Demanding Diversity in Silicon Valley With Yammer Co-Founder Adam Pisoni

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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Adam Pisoni, CEO of Abl Schools and co-founder of Yammer, discusses his early experience of dealing with “otherness” and how that eventually led him to a greater awareness of the need for more diversity and inclusion within technology companies. Adam shares lessons that he learned from his experiences at Yammer, and the actions he has taken in his new company to increase diversity and inclusion.   

In this episode, you’ll discover:

·         Adam’s diversity story and why he felt different growing up (2:09)

·         Adam’s reflection on diversity and inclusion at Yammer (9:55)

·         When a tech company can be exclusive in its hiring practices (13:00)

·         Diversity lessons learned from Yammer and what Adam did differently with his new company (15:08)

·         The difference between building “bridges” or “islands” and what that means for companies (16:55)

·         The most important hiring decisions in an organization that set the tone for inclusion (19:00)

·         The radical stance that Adam took about diversity at Abl (20:55)

·         The steps Adam took to develop more diverse hiring practices at Abl (22:00)

·         The two dominant perspectives on diversity in the tech industry (32:22)

·         How to awaken tech leaders about their role in creating more inclusive companies (39:00)

·         Why compromise isn’t always a bad thing  (42:00)

·         How the nature of leadership in tech is changing (44:40)

·         Adam’s advice and message to leadership teams (52:35)

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Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

Jennifer Brown:  Welcome to The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown. My guest today is Adam Pisoni. Adam is best known as the co-founder of Yammer which he founded in 2008, ultimately creating one of the fastest growing software service companies of all time.

He oversaw product analytics and engineering, scaling the company to 500 employees, until Yammer sold to Microsoft in 2012 for $1.2 billion. A high school dropout himself, Adam has most recently returned to the field of education, channeling his passion for more agile and responsive organizations into his newest venture Abl; a school scheduling platform intended to help schools move beyond the twentieth century model of education.

Adam, welcome to The Will to Change.

Adam Pisoni:  Thanks for having me.

Jennifer Brown:  I always like to start by going backwards. You had some challenging experiences in school. I know that there are some clues in all of that that then probably led you to believe what you believe, and actually do the innovative work that you’re doing now.

Take us back and tell us what those years were like for you. Were they confusing? Difficult? Were they illuminating in some ways, and how did it set you on a trajectory?

Adam Pisoni:  I grew up in Phoenix, suburban Phoenix in a pretty middle-class area, pretty homogeneous middle class area which had a very large conference high school, and a pretty large school district.

All the way from elementary, middle, and high school, I just didn’t feel like I belonged, and I was picked on for being smart, and learned not to ask questions. I felt it was a school that didn’t reward intelligence, or critical thinking.

I just didn't feel like I belonged - @adampisoni on #TheWillToChange podcast w/ @jenniferbrown Click To Tweet

I remember at the time, starting in elementary, being confused about what made me different in a way that was deemed worse by those around me. Other than they were into sports and I was into other things, and in some cases I was into sports. There was something about me that was different and I didn’t understand what it was.

It gave me the sense that the people who have status, or are popular, that that wasn’t necessarily a thing that they earned. I had this sense that there potentially was some injustice in why some people ended up in some places or another. It gave me a bit of a distrust of authority, and the structures that allow some people to succeed while others fail.

By high school I had an experience that reinforced that. My girlfriend at the time went to a high school in a much better part of town, and I was blown away at the difference in her school in terms of the quality of the teachers, and the field trips they went on, and the resources they had.

There again I didn’t understand why my school was so much worse. I went to a public school, she went to a public school. I thought all public schools were the same.

I remember telling friends of mine about this experience that different public schools are a different level of quality. My friends thought that wasn’t true, and they’re just public school. They must all be the same.

The continued awareness that people’s experiences are very different in both positive and negative ways based on where they’re born, and character traits, and as a result from all that I ended up dropping out of high school after my junior year on the advice of the school. I said I wanted to go to college; they said there was no way to test out. I had decent grades and they said I should drop out, so I did.

Later in life I realized that, in many ways, I had it lucky. Certainly I’m in the majority group, and I had a lot of other advantages, and I had role models that I could look at in society that made it easy for me to transcend that.

I didn’t end up feeling that story meant that I could fully appreciate what a lot of other people have been through, but at the same time it did give me an empathy for that feeling of being treated differently when I didn’t do anything.

Jennifer Brown:  You’re realizing much earlier than the rest of us the concept of unearned privilege.

