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New York Times bestselling author Charlene Li joins the program to discuss what we can learn from disruption and the connection between disruption and DEI work. Discover the characteristics of a disruptive leader and the one thing that leaders can do to help make their organizations more disruptive.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
Jennifer Brown: The DEI Foundations’ program is coming up everybody, launching on May 4th. We do cohorts throughout the year and this is the next date for you to take advantage of joining a cohort for this amazing program. And I want to share a little bit more about what it’s all about. It’s fundamentally an opportunity to explore DEI concepts and consider how they’ve helped you become the person that you are today. In the online cohort, we’ll learn what each of three components mean and why they’re important to organizations. We’ll consider barriers to inclusion in particular, such as covering and unconscious bias and you’ll have the opportunity to reflect on your own diversity, equity and inclusion story. And practice storytelling techniques that help you express these concepts to others in a way that will help influence positive change in the workplace.
Jennifer Brown: Best of all, you’ll have the flexibility to view pre-recorded video presentations from JBC instructors, read thought provoking white papers from industry experts and discuss these issues and your own experiences with your classmates in online written discussion boards, all at the days and times that meet your unique scheduling needs. As an added bonus, participants are invited to an exclusive members only discussion group each week live, via Zoom, where we deep dive into our learning topics together with the help of an expert facilitator. Students will come away with an introspective understanding of how DEI has impacted them and how they can position themselves to make an impact in their communities as a DEI practitioner.
Jennifer Brown: So please check us out and if you’re ready to take that next and join us, contact us at infojenniferbrownconsulting.com, and we’ll provide a discount code to you as a Will to Change listener. Thanks for investigating this amazing and unique opportunity. And if you can’t join the May 4th cohort, I promise that we will be launching further cohorts during the course of 2021.
Charlene Li: Disruption comes from you looking to your customers and especially your future customers and saying, “I want to go serve them. That I know that the future lies with them not here, where I am today.” And that focus on the future customers gives you that purpose, that alignment to say, “We’re going to go there and make the hard decisions, the sacrifices, the investments today to go there.” When it comes down to that, that is what disruption is. And the further out into the future you look the bigger the disruption it will be. So it’s not technology, it’s not anything, when you think about business transformation, we think there’s opportunity here to serve that customer. When it comes to DEI, we believe that there’s a world that looks very different from where it is today and this is how we’re going to serve each other.
Speaker 3: Everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. Welcome to The Will to Change with Jennifer Brown, get ready to hear from leading CEOs, bestselling authors and entrepreneurs, as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. And now here’s your host, Jennifer Brown.
Doug Foresta: Hello, and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. Of course, I’m here with Jennifer Brown. Today’s guest is Charlene Li. And let me say a little bit about Charlene. We’re talking about disruption in this episode, but boy, Charlene, she is a powerhouse. She’s the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller open leadership and co-author of the critically acclaimed book Groundswell. Her latest book is the bestseller, The Disruption Mindset. She is the founder and senior fellow at Altimeter. A disruptive analyst firm that was acquired in 2015 by Profit. She’s a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School and was named one of the most creative people in business by Fast Company, not bad company for The Will to Change. So very impressive.
Doug Foresta: So Jennifer, I guess the place I would start with on this one is, listeners, I think might be pretty intuitive when we bring people on to talk about disability, inclusion or inclusion in general or culture shifts. Why do an episode on disruption? What was the thinking here in doing an episode with someone like Charlene, who’s an expert in disruption?
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Well, it took me back Doug to, I think my roots before I discovered DEI, would sort of take over my life, if you will. And some of you know this, that know a little bit of my backstory, but I started in the field of human capital, specializing in leadership and the future of work. Gosh, 15, 20, even years ago, after my career as a performer ended and I transitioned. I was fascinated by the workplace of the future. I was fascinated by organizational design and practices and the role of leadership in creating change and change management. And all that stuff was really what I got grounded in when I got my second master’s degree and kind of launched into this human capital field. And so I sought out naturally, I think what was disruptive because I love new challenging paradigms. I like to think about more conscious business. And I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but business that was more purpose driven. Business that did more than just, “Feed the bottom line.” I think natively, I’m drawn to anything, of course that interrupts a system because I happen to believe personally that a lot of our systems don’t work for a lot of us.
Doug Foresta: Right.
Jennifer Brown: And have caused so many of us to just be pushed out or not find a home or not reach our potential and be as fabulous and brilliant as we can be because these systems are antiquated or they’re one dimensional, or they’re not disrupting themselves enough to discover what’s on the other side of disruption. When I met Charlene, I was like, “Ugh, so cool.” First of all, to meet a female author, so many books, who’s considered a leadership guru, which I just love, because there’s not enough of them, not enough of us. I’ll say, if I can put myself in that company. Charlene is just this extremely, strong, certain voice and she doesn’t have all the answers. I’m not saying that at all, but the way that she has studied these like macro trends and concepts. I think, really appealed to me, Doug. And then, what is DEI, if not disruptive? I mean every single moment of every day we are being disrupted.
Doug Foresta: In Fact, that’s probably one of the biggest challenges I would imagine is, how to manage the disruption around DEI. In order to do this, it challenges and disrupts systems.
Jennifer Brown: That’s right. That’s right. Boy, having our status quo, our comfort, our habits disrupted every single day with new information or challenging conversations or being disrupted in terms of, “Wow, I don’t have that leadership skill. I don’t have that competency build.” Feeling emotionally disrupted. I’m uncomfortable. I feel fear or hesitation or I’m triggered right now. And I’m avoiding, for example, as a response to something that’s disrupting my understanding of the world, my understanding of myself, my view of myself really. At some point, the hardest part of this is feeling the way that I am confident in who I am and what I mean to do or create in the world, even that is being disrupted. I think because we get challenged and I always say to leaders, “Intent versus impact.” So the intent piece is, I’m a good person, but Jennifer, I really care about this. I really believe in equality and the disruption even there is, holding certain values and wanting those values to somehow be felt and experienced in the world is not going to change these very antiquated systems.
