Fireside Chat: End of Year Reflections from Jennifer

Jennifer Brown | |

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As 2021 comes to a close, Jennifer Brown shares her thoughts on lessons learned in 2021 and what leaders need to think about for 2022.

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

JENNIFER BROWN: Who’s at the table creating and shaping what’s next? What does improvement look like? What does better look like? I would also question, who’s coming up with those answers? We cannot have the same architects that built the harmful system.

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Somehow sort of waking up to, well, what would less harm look like? According to whom? And this is the other huge question I want us to ask ourselves this coming years. Is the definition of remedies. Who is participating in that? When you are invited to the table, are you still silent? Are you still silenced at the table? How can we build something better and more reflective and more accurate, more representative without the representation? And without the circumstances that we need to set up in order for input to be heard and welcomed and considered and taken on board.

Why do we struggle so much to change and with change? Because we are living in this VUCA world, volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous. We are unmoored from so much that was familiar and comfortable. And we know deep down and we may be in denial about this, that the change is permanent. What got us here won’t get us there. What we’ve leaned on, what has worked for us, somehow no longer resonates or feels like enough. It’s time for wholesale change. And it starts with each of us. We have been shown over and over, especially these past few years that there is so much we haven’t known or explored or prioritized. In terms of our own lived experiences and those of others. We’ve been shown that the workplace like so many of our other systems was never built by and for so many of us on the margins.

This has caused widespread trauma and loss of human potential. And we could never and cannot now let this continue. We all have a once in a lifetime opportunity to address it and change it for good. This means moving forward without answers. Painstakingly and with great care, writing a new script every day. We must become students again. Humbling ourselves to the pace and complexity of change, acknowledging the overwhelm of it and talk about our journey. Lead from that place, with empathy, grace, kindness, and openness. This is what will resonate. We have what we need if we pull from these sources.

The one thing I know about this audience is that we want to evolve and accelerate. We want to transform and enable the transformation of others. We want and need our systems, organizations, communities, families, to transform to. And we believe we can be agents of change. Which is not just about the skills, but the will to do so. Hence, the will to change. Let’s accelerate our evolution together.

Doug Foresta): The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She’s a passionate inclusion and equity advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces. Ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to fortune 500 companies. She and her team advised top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now onto the episode.

Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. And first of all, I apologize for the change in my voice. If I sound like I’ve been smoking, I have not. Just recovering from a little bit of a cold. Jennifer-

JENNIFER BROWN: Or drinking.

DOUG FORESTA: Or drinking, right. Not been drugging or drinking. Just recovering from a little bit of an upper respiratory thing here. Jennifer, it’s always a pleasure. Thank you for allowing me to be with you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, I’m so happy to be doing this year end episode, Doug, with you. Short and sweet and to the point. Looking forward.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you so much. Yeah, so another … what another year it’s been. Where I’d like to start is in the recent in DEI community call that you did the end of the year community call. You talked about … and people won’t hear this in the podcast if they’re listening to in the podcast. But you talked about dictionary.com chose a word of the year and that word-

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

DOUG FORESTA: Definitely connects to DEI work. Can you share what that word is and your thoughts about it?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, thank you, Doug. Well, I was excited to see it. I’m sure the whole field of practice was, as well. The word chosen was allyship. That was dictionary.com’s word of the year. And what an interesting choice, what a powerful word. We come back to it often on this show and in all of our work and it can go so many different directions, Doug, as a concept. It has come to the fore as an opportunity for people to activate and get more involved in creating change from wherever they sit and with whatever they have access to. To me, that’s what that word means.

It means that the part of our practice as humans, part of our hygiene, as I always say, and strength building activities are around inclusive leadership. And as such, we are digging deep into our diversity stories, our experiences of exclusion. We’re building our empathy, we’re building out our knowledge about different lived experiences. And then we’re taking that and activating it. Like phase three in the continuum, in my book, we are experimenting with it. We are endeavoring to interrupt things as we hear them or see them or don’t hear them or see them. And we need to be hearing and seeing them. We begin to put ourselves out there publicly. And we get comfortable with the discomfort of knowing that our allyship is a process. It’s not a finished product.