Adam Pisoni:  Not to give myself too much credit, I didn’t understand how that impacted other groups, especially around racial or gender boundaries until much later in life. I was primed to be able to see it, but I didn’t know about it.

Jennifer Brown:  I would call you an ally-in-training. Someone who will get the language later in your life to call it the proper term. It’s great that you started to notice those things that you were aware of, of otherness.

You were being othered, but you were also aware that you had been taken advantage of because of how you were born, what kind of body you were born in, and race you were born in, and that certain things came easier for you.

Adam Pisoni:  I dropped out of high school, went to college for a year, dropped out of college, and started a company in ’95. In 2001 was the dotcom bubble burst, and there was no work. I then moved to Mammoth for a couple years to get out of the tech scene.

Jennifer Brown:  Thinking back to those times, I’m sure they were crazy. At that age, did you continue to build on that awareness of difference, and where you fit in, and where you didn’t, and what people assumed about you, and your empathy? How did that evolve through that period of time?

Adam Pisoni:  Phoenix is a very homogeneous place. There were very few people that looked radically different from me at my school, and so while I think I was othered, that was convenient because there weren’t other areas of diversity to other.

I had no exposure to different types of people until I was 19 and moved to California when I started my first company. At that age, I started to see all these different people who had different races, and different sexual orientations, and I realized that a lot of the preconceived notions I might have had were wrong.

I don’t think, even at that point, I understood the nature of privilege, or the ways in which some of those other groups were disadvantaged or discriminated against.

I didn't understand the nature of privilege - @adampisoni on #TheWillToChange podcast w/ @jenniferbrown Click To Tweet

Through that period it was me coming from a very religious city, that’s very homogeneous, to California which is very liberal, and has a lot of people. It opened my eyes to the fact that there’s a lot of different life experiences and there’s a lot of different people that end up and start in different ways.

Jennifer Brown:  That’s amazing. You were riding the tech train straight up, and your story is well-documented at Yammer as the co-founder, building like you did, and your exit. I don’t want to gloss over all of that, because that must have been just an incredible experience to be a part of.

As you went through that, you learned a lot about leadership, and speaking a lot about the philosophy you have about power and leverage, and things like compromise, and you read a lot clearly. Your own leadership vision and style started to come to the fore during those days, even if you couldn’t actualize it because you’re on the speeding train.

When you look back at your time as a leader, you probably think there were ways that you could have been better or truer to yourself in that environment, during those years.

Looking back now, what did you get right? What do you wish you’d done differently from an integrity perspective, authenticity perspective, perhaps even a diversity and inclusiveness perspective? Why was that a good learning experience for you?

Adam Pisoni:  This is where, when I got out of college, I started a tech start-up, I didn’t have a lot of money and so raised a tiny bit of money and was trying to do stuff. None of us were thinking about this idea of diversity and inclusion, and obviously that was a luxury that we could just get out there, and raise money, and not even realizing that our experience was different.

Dot-com bubble burst, and so then at that point I had no hope of ever going back into tech again, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. I ended up going back into tech working for people, so I wasn’t really in a position to think about it, and more importantly, I think I still didn’t understand it.

Yammer then comes along and it’s the first opportunity where it’s not just a company that’s small, and racing for its life. I’m in a leadership position, and it’s growing quickly, and I had to start thinking strategically about the long term. We started as a very small company with a couple people that we could find in L.A. just building stuff.

There was something that definitely happened after we started to grow where general consciousness about diversity and inclusion in the industry, and some of it was because we were hiring people, and they were bringing some of that consciousness. There was definitely an awareness that began to form, especially in engineering among the early people, that we had started with a pretty homogeneous group, and that was not something we wanted to maintain.

This idea of wanting to fight for the underdog was very core to a lot of the early Yammer engineering leaders, but it was only later that we began to learn actually we’re not the underdogs; we had a lot of advantages.

There were people who had to fight much harder, and there was over time this growing consciousness of the fact that we were going to have to put in extra effort, which we did to maybe correct for the fact that we didn’t put that energy in early. Even still I think it was hard.

After Yammer, I look back about how even if we didn’t understand some of the ways we may not have been inclusive, there are things that are actually separate from. For example gender, ethnicity, and communication styles which end up being proxies for those things. You have to be so much more sensitive and aware to create an environment that’s going to be inclusive of a lot of different types of people.

It creates a lot of questions and tensions about how inclusive do you want to be? What I mean by that is not by race or gender, but is it that you want to handle people with lots of different communication styles? Or can you handle a company that both hires incredibly arrogant people and incredibly humble people? Where do you draw lines?