Jennifer Brown: What we need is, is putting those values into action, like actual, tangible action. So even just being disrupted on our own self-understanding and frankly, some of us anyway, our tendency to think that we are perhaps better or more skilled or having more impact than we really are.
Doug Foresta: So thank you so much. And I know you did a LinkedIn live with Charlene recently, and you had a wonderful quote that you shared with me. I was hoping you could share that with our listeners. Would you mind to share that?
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. I wrote it down because it really hit me and it was so eloquently stated, like everything that Charlene says. She said, “We feel disrupted when power is shifting. The reason we’re feeling so disrupted on the topics of social justice right now is because we never realized what the status quo looked like. And now that power is being exercised in a way that’s hitting us straight in the face. It’s a power shift that’s happening. So where do I fit in this work? What is my role as an ally or as someone who’s discovering my oppression and finding my collective voice for the first time?” So she again is kind of, I think in that quote, talking about power being disrupted and truly we can look at that as, “Oh, my goodness. I’m going to lose everything I have.” Or we can look at this as an amazing and important opportunity for a redistribution and a broadening of who has access to power. And by the way, all kinds of power, because there are so many kinds of power too.
Jennifer Brown: So I love that she brought up power. It’s one of my favorite topics to think about in terms of my own journey, my relationship to power, when I feel it, when I don’t. What takes it away from me, how do I regain it? I think we did the episode with Sharon Melnick. Doug, that I did that we re-aired, is all about power by the way, everybody.
Doug Foresta: Yes, yep.
Jennifer Brown: Please go back and check that out. I think it was a month or two ago. So we’re getting hit straight in the face, like she says, with this power shift and whether we’re inside the power system and we benefit from it and it’s a system that we understand and we know how to implement. And we have access to the levers of power, that these days, comes with so much awesome responsibility and opportunity to indeed exercise that power, to pull those levers, to activate any sort of capital that we have access to. And that can feel disruptive, I suppose. I don’t know. I welcome those opportunities. Like the way I’m disrupted around those, is simply, just the act of realizing how much power I have access to. And disruptive doesn’t have to be a bad word. It’s a teacher, when you feel uneasy or unsure or any range of emotions, that’s probably a moment of disruption for us.
Jennifer Brown: I think what all we need to do rather than, oh, I feel bad or I’m paralyzed or I feel hesitant or whatever. Is to notice I’m being disrupted. And there’s a teachable moment here for me. What do I need to pay attention to? What do I need to learn? If we could approach these moments of disruption with openness and curiosity and a certain kind of objectivity or neutrality, I think we would be able to progress through them and learn the right thing from them as we move forward. And then you notice in the quote she says, “Or as someone who’s discovering my oppression and finding my collective voice for the first time.” I love that she included that because she identifies in all sorts of different communities of identity, some of which are oppressed.
Jennifer Brown: So she and I went down that rabbit hole too, of talking about, maybe the disruption that’s happening for some of us in oppressed groups or having walked certain paths is, “Wow. I need to use my voice more.” And that’s really uncomfortable, or I’m really tired from using my voice and being asked to educate entire institutions from my lived experience, because I always feel like it’s up to me or else it’s not going to happen. The disruption there I think is, so how do I … It looks different for each one of us, I think because some of us have a lot of energy for educating and being the voice and being the squeaky wheel and others of us we’re culturally conditioned or perhaps just have become numb to the opportunity to step forward. Especially, when we’ve been doing that so consistently, and probably not seeing a lot of results from it.
Jennifer Brown: We’re all being disrupted in this moment and they’re implications for all of us depending on where we’re coming from, but the neat thing is that, we’re all being asked to step forward and stretch and grow and find our edge. And what I say Doug, as you know, I always say this. I say to leaders, I work with, if you’re not uncomfortable, most of the time, you’re not leading. Leadership comes with the expectation that we are pushing the boundaries.
Doug Foresta: Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: And not just externally to us, but internally in us. So look for disruption, look for it, seek it out. Make it a part of our day to day, seek out the uncomfortable, seek out the unfamiliar, seek out whatever that irritant is that’s going to cause us to look differently at something that we have been doing in the same way for so long. If we just start there, we will be surrounded with a plethora of opportunities for learning and growth and yes, disruption. So enjoy this episode.
Doug Foresta: I think what you’re saying, Jennifer. I really appreciate. I asked you that question at the beginning about, what does disruption have to do with de DEI? And from what you’re saying, it really has everything to do with it. And it reminds me of a Zen quote that says, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.” And the meaning of that course is like, everybody wants to get the result, but nobody wants to go through the pain.
Jennifer Brown: That’s right. Isn’t that so true. Yeah. I don’t know, somehow I think leaders are under the mistake and impression and maybe it’s some of our fault too, the way that we structured DEI work is like, “Oh, the DEI team is going to lead this. They’re going to tell me what to do and my job is to show up” That’s why I wrote, How to Be an Inclusive Leader Doug. Was to say, no, this is your disruption to own. This is literally a chance to … We were laughing before, die and be reborn. Hopefully, not like literally die.
Doug Foresta: Not literally die. Right?