And so we have to get comfortable and understand that we will be learning in front of others as we develop this skill. But it is a skill. It’s something we, through the investment every day and that regular and consistent practice, it becomes something that we have competence in. And ultimately, comfort and confidence in using that competence. There’s a lot of C words in that. It reminds me a lot of one of my favorite models, Doug, when I was studying learning and development is the unconscious incompetence pyramid. And you move from the bottom of unconscious incompetence, which is where, I don’t know what I don’t know. To conscious incompetence, which is now I know what I don’t know. I know I am incompetent.

DOUG FORESTA: Right, right.

JENNIFER BROWN: And it’s painful to be aware of that. But that’s right, that’s the second step in my continuum is aware.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: And then it’s conscious competence, which is active, phase three in my model. Which is okay, now I’m aware and I’m carefully choosing and I’m developing competence. But it’s conscious, meaning I’m having to pay attention to it every moment. I’m highly aware that I might be competent, but it’s not like second nature yet. It’s sort of like you can feel the gears turning. You feel the sausage being made through the meat grinder and not to continue that metaphor. But I know some of us have felt that way because conscious competence is the grinding, I think. It’s the machine that builds allies. It’s the practice. It’s the building of new pathways.

And sometimes it feels like, sort of chopping through the brush for yourself. And creating a new understanding, new pathways, new behaviors, new language. You’re going to get beat up in the process sometimes. Or feel that way. And you’re beat up yourself, too. I think there’s a lot in this of, how could I? Like shaming ourselves, like feeling guilt, feeling like I should have done more. Or why have I not been doing this? Or why am I not better at this? No human likes to probably be in conscious competence because it’s getting on the bike, falling off, getting on, falling off, getting back on. It’s when you’re being bent. And the choice is when you’re being bent by the work, like do you bounce back? Are you flexible and agile? Are you not fragile and disappear into shame and inaction? Or avoidance or all of our coping mechanisms. Denial, all the things that we use to protect ourselves and to protect our ego, honestly, because-

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: The ego does not love being in this space. Oh no-

DOUG FORESTA: No, it’s very anxiety provoked.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Right. And it is our ego, make no mistake. Like it’s our want to be perfect. It’s our want to maintain our image. It’s our want to believe that we’re good people and that we don’t make mistakes. So it’s really tough, conscious competence.

And then the fourth and final stage, which corresponds again with my fourth stage in the model, which is advocate. Is unconscious competence, which is I’m riding the bike and I hope we’re not doing this. We’re texting and we’re riding the bike. I live in New York City and I cannot believe the kind of multitasking that I see. It’s just wild. The unconscious confidence of being able to do 10 things in traffic on fifth avenue.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, but it’s natural, it’s second nature, it isn’t require any thought because it’s instinct. And I think that’s the thing I kind of explore in my own growth and learning on this continuum is the, where am I operating from instinct now? Because of the application and the study that I have contributed to it. Just like anything else, what are my instincts? But instincts come from … some of us are born with them. But leaders are made. Leaders are made not born. I don’t know. We can all debate that, that’s a whole other part.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Right. Exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: But particularly now, we are made. And we make ourselves, we’re remaking ourselves. Because we don’t exist as leaders, as colleagues, as parents, as whatever. Like if we don’t continue to change and shape ourselves around this moment, in the way that this moment needs us. And that calls on us to show up, some of us so differently. It calls on us to bring undeveloped pieces of who we are to the fore and talk about how we’re developing them. And really show what is unpolished in us. And that is, at its heart, really terrifying.

And we may perceive that we have a lot to lose, but I would really challenge that. Gosh, I say this like every day on every keynote I give. It’s like, we get scared, we think there’s a risk there.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: And we throw up the, “Oh, I don’t want to get canceled.” Or, “Oh, I can’t show up that way. There’s too much risk.” But I don’t really agree. I actually think there’s risk in not showing up that way. And I also think we’re giving too much weight to the risk. Like I think the perception of the risk is maybe somewhat false, not entirely, of course there’s risk of showing up differently. But I think if we’re talking about risk, let’s really be honest about who is taking the biggest risk these day. Which is anyone who is of an underrepresented identity showing up to a system every day where we still are not understood or treated equitably. The risk and then speaking up about it. That’s risk.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: Risk is coming out as trans at your workplace. And working with HR and working with hopefully, I hope, if you work for the kind of employer that knows how to do this, is being supported every step of the way. And still fearing for your job, fearing for your relationships, fearing for your ability to have the career you want and deserve. That’s risk.