Coming out of that and being able to reflect, I was able to draw up a set of values that it’s okay to be exclusive with, where you say we hire people who are humble, and therefore we are not as inclusive of people who are arrogant.

When you’re talking about these complex issues of gender, and race, and all of the baggage and unconscious bias that comes with it, your best bet is to fight those battles early, and hire the kind of people that are going to allow you to build those muscles as you grow. It’s hard to recognize the boundaries of that once you’re larger and your culture is more established.

Jennifer Brown:  For you to even talk about humility in the Silicon Valley alpha male world that it is, it must have made you unusual or at least your team unusual. I know when you came out of Yammer you saw a lot of this a lot more clearly, and you talk about in some of your writing that you were part of what you call the PayPal Mafia.

As you realized that your dynastic privilege, as you called it, that you were part of a system that enabled you to be successful in a really unique way and in a relatively easier way.

The founding team, once it gets going, it’s hard to make changes to it, and it’s so fascinating that once that train leaves the station, that homogeneity actually perpetuates itself unless you’re very intentional about resetting it, and it’s more difficult to reset it than it is to set it correctly from the very beginning.

It sounds like it was starting to really clarify for you that it really matters what you prioritize, the filters you use, the lens you look at things through, and how you hold yourself accountable, especially as the leader with all of the power and leverage to set those terms, as difficult as they are to set.

Tell us about Abl, the organization that you have founded. What did you do differently in starting that venture? What were some of the challenges that you faced with that?

Adam Pisoni:  A lot of things, and coming out of Yammer, being able to reflect on what we did right and wrong even from a business perspective, and from a go-to-market customer, I took a lot of that to not just thinking about how do I start an education company that will be successful, but if the goal is impact, taking some of those lessons to that as well.

Yammer obviously was very successful because we found a need, and we got a bunch of customers, and we did a bunch of things right, but our product was one that required some leaps of faith from our customers to get value out of it because it required that you think about working differently, and think about transparency differently than you may have.

We were convicted and convinced that the world was going in that way, so we were there in the future while the world was catching up, and that’s how you win. I came out of that experience feeling like that’s actually not true when you’re talking about enterprises, companies, schools, or any kind of institutional setting. Individuals have very low friction to change, so you can build something that’s in the future and you’ll get early adopters, and so on and so forth.

When you’re talking about trying to change a company, or change a school, the risks are so high, the costs are so high that unless you’re coming in starting where they’re at today, it becomes really hard for them to change. I ended up with this sort of mental model of bridges and islands that you have to decide what kind of impact or company you’re going to have.

You have to decide what kind of impact or company you're going to have. #TheWillToChange @adampisoni Click To Tweet

Islands are really to prove something’s possible, and you’re going to go find this special group of people in this special place, that like do that but it will be necessarily smaller scale.

When you go to build bridges you’re trying to get to the broadest audience possible, but knowing that you have to start where they are. You’re going to have to sort of figure out how you scaffold them to the future starting where they are.

I went into education trying to find bridges knowing that there are plenty of islands today, and that’s how I ended up finding the central problems around the way principals manage schools, and offering software that helps principals design and manage the daily life of their schools. We found a high-leverage sort of bridge, because we can solve today’s problems and still help scaffold them in the future.

Part of what was different was the approach, this idea that we’re trying to build bridges, and Yammer was a little more of an island. As it related to diversity and inclusion, there was a sense of starting a company and recognizing that that core first group of ten or twenty people, there’s just so much wrapped into the benefits of what those people are. They set the culture that often stays the same.

I joined Microsoft decades after they were founded, and yet you can feel Bill Gates’ presence among every person. That culture that he created is still there, all the good and the bad, and those early people really do set the culture. That was a big piece.

The dynastic privilege piece, frankly was almost just a personal crusade because you can ask, ‘Should a founder feel responsible for the industry?’ And I did. I felt like I had benefitted from the privilege and I felt responsible for helping because most of the time when companies are successful, there’s diminishing returns in terms of the value that you get based on what employee you are. The first ten or twenty employees are in a much better position usually to go raise money, and to claim the success was theirs, and to take leadership positions.

Should a founder feel responsible for the industry? I did. @adampisoni #TheWillToChange Click To Tweet

If you think about a company with 1,000 employees that’s totally diverse, if the founding twenty or something are homogeneous, they’re going to get the most benefit later on in terms of starting companies and all that. So it wasn’t to me just about having a diverse company, it was having to start that way for a whole bunch of reasons knowing that that would be hard.

Jennifer Brown:  You really challenged yourself, and you didn’t do the typical thing which is to grab your friends from your existing community. Many of our friend networks look like us, so as a leader finally with the power and the leverage, you were in control.

