Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer for VaynerMedia, joins the program to discuss her own diversity story and discusses how she landed in her unique position. Discover the importance of empathy and “holding space” in creating a culture of diversity and inclusion, and why some of the ways in which we’ve traditionally spoken about D&I have potentially prevented progress. Claude also shares her insights on how members of the Millennial generation and Generation Z think differently about inclusiveness, and shares takeaways for leaders about how to move from intention to impact.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Claude’s diversity story of growing up with dyslexia and coming out as a lesbian (3:00)
- How Claude came to be hired as a “Chief Heart Officer” (7:00)
- The role that psychology and spirituality play in Claude’s work (10:00)
- The importance of “holding space” (15:00)
- The gift of being different (17:00)
- How the next generation is defining inclusiveness (22:00)
- The importance of hiring for skill sets and “culture addition” (29:00)
- How VaynerMedia is facilitating courageous conversations at work (31:30)
- The downside of how we’ve traditionally spoken about diversity and inclusion (34:00)
- The difference between intention and impact (38:00)
- Claude’s advice about coming out at work (44:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, Claude, welcome to The Will to Change.
CLAUDE SILVER: Hi, Jennifer. Thanks for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so glad you’re here. We have known each other for probably a year now – not long. Originally, I encountered you in some networks in New York City. And, of course, like everybody else, I snapped to attention when I saw your title, which is the “Chief Heart Officer” at Vayner. We will get into that a little bit later, but I know a lot of people are already having envy about your job title on Twitter because I was on there this morning sharing about it. How can I get a job like that? It’s a great title. It’s a great title.
Claude, I know a lot about you, but in a way, I don’t. We always start The Will to Change with people’s diversity stories. They can be things that are visible, invisible, things that we don’t really share that much, things that everybody knows if you’re an open-book leader. Why don’t you share with us your diversity story as we start out?
CLAUDE SILVER: Great. Yes, I’m very open. What you see is what you get with me. Actually, I have spoken quite a bit about being dyslexic. I guess the word is “diagnosed,” I don’t like that word at all, but I’ve been dyslexic since a little kid. It’s something that I absolutely have tools for now in my life, but I’m very out about it. I’m especially out about it in this role because I want everyone here at VaynerMedia to feel like they belong and that whomever they are is accepted. And we have ways of working with dyslexia, but it really was a challenge for me in school. It was very, very difficult for me to understand spatial relationships as well as math. I think I took algebra three times. My last time was as a senior in high school.
I took the SATs three times, untimed. I think you get the picture. I could memorize poetry and memorize song lyrics very well, but anything else was really challenging for me.
I’m out about dyslexia pretty much. I came out as a lesbian when I was 22. That actually surprised me. My “teenagehood” was not spent with women at all, it was spent with men. Once upon a time in a very dark bar in London, I saw two women together for the first time in an embrace and it really blew me away. I was 19 and I came back to New Mexico, Santa Fe, where I was living at the time with my folks, and you put energy into something, and there appeared my first girlfriend.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh! That’s lovely.
CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah. So, I came out at 22. It’s not that it’s something I hid at work, I didn’t talk about it at work. And then there got to be a point in time where I talked about it if someone wanted to talk to me about it. Especially when I lived in London, I think it was a little more difficult for me to feel comfortable talking about being gay in 2009, ’10, ’11.
And then I came to New York for VaynerMedia in May of ’14. I was just out. And in this role, it’s extremely important to me, and I find a lot of pride in being who I am. Again, I think it’s very helpful and assists others in being who they are.
I started the pride group here. I thought it was something that we really needed. It is thriving and I’m very, very proud of that and proud of the people that show up in that group, both allies and LGBTQ.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s great, and thank you for sharing about your dyslexia. Sexual orientation is also something that’s not visible. In many ways, those diversity dimensions are equally or more important to show because they can be hidden. And the fact that you are not hiding it and you are talking about it the opens the door for people to bring their full selves to work as well.
CLAUDE SILVER: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: And it doesn’t sound like you always necessarily brought your full self to work, even though maybe you didn’t deny certain things about yourself, you were “covering” or downplaying and I don’t think that has a stigma attached to it.