So, I enjoy the moments when I get to push back, Doug, [inaudible 00:13:51]. I’m like, “Can we talk about this for real?” I mean, really-

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Really think about how protected you are. When you stick your neck out, what’s the worst that can happen? And okay, yeah, you can push back at me and say, “Jennifer, I’m going to get canceled.” But that’s too much of a binary for me. Like if we just keep going to that conversation, then there’s a whole middle ground that we’re denying. Where there’s a lot of play possible, there’s a lot of growth and experimentation and learning and failing forward and all that. So I just think that such a conversation killer and people try to take it to that place. And I just won’t have it. I’m like, “Nope, that is not helpful. Let’s not spend time there.” If that happens, then it happens. It could happen to all of-

DOUG FORESTA: But you can’t control that-

JENNIFER BROWN: No.

DOUG FORESTA: You could do everything. Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. So anyway. I wanted to share that model because I really loved … there’s some classic models like that. And there’s something called the Johari window, I always go back to.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s the known to self, not known to others four box model. And it’s spelled, J-O-H-A-R-I. And it’s also, to me, a model about disclosure. And what we think we’re hiding from others-

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: What we are hiding, what is not known to ourselves about how we’re perceived. To me, it’s about like, again, it’s a progression model of truing up these things. Like, truing up our authenticity and making sure that there’s a congruence between how we show up, what we’re about and the work we’re doing internally. And balancing those things, I think, is such a worthy goal for 2022.

DOUG FORESTA: Let’s talk a little bit about, I mean, one of the other things that’s come up in 2021 was the great resignation, or as you’ve called it, the great re-imagination, which I like better.

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

DOUG FORESTA: Let’s talk about, what do companies need to realize? Or what should they be doing or thinking as it doesn’t seem like the great re-imagination is going away as we come to the end of this year. We’re going to be dealing with it, it seems like throughout the beginning of next year, at least. Talk a little bit about your thoughts for organizations when it comes to that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. What an interesting dynamic. I’m so here for it, but we’re seeing the voice of employees and having more choice, having more power in the power relationship. And prioritizing differently, whether we’re prioritizing for our mental health, vis-à-vis, workplaces that have felt toxic to us for so long. And we’ve never really believed we had a choice to opt out and create a different professional life for ourselves. Whether it’s safety protocols, where we’re making different choices about our health and protecting our loved ones and not feeling that our employer is making the right choices to protect us. But, it’s all kind of culminating, like chickens are coming home to … for the workplace and for employers to really have to fight for talent.

And I love it because again, talking about a rebalancing dynamic to … we’ve been saying for a long time that the younger generations have certain expectations around values and walking the talk and ethics and almost, I might say, citizenship, if you will, on the part of companies and brands. How are you doing more than feeding your bottom line in the old definition of the bottom line? How are we looking at the triple bottom line? If we’re in a capitalistic society, how do we look at shareholder capitalism versus stakeholder capitalism? Oh, I’m sorry, Doug, can I say that again? I got it backwards. Just go back in and kind of cut that one out-

DOUG FORESTA: Absolutely. Yeah, of course. Just go back in. Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. How can we focus more on stakeholder capitalism versus shareholder capitalism? So, the stakeholder capitalism is about the ecosystem that we exist in. And that we either support healthy dynamics within, or exploit the pieces of the ecosystem. To me, it’s what that means. And stakeholders include employees. Like, when we think of ESG or CSR, we think about like sustainable enterprise. We cannot view people as exploitable assets. We need to view people as partners and partners that make it happen every day. And companies have gotten really good at saying, our people are everything. But, I question when I hear about the internal dynamics of the companies that say that, I say, “I don’t think so.”

DOUG FORESTA: Right, right. Are you walking the talk?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Like nice slogan. It’s sort of like, we want everybody to bring their full selves to work. And I’m like, “Well, make it less toxic and less dangerous to do that.” We can say it all we want, but the practices of equity that make that possible are, I think, the work also that’s ahead of us in 2022. To like really take a hard look at ourselves, our policies, processes, procedures. Inequities are lurking everywhere, everywhere in every organization. Because we’ve been so unaware and not willing or able, I don’t know, we can also debate that. To look at the flaws in our systems and who is falling out of those systems, who is being unfairly treated in them, who is not getting those invisible benefits, if you will, that are accrued for whom the system is made and created. And some of us who sit on the outside looking in.