You took responsibility and were radical about it to the point where you were pushing back on your investors and hiring the right people, knowing that the founding team couldn’t look like you. That wouldn’t ensure doing the best work that you could, and setting the tone for subsequent hires, how you look in the marketplace, and how you could serve your constituents; which in your case is schools, and administrators, and diverse students.

You got really hardcore about it, and I loved how you describe pushing back on your investors, but also your hiring requirements. Can you tell us a little bit more about what did you insist on, and what kind of pushback did you get? What did we learn from the pushback?

Adam Pisoni:  To be fair my investors were actually very supportive, but I don’t know that all investors are. The idea that you would have to start to try to choose your investors because they support those values becomes really important because generally speaking in a lot of cases, investors also feel like this isn’t their battle, and that starting a company is hard enough without putting on top of that trying to correct for this problem in the industry.

Choose your investors because they support your values. @adampisoni@ TheWillToChange Click To Tweet

I would never argue that it’s easier to start the way I did. It is easier to find your friends and hire them and get started that way. You just never get another chance to hire the first ten or twenty, and so you just give up on that as the goal.

There are people who didn’t have the privilege and all that I had, that probably wouldn’t feel like they had the latitude to do that, so I don’t fault them for that either. I do think that more people have to do that.

In the beginning I wanted a company that was diverse and inclusive, but I really did try to treat people fairly and equitably. The problem was a few fold then is how do you make sure you’re creating culture that does that? You need a diverse set of people to know whether you have a culture which is exactly a diverse set of people.

Where I really put the pressure on, was on the funnel. Who are we interviewing? With us feeling like, if somebody gets in and we’re going to interview them, then we should be considering them as a person. We should be doing things to try to remove our biases. Those are things like building rubrics to make sure we’re valued, where we have a process that different people go through a similar set of stages. We try our best to improve at the process of interviewing and eliminating, or reducing bias as much as we can, even if we know that’s impossible.

We should be doing things to try to remove our biases. @adampisoni #TheWillToChange Click To Tweet

Before that, the challenge that I saw right away is it wasn’t enough to widen the net. It wasn’t enough to make sure to go and not only look in the wrong places, but also look in places where there might be different diverse pools of talent. What I found is especially being a young start-up, the rate in which people in the majority group were just coming at us was greater than we could fill the funnel for anybody else. Because we’re talking about only ten or twenty people, had we not done some throttling I would say, there was no way that we would have had a more diverse early group.

That was the most controversial thing is this idea that you’re going to have to manage the top of the funnel, or the people that you’re getting to, in order to make sure that as people come into the funnel you have a fair chance at having a diverse company.

Jennifer Brown:  So you had to exclude certain people of a certain demographic, probably that looked like you if I could put a fine point on it, and literally not even interview them.

That takes so much more time, and it’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s so pernicious and deep in our system. There are so many reasons why the funnel would have gotten filled with people that might have looked like you. You wrote about it being relatively easy to change jobs when there are so many of you and you have an inherent privilege in terms of how you navigate your career. You’d had a really hard time hiring more senior diverse candidates to the team because they are dealing with headwinds, and challenges that make it more fraught to consider jumping from a secure opportunity over to a start-up.

You describe the reasons that your funnel got absolutely full of say white and Asian men. For example, you had so many that at some point you realized if you spent all your time interviewing them, you’re not going to be spending time interviewing the diverse candidates.

You really took a stand, and that was so brave, and I’m sure you got a lot of pushback and criticism. Reading your medium articles and all the comments, you get attacked and called things, your motives are in question, and I get the same thing sometimes, too. It sounds like you were steadfast, but what was the criticism that you got of the idea of reverse racism or it not being fair. Tell us about that.

Adam Pisoni:  The one thing that’s hard to explain to people about why an early stage startup is different than a late stage startup has to do with there being only one chance at the first ten or twenty, and if the rate at which you’re seeing certain groups over other groups is above a certain percentage, there’s nothing you can do.

Even if somebody said to me that I’m just not good at finding more candidates from more diverse pools, then even if they’re right, the question was do I accept the fact that my first ten are still going to look like me?

There’s this limited time and space, and at some point you have no choice but to throttle. I think it’s a dirty secret among the people who consult with large companies for diversity that eventually they always tell them they have to throttle because if all they’re pushing for is the rate at which they’re hiring, then casting a wider net isn’t going to fix that problem.