Jennifer Brown: But there are like little deaths. I mean, there are for sure. I mean, that’s human growth and progress is … Maybe death is a strong word, what do you say goodbye to? I always quote Marshall Goldsmith. “What got you here? Won’t get you there.” So what are the things that didn’t serve me? What are the things that are not serving me anymore? Maybe they worked in the past. Maybe they helped me figure something out. Maybe they got me here, but maybe they aren’t the right answers for this next part of my journey. And maybe the death is just saying goodbye, it’s bidding ado. That’s not going to like help and I need to replace it with something more thoughtful, more inclusive, something that may feel extremely wobbly and awkward, but that I know, and I have to have faith. That with practice, it will become that new habit.
Jennifer Brown: I think, it is a process of kind of culling and making room for, and my interpretation of the fear of doing this of course, with leaders is, do I give up power when I do this? In being disrupted, am I sort of disconnecting from what’s familiar, what’s worked? And I would say, “Yes, because that’s your job.” It’s your job to constantly be examining and revisiting and yes, taking risks and the risks here are precisely the sort of unmooring from my playbook. That playbook that got you here. And that risk that comes along with that of saying, “I’m going to leap. And I don’t know what the net looks like. And I don’t know if there will be a net.”
Jennifer Brown: As a performer, it’s so easy for me to talk about these things, because I leap all the time. As somebody who did eight shows a week or had to go to endless auditions and get endless nos, before you get a yes. So it sort of built into me like, “Well, I’m going to give it a shot.” And sort of disconnecting in a way, the ego from it to say, this is part of the process. I’m here for it, whatever happens. I know that there’s always learning and it’s not about the result, but it’s about what you learn in the journey along the way. And the failures teach us so much more than the successes, as we always say too. I love that saying, thanks for sharing that, Doug. I love kind of like picking apart what do we mean by not wanting to die, wanting all the goodies on the other side of this transformation.
Jennifer Brown: And so this episode really dives deep into Charlene’s recommendations, not just to endure disruption, but to actually value it and seek it and then get the best and the promise of disruption really, which is that beautiful transformation.
Jennifer Brown: Charlene, welcome to The Will to Change.
Charlene Li: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Jennifer Brown: I was so excited to meet you through a good friend, Sharon Melnick, recently whose podcast I was on. And we had this very stimulating conversation about power, which is a topic I want to pick your brain on too today. But you are an expert in disruption, as of late. You have a lot of books, but I know that, that’s something you speak on a lot and I want to make sure we save a lot of time for that. But I really would like to go back to you. Before, we talk about all the fields you focus on and you’re an expert in. And tell us about like how you’re feeling, we’re recording this in early May of 2021. So on a ground our Will to Change listeners in the timing.
Jennifer Brown: Social unrest continues, communities finding their voice continues and I wanted to just check in with you. How are you experiencing the spring and what would you like to share about how and where you grew up and how you discovered your own identity and perhaps your voice for change as well?
Charlene Li: Yeah. I am sitting in a very optimistic space, but I also am a realist. So I’m a realist, optimist about things.
Jennifer Brown: I like that.
Charlene Li: It’s one of my biggest persona groups that I talk about in my research. And it to be a disruptor, I think you have to do this. You have to be really optimistic that change is possible, but you’re also realistic about what the path looks like going ahead. It is going to be a long, hard slog and it’s all about building up the resilience, the determination, that sense of purpose, and knowing that you are in this for the long run. And so that’s where I’m coming into the spring here and looking at the social to justice, but also so many other aspects of our world. There are so many things wrong with the world, but if there’s anything that the past year should teach us and that we should take from it, as a world we’re capable of a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. I mean, it looked like the world was coming to an end and instead it just kind of stalled and we had the patience to be able to wait it out. So now we here we are.
Jennifer Brown: We did okay, we did okay.
Charlene Li: We’re okay. And actually in some ways it’s been a great re-centering for us to focus on what’s really important to us. In The Art of War San Tzu said, “In the midst of chaos, there was always opportunity. In the midst of disruption, there was always an opportunity for change and for advancement. Only though, if we look for it and we have that optimism to believe that it’s there.”
Jennifer Brown: That’s right. I would imagine the seeds of all this were planted in you as a little girl growing up, maybe you didn’t have the words for it yet, but that you would some day study this. I wonder, how disruption showed up for you when you were younger? What was that like? What was around you at the time and what were the seeds that were planted back then that would then subsequently propel you towards studying what you study?
Charlene Li: Well, I grew up Asian. The daughter of our first generation at Chinese parents in Detroit. So when people ask me where I’m from, I say, “I’m from Detroit.” And they look at me like, “That doesn’t make any sense, you’re Asian.” And so growing up in Detroit, I was the only person of color in many of my communities. And it was very segregated. And there were all these misconceptions about what being Asian was. I was that first person that ever seen of that ethnicity. So I was a walking, talking embodiment of disruption just by simply being. And that gave me a lot of confidence to make my way in the world, if I was the only because I was the only for so long.
Charlene Li: So to go into business, where the model of a leader of somebody who is an authority and expert is an older white man and I as a younger Asian woman. And also I’m really short, compared to these tall, giant men. I just didn’t look like any of the leaders. There was nobody who looked like me, and yet that optimism coupled with this healthy dose of realism, like this is going to be a long, hard slog, kept me going. And I think that’s what drives my work today. And I grew up in Detroit again, when that Asian identity was all about fitting in and not about standing out.
Charlene Li: And in 1982, this horrific thing happened in Detroit, where a Chinese man, Vincent Chin was bludgeoned death, by out of work factory workers who thought he was Japanese and they were taking their anger out on him. He died and was buried on his wedding day, because he was out with a bachelor party. It was just horrifying. I was in high school at the time and my parents and I, and my brothers, we all said, “We need to go out there and be seen and heard.” And we didn’t know who was going to be there at the other end of this gathering. Were there going to be more out of workers, were putting ourselves in danger? And so we went as a family to this march and it was the awakening of my voice as an Asian American and for all of us in that community. That we could not stay silent. So that has driven a lot of my work and my identity from an early age to say, “If I am going to be the only in the room, I’m going to make sure that I fit in. And by that way, gain power to be able to stand out.”
