Taking Accountability for Racial and Social Justice
As the Chief Transformation Officer at CenturyLink, I spend a lot of time thinking about the company we want to become. That involves assessing where we currently are, where we want to be and the strategies, plans and technologies required to produce our desired outcomes. We work hard to develop the critical competencies of a modern enterprise. At the core of our ability to transform is the willingness to think and act differently and to become personally accountable for creating change.
I have come to view personal accountability as three layers of a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are those people who can identify a problem. That is a good start but is not sufficient for creating change. In the middle of the pyramid are people who can both identify a problem and determine solutions for the problem. This is significantly better, but still does not produce change. At the top of the pyramid are those people who can see the problem, determine solutions, and most importantly take the necessary action to produce change.
Little did I suspect how closely this pyramid relates to the social challenges facing our country today, or how it would make me rethink my own personal role in addressing them.
A Painful Personal Assessment
The recent demand for racial and social justice has impacted me in ways I hadn’t expected. It led me to assess my own thoughts, attitudes and actions relative to racism (plus all forms of prejudice) and how they measured up to the accountability pyramid. Did I see the problem? Did I have any solutions? Was I doing anything about it? My answer to those questions was very sobering, both as a human being and a senior executive at CenturyLink.
I had to admit that I was at the bottom of the pyramid. I’ve always known racism is a real problem, but as a white man it wasn’t impacting me or my family or my work in a direct, tangible way…so I chose not to care enough to be personally accountable for creating change. It was awkward and embarrassing to share those feelings with my colleagues, but as I did, I discovered a new determination to be a better human being and leader—to care.
Steps Towards Accountability
I began to read about the history of racial prejudice, becoming more fluent on how legislation in the 19th and 20th centuries created political, economic, and legal barriers for the Black community in the United States. It helped me understand how vagrancy laws, “Jim Crow” laws, redlining, redistricting, even the War on Drugs reinforced systemic racism in this country (If you are unaware of these terms and their impact, I suggest you research them for yourself).
While broader awareness and education of racial inequality is critical, it is only the first step. Deciding to be personally accountable means deciding to take action. But where to start, especially with a topic that has often felt off-limits and rarely discussed openly? Based on input from colleagues and co-workers of diverse backgrounds, there are three actions we can all take to effect change in both our personal and professional lives:
Create space for the conversation: As leaders in our companies and communities, we have the opportunity to create safe environments for dialogue. People need to know it’s okay to engage and share their point of view without judgement or criticism. Some of you may have seen the social media coverage around American Airlines CEO Doug Parker who had an impromptu discussion about race with a Black flight attendant during his flight, after she noticed that he was reading Professor Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book, “White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.” Parker called the encounter “an absolute gift.” Let’s give the same gift to ourselves, by encouraging workplaces where employees can safely engage in the conversation.
Listen with the intent to learn and understand: As business leaders, we try hard to listen and learn from our customers, so that we understand their needs and can deliver the right solutions for them. We must put in the same effort to understand the needs, expectations and perspectives of those who come from different racial, social or other backgrounds than we do. Once we’ve created space for the conversation, we need to leave our opinions, pre-conceived perceptions and biases at the door. We must be open to the reality that our point of view is only one of many. If we choose to listen and learn, we will discover a much broader reality than we have previously known…and we will be better people and leaders as a result.
Choose empathy: When we choose to authentically listen to other people’s experiences, we cannot help but become more empathetic. Why does this matter? Our ability to effectively lead, inspire and create multi-diverse teams is limited if we choose to view all situations, challenges and opportunities through our personal set of experiences. Relying solely on our own biases, both conscious and unconscious, will overly influence our decision making, limiting the impact we and our teams are able to achieve. Choosing empathy, choosing to understand diverse perspectives widens our aperture and opens us up to a broader range of possibilities and solutions. It also makes us a bit more human.
The Opportunity for Change
I am not happy about the current state of racial and social inequality. I am not happy with what I saw when I looked in the mirror of self-assessment. But I am grateful for the opportunity to change. And I am grateful to work at a company that is making space for the conversation. I can now choose to step into those conversations, listen with the intent to learn, and choose empathy.
I encourage you to do the same. The impact of the actions you choose to take may not be entirely noticeable at first, but slowly and surely, change will happen. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step.” That single step begins with the decision to become personally accountable for creating change. It begins with the decision to care.
This blog was originally published on LinkedIn on July 23, 2020.
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