It’s such a disparaging problem, especially among senior candidates because at the senior levels from majority groups, they’re much more likely to jump ship from wherever they are and just try new things. Essentially you don’t really end up having a choice unless you accept that because you could do everything you were supposed to, it’s not your fault, you did everything right, and you just ended up this way. Is that acceptable? For me that wasn’t.

Jennifer Brown:  I love that it wasn’t acceptable.

Adam Pisoni:  The reverse racism, that’s a big one. In terms of this idea that maybe you’re excluding, we were careful to look when we interview someone. Other than trying to reduce bias, we’re not thinking about their race and gender. We’re just interviewing them. And when they’re hired, everyone is just here.

The thing we feel like we control is like the rate at which we’re interviewing which groups. That was the trick, and then of course the other argument is you’re potentially risking the company, and you’re starting an education startup that’s trying to help kids, and there’s a chance you’re going to either slow down or fail, and doing this good thing because you’re dogmatic about this other thing. That was a fair criticism I think.

Jennifer Brown:  You took it on and you realized you had so much to learn. I get all the same pushback of talking about quotas, or if people should always hire the diverse candidate. I think that drastic action is needed, just widening the funnel or looking further a field for candidates is not going to be all that it takes.

It just is not and we’ve seen evidence of that in the fact that we haven’t seen the numbers move in terms of diverse talent representation, for example in Silicon Valley. It’s almost like whatever we’re doing is not necessarily working and we need to get a little bit more serious about it and hold ourselves accountable.

Adam Pisoni:  The question I ask the general populous is, if we said that Google, and Facebook, and all these people were doing everything right to make sure they were doing their best to source from diverse pools, and diversity training, and they still weren’t improving, do we accept that as just being the industry? Or do we want this to change and therefore we have to take extreme measures?

Jennifer Brown:  Is it okay with our lawyers in a large institute?

Adam Pisoni:  That’s the trade-off question which is we’re always willing to do more, but are we willing to do less? That’s a really tough question.

We're always willing to do more, but are we willing to do less? @adampisoni #inclusion #TheWillToChange Click To Tweet

Jennifer Brown:  Privilege is hard to give up. Comfort is hard to give up. Why take a risk when you don’t need to? Why slow down the process and risk a company that’s going to do so much good in the world? I’m sure you had these moments.

It doesn’t sound like you ever doubted where you were going with Abl. It has actually paid dividends because having that diverse founding team has now begotten more diverse employees coming your way, and there’s a real phenomenon which I see a lot in large corporations of you’ve got to see it to be it.

We have to see someone who’s been successful ahead of us in our enterprise or small company that we know we’re going to be comfortable in this place because there’s other people that look like us. Have you seen that borne out in your company? Has it actually worked in that way at Abl?

Adam Pisoni:  Yes it has. In general the people now who find us, or apply, or we reach out to, and read about us, and interview here; if that’s a value of theirs then they see it, they see it in the company, and it becomes a lot easier to convince other people who share our values that we share their values.

That was a lot harder when we were smaller because how do you prove it other than your words? I think it’s a lot harder if you’re larger and it doesn’t seem apparent, so it’s been much better, especially for people who share our values. That’s the beauty of it.

Jennifer Brown:  Do you coach and counsel other largely white and male founders? Do you have these honest conversations with them? Do they seek you out when they’re not okay with this, when they don’t know what to do, when they want to lead differently, when they want to hold themselves accountable, and want to have a different kind of organization? Are you hearing more of those kinds of conversations? What role do you find yourself playing in them?

Adam Pisoni:  It’s almost like it’s become a little bipolar, or at least very separate because I now have a lot of friends that are going to go above and beyond. They’re going to make trade-offs. They’re going to make sure they try to make this happen.

It’s hard, and they’re not all in total control of their companies, but I hear that more now than I’ve ever heard. I also hear some of the opposite of it not being their problem. People who can point at Google’s numbers and say, “They’re just representative of the industry, and so to try to beat their numbers is like fighting a battle that we don’t need to fight.” It’s interesting that people tend not to fall in the middle of that.

Jennifer Brown:  That is so true. Do you think the happenings of the last couple months have driven more people at least to feel a sense of urgency? I’m curious.

Adam Pisoni:  Absolutely. I had that conversation with a CTO friend a couple weeks ago, and he was saying that when he read my article a couple months ago, he thought it sounded like a lot of energy on a thing which is really hard, and maybe it’s not worth it. Then he said all these articles about some of the big companies that are having some issues with their diversity and inclusion, it’s something he realized that it’s actually really smart.

To some degree we’re hopefully entering an era that if you choose to ignore these things, it is at your own peril. Because you’re just building up trouble in the future, and I think that’s because the expectations of the companies that serve us are going up.