So, I think, the message for employers is that this is that opportunity to reimagine with our employees, what hasn’t worked and what would work. And what needs to be put in place to change those systems so that they do work optimally to enable the highest performance and retention of our talent. Because there’s no company in the world that wants to lose people as fast as they’re losing people. I don’t even care who it is. And that’s just a cynical point, but it’s true. Objectively, it is extremely expensive to lose talent in droves.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah. You don’t need to make the business case for why it’s bad-

JENNIFER BROWN: Right.

DOUG FORESTA: To be bleeding talent.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. But, there needs to be like deep curiosity and commitment right now to understanding, why is that happening? What are we not providing? Is it pay inequity? Is it toxic workplace cultures? Is it harassment that has gone unchecked in the virtualization of our work? It’s alarming, but I was quoted in the New York Times, we did this whole deep dive at JBC on how the uptick in harassment and hostile work environment in the virtual workplace. I was shocked, Doug. I don’t know why I would’ve thought, perhaps I would’ve hoped, perhaps that this shift in this hybridization would help with toxicity and bad behavior. But I found the opposite, which was extremely alarming. And I wrote about it, maybe we can share the link to that New York Times piece in the show notes so people can read.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah. That would be great.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. So it didn’t solve our problems. It helped on some levels, but it also really like dangerously put out of sight out of mind, a lot of talent. And I say dangerous because dangerous to employers. Because what you don’t know about how people are experiencing the workplace and the managers within your workplace, who, by the way, are those frontline everyday people who unfortunately, based on the harassment data and hostile work environment data I looked at, that’s where the damage is happening. This is not necessarily the senior team. This is the frozen middle that we always talk about. It’s that person that manages my work product, my outcomes, my comp, my performance review. It’s that person that has all the power. That’s either a perpetrator or that is looking the other way, is unaware of what’s going on in the virtual world.

I mean, this is a whole question for us. How do we monitor the quality of an employee’s day to day when that employee is terrified to speak what’s actually happening. And doesn’t understand the process by which to elevate this info information and is it even safe to speak it? And then employees of different identities understand that their feedback or their raising the alarm will be viewed in a biased way, it will be received in a way where the right thing is not done ultimately. And where I speak up and somebody dismisses it or diminishes it, or it results in not the appropriate action. And if this has happened over and over in our careers and our concerns have been diminished or dismissed or not handled correctly, or there’s been retribution. The cynicism is so understandable. And the cynicism then hardens into, I’m not going to do something, say something, I’m going to leave. I’m never going to try to make this institution better because why? Why would I care when I don’t feel welcomed, valued, respected, heard, respected? When I don’t feel like that this is an equitable culture.

So, again, this is such a moment of truth on so many levels, but it’s a real reckoning for companies. And I think it’s long overdue, there’s so much work to be done in every respect. And who’s at the table creating and shaping what’s next and what does improvement look like? What does better look like? I would also question, who’s coming up with those answers? We cannot have the same architects that built the harmful system somehow-

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Sort of waking up to, well, what would less harm look like? According to whom? And this is the other huge question I want to us to ask ourselves this coming year is, is the definition of remedies, like the solution-ing. Who is participating in that? How are they participating? Do they feel safe? When you were invited to the table, are you still silent? Are you still silenced at the table? How can we build something better and more reflective and more accurate, more representative without the representation? And without then, the psychological and the real safety, not the psychological safety, isn’t real, but like all the kinds of safety we need to … the circumstances that we need to set up in order for input to be heard and welcomed and considered and taken on board. That is a piece that we’ve got to do well, as well as bringing the right and more representative voices to the table.

So, and Doug, we were talking earlier, one of the stories that really stands out actually from 2020, was we were, I think it was an ERG leader in the Asian Heritage Network at a company. And it was in the peak of the Asian hate incidences, the shooting in Atlanta. At that time, I think it was March of 2020. And companies were, again, sort of waking up to the fact that like, “Oh, we need to have a lot of conversations at once right now.” We were having the pandemic conversation, then we were having the stop Asian hate conversation, and then George Floyd happened shortly thereafter. And I think this was sort of building this muscle that people are still struggling with in institutions, which is, we’ve got to resource a lot of burning issues right now at the same time. And we still have to do that, we have to learn how to do that.

