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Diversity & Inclusion will be an unintentional winner from COVID-19

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett October 28, 2020
D&I leaders see positive change this year, but they warn that the old management rule book needs to be thrown away to drive positive change in 2020.

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(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

2020 has been a year dominated by two things: the Covid-19 pandemic and racial inequality. The coronavirus and the death of George Floyd have reshaped the world as we knew it. And according to Diversity & Inclusion leaders, this is a good outcome. It has allowed them to sharpen the focus across their organizations on listening, on leading with empathy and on reshaping the business for equality.

Speaking at Black Tech Fest, Christina Shareef, Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Reddit, explained:

We're actually having vulnerable, open conversations, and without the language that perhaps we were using before to sugar-coat what folks were going through in the workplace. To be really frank, white people are listening now, white CEOs are listening now, white folks in the C-suite are listening now in a way that wasn't happening before.

There's no way to really affect systemic change until we understand that fixing the fruit on the tree will never sustainably yield results if you don't fix the root of the tree, the systemic things that have gotten us here. Now folks are starting to pay attention to what has gone wrong systemically to get us here. That's a fantastic opportunity.

2020 has provided the catalyst for change, the shock that we all needed as a society to wake up, according to Kiessé Lamou, Head of Industry at Pinterest.

I don't think that some of the conversations that we are having today about the future of work, about digitalization, about diversity, inclusion, representation, racism would have taken place - or at least to this extent and this intensity - if we hadn't had going through the pandemic, if we hadn't witnessed the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd. Change can only take place when there is an acknowledgement that there's a problem.

Throw out the management rule book

This change includes throwing out - or at least reworking - the management rule book so it focuses less on driving results, accountability and achievement, and more on people's humanity, understanding the themes that impact them and affect the context in which they get their work done. Tiffany Stevenson, Chief Talent & Inclusion Officer at Box, said:

If I look at every management book that's downstairs in my office, I don't think 80 percent of it applies right now. This is a different world that we're operating in. I can't help you understand racial inequality and inequity if we're not even able to understand that we're coming from different vantage points, there are these things that are impacting our day to day and how I'm getting my work done.

It's really thinking about how we can make sure our managers aren't just starting Monday and everyone's hopping on Zoom as if nothing happened. There's been George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, a fire that devastated California. Those are real issues that are having real impacts. Caregiving has a real impact on people right now.

Stevenson said her work at Box has shifted in this direction, one where she is working to support managers to feel empowered to lead with compassion, vulnerability, empathy and awareness. The company now hosts a monthly manager power hour, which is both a forum for discussing talent topics but also for outlining any topics or external events impacting employees. This ensures managers feel more equipped for that Monday morning conversation, and what they should be talking about on their team meetings.

This is not a moment, this is a movement. The door is really wide open for us to take on this kind of collective humanity and really scale it. To me, that's the only silver lining in all of the madness that's happening around us today.

Managers also need to ensure they are checking in with every member of their team, to ensure nobody falls through the cracks as the home-working trend continues, and will do well into 2021. Shareef said:

One of the things I think is really important for leaders right now is that they're making an absolute intentional effort around making sure that their teams feel included, that they're available, that there's regular one-on-ones whether or not they were happening in the office. It's so pertinent right now to make sure that those things are happening. There's no way that you're going to catch someone at the proverbial water cooler.

For new hires, what they should know is that folks don't have more time right now, but somehow they're more open to putting time on their calendar, even if it's a 20-minute chat over virtual coffee. I'm finding that people are more open to those things.

However, there's a danger of piling too much pressure on managers to tackle and solve all today's problems. Lamour noted:

I would like to take a step back and ask the question, who's taking care of the leaders? Because it's been such an anxious time, and still is, that as much as we are enabling our leaders to show up for their teams and support their teams, leaders also need to be supported.

Leaders also need to acknowledge and tap into their own humanity and recognize when they need to take a break, when they need to stop, replenish, refresh, and continue running again. This is a marathon, it's not a hundred-meter sprint.

Building a house

While 2020 has provided new opportunities to shine a spotlight on equality, for some people, change isn't happening fast enough. Diversity and inclusion have been on the corporate agenda for several years now, but the numbers haven't really shifted in any meaningful way. However, the panel dismissed the notion that we've been having this conversation for too long, and urged people not to lose patience. Shareef said: 

I always liken it to building a house. In order to build an effective house, we need a really strong foundation, and we're building the foundation. You're wanting to put the finishes on the kitchen sink, but we're not there yet. If we build the house too quickly and we jump straight to the finishes, as soon as the wind blows, the house crumbles.

It is much more effective to build a strong foundation and take the time to do that and build a really sturdy, sustainable house where, in 10 years from now, it is part of our corporate DNA, it is part of our culture. There are not two programs, there's not a diversity and inclusion program, and a business strategy. It's where they're now one, we eat, breathe and sleep D&I, we couldn't imagine carrying on our normal business strategy without these really important elements.

It's also worth pointing out the progress made already, according to Lamour.

We are not where we need to be, but thank God we are not where we used to be. Yes, we are still experiencing police brutality today, we are still experiencing racism today, we're still experiencing discrimination today. But the very fact that we can have this conversation before a boss definitely means that we are not experiencing what Rosa Parks or Harriet Tubman experienced.

It's not a dirty word

The panel also considered the notion of privilege, and all agreed that they have a responsibility to use their positions of privilege to tackle ongoing D&I challenges. Lamour noted that although privilege has become a dirty word, that really shouldn't be the case.

There's a lot of fragility and defensiveness when you throw the word privilege around. It's not a dirty word, it's what you do with that privilege that becomes either dirty or clean.

What's important is that for anyone in a privileged position, whether that's in society, work or education, they should use it to support the disadvantaged. Shareef said:

The privilege that I have has absolutely become evident for me. With that privilege, I also have the opportunity to be self-reflective and help other people. This is a point in time where I think we could really leverage who we are as human beings, but also the professional backgrounds that we've had and possibly the educational backgrounds that we've had to really help effect change.

Those in a position to facilitate change should also broaden their outlook and link up with other companies on equality issues. Stevenson said:

I have a platform and am not afraid to use that platform to be a facilitator for change, working with other tech companies to think about how we fix it for every D&I leader that might be going alone. We are strength in numbers. What can we do together to not only fix the issues that we have within our own organizations, but make sure that we're creating a diverse tech pipeline that's going to land us for generations to come.

My take

It's difficult to focus on silver linings from the coronavirus pandemic and racial injustice while we're still very much in the middle of the fight. But hearing these three D&I leaders share their positive experiences of the changes they're witnessing indicates something important is happening. This year could prove the turning point for real change in equality across the business world.

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