The Journey: Quest to be More Inclusive
It’s Juneteenth today. We are off and I took some time to listen to Saturday Morning on Ad Age, The Future of Creativity.
Just after the one-hour mark, Keith Cartwright gives an analysis of how advertising agencies will need to evolve if they intend to realize the benefits of greater inclusivity.
“Sympathy is fine. Empathy is better. Sacrifice is hard.” he says.
This struck me as a very succinct summation of the journey we will all need to go on if we are to overcome the de facto racism that infects much of American business.
The default state is ignorance, otherwise referred to as “innocence.” This position puts white people and white-lead organizations (the near-universal majority) in an unconscious alliance with racism. On its face this may sound like an extreme view. I would have thought so myself not so long ago, but stay with me. In most cases, paired with this innocence is sympathy toward the plight of non-whites in America. This is something Keith over-generously says is “fine,” but for many reasons it’s not fine. What he seems to be doing is avoiding, out of deference to the sensitivities of his predominantly white audience, the long explanation required to connect all the dots between innocence and how it results in the perpetuation of racist power structures built over centuries. Rather than go there, he simply gives it a pass.
Moving up the ladder to empathy, a Core Value in many organizations including Tronvig, we have now entered a phase of the journey that is effortful. Empathy demands both self-examination and self-education, and it can—if pursued with persistence—lead to an awakening of racism’s hold over and pervasiveness in American history, and—most importantly for this discussion—America’s present. Racism, conscious or not, results in organizational cultures and practices (if not necessarily policy) that is discriminatory and racist. This is extraordinarily difficult to see, let alone undo, and this is why so many well-intentioned efforts and programs within organizations and in society have yielded so little over the last 50 years.
So then we get to the really hard part. What, as leaders in organizations, do we do about this?
Doing something is hard because—as Keith points out—it requires sacrifice. Are we ready to make sacrifices for this cause? Are we ready to let a new black, Latinx or Native American employee succeed or fail and glean the learning from that failure in the same ways that we allow a white employee to do so? Are we willing to recognize that structural racism in America may have not afforded the same resume-building opportunities to a black or Latinx candidate? Do we account for that in hiring? Are there mentors and role models in leadership within our organization to bring people of color along as would be done with a promising young white employee? Are we ready to be made uncomfortable and to see the dominant white culture of our organization be challenged or changed as a result of letting non-whites advance to positions of authority and cultural influence?
The evidence is strong that intellectual and creative diversity will enhance any team or organization’s capacity to perform. It follows that we should be prepared to make the kinds of sacrifices suggested above to cultivate improvements in performance. This is the great promise of inclusion and genuine diversity. It is in our organizational self-interest to actively pursue inclusion, despite the challenges of doing so.
On a personal note, my own attempts over the last 23 years running this business to cultivate a robust and inclusive team have often failed. This was in part, I think, because I lacked the kind of frame of reference Keith’s seemingly simple model suggests. I was too afraid of sacrifice, and of change. Sarah Ahrens, Joyce Kwon, and Noelia Hobeika and others from the past have contributed mightily to our team, but there have been other failed attempts to achieve a more inclusive team. Many of these, I now realize, were thwarted in part by my lack of vision and lack of fortitude in the face of sacrifices that probably would have been temporary. I was not fully prepared to open the space for them to thrive. I now realize this is on me.
Going forward I am committed to the project of fostering the continual expansion of inclusivity as part of the culture of this small organization. I do so with more at stake than the attempt to feel good about myself. I now understand that inclusion will be essential for the long-term viability, sustainability, and resilience of this business.
I hope you too are awakening to this. The active pursuit of inclusion is simultaneously an ethical mandate and an essential upgrade to business practice no matter what your particular business or nonprofit endeavor happens to be.
Photo by Glodi Miessi