But at the time, this ERG leader said, “I appreciate the response from our leadership to our pain and our hurting right now.” And the response has been to write the check. The response has been to go at it from a philanthropic point of view and provide financial support to advocacy organizations. But this ERG leader said not instead, but in addition, “We want something different, we want to hear your outrage. We want to feel that you think this is an injustice.” And that would enable us to feel important and significant, that we matter. And that what happens to our community matters to you, senior leader.

And it was so powerful to me because it was a reminder about who’s at the table solution-ing, who’s being included, how are voices and lived identities being included in the problem solving, in the resourcing of equitable practices? Like in the defining of how do we show up as an institution? What will have the most impact? If we just asked that question and we had the right people around the table, I think it would direct a lot of different and new actions and pathways.

And if allyship is the word of the year, what is allyship for the institution look like? To me, that is slowing down, getting the right people around the table, listening, acting accordingly. And then checking in to say, “Was this the highest impact that we could have had? And what would we do differently?” And tweaking, and changing, and adding, and being sort of constantly improving. I think allyship by institutions is so critical to, in addition to all the work that we need to do individually.

And I get asked that a lot, does the inclusive leader continue apply to institutions, not just individuals? And I really wish I could have included a chapter on that because I do think that organizations are on their ally journey. The power of an institution to impact and change things around it, in that ecosystem, in that stakeholder capitalism mix that we find ourselves in. Like it or not, there are so many opportunity for allyship company to company. For learning, for role modeling, for pushing each other. As a peer group, the ability to push each other to heights that we haven’t achieved and to hold each other accountable in the public square is enormous, as well. So, that’s something I would really like to see talked about also in the new year. But thanks for asking me to reflect, Doug. This was, I think a good year, but we need to see more.

DOUG FORESTA: Well, that’s what I was going to say that, as well. That there’s been a lot that’s happened this year, a lot of positive things. But the world is still going to need you in 2022, Jennifer. There’s no doubt about that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, goodness me. Yeah, I’m here for the rebuild. And the reimagine and the door that has opened to us to really rethink the harmful exclusionary systems that we have built that have been with us for decades. That we’ve never really had either the courage or the opportunity or the impetus or the urgency to reinvent. We have that opportunity now. And we can’t squander it because it’s once in a lifetime. But I want all of us to feel energized for the work and I know that we’re coming in to the end of this year, tired and fatigued. I’m hoping in a good way.

If we could think about, that we have continued to see an urgency that I think institutions haven’t gone to sleep and said, “Oh, it’s back to business as usual.” I think there’s still this sort of building momentum of employee voice and the conversations are continuing. And I think the commitments are continuing. We just have to see, Doug. I don’t want to predict too much this coming year, but that means that our voices are more important than ever to kind of keep the heat on. So if you’re listening to this, yes, fatigue. But, then go plug in, make sure you have your radical self care tools going. But I really think we need, keep the pressure on. And however we do that, we have to figure out a way to sustain ourselves so that we feel energized and we feel hopeful. And we lean on our allies who might have extra bandwidth and energy to contribute.

Because I think that is an underutilized piece of the change equation. Let’s make sure we’re not carrying the load alone and that we don’t burn ourselves out. Because we do that thing we do, which is, “Oh, I’m alone. And if I don’t fight this, nobody else is going to fight it.” Let’s work smarter, not harder. Let’s work through and with each other. Let’s activate and leverage all of us as messengers so that we surround this issue and keep it at a high temperature. But it’s going to take all of us and it will take all of us in order for those of us who’ve been working at this a long time to sustain ourselves, truly. So think about also this coming year, how you can work smarter, not harder. And keep your oxygen mask on, but help others put theirs on, that maybe have never put theirs on before. Make sure that we’re really thinking about how to leverage the power of all of the humans around us that can be awakened, activated and sent into the arena.

DOUG FORESTA: Love it. Thank you so much, Jennifer.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.

DOUG FORESTA: Wish you and all our listeners a happy new year.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks Doug so much. Thanks everybody for listening to The Wills of Change.

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.

DOUG FORESTA: You’ve been listening to The Will to Change, uncovering true stories of diversity and inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on 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.