I’m glad that you’re now at a company where all diversities are celebrated, and we’re going to talk a lot about Vayner. How big is Vayner now? Tell us about the founder a bit, if people don’t know who Gary is, where you all have your operations, and maybe tell us a little bit about the workforce. Who are they? How old are they?
CLAUDE SILVER: Great. Let me dive in. VaynerMedia is an integrated digital advertising agency. VaynerMedia has about 600 people in it. We have five different offices – two in New York, one in Denver, one in Los Angeles, Chattanooga, London, and soon to be in Asia-Pacific.
And VaynerX is our holding company, which holds our sisters such as PureWow, the Gallery Media Group, VaynerSports, VaynerMentors – that gives us 200 more people. In totality, we’re about 800-805 depending on the day.
Our workforce is 80 percent millennials, and with the exception of interns, who would be 18 or 19 years old, but our workforce starts right around the 22- or 23-year-old marker. At 49 years old, I’m either the fourth or fifth oldest person here. (Laughter.) There are only a few of us in our 40s, and only a few of us in the upward numbers of our 40s or entering the 50s, which is a real hoot to me. It’s magnificent. I love being around everyone here. I say it all the time that it’s an honor to work for 800 people, and it is.
We have all different types of offerings here – digital advertising, video production, integrated strategy and insights, media – it’s everything that one would get at a larger advertising company, however we have it all in house. That’s really important because it’s a one-stop shop for the Fortune 50 brands that come to us.
Our CEO is a wonderful, magnificent human being named Gary Vaynerchuk. He started the company nine years ago with his brother. Gary is an immigrant. He moved to America from Belarus when he was three years old. He is very, very well known in entrepreneurial circles as well as advertising circles. He is a self-made person. He busted his butt working at his father’s liquor store and brought that tiny store up to a very, very large, profitable wine business.
He is constantly on any social network, and he’s a very, very motivational and inspirational person. He is at the helm. He’s very much an operating CEO, for sure my mentor, the mentor of many others, and he also has his own brand, GaryVee, so people might know him as GaryVee.
That’s us. We’re an incredible motley crew over here of all different shapes and sizes, and a very diverse workforce today in the August of 2018.
JENNIFER BROWN: I can’t believe it. (Laughter.)
CLAUDE SILVER: I know.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness. Gary is a prolific author, too. He’s considered a great thinker on all these things, so definitely check him out.
I’m curious, Claude, did you all shape your role together? How did the “chief heart officer” occur to you and him? How did it get shaped? What does it entail now? What is the span of all of your responsibilities?
CLAUDE SILVER: I started here in May of 2014 and I was Gary’s first senior vice president hire. I came on to run account and strategy for Unilever and Mondelez. My previous life, I’ve been a strategist at very large advertising companies creating global strategies for Tampax, Crest, Shell, Chevron, toilet paper – all of that stuff.
I always had another job while I was doing the job I got paid for, and that job was to build culture and build strong teams and showcase collaboration and just, quite frankly, just bring people together in love.
When I came here, it was very apparent when Gary and I first met that we were kindred spirits. We both saw people as hearts. We didn’t see people as resources. And a year into my employment here as an SVP, I went to Gary and I said, “I’m done with this role, thank you so much. I’m done. This is great, I’ve had a terrific career in advertising and selling products, and I’m done.” He said, “What are you interested in?” I said, “I only care about people. I only care about the heartbeat of this place.”
Six months later, on my 18-month anniversary, I resigned, which was very surprising to Gary and very difficult to do, but I had to go follow my bliss and I had to just work my purpose, which is to be of joyful service and facilitate growth and change within human beings.
Four months later, we went to breakfast and he said, “That’s it, you’re coming back, and you’re going to be the chief heart officer.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful.
CLAUDE SILVER: Yes. And I knew exactly what that was because I’ve always been a chief heart officer, I’ve always been a coach and a person that believes in humans and someone that wants to dismantle hierarchy and create equality for all. It sounds very grand, and it is very grand to me. This is the real deal.