Jennifer Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’m so glad that you were able to make that switch because often the imposter syndrome sets in and we quiet our voice. How did you find the strength to push through that and come out the other side and be more of a driver and think about, and embrace the power that somehow you knew being the only would give you? Because I don’t think that’s like an obvious place that a lot of us land. And if we land there, we work really hard to land there. I think, maybe over many, many years. So was there like one incident or was it just the culmination of kind of a mental and emotional practice of yours that became a reality for you?
Charlene Li: I think again, just speaking up, not even identifying myself as a woman or as Asian American was just one step, but it has been an evolution. In about 2014, 2015, as I was speaking a lot more. I worked with a speaking coach and he himself was Asian American. He said, “Why don’t you talk about your personal experience?” And I had never felt comfortable with doing that, but he worked with me and coached me. And I remember the first time I actually talked about being the only in the room, how nervous I felt. But also how incredibly empowering and freeing it felt, because I felt like I brought my entire whole being to that stage and was sharing that with the audience. And the result was amazing, the connection that people had felt because they have … Everyone has always felt, everyone has known what it’s like to be the only in the room.
Charlene Li: And to have that connection and understand that power that comes with that was a really freeing moment for me. And it has emboldened me at every step along the way to lean into those difficult places, those sticky places and explore them with a lot of respect and empathy for whoever may be on the other side of that conversation.
Jennifer Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And there’s so many watching you, that I’m sure are finding that so encouraging, and if you can do it, I can do it kind of thing. And so I’m sure that’s how happening, but I’m also sure. You probably still hear the microaggressions. You probably still hear the comments. I’m curious as you show up in this way, do you feel that it challenges people’s stereotypes? Do they let you know, do you sense it? Do you ignore it? What do you do when you show up counter to type and you can just feel when people are surprised when you either appear to identify a certain way or you reveal something about how you identify? I can relate to that as a LGBTQ woman who can be very straight passing, so to speak. What kind of reaction do you get and has it changed over time? I guess, I’d really like to know.
Charlene Li: Yeah, it definitely has changed. Again, I remember just beginning with the past, and very good friends would say to me things like, “Wow, I don’t even think of you as Asian.” And it just stops me in my tracks and I go, “Well, what does that mean? What do you mean by that?” Because I am Asian. And so in the past, I would let that go because it was just too uncomfortable. And now I think, this is why I’m so excited about this time because of the investments that we have. And I can say, “Look, you’re a dear friend of mine. Can I explore with you that, because something about the way that you said that just doesn’t sit right with me.” And what’s been really interesting is talking about these stereotypes and these ideas of inclusion and belonging. Not with people who are not Asian, but with my Asian colleagues and friends and family members. People in this whole diaspora of Asian-ness because we in ourselves have our own biases and conscious biases that we have against ourselves and each other as well as the larger community.
Charlene Li: So there’s a lot of stuff in there. And what has really driven me is, again in the world of disruption, you do not move forward unless you can have these very uncomfortable, tough, but healthy conversations. It is an art, it is a key practice of leadership. And I think again, that leadership is not something that is by a title. It is about a mindset. A leader is somebody who creates change, who wants to see something change and will step forward to lead that change. And if you’re going to do that, you are going to run into these conversations that are really hard to have. So this is a basic leadership practice to how to have a conversation, a healthy conversation where you disagree, but can still commit to each other to move forward.
Jennifer Brown: Just a side question. As a practice, do you share more of your personal story? Like we’ve been talking about when you’re on stage and consistently, or at certain times and not others. How do you decide whether that’s germane or helps you build the argument or helps you, I don’t know, establish credibility? I don’t know, how do you look at it? But what do you look at, at the role of your story, in the context of your expertise on disruption?
Charlene Li: Yeah, the personal stories are the places where you have the connection and when you have that connection, then people who start believing you. You have credibility with them along with the expertise. So I come with a ton of expertise.
Jennifer Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Charlene Li: I walk on stage right after they read my educational credentials. [crosstalk 00:29:56], expertise and credentialing that way, but that still isn’t enough to move somebody’s minds. It may move their mind, but it won’t move their heart. What will move their heart, what they remember long after I’ve stepped off that stage aren’t the details, the data, the case studies. They will remember how they felt. They will remember that moment, that aha moment of transformation, when they went from a point of confusion to a point of understanding and that point of connection with me and with other people in the audience, their colleagues, people in their association or industry. And they will feel supported and they will feel confident that they can go off and do this transformation themselves. And that only comes when you are willing to put yourself out there, be vulnerable and be able to have that connection with people.
Jennifer Brown: That’s right. I mean, we have to walk the talk as teachers or writers or people who other people look to help sort things out. We need to be walking our talk. And I think it’s such a powerful moment to say, “This is what we’re going to talk about and here’s my personal story.” In my case, teaching about vulnerability and transparency and diversity dimensions and our relationship with alternately feeling, perhaps shame. Or the want to minimize those dimensions, but also being very proud of them and that ping ponging that we do in our hearts and minds. I try to tell myself that what’s most important is that I do, regardless of how I’m feeling about it or what I anticipate the reaction to be, I’m almost always wrong too. And I think that’s the delightful thing you find.