If you choose to ignore diversity and inclusion, it's at your own peril - @adampisoni #TheWillToChange Click To Tweet

Society gets better in realizing that there’s privilege, and wanting to correct that, and we realize that companies are better when they’re more inclusive, the expectations go up, and as they do these companies are going to really struggle having not made the investment and said it wasn’t their problem, and now it’s their problem.

Jennifer Brown:  To the point where they really need to be investing in their own talent pipelines too. We have to get really creative right now because we’re living with a legacy of a lack of attention, or worse, unchecked bias basically for decades in these companies. I still think it’s rampant, and largely unaware.

Adam Pisoni:  I really hate making the business justification for diversity and inclusion personally. I know there are business justifications, obviously there’s a lot of research on how when you’re in creative work it’s better to have more diverse points of view, and you should have people that look like the people you serve because they can understand, and empathize, and all that’s true. But again, I think it’s the right thing anyway.

One of the things that I think about when I see these articles about some of these companies that are struggling, is having been at a big company now, I think about the vast number of meetings that happened because of that article.

Where leadership executive meetings, all the way up and down the chain where they’re trying to figure out what to do, how to respond, how to improve it, and just the cost of those from a real standpoint, from a focus standpoint, from a morale standpoint. There’s a really high cost that when you try to correct course later, and not just bite the bullet and do the right thing now. I think that’s real. It’s not a reason to do it, but it’s true.

There's a really high cost that when you try to correct course later - @adampisoni #inclusion #TheWillToChange Click To Tweet

Jennifer Brown:  Trust is built on a million steps but can be destroyed in one. How do you measure the discretionary effort that people might have been giving before something like that happens? The take-away that people have are that the company is not on their side, they don’t see them, they don’t understand them, and they don’t value them.

It’s such a lost opportunity, it’s such a drag on the bottom line, but what we struggle with is we know that that’s happening, especially in these companies that make really public missteps.

It is difficult to measure, and I do find I get frustrated because we’re always asked for the business case over and over again. Even as many times as you share it, they still want more.  I will come to the table with all these statistics from McKinsey and they’ll say, “But what about this? I only hire the best people, and I believe in meritocracy.” It just goes on and on, and it’s hard to know what is going to be the winning argument. I don’t know if you have any emerging thoughts on all of that.

Adam Pisoni:  This is where we get into some really deep topics about there’s always this counter-argument which is looking at the most successful companies in Silicon Valley. They were built by homogeneous teams, so how can you argue that that doesn’t work? Here’s your counter-argument. We can argue that the future will be different, and they will be put on more pressure, but it’s tough.

That’s why I don’t like the business argument because if we believe this is the right thing or not, we’re going to act accordingly.

I think that we are seeing a new breed of companies that’s working on this earlier, and hopefully that yields data about the impact as those companies are larger and able to attract and retain more diverse groups of talent, therefore some people who are the best who were skipped over, or missed, or not recognized by some of the other companies. There’s a lot of benefits that people see, but in some cases it’s early because we don’t have a lot of big companies right now that were started this way.

Jennifer Brown:  Maybe the next generation will be. When you think back, and maybe you were uniquely predisposed because of your youth, and lessons you had early perhaps, that this was all very intuitive for you. I know that you probably had a learning curve, of course you did. You said the wrong thing. You realized how much you didn’t know. You realized your privilege, or your realized where bias was creeping into your language, or your decisions, et cetera.

So how can we accelerate? How can we even awaken people to the need to change, let alone accelerate their understanding about their role? I have ‘The Will to Change’ in the title of my book because I’m really obsessed with change being driven from the top. It is so important, and yet there is the least awareness about all of what we’ve been talking about at the top.

People don’t give up power easily, or they assume they have good intent and they’re progressive. There’s a big myth that being well-intended is enough, and being even progressive politically is enough to make these changes, and I don’t personally believe that it’s enough.

How do we awaken this in more male leaders, that they will actually take this mantle on and do some soul searching, but also kind of hold themselves and others accountable?

Adam Pisoni:  I don’t have a great answer, because I started with the two. I was predisposed, and I did have a journey. As we’re talking I can only imagine people who worked at Yammer who might listen to this and think it didn’t seem like I was that into it then.

Jennifer Brown:  That’s honest.

Adam Pisoni:  There was a lot I had to learn, and even as I realized that the more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know, and the more I realized that for example how uncareful I was with my language because I didn’t realize so many things. There was certainly a lot of energy required to talk to more people, hang out with more diverse groups and people, and not make it just something I cared about, but a part of my life.