The minute he said that, I said, “Terrific, great.” I knew what it was, I knew I would just be me. “How do we know if I’m successful?” And he said, “You will touch every single human being and infuse the agency with empathy,” and that was it. That’s my job description.
JENNIFER BROWN: Whoa. Oh, my goodness. Everybody dreams, I think, of having that kind of job description. Although, you lead a really intense life. Generating that empathy means that you are touching, reaching out to people by text, call, you have hundreds of Slack channels at Vayner. You must feel pulled in a lot of directions, but in maybe a wonderful way. You’ve got your ear to the ground, you basically listen for a living.
CLAUDE SILVER: That’s exactly right. Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Some of us really love that. Others might be overwhelmed by the amount of information and input that you have to manage on a daily basis, and perhaps the emotional stamina. I would also think, knowing you, it fills you up to have this be your job.
CLAUDE SILVER: That’s exactly right. It’s not a dream for me because I’m living my purpose. I enjoy holding space for other people. I enjoy being an emotional optimist. That’s who I am. I enjoy the journey that I’ve been on, but the journey that I see that the folks here are on and the fact that they let me in is beyond an honor.
Yes, it’s a lot of energy, but this is the energy I want to expend. I don’t want to put energy into selling a product.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
CLAUDE SILVER: You know, I trained as a psychotherapist years and years ago. I didn’t do well in the first couple attempts at college, so I left and went about becoming a student of life. I went on a very, very long Outward Bound course, 93-day Outward Bound course, which was a very pivotal moment in my life. I was 19.
I finally found my way to education through schools that spoke to me in a way I really needed to be spoken to and the way I learn. I went to Prescott College, which is an alternative outdoor education college, and then I got my BA in trans-personal psychology and human development from a school called California Institute of Integral Studies, which is based around Buddhist psychology.
All of these things are in my toolkit today. I can use intuition, I can use clairvoyance, I can use spirituality, I can use psychology, Maslow, positive psychology – I can just use being a good human being in what I do every day, so it doesn’t drain me. This is my life’s work, and I really take pride in it and being a learner and doing my best to motivate and really help people break through to the other side, and fundamentally, help them bloom. That’s what I want to do.
JENNIFER BROWN: You just shared a couple more aspects of your educational background that might not be as traditional for what we think of as the business world. That’s an example for our listeners. Sharing our nontraditional paths is so important for other people to even know about us and then to know that somebody can get to a position like Claude is in and have that winding path.
One executive stood up at a telecommunications company I work with in front of all of his executive peers. We were having this exact conversation. And he said, “Well, I’ll take a leap of faith and I’ll share something I don’t really talk about. I don’t have a bachelor’s degree and I’m an executive at the company.” I said, “How many people know that about you?” And he said, “Well, I don’t really talk about it.”
All of our expectations about education and what it needs to look like are shifting, right? Nontraditional college experiences, trade schools instead of college. There is so much that we’re questioning right now and anytime we assume that nobody needs to really know things about ourselves that are true, we’re probably wrong because you could be a beacon of light for someone. You could be that one person that they need to see in order to hang in there, in order to have certain aspirations. We kill our stories before they even come out and get seen by others and do the work that they really need to do in the world.
I love learning more about you, Claude. You just said, “These are some things that make me good at what I do.” What does being LGBTQ make you particularly good at in what you do as well? When you think about the gifts of that journey and maybe coping with the stigma and feeling like you’re an outsider in some ways. However that process has developed for you, what has been the impact on your leadership? Maybe part two of that is: Why do you think diverse or underrepresented talent might be able to bring those gifts of learning from our own experiences that are actually these incredibly strong leadership competencies? This is one of my favorite things to think about.
CLAUDE SILVER: Gosh, that’s a powerful question – two powerful questions in there.
The gift of being LGBTQ for me, fundamentally, is the gift of being different and being able to see difference and normalizing that. I do think that there’s something very different in terms of the way I go about seeing the world that I probably would have always seen the world in a similar way, but having this difference and something that I held as slightly shameful and had a stigma around in my 20s, to watch my journey of taking off those chains and shedding my skin to where I’m a very, very proud gay person. I have a partner, we’re about to have a baby – this is the real deal, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yep! Getting real!