Jennifer Brown: I think when you do personalize it, that people … You’re, right. People remember things differently, they connect to you differently. They believe you and hear you differently. And they relate, not literally, but perhaps symbolically or metaphorically to your story and your identity. And I think people are really craving to see people like you and me be the expert, but also weave in the evolution story, the aha moments. Being transparent about the challenges. I think it very much connects audiences to us, so that we can then have a deeper learning experience with them.
Charlene Li: Let me give you an example. You mentioned imposter syndrome earlier today. I definitely have that and it’s not in the place like, “Oh, I’m not worthy. I’m an imposter.” But it is, “Man, I don’t know, if I really can say this. I’m looking at a piece of content and I’m not sure if it’s good enough, am I good enough? Is this content good enough? I mean, who am I to be able to talk about this? I mean, who would actually believe me?” And I definitely felt that as I was starting to write about more diversity topics a couple of years ago, I was like, “I’m not a diversity expert and I’m an imposter in this space.” And then the thing that keeps me going, that keeps that voice down and away is, if I can move one mind forward, if I can move one conversation forward with this. If I can just have some sort of impact out there, I have no idea where it might be, but this could make a difference. Then it’s worth pushing the submit button.
Charlene Li: And I know that it’s probably a good piece, if I’m nervous about it, because that means that I am putting myself … I’m pushing myself out to that very edge. And so this is something … People think it looks easy and I’m confident all the time that I know exactly what I’m doing. Heck, no. I’m making this up along the way and it’s the conversations along the way and the willingness for people to engage me in those conversations. And my willingness to say, “Give me feedback. What’s working. What’s not? What resonates with you.” After I do a speech or a workshop, somebody comes up to me afterwards and says, “I really enjoyed that. That was fantastic.” I’m like, “Thank you so much for telling me that what resonated with you, what’s your takeaway?”
Charlene Li: And that for me is a huge gift. And for them, it helps and encapsulate and remember by articulating, this is what I took away, helps them with that learning, that final cementing piece of that learning. But it also reflects back to me, this is what worked, and I will try new things all the time. If nobody says, that piece was the thing that resonated with them or the takeaway. I’m going to maybe not do that again, because it just takes up time. It’s one of those, where I feel like I’m constantly learning and I only can learn if I’m open to the fact that I’m far from perfect and that I still have a lot to learn and to share out there.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like you seek the disruption in yourself because we are always evolving and we should be uncomfortable. Otherwise, we’re not really growing. We’re not really stretching. And I love how you define leadership as opposed to managing, leading versus managing. Leaders are responsible for different things and one of those things is to chart that course or open up that dialogue or investigate the future in a brave way where we need to leap. And we really don’t know where it’s going, but being open to that and inviting that and being secure enough in the process of that and the reason for doing that. Not knowing the destination, but taking those steps, I think is the definition of leaders. Perhaps, into the unknown and often into the unknown. In many ways when you and I step on a stage, or we used to, now we Zoom in and hopefully we will step on stage again.
Jennifer Brown: It is this unique thing that’s created between us and the audience. Every time we do it, when you get that kind of feedback, you say, “Oh, this resonated. Oh, I need to do more of this because it brings home the point.” But I think a lot of speakers and experts, I think assume like, “Well, I have all the answers and my job is to be here to impart them, somehow from on high.” But I agree with you, that I think the most fascinating and fulfilling thing is those after the talk conversations and those moments where you ask, “Well, what specifically moved you? What did you find most memorable? And why did it resonate with you?”
Jennifer Brown: I think also gives you and me stories and examples we can carry with us anonymously, of course, but it enhances our teaching points. It makes it so much richer. I’ve often thought after giving so many talks, that if you give me five minutes, I know exactly what the most high yield things are that I need to pack into that five minutes, because time after time … I’ve sort of distilled it, but I could never have done that alone. I did that in partnership with audience after audience, after audience, and it sort of clarifies.
Charlene Li: Right. One thing you talked about there was how leaders oftentimes are creating change. They don’t know what the outcome is going to be. They hope it’s going to be in a certain direction or moving in a certain way, but they’re not a 100% certain. And yet we expect our leaders to be right all the time. Or we put this upon ourselves to be right 100% of the time. And when it comes to all of these transformations, digital transformation, business transformation, social justice, and DEI transformations. They all carry the same issues. We don’t know how it’s going to actually end up. And so we won’t begin the journey until we have a clear pathway with all the answers, because Heaven forbid, we show up as lead and not have all the answers.
Charlene Li: Especially, when it comes to these really hard places where we don’t have history, we don’t have the strong relationship on which to base a conversation around race and gender and sexuality and class and all the other isms that are out there. Just pick one, there’s tons of them. It doesn’t matter which one they are, but we are not wired to talk about our differences. We are wired to bang out and ignore the differences, to not savor and understand the richness of our individuality and also the tapestry that we weave together. So as leaders, how do we create that skill to be able to bring out all the best in people?
Charlene Li: I remember one of my first managers, again fresh out of college, on a team working together. And he noticed that I just was very quiet in meetings, but would have a lot to say one-on-ones. And he’s like, “You need to speak up in meetings, just because you’re the bottom person on the totem pole doesn’t mean you can’t say something. If you were at the table, you have the right to be speaking at that table. You’ve been invited at that table to sit at it for a reason. You’re not there to take notes.” And that was extremely formative to me. And it basically said, I have a brain, I was hired for the brain, I should have a voice. And it’s incumbent on leaders to create that playing field, to create that table, to set that table. So the people who sit at it know that they can and should be conversing. They’re expected to converse with each other regardless of their role And that doesn’t happen. That doesn’t happen in our organizations. It’s like, “Sit down, shut up and do what you’re told.”
Jennifer Brown: Right. Fall in line.
