There are countless African Americans who have had a profound impact on American history, yet many of their stories have gone untold or underappreciated, pushed deep under the surface of a white-dominant culture. If we want humanity to shine, those stories must be uncovered and celebrated every day as part of how we live. As we work toward that future, Black History Month provides an opportunity for the business world to drive greater awareness and understanding of Black history in corporate American.
But, as the events of 2020 have underscored, awareness and understanding are not nearly enough on their own. Black History Month is also a time to remember that the road to justice is long and rocky, and not without obstacles. The United States has been grappling with racism for 250 years and counting (let’s not forget our economy was built on the enslavement of Africans), and there is still much work to be done. In this world of impatience and instant gratification, we’re often pressured to say we’ve “tackled” racism in corporate America merely because we’ve demonstrated some level of awareness, understanding, and commitment to change. Clearly, we have not.
As leaders, we need to recognize how long it takes to undo institutional damage, and we need to commit for the long haul in order to accomplish real change. This February and beyond, let’s renew our efforts and push our organizations to do better with these five actions:
1. Turn Training and Inspiration Statements Into a Concrete Vision of the Future
In 2020, almost every corporate organization reenergized its diversity training programs. Many made internal and external statements regarding renewed commitments to fight racism in America and in the communities they serve. This is wonderful, but this type of training and communication needs additional substance to make a real social impact.
Companies need to dig into the details and shape a clear vision of what their organizations would be like in a more just and equitable world. Doing so necessitates answering some key questions, including:
• How would the leadership team change?
• How would the organizational structure change?
• How would the employee population change?
• How would work get done differently?
• How might the company serve its clients/customers/consumers in better ways?
• How would the day-to-day operations of the business change if racism were drastically reduced or eliminated inside that organization?
2. Push Leaders to Embrace Discomfort and Stay There Until There’s Sustainable Progress
Change is hard work, especially when it involves confronting social injustice and accepting the roles we have played in reinforcing and maintaining that injustice regardless of our intent.
Over the past several months, corporate leaders have by and large stepped up and taken bold moves, asking tough questions and facilitating difficult conversations about racism. In some cases, these discussions have been tremendously rewarding and enlightening. In other cases, these conversations have been awkward, challenging, and uncomfortable. It can be tempting to shy away from the discomfort of these difficult conversations, but leaders must do the exact opposite. They must continue to boldly lean into the discomfort. That’s the only way to have the difficult conversations, unlock the necessary insights, and drive progress against racism and inequity in the workplace.
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3. Revamp Every Stage of Your Talent Life Cycle to Undo Long-Standing Bias
One part of the fight against racism and inequity involves changing mindsets and behaviors in the current moment. To prevent harmful mindsets and behaviors from resurfacing over time, organizations must also address the underlying processes that reinforce them.
Take a look at every talent and business process in your organization, and adjust it to promote equity and social justice as needed. From recruiting and onboarding to performance management, talent management, succession planning, and retirement, every process should be designed to promote equity and justice. By tweaking your processes, you can prevent the reemergence of harmful mindsets over the long term by undoing the systems that reinforce and maintain racism.
4. Continue to Engage People on the Journey of Change by Committing to Authentic Dialogue
To quote former US President Theodore Roosevelt, “In the long run, the most unpleasant truth is a safer companion than a pleasant falsehood.” We all know that you only learn the truth if you ask good questions and truly listen to the answers. To drive real change around racism, one must ask questions, create space for authentic responses from all voices, and address the unpleasant truths. This will result in insights and growth in both the immediate and long terms.
5. Measure Your Progress and Evolve as You Go
We’ve all heard the saying, “What gets measured gets managed.” You can’t know whether you’re succeeding unless you can quantify your progress. This principle applies as much to addressing racism at work as anything else.
To drive real change, you must begin to measure: 1) the extent to which people inside your organization have adopted behaviors that promote equity and justice, 2) how you have closed the gap on inequities, and 3) the extent to which these improvements are driving greater business outcomes.
Words are powerful; education is better. Big commitments are even more important. To truly honor Black Americans during this year’s Black History Month, start making long-term, concerted efforts to drive lasting change.