CLAUDE SILVER: Yes, it’s getting real. I say the phrase “hold space” quite a bit, but it really does allow me to give way to difference. Difference comes, as you already spoke about, in all different packages and sizes.
There has been such a stigma in this world around difference no matter if it’s racial difference, political difference, sexuality, whatnot. It’s something that I’m proud of and I wouldn’t want it any other way. To carry that flag here with others that are just as prideful is something that I’m really happy to do. There’s something very joyful for me.
Obviously, we live in New York, I spent 18 years in San Francisco, four and a half years in London, so I’ve been in cosmopolitan, coastal cities that are also very open. That also helps. That doesn’t mean that the office culture was open, it means the culture of the city might have been open.
Jennifer, fundamentally, my life works extremely well when I practice what I preach. At this point in my life, I want it to work really well. I’m walking the walk. I don’t talk the talk, and I really try to facilitate other people walking as well when they feel like, “Ugh! I’m stuck. I don’t know if I like myself today.” That’s how I answer that question to the best of my ability.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think that’s beautiful. Since you do have a job that listening every day, and particularly you’re listening to a largely millennial workforce, can you tell our listenership here on The Will to Change, which I think is not dominated, if I had to guess, I don’t know, but not dominated by millennial talent. And yet, people who are passionate about creating inclusion and also about our own learning and adjusting our language and our frameworks in order to resonate with the incoming and the younger workforce, right? In our organizations, they are either the dominant group or they will be in two years’ time across the board, that’s the statistic.
Regardless of whether we agree or not, it’s not about that. It’s about listening, adjusting, welcoming, and enabling that generation to feel seen and heard and not even judging what’s coming from that group, even though I do hear a lot of judgment. I always get excited to challenge stereotypes in the sessions that I’m in with older leaders and redirect their energy to say, “These are your future leaders. And, by the way, when it comes to inclusiveness and belonging, they are bringing their full selves to work to a degree that a lot of us didn’t feel comfortable doing.” That courage and that learning agility are hallmarks of this generation. I want to know what you think their hallmarks are and why you love being of service to them as the chief heart officer. I would love to hear if they’re defining inclusiveness differently. Are they using different words? What do we need to know about these new leaders if we’re sitting on the other side generationally?
CLAUDE SILVER: Great question. I believe that this generation and generation Z right behind them are changing the world, and will really change our world. I think that for a generation X’er, like myself, watching the energy of this generation and the wanting to learn, they’re sponges, seeing how magnificent they are in terms of standing up for what it is they believe in, all of these things are remarkable just to witness.
They want to get from A to Z very, very quickly, and I did, too, when I was young. I had hopes and dreams that I just didn’t know how to execute upon them.
These guys and gals are willing to learn how to execute. Patience is something we need to teach them. Self-awareness is something we need to teach them, and that’s okay because we’re teaching life skills over here as well as hard skills. That’s my job, for sure.
They are incredibly driven to bring diversity into the workplace. They are incredibly driven to do things differently, they don’t conform. Again, I’m in an advertising agency, so there is also that leniency. They want to get there yesterday, they’re highly competitive, they’re very competitive with each other, and they’re extremely competitive with themselves, which also leads to anxiety. We talk about that quite a bit here and have brought in mindfulness trainers, meditation, and yoga across all of our offices because they need it. They need it.
If there’s one thing I have learned about this generation, is time management, while it’s very essential for them and a balance, they don’t have that. They’ve come into the working world at a speed at which you and I didn’t. We didn’t have the technology, we didn’t have the urge to be the fastest back then. Here they are, and they’re very burdened by not knowing how to manage their energy.
When they come in and they say, “I have no work/life balance and I don’t know how to manage my time.” I change that word to “energy management,” and we talk about hitting milestones, setting yourself up for success. If you need to crush that deck that you’re creating for one of your clients or you need to do a wrap-up report or write some copy, whatever, give yourself 90 minutes to just crush that. And then give yourself a 10-minute break. Go on Instagram, take a walk, go for a coffee, do whatever you need to do, do jumping jacks. It’s a way to manage their energy, which is, of course, what runs us. Time doesn’t run us, we think that time runs us, but it’s our energy that runs us.
