• Linda Dunbar

Anti-Black Racism as a Business Problem: 10 Things CEOs Can Do Now

At this moment, the American business community has a unique opportunity to shape the future of our nation as it relates to race. To embrace learning, awkwardness, discomfort, compassion, pain, the inconvenient truths about who we have been historically, who we think we are today, and who we want to be as a collective. And yes, to be a part of creating a more perfect union.

This is the time to impose vision and values upon an uncertain world to willfully construct a better tomorrow. Now, after the flurry of corporate messages about George Floyd and too many other Black citizens in the US who have died at the hands of the police, the real work has begun. It’s time to ask the tough questions and take very specific strategic and tactical action organic to your company. Some companies have already embarked on the work.

10 tips on moving forward:

1. Frame anti-Black racism as a business problem. Because it is.

If one of your factories were on fire, you would never say, “We can wait to put the fire out until it’s a better time,” or “All fires are important, so what about other fires?” And you would never say, “It’s OK if the fire is mostly out but still smoldering in the background.” Or, “We don’t really know how the fire is going to affect our future production capacity or our employees.” You would find that fire, find out if anyone was injured and see that they got medical treatment, get the right team to fight the fire, and put the fire out completely no matter how long it took. And, you would know how the fire is affecting your business in real time. You would calculate the effect the fire was having on the potential of your business to thrive. You would be sure to investigate how the fire got started in the first place. You would take action to make sure it never happened again.

Solving business problems successfully requires the right mindset, systemic analysis, and a sense of urgency. It also requires a human lens. At the end of the day, you are dealing with a system comprised of people. Yourself included.

Of course, anti-Black racism is also a legal, social, educational, political, economic, wealth creation, and human rights problem. But if you are stuck, start by framing anti-Black racism as a business problem.

2. Understand that in the US the system is not broken

As Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said, "This isn't about a broken system, this is a system functioning absolutely as it was designed. Unfortunately, that's meant to exclude some from it." Systemic racism is, well, systemic.

3. Take responsibility for your mindset.

If you are going to create change, you must embrace the problem. To embrace the problem, you have to know what it is. Ask questions. Listen. Get educated. Seek to understand rather than to be understood. Get data. Look at your HR numbers in the cold light of day. Eschew rationalization. Get curious. CEOs like to say they value curiosity. Here’s an opportunity to respectfully model that behavior.

Focus on what reality is and how to fix it. Examine your role in how we got to this moment and what you want your legacy to be in shaping the future.

4. Get very clear on what your vision for full equality looks like.

Visualize what the end state of full equality for Black leaders and employees at your company looks like in clear terms. What will your board, executive team, senior leadership, and employee base not only look like but perform like? What will the room feel like when you get diversity, equality and inclusion right? How will Black and other diverse employees and their allies be catalysts for innovation, a new and better culture, changed organizational behavior? How will their insights and perspective help the company move closer to purpose, meeting investor expectations, customer alignment? Sit with that. Think it over. If you are getting a blank, don’t worry. A vision will take shape. Just keep working with it.

Remember: you can’t articulate a plan to get to a destination that is unknown to you. You don’t have to have been there before. You just have to know where you are going.

5. Skip the happy talk.

As Minnesota Governor Tim Walz also said, “…the thing I’m hearing from the protesters is we’re not watching, and we don’t care what you say. We care what you do.”

Do, be, say. That’s where we are now. In the current climate, you must earn the right to communicate or face repercussions from employees, customers, clients, the general public.

Do: Get educated. Then, take inclusive strategic and tactical action.

Be: Embody your commitments and values. If your values are bland and weak, strengthen them. Make them mean something. Then marinate in them. Eliminate behaviors that do not align with your stated values.

Say: once you have earned the right, when it is consistent with your brand, consistent with the essence of who you are and how you behave, you have permission to build a PR campaign about what you have accomplished and issue a press release. You can also take the option of letting your actions speak for themselves.

6. Let Millennials and Gen-Z take the lead. Empower them.

In three weeks, they have been the catalyst for more change than we have seen in a decade. They are very willing to call each other out, to engage in uncomfortable dialogue, to create conduits to constructive change. And to walk out and take to the street if they feel they must.

Learn from them. Lead – and follow.

7. Get ready to be uncomfortable.

The comfort zone is overrated. And please know there is no comfort zone at work for many people of color in the US, especially Black Americans.

8. Be prepared for a marathon, not a sprint.

Systemic, anti-Black racism is not going to get fixed overnight. Our nation is in the process of dismantling a system of oppression that took us 400 years of consistent effort, legislation, and socialization to build. Just as we devoted consistent effort to building the system, we will need to apply consistent effort to dismantle the system. This is not a one and done. This is a multi-year campaign. Knowing that it will take time to rebuild corporate America, our society, our nation into a better place for everyone, let’s get started now. Right. Now.

9. Get down to specific strategic and tactical action plans.

Lead by setting a high bar. Don’t spend too much time debating change. That creates inertia.

Include metrics. What are you measuring? What should you be measuring? In business, we manage what we measure.

Get the leadership team actively involved, both leading – and following – in order to create lasting change.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Remember that communication is a two-way street. Be in touch with investors, customers, employees. Get their perspectives so you can meet them where they are.

Take communications in the digital age very, very seriously. Communications move fast and must be pro-active, interactive, forward-looking, human, and authentic. If you are not educated, sincere, leading and following, and listening, if you do not have your leadership and board aligned and engaged around a plan that is organic to your corporate and employee brand, start again.

10. Get help when you need it.

Outside resources bring fresh ideas, new perspectives, and partnership. Structure. They can also create a much-needed buffer and conduit to helping information and ideas flow throughout the organization when emotions may be running high.

Don’t ask your Black employees to educate you and their colleagues unless they want to. They already have full time jobs and may not want to add educating the organization they work for on ad hoc basis daily to their unpaid job responsibilities.

The right resources can help you get a contextualized, holistic view of what your employees are thinking and feeling. Employees, regardless of ethnicity and gender, need the paycheck and for that reason will be less than candid if feedback and dialogue are not correctly structured. Speaking directly to the people who provide your paycheck about what you really think is likely to be awkward. Hearing what you don’t want to hear is also awkward. Constructive engagement requires a qualified intermediary.

Summing It Up: Putting What We Must Do in Context

To put what we must do in context, without the Time of Coronavirus we likely would not be in this place, right now, as a nation. Corporate America would still be using “diversity” to avoid confronting anti-Black racism in America. For too many people who are not Black, anything is more palatable than facing our past and anyone is more desirable than a Black person. But in the death and carnage of the Coronavirus, time slowed, we tried and sometimes failed, to take care of each other. During the Pause, we had time to sit with ourselves, time to think and feel. And in this space of sickness, grief, pain, anxiety, and self-reflection, we saw a man kneel on the neck of another man for 8 minutes 46 seconds until he died. And the only explanation for this heinous act was racial hatred.

We cannot bring all the people who have died needlessly since 1619, for no reason other than racial hatred, back from the dead. But we can face racism in America squarely and look it full in its ugly face everywhere across the land. We can learn the true, raw, shameful history of this country in its entire, unabridged, un-white-washed version. We can be clear that our nation is, quite literally, built on the genocide of one people and the enslavement and trafficking of another. We can re-examine our beliefs and our socialization, including white privilege, down to their very cores. We can learn not to do harm to each other physically or psychologically based on racial hatred. We can dismantle an unfair, undesirable system of laws, policies, and practices that does not serve us all. We can fix this. Let’s get started.

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