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The Journey: Quest to Be More Inclusive


It’s Juneteenth today. We are closed and I took some time to listen to a special broadcast of Ad Age, The Future of Creativity featuring an interview with members of the all Black ad agency Saturday Morning.

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 being more inclusive.

“Sympathy is fine. Empathy is better. Sacrifice is hard.” he says.

This struck me as a very succinct—if on further consideration problematic—summation of the journey we will all need to go on if we are to overcome the racism that infects much of American business.

The problem with sympathy

In this journey, the default state for white people like me is ignorance, otherwise referred to as “innocence.” This position puts white-lead organizations (the vast majority) in an unconscious alliance with racism. On its face this may sound like an extreme view. How can sympathy be bad? Sympathy toward the plight of Black people in America is often an excuse for doing nothing. It thus provides cover for the status quo, and the status quo is ripe with structural impediments and the unwitting exercise of white privilege.

I was just asked to rewrite this whole post by a thoughtful friend because I had left such a strong residue of my white privilege in the first draft. All of this was invisible to me. It’s just the air I breathe in America. So while I understand why Keith says it’s “fine,” I should not be given this pass simply because I’m trying to be nice. Keith is just avoiding—out of deference to the sensitivities of his predominantly white audience including me—the long explanation that would be required to connect all the dots between my innocence and the perpetuation of racist power structures. Rather than go there, Keith simply gives sympathy a pass. I don’t blame him. It must be exhausting to have to explain this over and over to well-meaning people who are not prepared to hear the substance of the explanation because of a fundamental belief in their innocence. The 1,000 free passes we have been granted in our lifetimes create a false assumption that we are indeed innocent simply because we mean well.

This is not okay. As leaders we are responsible to move past sympathy and to uncover our capacity for empathy.

Empathy is essential to be inclusive

Empathy is a Core Value in many organizations including Tronvig. On this journey we have now entered a phase that is effortful. Empathy demands self-examination and self-education, and it can—if genuinely sought—lead to a series of small awakenings to racism’s hold over us. Racism, conscious or not, results in organizational cultures and practices (if not necessarily policy) that is exclusionary and discriminatory. For a white leader with few Black, Indigenous or Persons of Color (BIPOC) as peers or superiors we are most likely going to fail at genuine empathy. I know I have failed. I, like so many in my position, am pressed with a never-ending succession of business challenges and performance demands. This usually squeezes out the time to stop and reflect, or to reexamine our assumptions about anything we might regard as nonessential. It’s time we wake up to the essential value of diversity and inclusion for our business vitality. It’s time we get serious about practicing empathy.

And that’s just table stakes. From this starting gate we need to move on to the hard part. What, as leaders of organizations, are we going to do with the awareness gains we make?

“Sacrifice” is not a sacrifice but a necessity.

This is the point on the journey where you have to do something, and this is more than just reading books, although that too is important. Are we ready to prioritize changes that take significant time and resources to achieve? Are we ready to encourage a new BIPOC employee to succeed and then allow failure if it happens, and then add more encouragement to keep them going? Are we willing to recognize that structural racism in America may not have afforded the same personal and resume-building opportunities to a BIPOC candidate that a white candidate may have had? Do we recognize talent and greatness in candidates we don’t usually hire? Are there mentors and role models in leadership within our organization to bring BIPOC colleagues along as would be done with promising young white employees? Are we ready for the dominant white culture to be challenged and rearranged as a result of advancing BIPOC employees to positions of authority and cultural influence? Are we available to support our BIPOC colleagues when white counterparts question their authority?

The data have proven that social diversity increases the capacity of any team or organization to perform at higher levels. It follows that we should be prepared to cultivate and encourage these organizational improvements. They are not a sacrifice. A stronger, more creative work force is the great promise of inclusion and diversity. It is in our organizational self-interest to actively pursue these changes and accept the challenge of transformation.

The enhancement of diversity and inclusion is simultaneously an ethical mandate and an essential upgrade to business practice.

On a personal note, my own attempts over the last 23 years running this business to cultivate a diverse and inclusive team have often failed. Thinking back on each case, I realize that I lacked the proper frame of reference or model for this work. I was too afraid of changes that looked like sacrifice. 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 diverse team. Some of these, I now realize, were thwarted in part by my lack of vision and lack of fortitude in the face of setbacks that probably would have been temporary. I was not fully prepared to open the space or make the changes that would have allowed them to thrive. This is on me, and it’s time to do better.

Going forward I am committed to expanding the diversity and inclusivity of this small organization. I do so with more at stake than the attempt to feel good about myself. I now understand that diversity and inclusion will be essential for the long-term viability, sustainability, and resilience of this business.

I hope you too are awakening to this reality. Diversity and inclusion are a competitive advantage. The enhancement of diversity and 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

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