They’re tremendously gifted people. They want to talk, they want to learn, listening is something that they’re very open to. I just need to remind them of that sometimes. (Laughter.)
You know what’s really interesting? I don’t hear this generation complain as much as I thought I would. I probably hear my generation complain more, people that are in their late 30s and 40s.
Watching the intersection of this generation and gen X in the working world is fascinating to me because I really think there’s so much that my generation can learn from them, and yet this generation is looking up to us to teach them. It’s fabulous.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a good point. That’s a good point. We’re both looking at each other asking, “Do you have the answers? No. Do you?”
CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: No! (Laughter.)
CLAUDE SILVER: They’re magical unicorns. They’re hacking apps and they’re creating websites and they’re creating voice technologies on the side. They have side hustles. They are incredibly entrepreneurial human beings.
Here, at Vayner, we really promote that because, of course, we work for an entrepreneur. There is so much possibility here to architect your role. What I mean by that is, yes, you have a role, you’re a copywriter and you’re working on this account and you know that you will be writing copy for that account, but you don’t have to look like the copywriter sitting next to you. We don’t want apples and apples and apples. And, in fact, Jennifer, that’s how I have changed hiring here. We used to hire for culture fit, and if you had the skill set, cool; if you didn’t, we will teach you. Literally, it was, “Oh, awesome, yeah. You grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale. Sweet. You used to surf at that beach? Great. You’re hired.” You know?
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally.
CLAUDE SILVER: Oh, Pearl Jam? Yeah, I love Pearl Jam. Cool, you’re hired.
Now, I changed even the nomenclature. We hire for skill set fits and culture addition. The skill set fit is obvious. We’d be much more specific and specialized at what we do, and we actually need pros, people who have done it. But the “culture addition” allows us to hire for diversity of thought, diversity of value, diversity of people of color, LGBTQ, seen and unseen disability. I really like the way that we’ve widened the net. In most cases, we’ve been able to do a phenomenon job at bringing others in so that you’re not sitting next to your twin.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so important. I love “culture addition.” I’m going to steal that! That’s great!
CLAUDE SILVER: Do it. Do it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Very good. I really like it. Originally, I asked you if in your listening tours you were perceiving, even amongst this generation and even in a really progressive industry, people still struggling with issues of inclusion and the kind of work you have invested in doing internally in your workforce to bring courageous conversations together. I think you’re going about it in a really interesting way, so I wanted you to describe, how are you equipping your own workforce to cleanse itself, if you will, and be autonomously monitoring itself for inclusion, and inviting what can be really difficult conversations and honesty?
I know that just because it’s a great industry and really open, progressive, or young, it doesn’t mean you don’t have issues. Every company has issues. Tell me a little bit about the things that have come to your attention and how you’re addressing them in a creative way from an inclusion perspective.
CLAUDE SILVER: Great. I’m glad you brought that up. I oversee everything that is people and experience. I oversee what is normally called an HR team. I changed the name to “people and experience” because that’s what we do here – people and experience. I would be out of integrity if I said I oversaw HR and I never worked in HR. I think that would be rude to claim that I had. That’s first and foremost, and my team has been trained. Obviously, they’re HR professionals, and they’ve been trained in unconscious bias, sexual harassment prevention, and all kinds of things. They’re legit.
And there are not a lot of us to scale a company of 800. What I really thought would be great is as we are here in America right now where there are tensions, there are things happen within the city and in other states and whatnot that are really – that have been horrendous and they also are very sensitive issues, we needed a way to find – I needed to find a way that people could talk about these issues and not always come to my team. But it wasn’t because of that, it’s because people just need to know how to talk about sensitive issues right now and sensitive topics.
So, we decided to create a squad called Vayner Allies. I don’t mean “allies” in the LGBTQ sense, although that’s part of it, I mean allies as friends, allies as neutral, allies as Switzerland, allies as bipartisan. And right this minute, we are getting trained by a clinical psychologist and a professor. He is training us on cultural competencies, cultural sensitivities, and the outcome will be this group of people will know how to conduct and hold space for courageous conversation throughout the agency.