I think there are different strategies for different people, but when we’re talking about people in leadership, I think one of the hardest parts for the people who see the injustice and really care get angry because we should. They should realize that that rarely works.

When trying to change people in leadership, especially when you approach people with the assumption that their intention is bad. You see so much of what’s being written right now about some of these big companies is attacking them, and it feels good because you’re angry, and this proved that you were right. It doesn’t change those companies in any kind of real deep way.

It makes them reactionary and do things, but what’s required is empathy. I think that if we could assume that a lot of these people really just don’t see it, or they’re trying and they don’t understand, then how do we build those bridges? It’s completely unsatisfactory because it’s like all we’re saying here is that we’re sort of trying to be really gentle with the people who have power.

What's required is empathy - @adampisoni #diversity #TheWillToChange Click To Tweet

Jennifer Brown:  You’re being an apologist. I get that sometimes.

Adam Pisoni:  For me it’s how do you be really strong about your principles, and be really clear about what you believe, and not to compromise those things, but know that the only way to change those people is to be around them, and to engage at a level where you’re not shutting them down, and you’re not just having a defensive argument, and yelling at each other.

That’s the only way I’ve found. These bridges and islands again, that islands are a great way to show that something’s possible, but they don’t change people who don’t know how to get there. There’s a separate set of efforts to go build bridges, that start where they’re at today, and recognizing their current set of challenges, beliefs, and then scaffold them in the right direction one step at a time.

Jennifer Brown:  For some of us that is scarier and riskier than for others. We talk a lot about allyship, and that means using a relatively privileged part of your identity takes less risk than maybe the woman does to have the same exact conversation.

Adam Pisoni:  Absolutely.

Jennifer Brown:  I’m sure that that’s what you do, and I think that’s going to change. I’ve noticed men listen to other men in a really different, very distinct way, and there’s a safety level there on both sides frankly. There’s a level of honesty that can happen, but also the person that’s giving that feedback is not as much at risk as some of us are to have the honest conversation, and these are hard conversations.

I feel triggered in these conversations as a woman, and yet I’m also a teacher and I know I’ve got to go into those uncomfortable conversations and have them, but I need to do it in such a way that is ultimately really patient, really gracious, and really meeting people where they’re at. To me that means remembering that everybody has a diversity story, and honoring their experience.

Oftentimes I don’t even know if leaders even think about it that way. They have a diversity story too. You do, and you’re pretty public about it, but a lot of people hide what’s been true about them. Whether it’s a disability, or a family dynamic, or being socio-economically, or not having the right education, or religious differences from their fellow peers, leaders, or executives.

I’ve heard a lot of different things, but even among men there’s a lot of reticence to share and bring their full selves into the picture. That’s kind of interesting to me to tease that out and tell them we need them to show up as everything that they are. It’s not just the perfect parts of them, it’s not just the big title, it’s not just the flash.

Leaders need to show up differently in the future because they’re going to need to resonate through their vulnerability as well as through their strength. I’m excited to see how that unfolds. It’s going to take a while.

Adam Pisoni:  Maybe this is part of the nature of leadership is a little bit changing. Leaders are normally rewarded for a set of behaviors that are not conducive to vulnerability, and it’s a very new thing that we think that might be important and would have benefits.

I like what you said about everybody has a diversity story. I didn’t tell my story because I think therefore I’m like underprivileged people. I’m not, I’m in the privileged group, but it means if you can put yourself in a situation then maybe you can begin to understand others better.

I was having a conversation with somebody about unconscious bias, and I gave them this analogy of dating someone and at the beginning of the relationship because of things they said or did, you formed some opinion about their beliefs. Then years later you made assumptions based on those opinions that were no longer true because they had changed, and you hadn’t updated your point of view. That’s how bias works. That is an example of how we take things in, and we believe them. Especially trying to make it less about the intent. There are bad people out there that believe horrible things.

It’s okay to try and if you find that they’re one of those people, not to engage. It’s okay to try to engage with the people who have good intent but are saying dumb things, and be empathetic, and then go home and punch your pillow a bunch. It’s also okay to do that because we need anger too. It’s that balance of be angry, but then build bridges. Do what you’ve got to do to actually make change happen.

Jennifer Brown:  It’s so true and it’s not about getting your ego entangled too. I think when we get defensive, I think the ego definitely comes up and our protective mechanism comes up too. You see that on both sides of the aisle honestly.

