Following the murder of George Floyd last May, a tragedy that touched off months of protests and civil unrest, a credit union CEO near Minneapolis found himself in a place similar to thousands of corporate leaders. He knew he wanted to reach out to employees in a personal, companywide email letting everyone know he took this seriously and that the credit union was looking at its own diversity practices to determine what additional measures could be taken.
But as he sat down to write, he recalls, “there was a level of anxiety for me about the right words to pick. Am I going to offend someone? Am I pushing my own agenda? How is this going to land on people? How are they going to absorb it?”
In the end, he found the words, sent the email, and prepared himself for the fallout. Within hours, he picked up a voicemail message from a White, male manager who expressed anger that the CEO would weigh in on the subject. “We don’t need to be lectured to about race at work. We’re here to do a job and not walk on eggshells because we might hurt someone’s feelings. People are getting overly sensitive, and we need leaders who stay strong and focused.”
The CEO wondered if he’d gone too far. Maybe the manager was right. Maybe opening up on the subject of diversity was a slippery slope that would bring up more problems than he was prepared to lead his team through.
Later that afternoon, a Black, female employee showed up at the CEO’s office and asked to speak with him. Immediately, she told him how grateful she was to read his email. Through tears and tissues, she expressed how much she needed to know that the CEO understood that what was happening outside of the credit union impacted her ability to focus on work. Employees needed space to process what was happening in the community, not to bury their feelings and ignore the pain.
The CEO told me later that he was pleased that he’d stepped out of his comfort zone and used his platform to speak out on the subject. Since sending his companywide email, he’s invited employees to work on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, incorporated unconscious bias curricula into their management training, and invited speakers to inspire and motivate the credit union to do more to meet the needs of its diverse employees and members.
Creating a diverse and inclusive workforce can be challenging, time-consuming—and, let’s face it—deeply uncomfortable for many CEOs. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. CEOs I’ve spoken to about their journey since penning their own employee emails on the subject acknowledged the difficulty, particularly given how politicized the conversation around inclusion has become.
But they also affirmed that CEOs, statistically majority White and male, can’t wait to start talking about race and gender until they feel comfortable—because they likely won’t. It’s not easy to step out of your comfort zone. But, leaders who excel are those who create space for conversations that enable their organizational cultures to evolve and become more resilient in the process.
Question: Where do you need to step out of your comfort zone to help your culture evolve and excel?
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