And what I mean by a courageous conversation is anything from, “Hey, I’m going to go on a photo shoot, and I’m going to be doing a photo shoot with people of color and it’s for a hair product, and I don’t know what the right words, what do I say? Do I call people black? Do I call people African American? What is right in today’s society?” That’s a conversation we can have.
Another conversation could be, “Hey, I overhead someone in the bathroom talking about someone’s body odor and it made me really uncomfortable, what should I do about that?” Another conversation could be, “My aunt was just rushed to the hospital and I don’t know who to talk to because she’s in Vancouver and I can’t fly there today.”
It can be anything like that. Obviously, the more sensitive and serious the issue, they will come to my team and we will take care of that. But this is a way for everyone to be part of the learning and education that’s going on here, and to have feelers out for the culture, quite frankly. Everything we do here, certainly everything I do here is to create that safe space. If I’m creating culture champions, which I am, which we all are, then I also want to be creating people that know how to really be there for one another, and that sometimes means being in uncomfortable conversations and uncomfortable space.
Being together is better than being alone. I don’t want people to feel like they’re isolated because they don’t know how to talk about a certain sensitive topic or that they don’t feel safe here. I’m really proud of VaynerMedia putting a stake in the ground here. I’m part of the group that’s being trained right now, and it’s fabulous to witness what’s going on in these educational sessions. I’m learning a lot, and I can’t wait until we graduate and we’ll have something on our laptop. I don’t know what it is, some kind of sticker, where people will know that if you see that sticker on that person’s laptop, that’s a safe place to go.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. Allies initiatives, largely, in the rest of corporate America are having to do with straight allies for LGBT people, and there is a lot of energy and people fight to get those badges and pins and swag. I like how you define it as a friend, a neutral place, a safe space, and that you’re actually investing in training people so they have a baseline for what the issues actually are.
I find there is such an erasure of difference in a lot of workplaces, “I don’t see color, we’re a meritocracy. Everybody has the same opportunity, you just have to work hard.” There are a lot of these assumptions running around that I think serve to minimize the very real and very different experience that people are having person to person in a workplace. To carve out this ally behavior and expectation and equip people of all kinds to have these candid and courageous conversations and actually have the knowledge and the tools to do that, which is another big part of it.
I think the problem in corporate with ally initiatives is they tend to exist on paper and they can be very easy to obtain, but the moniker hasn’t been earned by the person. And we’re upping the ante in my next book, I want to lay out that you’re not just an ally because you raise your hand and say, “I’m an ally.” It’s something that is a term that’s bestowed on you by someone for whom you are an ally, but it’s determined by them.
CLAUDE SILVER: Yes, that’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a journey. It’s evolving, and it never ends. It’s a way of being as opposed to a destination.
CLAUDE SILVER: Yes. I love that. I want to just add that some of the topics that we’re dealing with are even the idea of privilege and oppression and realizing that there are social justice issues that are coming up here and there are ways in which we need to be sensitive to all of these different topics. We need to know how to have effective conversation and build understanding around them and, ultimately, be as nurturing as we possibly can. It’s wild. It’s wild out there.
JENNIFER BROWN: It is wild out there.
CLAUDE SILVER: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: And people are bringing that into the workplace every day. It’s on their hearts and minds. It’s almost like you come in the door having just read in the news about violence in your community and something that impacts you, and then many people feel they need to put that away, put it on a shelf, perform, stay focused. I hope for a workplace where we can bring all of who we are and whatever emotional state we’re in, like you’ve been talking about, and bringing our full selves to work means bringing all the complexity and all the unpredictability and all the implications of feeling our emotions and acknowledging them, not brushing them under the rug, not expecting people to just perform.
When you want the best out of people, you have to embrace all of these parts of who we are and acknowledge them and then let the air out of the balloon to acknowledge that they’re with us all the time. Remembering the Pulse nightclub shooting, I have a friend who just chose to wear all black the next day coming into work. He’s a gay man, and his CEO is a straight, white guy who really gets it. This is a large insurance company. There were no words exchanged between them, but the ally CEO came over to him, said nothing, and just gave him a hug. It was a beautiful moment of, “I know, I see you, I feel this pain, and I want you to know that I witness it, I witness you, and I’m here for you.”