There’s the breakdown of trust generally, and not to get political, it doesn’t help that we’re being fed news in an echo chamber of sameness. I get really worried about our dialogue skills, and our ability to stand in this like supposed conflict. It’s masquerading as conflict, but really it’s about human needs, and it’s the need to be seen and heard, and to belong. It’s really fundamental and something that we all share.

We tend to square off, and I see that a lot in corporations. When we talk about male allies for women, or we talk about white allies for people of color in corporations, there is as much distrust on the other side. One group doesn’t want to enter the conversation because they’re afraid of being judged, and the other group doesn’t trust that group to come into the conversation and that they have good motives. That’s why I think talking about what diversity means to each of us, including people who might have been the beneficiary of privilege.

It’s not equating my experience with yours, but it is absolutely expressing empathy, and some understanding of what that feels like, and I think that’s a great place to start. What are some other bridge building skills as we wrap up our conversation? What is some other advice for people that want to follow in your footsteps and make themselves a little more uncomfortable and do more? Where can they get that learning?

Adam Pisoni:  The majority of my advice is to say I’ve been in positions of power, and in the majority group, and therefore have a lot of safety and privilege in that. I believe that my job is to push myself out of my comfort zone because I’ve already had to fight a lot less than a lot of other people, and so maybe I should fight more in other ways. I would challenge other people who are in the majority group towards that as well.

Even though they worked hard and did the right things, they can’t understand the degree to which they were on an updraft, and they were being carried by the current, whereas a lot of other people are really swimming upstream. So to just say, “Look I have to go above and beyond because I’ve had it a little easier. Even though it doesn’t feel easy, I’m just going to have to accept that it’s been a little easier.”

One of those things that’s the uncomfortable things you have to do is to meet new people who aren’t like you and begin to build real friendships there, and every friendship takes time and energy up front. That’s probably one of the most important things, because if you’re going to build empathy, but you’ve got to talk to people.

Not just talk to people, like interview them. You have to be friends with people who have had a very different life experience than you have, and to build a true kind of empathy that normally comes from being friends with someone who is over time revealing their experience to you. It takes energy to start but it’s rewarding because you become friends, they’re just friends. I just think it’s incredibly important.

You have to be friends with people who have had a very different life experience than you have @adampisoni #TheWillToChange Click To Tweet

Jennifer Brown:  I love that. Typically we have affinity groups for this very reason. We have large groups of employees in some of the Fortune 500 that are diversity networks full of communities of people of different backgrounds, and cultures, and it’s just incredible to declare yourself as somebody who wants to be a part of those communities as a guest and utilizing parts of their privileged identity for good, and being an ally to others. As an LGBT person, I need allyship, I need support. I’m acutely aware of what hat am I wearing right now? How can I be in service?

Adam Pisoni:  This is just to say from my personal experience, you have to overcome some uncomfortableness, and awkwardness. What happened to me, especially as I got into this more and started caring about it more, I started meeting people who had very different life experiences, and invariably we were meeting over this topic.

This is what we would start talking about is diversity and inclusion. I had a weird feeling as I continued to have relationships with those people wondering did they just look at me as this weird guilt-ridden white guy that’s like using them for that? That’s bad too, and there’s all sorts of stuff wrapped up in it, but it’s like meeting anyone strange for the first time. You connect on some things, and then you know more about them, and then you sort of get past those things.

Get out of your comfort zone, and put in a little bit of time and effort. It’s hugely valuable just in terms of learning about the world, and yourself, and others’ experiences, and empathy, and everything.

Jennifer Brown:  All of it. It makes you so much of a better leader. Just the ability to cross difference and build inclusion around you; there almost is no other critical leadership competency. Especially in the future when the whole world and all the leadership teams aren’t going to look the way they do now. Are you preparing yourself to lead people that probably won’t have your background? How good are you going to be at that? That’s not something you can just snap your fingers and decide to be good at one day. It takes a lot of investment.

Thank you Adam for being steadfast, and being a visionary in terms of how you use your privilege, your platform, and your voice. I love what Abl’s doing, so I want to let people know how can they support your work with Abl? I’m sure people are going to wonder how they can work for that organization after this, but where can we find more information on all of it?

Adam Pisoni:  Our website is We are hiring engineers, data scientists, marketing managers. We’re still a very small company. We’re still trying to find schools. But we love introductions to principals who are our primary user.

Jennifer Brown:  I hope our community can support you in all those ways, and thank you for supporting diversity and inclusion in the way that you do. We all look forward to seeing what you are going to create in the world.

Adam Pisoni:  Thank you, it was great chatting.

Jennifer Brown:  Thanks, Adam.

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Twitter: @adampisoni

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