The whole world responded with dismay to the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. Simmering tensions were ignited in what appeared to be not just an example of racist police brutality, but confirmation that 250 years of subjugation of black people in America had not ended. Although we were in lockdown, I still attended our offices in downtown D.C. on a daily basis, in what turned out to be ground zero for the protests that followed. I went out a number of times and joined those who were marching in solidarity.
Despite being a privileged, white male, I have always found it easier to talk about race than many — something that I attribute to being raised in a country, Britain, that has a different relationship with its racial history. Most American professionals, in my experience, would rather do just about anything to avoid speaking about race with anyone of a different ethnicity. But even I was struggling to find the right words to address the company in the days following George Floyd’s murder. A black colleague encouraged me, saying it was entirely understandable to struggle, but saying something was better than waiting for the perfect inspiration.
In the days that followed, we decided that we would take concrete actions designed to permanently change our business community’s relationship with race and lead to personal growth as individuals. Assuredly, we did not want a woke or politically correct response that would look and feel good, but not lead to real change.
Now more than a year out from starting that journey, I can look back and see four lessons that may be helpful to other CEOs and leaders:
Lesson 1: Take Personal Responsibility
If you are serious about making the world a better place through diversity and inclusion in the workplace, you had better start with yourself. This is not someone else’s job. If you are a leader, it is especially your job. Actions you take will powerfully reverberate throughout the emotional systems of your networks and will be spoken about at the dinner tables of your colleagues.
If you are a leader, then you must take personal responsibility for creating and leading an initiative to improve diversity and inclusion in your organization. If you are not a leader, give support, encouragement, and — if needed — challenge your leaders to seek real change.
One of my first steps was self-education through reading many books about race, as well as novels by black authors. I must have read about 20 of them in the last year or so, and I bought second copies of all of them to be on display and available in our office reception area. Particularly important books included: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson; Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson; White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo; How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi; and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
I have come to believe that the single, most important thing that needs to change is for us to have frequent, ordinary conversations about race. In my experience, most white people desperately avoid the subject for fear of causing offense. But avoiding the subject perpetuates misunderstandings. Pretending that differences do not exist, or pretending you are color-blind, does nothing to foster inclusion. We need to reframe this attitude and begin to celebrate our differences, value our diversity, and approach our conversations from a place of interest and inquiry. If you are a leader, you must learn to speak about race to your organization regularly.
Lesson 2: Bring the Leadership Team on Board
In fairly short order, we arranged a two-day offsite for the leadership team, using the book White Fragility as our guide. The central tenant of this book is that we are all on the spectrum of racism. Most of us initially reject that notion, given that we all think we are people of goodwill and hate bigotry. But we can’t help it. By virtue of our families, our education, and our life experiences, we are going to be on the spectrum. But having accepted that fundamental point, we become liberated to grow as anti-racists and are way more confident to speak about race.
In part 2 of the offsite, we invited black team members and staff who are parents of black children to speak to us about their personal encounters with racism. Coming, as it did, from members of our own community, the impact was enormously amplified. It was shaking. I had no idea that this was the lived experience of so many in my immediate business network.
The last stage of the offsite was to bring to the whole company the lessons we had learned and repeat the searing testimonials of the black members of our community.
Lesson 3: Address Your Outward Facing Messages
Good intentions avail us nothing. We realized that we needed more than good intentions to project our renewed commitment to diversity and inclusion into the business community. We are very much a values-based company — our Core Values are real and manifest throughout the business. But we said nothing about diversity in them. After a period of introspection, we adopted a new Core Value: Strength Through Diversity. The longer form makes clear that we lean into and celebrate our differences. We also made clear in our website, from images to recruiting language, that we are a place that welcomes all, whatever race, gender, orientation, or religion. Our blog, Risky Business, is respected and widely read. We made sure to regularly include content celebrating our newfound confidence to speak about race.
Lesson 4: Prime the Pump with Guest Speakers
One of our company traditions is to have twice-monthly lunch and learns during which the whole company meets for lunch and listens to an internal or external speaker on one of a variety of subjects. We invited a number of black clients and members of our network to speak to us about their careers as black professionals, important experiences, and advice for us to become a more welcoming and inclusive organization. They were wonderful, inspiring talks — all of them.
Another important aspect of our corporate culture is that every one of us is assigned to a small group that meets every few weeks to catch up, share information, and engage in learning. We rolled out a number of facilitated discussions in these groups, including a review of thought-provoking podcasts and other material about race and identity.
Looking back, a lot of positive changes have occurred in our company since the death of George Floyd, most importantly that we speak openly about race. As tragic and unnecessary as his death was, it inspired profound change. I am proud of the work we have done. In the process, we learned important and transferable skills. Leaning into conversations about race enabled us to have similar conversations about mental health, LGBTQIA+ issues, and a host of other topics. They have not always been easy conversations, but all have been important and most even enjoyable.
Wherever you are on your personal or corporate journey towards a more inclusive approach to diversity, I encourage to make a start — accepting that it won’t be perfect — and see where the journey takes you.
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Jonathan Terrell is the Founder and President of KCIC. He has more than 30 years of international financial services experience with a multi-disciplinary background in accounting, finance and insurance. Prior to founding KCIC in 2002, he worked at Zurich Financial Services, JP Morgan, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.Learn More About Jonathan