It was a very subtle exchange with no words, but it was that sensitivity. The CEO wasn’t afraid to make that gesture. That’s what you’re getting at and the heart of your training is going to be people who anticipate what might be on people’s minds and proactively reach out to say, “I’m here if you want to talk about anything.”
CLAUDE SILVER: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: For people of relative privilege who haven’t been directly impacted by something, it’s actually hard to learn how to do that and do it right.
CLAUDE SILVER: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: How do people reach into other people? What have you learned in your dialogue about how to do that well?
CLAUDE SILVER: One of the things that I learned that was a real “ah-hah” for me was the difference between intention and impact. Being a culture that is built around empathy, the assumption and the reality is that the intention behind pretty much anything is true. The aim is true, everyone has really good intention.
However, just because you have good intention, it may not have landed the way you wanted it to land. We must be awake to the fact that impact is really what we’re looking for here. Intention, yes, of course. Everyone’s got good intention, but how did it land? How did it make that person feel? That’s real empathy. That’s been something that we really have dug into as well, and as I say, a real ah-hah for me.
The other one is something that our professor shared with us, which was there’s a big difference between calling someone out and calling someone in. That really resonated with me in terms of building understanding and bringing someone into a conversation rather than keeping that outsider as an outsider, or that other as an other.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
CLAUDE SILVER: Do you know what I’m saying?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, I do. I think a lot about that. Do you think the way we’ve talked about diversity and inclusion traditionally has really “othered” people, and the way that we’ve polarized has prevented our progress in some ways? It’s ironic by focusing on different communities with different needs and pain points. I think a lot of us have asked, “Have we really been inclusive?” You can’t win because you’re excluding in order to include, but the way that that’s been viewed and internalized and experienced by so many people who might not be a part of those communities, in my experience it’s meant that their take-away is, “Well, I don’t have a diversity story, I’m not diverse. Therefore, I’m not really a part of this.”
That’s a problem when those people are the majority in leadership positions. You’ve got a lot of the people with power looking at diversity as somebody else’s job, initiative, or worse, looking at it as medicine that they need to take as part of their jobs, which galvanizes me to think about how can we not “other” each other? We need each other to move forward.
CLAUDE SILVER: Yes. Again, back to intention. The intention of the conversation around diversity and inclusivity has been an honest intention. I think that corporate culture and society has needed to figure out how to have these conversations around “other.”
I do think that calling attention to your broken foot constantly or a stubbed toe is going to just make it hurt even more in some aspects. I do think when it’s done right, there’s a real alchemy when there’s more of a fluidity going on both in conversation and in action, if that makes sense. Yes, I’m no longer really talking about diversity a whole lot here, unless someone’s asking me on a podcast or an interview about our D&I, or if I’m doing orientation, which we do every week for new hires. I really don’t bring it up as much because I want people to feel it.
Once upon a time, when Gary built the company, he said, “We’re family first, we’re a people-first organization.” Okay, that’s our CEO blessing what this culture is from on high. But the culture gets built from the ground up, from the soil, from all of the different seeds and plants, every single day, that we all water. That’s where the culture is really formed. We don’t have anything hanging on our walls in any of our offices that say, “VaynerMedia, we are empathetic, entrepreneurial, full of possibility, and courageous.”
There are a couple of reasons for that. One, walk the walk, don’t talk the talk. And two, until those values become habits need become ingrained in us, we’re just not going to hang them around. Values have to become habits, which have to then become actions.
I talk a lot about walking the walk because that’s where you really see the magic. That’s where you really see things come to life.
I took a little bit of a segue there with the question around whether I think the conversation around diversity is almost painted into a corner. The answer is: Yes, I do. I really think it’s all around, at the end of the day, how you as an individual, a group of people, or a culture are making people feel. Period.
JENNIFER BROWN: We do share a lot more than makes us different, right? The tension of these conversations is celebration difference and also celebrating what’s shared.