Charlene Li: Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. And the seniority, it is assumed that the knowledge lives in the seniority, I guess, in the room. And that’s fundamentally what needs to change. I mean, you studied disruption. Where does disruption most often come from? Not from the top.
Charlene Li: Yeah. Disruption comes from you looking to your customers and especially your future customers and saying, “I want to go serve them, that I know that the future lies with them, not here where I am today.” And that focus on the future customers gives you that purpose, that alignment to say, “We’re going to go there. We’re making the hard decisions, the sacrifices, the investments today to go there.” Then when it comes down to that, that is what disruption is. And the further out into the future you look, the bigger the disruption it will be. So it’s not technology, it’s not anything. When you think about business transformation, we think there’s opportunity here to serve that customer. When it comes to DEI, we believe there’s a world that looks very different from where it is today and that this is how we’re going to serve each other. So that future again, being able to see the future for yourselves and for everybody else, to paint that future is what creates disruption.
Jennifer Brown: I so agree. You always talk about Wayne Gretzky and skating to where the puck is going to go. I love that.
Charlene Li: Yeah. This is what happens when you grow up in Michigan, you are a Red Wings fan and hating Wayne Gretzky for being such an amazing player. It’s such a simple thing. Skate to where the puck is going to be. We all know this quote, but do we actually do it? And we don’t because the uncertain is really … The future is very uncertain. And because it’s uncertain, we’re not a 100% sure it’s going to work. And we’ve been trained since kindergarten to stand in a straight line, to brush our teeth and hair and look proper and prem and behave in a certain way and get as many A’s as possible. Hit our goals a 100% and going into the future, it doesn’t fit into that.
Charlene Li: So we are wired to not do this. And so it’s pushing against everything in our fiber to say, “We’re going to go against this, go out there are and potentially fail.” And along the way, figure out what the right way is to succeed. But you don’t get there unless you fail quite a bit along the way to figure out what that future looks like.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Oh, this is such a parallel to DEI. I mean, the fail forward, the courageously imperfect way that leaders will show up in their own learning, when it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion is a perfect example of just knowing that this is going to be uncomfortable and awkward. And I’m not going to have the answers for a very long time and I’m going to get more wrong than I get right. And my job is to listen, learn, take things in, experiment. Minimum viable version of myself as an inclusive leader, but sort of letting people know, I think, and this takes courage to say, “I don’t have the answers. I’m going to get this wrong. You will see me stumble and not get it right. I will apologize and mean it. And I will come back the next day, having learned something and ready to incrementally improve.”
Jennifer Brown: And I feel like that’s all we can really ask of each other, as we try to learn about these things that are so … For some of us, so unfamiliar, because we don’t have that lived experience. And for others of us, I feel the patience we need to be with others as they’re learning and leaning into that is really important too. By the way, I’m on both sides of that equation from an identity perspective. I’m the patient sort of LGBT person like, “Where have you been? You need to catch up.” And then on the other side, I’m the one that’s wanting patience and space and some space to be held for me to stumble forward. And inevitably I think, like you just said, sort of be in the discomfort in the not rightness, I guess. I don’t want to say wrong, but in the growth mode, but it’s a really hard place to hold yourself especially.
Jennifer Brown: You’ve been in the corporate world forever, the expectations of not … And having no room at all to do this and go through this process, it’s such a straight jacket for people and humans as they’re learning, especially about really difficult topics. Like how do you see the DEI disruption relationship? I mean, it’s so clear to me. There must be huge tie-ins that you and I talk about all the time about these two domains. It’s almost like, if you commit to being disrupted, it’s important for the business tasks you’re going after and imagining that future and building for that future customer or employee. But also, kind of living your future self. And that’s not an easy process. You’re the caterpillar kind of breaking out and becoming the butterfly. But that is probably pretty unpleasant process.
Charlene Li: Right. And I think people who make transformation and disruption part of their every day, I noticed, had a lot easier time with this because they removed all the guilt. They removed all the shame from the process of learning, and they entered into it with a clear heart and with tremendous empathy and were able to connect with people who were willing to teach them along the way with empathy too, as well. It’s so interesting because you know this, if part of the conversation were to be, I am still learning, but I have tremendous empathy. I don’t understand all of it, but I see the need for change. I see the injustice and I am committed to going and learning and doing as much as I can. Believe me in this, but I am not understanding all of it. Help me along on that journey, walk along this way with me.
Charlene Li: If we were to say that, it would really emphasize again, the importance of that relationship, relationships are not perfect. I mean, point me towards anybody who says, “I’m in a perfect relationship.” And I will point to a delusional person. We know that relationships ebb and flow and the beauty and the strength of them is that you can go through these difficult times and have the confidence that you’ll be okay on the other side. If we are strong in our relationships, in our workplace, in our communities and our families, in our societies. Then we will have these conversations, knowing that they’re important to have because they will strengthen our relationships and our connection with each other rather than tear us apart.
Charlene Li: And so instead of dreading DEI, we should be running towards it, this is an opportunity to learn about ourselves and about each other. It’s not something we should be dreading. It’s a place of safety where we can grow. The reason why we don’t have that space and I love the fact Jennifer, we talk about not having that space. Disruptive organizations do this a lot better because they just make space for that learning, for that growing, knowing that things are not going to work out well all the time. And yet, it’s okay to pick yourself up, dust yourself off. In fact, we’ll help you stand up again. You know that you have of that safety to be able to do this. And you talk about the psychological safety that it takes to be able to grow, to extend yourself. And you need to have that with disruption. And the same thing with DEI, which I think is the hugest part of that overlap.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Agreed. That’s so perfectly said. It’s funny because sometimes I observe that the disruption, as we understand it in the business context is something we almost expect. And we know in order to change things, there is going to be perhaps like resistance and awkwardness and difficulty. But we persist because we know that it’s important to evolve our products and services and our place in the market or whatever, I mean to really survive. And yet, when it comes to DEI, it’s almost like, it’s so personal and I wish it were more straightforward. I love that you just said kind of take the guilt out and focus on the empathy. Don’t get stuck in the perfectionism of, “Jennifer, I don’t know what to say. I can’t possibly have that conversation. I wouldn’t know where to start.” That’s the question I get most often. And I think to myself, “Gosh, we disrupt things all the time.” I mean, every leader worth anything knows that their job is to disrupt.
