differences into performance. They have to learn to:

See Difference, to identify the differences (and there can be many more than just race or gender) that matter in achieving your strategic goals;
Understand Difference, to learn how the differences they identify affect how people do work in company;
Engage Difference, to experiment with how differences can be used to create results. Some the experiments will fail—that’s the nature of an experiment. But in the process you learn.

Training on these three difference competencies helps your company create the ability to leverage difference, no matter what differences are in play.

Ongoing learning about difference will always make your organization more able to take advantage of the distinctiveness that people bring to work. Learning about difference is non-negotiable so you can’t just ban it. The challenge and opportunity is to make sure your Difference-Training helps you achieve your organization’s goals.

[1] “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies.” By Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin, & Erin Kelly. Published in the American Sociological Review, 2006. Volume 71, pp. 589-617.

[2] “Racial Diversity, Competitive Aggressiveness and Firm Performance: A Moderated Mediation Model” by Goce Andrevski, Orlando C. Richard, Walter J. Ferrier, and Jason D. Shaw, to be presented at the Annual Academy of Management Meetings, Montreal, Quebec, Canada in August 2010.

Being Hard on White People

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

I think it was an act of synchronicity that, after reading last week about the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I stumbled onto a Washington Post column defending the work (which I did not know needed defending). It is a story—set in the Jim Crow South—about a white lawyer who defended a black man against a charge of raping a white woman. Columnist Kathleen Parker pushes back on modern day critics who take Lee to task for creating a protagonist—defense attorney Atticus Finch—who is far too congenial an opponent of injustice. She highlights one example of text that critics have pounced on in which Finch was too compassionate toward his racist neighbors: “In explaining people and events to his young daughter, Scout, Finch noted that these were not bad people (even though some did want to commit violence against blacks), just misguided.”

After reading the column I was all about the critique of the book. I had read the novel in school as so many U.S. kids have and I did not appreciate fully the subtle messages. First, Finch was way too easy on the racists, as Parker highlighted. Second, Finch was one of these tall handsome, privileged Anglo white guys who always seem to come to the rescue of poor, downtrodden people in the movies. The marine protagonist in Avatar, Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino, Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, and choose your high school teacher from any host of movies about poor inner city kids. Boy, I was into it.

And then something dawned on me. What is wrong with a person helping people who need help? What’s wrong with a white lawyer standing up to defend a black man who most saw as indefensible? What was wrong with a guy (albeit it kind of a blue guy) working to save the habitat of indigenous blue-looking people? What wrong with a man saving people from the genocide? These are noble and courageous acts and the stories should be told.

The problem I had was that the artistic and entertainment-oriented context in which they are told has its drawbacks.  I resonate with the critique that the overwhelming number of stories with “white saviors” in them can create the impression that white saviors are the guys who really get things done and that, in an odd sort of way, if you aren’t that guy, you won’t be as good at overcoming your own privilege to do good and just work. These stories and movies create role models and role models can enhance the efficacy of people who identify with them to do the things the role model does. And when you rarely, if ever, see someone like you doing these great acts, you come to believe that is not something you can do. I think these arguments are valid and worth discussing in depth.

But, what I really want to get to is how good white people/characters like Atticus Finch and Oskar Schindler and the other protagonists just can’t quite be good enough. I see this effect in my work all the time with managers, especially white managers in the U.S. When it comes to diversity (and race especially) it is very difficult for white people to do enough righteous work to make amends for the injustice they often feel responsible for perpetrating. Finch’s choice to defend Tom Robinson wasn’t enough; he needed to beat down the racists. In Schindler’s List, Schindler even breaks down in a wrenching scene in which he bemoans not having saved enough Jewish victims from the concentration camps.

On one hand, these “you-could-have-done-more” critiques, the almost obsessive concern with how these individuals could have been even more virtuous, draws attention to how virtuously they actually did behave. Kind of like saying to someone “Don’t think about pink elephants” makes it really tough for the person not to think about pink elephants. But in fact, theses criticisms get in the way of really moving forward when it comes to healing across difference. Those who hold do-gooders to a higher standard, whether these be external or internal critics, invalidate the real human work that goes into creating real justice. Looking for extreme heroism gets in the way of seeing real everyday heroism. Extreme heroism is only achieved by movie characters and the small minority of truly extraordinary people who live in our communities. That doesn’t get all the work done that needs to be done. Everyday heroes do most of that work. People who try their best and do pretty well, but also fall down. Finch gets to have a moment in which he can’t deny (indeed, he even has compassion for) his racist neighbors. Oskar Schindler gets to do his best to save as many people as he could and that’s it.

So, when we look at white people who dare to try to do better when it comes to race, men who try to do better when it comes to gender, straight people trying to do better with sexual orientation, it’s critical to celebrate the incredibly difficult task they have chosen to undertake. These are the role models we will need to initiate and sustain change in organizations and in larger society. You go, Atticus Finch.

Cultural Cross-Training

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

As my wife and I drove away from a stunning 4th of July weekend in Lewisburg, WV, my mind was overflowing with the cultural experiences of the past two days. Of course, I am immersed in diversity of all kinds, but attending—or to be more precise, being a part of—our friend’s wedding reminded me anew how difference is transformative if I don’t undermine my ability to learn from it.

