The past year sparked a wave of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives throughout the business world. Leaders in all industries have searched for the right thing to say or do as their employees emotionally processed ongoing acts of systemic racial injustice. I'm encouraged by some of the things I've seen as a response--companies have made a tangible impact by donating millions to support racial justice and, in some cases, overhauled their boards to be more inclusive.
These steps are not only important to me as a matter of principle, but they're also the kinds of actions that have directly impacted my life. As a CMO who is a member of the Latina and LGBTQ+ communities as well as a mother of two, I know how difficult it is to navigate the corporate world when you don't see people who look like you at the top.
Through my own lived experiences, I know how impactful DEI can be when done right. There's generally been positive change over the course of my career, but it's still not enough--2020 made that crystal clear. Last year taught us the importance of creating space for dialogue and healing, prioritizing principle over profit, and proactivity in DEI. Here are a few steps companies can take to get it right.
Embrace your vulnerability.
One of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, said it perfectly: Part of being vulnerable is recognizing you don't have all the right answers, but also having the courage to not know. And in my experience, not knowing is OK. It's important to look in the mirror, take stock of your company's beliefs, and find ways to fill in the gaps.
In the face of those gaps, many well-intentioned companies turn to their employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs can be a good tool for providing resources in the workplace--I've certainly relied on ERGs for support at various trying times in my career. But ERGs can't be the end-all-be-all, and not just because they often struggle with small budgets. Companies shouldn't ask impacted groups to carry the literal and emotional labor of guiding a corporate response to trauma.
When a co-worker is trying to emotionally process potentially traumatizing news, they need to know their colleagues are already stepping up on their own for racial justice. Companies can do that by partnering with leaders in the space. As an example, at Skillshare, we turned to Paradigm to help lead education efforts and guide the creation of new policies and structures for a more equitable workforce. Doing so can allow ERGs to remain a safe space for traumatized employees to find support and connection rather than becoming an added stressor.
Be the leader your employees need and expect.
Throughout my career, I've seen few people who look like me at the top of the business world. I know I'm not alone. Sure, diversity in the C-suite has taken steps in the right direction in recent years, but it's still not nearly enough. The Fortune 500 just hit a "record" of women CEOs last year--a whopping 38.
While 38 out of 500 is hardly encouraging, I'm excited by the fact that the future belongs to millions of go-getters not represented in today's homogenous executive teams. In fact, the next generation of leaders (Gen Z) is more diverse than any previous generation, and they expect nothing less from the corporate world.
Leaders' words and actions have been put under a microscope like never before. Employees were processing racial trauma in the midst of an already traumatizing year and needed to know their struggles were heard at the top. An empty statement doesn't cut it--employees need and expect a leader who stands for what is right, both internally and externally.
Adidas touts Black superstar talent and tweeted against racism against George Floyd's murder, but has a known history of marginalizing its own Black employees. This lack of self-awareness from leadership invalidates a CEO's statements (no matter how sincere they may seem) and disheartens employees who feel swept under the rug.
On the other hand, look at an organization like Nascar. They made the bold, but important, decision to ban Confederate flags. Standing up for what's right outweighed the potential loss in ad revenue or ticket sales. Nascar wanted its public actions to reflect the experiences of all of its employees, particularly the 50-plus alumni of Nascar's diversity-focused internship program. The company's decision to ban hateful symbols shows a commitment to ensuring each of their employees' voices are heard.
Proactivity is the best activity.
Real change doesn't occur when companies scramble to put a Band-Aid on their exposed weaknesses after protests start.
For example, the CEO of New York Road Runners (organizer of the NYC Marathon) stepped down after a "RebuildNYRR" campaign arose in the thick of last year's Black Lives Matter protests. Employees detailed a list of reasons why they felt the CEO failed to address or commit to racial justice. I know I'm not alone when I see his resignation as too little, too late. There was nothing proactive about what he did--it was entirely reactive.
A company like Bumble, however, saw the aftermath of George Floyd's murder as a moment to speak up and proactively find new ways to fight injustice--namely, by making user-suggested donations to promote social justice while truly reflecting the public's voice. This wasn't a last-minute effort to cover their tracks. It was an empowering initiative with the go-getter attitude of "What else can we do to make the world a better place?"
This is a great start, but the real, long-lasting change happens when companies keep up their work after the spotlight fades. The underlying need for DEI doesn't go away, so it's important to continue their efforts year round, not just in the wake of a traumatic event.
Despite how painful last year was for so many people, I'm optimistic about 2021, and I think the lessons the business community learned will be invaluable. For every step forward in terms of social progress, companies must eliminate any steps back. Don't get me wrong--it will continue to be tough. But with open conversation, genuine leadership, and proactivity, real progress is going to happen.