Jennifer Brown: If we rest at, at all, we fall behind. So we have to be like that shark continuing to move through the water all the time to stay alive. I mean, that’s sort of the nature of business and evolution and progress is being insatiable, is that moving forward. But it’s funny, when it becomes about this DEI thing, it’s hard to translate that common business expectation and behavior to this work. And I wish that it weren’t. I do wish I could make it more of an exercise that people didn’t see as a chore. Like you just said, didn’t see it as so terrifying and something to be afraid of, but saw it as something that was this immense opportunity to be in community with others. To learn about their lived experiences and to explore how different each of our experiences really is. And what could be done about that?
Jennifer Brown: What can I do? What can you do? What could we do together? What could our organization do to support this differently? That all is to me, extremely rich. If I could just get people kind of over the hurdle to see like Marshall Goldsmith says, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” So that’s one thing. It’s like, “Okay, let’s remember.” We’re always evolving. It’s not like we’ve arrived and we are this kind of leader. Leadership happens in the context of the times that we live in. And now we are being expected to show up very differently. And there’s a lot of people who probably were wishing they had been paying attention to all of those unconscious bias seminars that were going on. Because now it’s like, “Oh, goodness. I don’t know how to talk about this. I don’t know what the words are. I’m afraid of generating harm or a negative reaction and so I’m going to do nothing. I’m going to say nothing. I’m going to remain quiet or silent.” And that can’t be the answer.
Jennifer Brown: I mean, their only way around this is through, that’s it. But that first little hump of like relating and saying, “You do this all the time.” We take risks in organizations all the time. That’s the only way we can grow. I wonder what makes this so fraught, perception-wise? Even, if that’s not reality. I could argue it is a little reality or maybe a lot, depending on the consequences to not doing this perfectly. How can we help people understand that this is part of our hygiene as leaders, as members of communities, as employees, as employers, as humans, as parents. This is the sacred opportunity for evolution.
Charlene Li: Yeah. Let me give an analogy. I oftentimes say to people, “This is not about you. This is about your leadership.” And the analogy I would give is, when executives started coming to me and asking about, how do I use social media? I go, “Who cares about what I had for lunch? Why should I be posting onto Instagram what I had for lunch?” And I’m like, “I agree. I don’t care what you had for lunch. Really, I really don’t care. What I want to know is what you talked about over lunch.” One is about you. One is about your leadership. DEI is not about you. This is about your leadership. This is, how will you show up as a leader to model the way about how we …. Just model the way that we will have these conversations. Again, how do you create the space, so that we can have these discussions? Even just acknowledging the fact that there were these differences and forging a way to actually have a discussion about them.
Charlene Li: Again, you don’t have to have the answers, but you need to prioritize what’s important for us to focus on and what’s not. That’s your job as a leader, what will we change? And one of the most basic things that we will change is the fact that we will give fair opportunities. We will have equity and fairness in the way that people will do their work, how they’ll be promoted and rewarded. There will be accountability, instead of people being able to slide by because of their connections and the ability to go golfing with somebody. When we put it into those terms, I can’t think of a single leader who would disagree with that. That they do not want to have a fair workplace, that they want to give opportunity to everybody. That they intentionally want to build bias. Nobody does that intentionally. And yet that is what happens, unless you are proactive in making sure that fairness happens, that equity happens. That people do feel included. That is what being a leader is.
Jennifer Brown: You study disruptive organizations, have you seen those who really walk the talk of disruption and are comfortable being uncomfortable? Have you seen them pivot more effectively through this past year and more effectively through the DEI practices that we’ve been talking about? I wonder, if there’s a relationship there, I would think so, but I wondered, if you had any examples of how this muscle can be exercised throughout organizational life. Not just around innovation and creativity and going to where the puck is from a customer perspective, but it’s also disrupting culture and having a positive impact and accelerating a culture when it comes to belonging and DEI.
Charlene Li: Yeah. I would say Jamie Dimon and JP Morgan is a wonderful case study.
Jennifer Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Charlene Li: A couple years ago, I think it was like two years ago, three years ago. It came out that they had unfair banking practices and that they were not promoting … Just all these things that were happening that were not right in their organization. So they said, “This is wrong. We need to actually do something about this.” They were caught flat footed and they said, “We just cannot stand for this.” And so that’s when they said, “Okay, we’ve been missing this. We’re not going to make this mistake again.” So when Black Lives Matter happened, when George Floyd was murdered. They were absolutely on the ball and said, “This is not right. We stand against this. This is what we’re going to be doing about it. We have our DEI.”
Charlene Li: It was immediate, there was no messing around. Like, what’s the right thing to say? They knew what was the right thing to say, because they were living it every single day. And the same thing happened with Asian America. It was so interesting to watch that when the murders happened in Atlanta, that people were like really hesitant. Like, “Should we say something, should we not?” I’m like, “Why would you not say something?” And especially for Asian Americans and the leaders in the industry, it’s like, “How do we say this?” For many of us, we’re not comfortable standing out as Asian American leaders because we hadn’t been doing it.
Jennifer Brown: Right.