I have no trouble holding those two things in my mind, but sometimes if you’re a different kind of thinker, you may said, “Wait, you’re giving me two opposite pieces of advice.” We’re in an interesting evolution of the conversation, I think.
Back to the LGBTQ question. When you’re thinking about the advice you would give to younger people who would love to work at a place like you’re workplace, where it is ingrained and you have support from the top and you have a chief heart officer who wants to know how you’re feeling and wants to build the company around you and your ability to thrive, which is beautiful, it’s not the reality for so many people. What is your advice about positioning your own diversity when you’re a young person trying to make your way and you’re interviewing or in your first year of a job? I still get questions like, “Should I be authentic? Should I disclose who I am? Maybe my race and ethnicity is obvious that I’m a person of color, but should I not really talk about it like it doesn’t exist?”
I know your personal answer is authenticity is always best, but if you can imagine you’re advising younger people who may not be in such a progressive place or part of the country, what would you say about how to navigate a different stigmatized identity while still wanting to be true to ourselves and authentic? Do you have any advice?
CLAUDE SILVER: I don’t know if it’s advice, it’s just words really. I don’t know if one needs to put themselves any danger – psychological or physical – in order to be loud and proud. I just don’t know if that’s what someone needs to do until they really feel as though it’s a risk that they can take because they know that they will be caught. There’s a net there, there’s a safe landing.
I really don’t think that just because you’re gay you need to come out at work. If you’re gay, then I would hope that you have found a community in which you can bloom and be your true self. I just don’t think you need to force anything. I really don’t. Force yourself to do other things. Force yourself to read a book every night. I’m not trying to be coy, I’m just trying to say that identity, who we are, whether or not you’re gay or straight, whether or not you have dyslexia or not, whether or not you come from a privileged background, this is who you are. I just don’t think you need to put yourself in harm’s way, but I also don’t think you want to keep yourself buried and keep too many things a secret. As the old saying goes, we’re only as sick as our secrets.
Again, it’s not advice other than just to say, you know what feels comfortable for you on any given day if you are awake and if you are self-aware. If you have questions around that, then come talk to me.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a beautiful articulation of the self-care practice you were referring to earlier. It’s how you take care of yourself, how you honor your identity, but also how you don’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself. It’s not zero sum. Authenticity is not a destination, it is a journey, and there’s no judgment in terms of how long that might take you. It all depends on your situation, your personality, the people who are supporting you, and there’s no right or wrong.
It’s helpful to hear a leader like you articulate that for everybody who listens here. Some of us might scratch our heads and say, “Why isn’t everybody out all the time?” There is a certain lack of patience and tolerance for people unearthing the layers of their diversity stories, and there are layers to each one of us. It’s funny, I think about the talks I’ve given in the past which felt very vulnerable, very disclosing, and risky. And now, those topics may not feel so risky anymore because I’ve spoken about them so much, they’re a part of who I am and my core message. Now I’m wondering, “What is my next layer to excavate?” It’s a great process of continuing. Spoken like a true would-be psychotherapist, Claude. (Laughter.) This whole hour has been very soothing.
CLAUDE SILVER: Well, thank you so much.
JENNIFER BROWN: I wish we all had a leader like you, a company like the one Gary’s built, and the population you’re encouraging to grow and thrive. They’re so fortunate to work for such a company with an open door to you, a method of communication to reach out, and the encouragement, space, and the container to do that.
I hope that some of our listeners in more traditional industries and big corporations who deal with the pain of anonymity and isolation and nobody talking about what matters really find this conversation inspirational and good fodder for challenging the way business is done.
I want to thank you, Claude. Congratulations, ahead of time, on becoming a mom and a parent. Everything is going to change yet again.
CLAUDE SILVER: I know.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’ll have to talk the you in the future about what it’s like to have – what are we calling that generation after generation Z?
CLAUDE SILVER: Oh, my gosh.
JENNIFER BROWN: Which is going to be your kid’s generation. We don’t know yet.
CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah, we don’t know yet. I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I do. I want to thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you and I hope your audience has found it enjoyable.
JENNIFER BROWN: Knowing you’re out there makes us all feel a little better. Thank you, Claude.
CLAUDE SILVER: Thanks.
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