As we traveled the interstate from our central Virginia farm to West Virginia for the wedding, I was getting more and more nervous. I don’t like big social affairs with lots of people I don’t know, and I was sure this was to be one of those affairs. Moreover, our friend is of Persian descent (on her father’s side) and of European-American descent (on her mother’s side) and she and her new husband live in Mexico. There would be people there with cultural backgrounds and experiences foreign to me. And, she is a generation younger than I am—a full-fledged Gen-Y’er to my Boomer background—so I knew there would be lots of young people there, too, and sometimes they have the uncanny ability to just bug me (I continue to be astonished by the old-fogey voice in my head sometimes).

On top of it all, this would be a community of social activists, people committed to transforming the world, not through business alone, but also through social profit organizations, political activism, artistic creation, and philanthropic work. I’ve never seen myself as someone courageous enough to deal with the world that way (part of the reason my brilliant wife is my hero and greatest teacher).

More than anything, I was just worried about being so out of place.

For me this is the worst part of the diversity experience. It’s that moment just before engaging with people who are different when I feel uncomfortable and anxious, not knowing exactly what I am getting myself into. And I find that I make up stuff to feed the anxiety. I just knew for sure that it would be a large gathering of strangers from strange places who would look at me as an outsider… I knew it would be in the woods and that it would be hot and there would be bugs and I would be uncomfortable…I knew there would be a reception and everyone would hug each other and want to catch up and I would be standing alone looking at the flower arrangements…I knew I would not really enjoy this, and that I would have to put on a nice smile for the whole weekend…I knew I would HATE THIS!

I’m not alone in loathing this moment. I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders and managers who would agree that they avoid dealing with difference because it raises the same kind of apprehension for them. In my case, it was around a social gathering. But in business organizations, the same sentiments arise when managers are assigned to a new global team, or are linked with a client who is different in significant ways.

But as is often the case, the positive impact of really engaging diversity puts to rest so many of the fears and anxieties that run rampant in our heads. I knew that the most important thing I could do was drive the car, get to the wedding and just be there. In those fearful moments, the most important thing you can do is to show up. Be willing to join the new team with an attitude of wanting the team to be successful. Connect with the new client with the goal of offering that client the best customer experience you can. This mindset is the starting point.

From there, you really become more skilled and effective by practicing cultural cross-training (NOT cross-cultural training, but cultural cross-training). That phrase (and the title of this post) was inspired by Christina, one of the new friends I met this weekend. She is an accomplished dancer and was describing how she learned the variety of dances she had mastered from Indonesia, India, and elsewhere. She described her learning journey as “cross-training,” a term most often associated with athletic training or HR training and development, but a term which is most apt for the activity that leaders must constantly undertake. Cross-training frees you from the kind of debilitating paralysis of anxiety that I was fighting as I drove to WV. How do you practice cultural cross-training?

Learn about a variety of distinct cultural perspectives. In athletics, you learn to run, jump, swim, bicycle, etc. so that you have a repertoire of skills that help you strengthen different parts of the body. In the same way, leaders must learn deeply about the variety of the “cultural” perspectives their people bring to bear—national cultural perspectives, vocational perspectives, social class perspectives, problem solving perspectives. No one can learn about all the diverse perspectives that people bring to the table, but understanding the differences that matter for what you are trying to achieve is a great starting place.

Use the distinct cultural perspectives flexibly. In the same way that one of the major tenets of athletic cross-training is alternating training methods as a way to strengthen the body “in different ways to improve overall performance,” so too does cultural cross-training require that you continuously expose yourself to and engage the variety of cultural perspectives you need to know to help you become more proficient in shifting your frame of reference and perspective when you need to.

Be mindful of the goal. The cross-training you do must always be in the service of a larger objective. In athletics, it is in the service of greater overall physical performance for an event for just physical fitness. At the wedding, it was about coming together as a community to celebrate the newlyweds. In your business, it will be about achieving your strategic objectives, whether profit, value creation, growth, or innovation. Whatever the goal, cultural cross-training is best sustained (and apprehensions best eliminated) when that goal is at the fore.

My cultural cross-training took place after we arrived at the wedding. I saw how unfounded so many of my anxieties were. It was a moderate-sized gathering (not gigantic) of people who, though they looked and acted quite differently from me upon first glance, were compelling to me, as I got to talk with them, in the ways our passions and perspectives converged. The people I met—youthful, senior, Persian, progressive, conservative, Latino, creative, Indian, pragmatic, expressive, reserved—came together for the purpose of blessing this new couple and that purpose was what mattered the most. I talked with people about family and politics and community action, and business and leadership and we told stories together and laughed together. When it got to be too much for my introverted sensibilities, I took a walk around the beautiful countryside and then came back and that was cool too.

I managed not to let my apprehensions keep me away from a setting in which I could engage and learn from differences I knew I would encounter. I got to practice cultural cross-training in WV this weekend and as a result I learned a lot about cultures and perspectives I had not considered before. I feel better equipped with what I know and a lot more curious about what I don’t know yet on topics ranging from classical Persian music, to Napa Valley, to helping at-risk kids. I was part of a truly remarkable celebration this weekend and am so much the richer for having been there. Making this kind of effort is what every leader who wants to leverage difference must practice. I got my reps in this weekend. When will you get yours next?