Charlene Li: We were fitting in. And the idea of standing out now as Asian Americans, drawing attention to the fact that I am different from everybody else, when I haven’t talked about this, was very uncomfortable. And yet there was Jamie Dimon, the very next day in the morning with a statement out. Saying, “This is not acceptable.” A really strong statement. And I talked to people like, “Well, he’s just got to really good PR team.” And I’m like, “No. PR works really slow here. This is not PR. This is from Jamie Dimon’s desk.” This is not about the machine, just having the press release and a memo perfectly worded. This comes from the heart of a leader. And that is what this strong centering I think of what is right and what is wrong? What will we stand for? What do I value say, that we should be doing in this moment? And if we aren’t practicing that every day, we would not be able to stand up and have that voice.
Charlene Li: It’s very telling to me, where the biggest thing that somebody would do is they go dark on social media for the day and that’s it. Oh, that’s out of respect. We’re just going to pull our social for the day versus saying something. Saying anything to acknowledge that something terrible is happening in our society and having a stance and a point of view of what that looks like.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. And that means showing up without all the answers, showing up imperfectly, not with the polished message, but with the real message. And I think the timeliness is really important. Some of us have learned the hard way because we’re so busy polishing the message because of our perfectionism. We don’t speak from the heart in a raw unfiltered way, which is actually I think what makes the most difference and the most impact and enables people to feel most supported. And so, it’s something fascinating to wrestle with for some of us who are going through, like incident after incident, after incident, which it feels like our life is now.
Jennifer Brown: Also, the scarcity assumption. Well, if I say something about this, then I say something … Where does it end? And I say something about this and I reach out to these people. I mean, rather than a scarcity, which companies have fought with I lot historically. Well, if we say something about this, then there’s like this cascading effective and obligation that we need to now address. Where does it end kind of thing? And you can hear the lawyers doing this calculus behind the scenes. Have a scarcity, a mentality for empathy. Like you are a giant company with all the power in the world. You have an endless abundance of resources and influence and power to say that something’s not right. And if you need to do it every single day, you can and you should, and you should be ready to do that.
Jennifer Brown: If we’re watching the voting rights, we’re watching sort of … Like I said, incident after incident and I’m so thrilled to start to see some of the same companies stepping up for this and stepping up for that and stepping up for this. I mean that muscle is visibly building. It’s getting stronger. To your point, it’s getting faster. It is getting more and more hard hitting and authentic and not sounding like a crafted PR statement. If we can lessen that time and the sort of perfecting of the message and also, by the way, make it okay for companies to not always get it right. That’s another podcast.
Jennifer Brown: There needs to be the ability for all of us, individuals and companies to learn as we go and the assumption and the expectation that it’s not always going to hit the mark, but that it’s not worthy of being canceled when that happens. But that it is helpful for feedback to be given and for then, a thank you very much. We will incorporate that and then showing up even better the next time, right?
Charlene Li: Yeah. And you talk about cancel culture. This is the biggest fear is that, if I make the slightest mistake, I’m going to get canceled. I’m going to put my company at risk. And it is a very real and legitimate concern. I can speak to this from experience. I’ve made some really big doozies of mistakes, like seriously put my foot in my mouth and I do so continuously all the time. And yet, my relationship with my communities, the people who could potentially cancel me don’t because they know me, they know my relationship, they know who I am and what I stand for. And they will accept the fact that I am human and will make mistakes.
Charlene Li: And that is the investment in that relationship that is so key and crucial. If you as a leader, as an organization could do something wrong and then come back and apologize and say, “We will do better.” That you will be believed. You don’t get that just by being you, you earn that. And you may have to spend some of that social capital each time you make a mistake and hopefully you don’t make too many of these mistakes. Otherwise, that credibility is gone, but that is what that true relationship is, this is why we invest in it. So that we are capable at these really crucial times of coming forward and cashing in on that relationship to say, “Hey, look. We need to talk, because we want to move forward together and we can’t because we’re at this impasse, will you sit down and talk with me? And on the basis of our strong relationship, listen, empathize, learn, and help me grow and I will help you grow. And together, our relationship will be stronger as a result. Will you sit down with me?”
Jennifer Brown: What a perfect note to end on. You’ve given us so much language and I hope everybody that’s listening to this. If you’re having a hard time just getting going, writing down Charlene’s language word for word. The sentences that we need to speak to each other much more often and just get comfortable approaching things in that way. I always tell leaders, I say, “Write these down and then you will be surprised at people’s response. I promise you.” Because we just don’t talk this way to each other. You’re right. Business has never been a place for these kinds of conversations, but that’s essentially what has to change. And you’ve given us really amazing things to think about today. Charlene, I want everybody to know where to find your thought leadership, your books. Where would you like to point The Will to Change community to gobble up some of your delicious thought leadership?
Charlene Li: I think one of the best places is, find me on LinkedIn. Just my name, you’ll find me there. It has all of my content, lots of videos, the live streams. You can find me and Jennifer talking on there as well. And there’s always my website, Charleneli.com. And I hope to see you on LinkedIn and I’m really serious about this. Reach out, message me. Talk to me. This is how I learn. And I really do invite that conversation, the engagement, because this is how we’re all going to get better together.
Jennifer Brown: You’re inspiring in your walking of the talk Charlene, as ever. Yes, please everybody add Charlene to your list and follow her closely because I think she’s really role modeling a new way to lead and show up in the world. And Charlene, I’m just so glad to be learning with you and alongside you. Thank you.
Charlene Li: Thank you again for having me.
Jennifer Brown: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at Jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe, so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
Speaker 3: You’ve been listening to The Will to Change: Uncovering True Stories of Diversity & Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit Jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening and we’ll be back next time with a new episode.
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