In this episode, originally recorded for the Elearning Podcast, Jennifer Brown joins host Stephen Ladek to discuss the importance of bringing your full self to work and why even privileged leaders can benefit from more open ways to communicate and collaborate. Discover how you can reinvent as a person, a professional or an educator without losing your identity, but actually evolving it; and why crises are often fantastic catalyzers for personal growth.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
Jennifer Brown: What gets measured gets done, so let’s measure it. The most progressive organizations I know measure, not just diversity, which is the who, right, so that’s the demographics… And by the way, if you aren’t measuring that and holding people accountable for that, that’s coming. It’s going to be something that needs to be measured and I predict will be measured, because our institutions have to look like the external world that we do the work in, they have to look like our stakeholders, they have to look like our students, our faculty needs to reflect the diversity of our students, our administration needs to reflect that, right?
Jennifer Brown: In the corporate world, we have a complete lack of non-white, non-male, non-cisgender leaders at the executive level. I mean, it’s truly shocking when you look at the numbers and I encourage anybody who doesn’t know the statistics I’m talking about to definitely check it out. There is no way that that kind of leadership team makeup can see around the corner, can anticipate what’s coming next.
Doug Foresta: Everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, bestselling authors and entrepreneurs, as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. And now, on to the episode.
Doug Foresta: Hello, and welcome back to The Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta. And this interview was originally recorded on The eLearning Podcast with host Stephen Ladek, as he interviewed Jennifer Brown about the importance of bringing your full self to an organization or team, things that get in the way of organizational culture, and how DEI can often be a powerful way to address these things. Why even privileged leaders can benefit from more open ways to communicate and collaborate, and how to reinvent as a leader, a person, a professional or educator, without losing your identity, but actually evolving it, and why crises are often fantastic catalyzers for personal growth, as well as the value of being comfortable with being uncomfortable, which for Jennifer is an ideal state for a learner and an educator. Jennifer and Stephen discuss all this and more. And now, on to the episode.
Stephen Ladek: After a series of fundamental shifts in her personal and professional life, including a thwarted promising career as an opera singer, my guest for today, Jennifer Brown, had no choice but to reinvent herself. In the process, she noticed how other parts of our world are ripe for transformation, including corporate learning and the diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI space. Jennifer is the founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown consulting and the author of the books, Inclusion, in 2016, and How To Be An Inclusive Leader, in 2019. She is a super dynamic speaker and her depth of passion and knowledge around diversity is unparalleled, in my experience.
Stephen Ladek: As a vocal member and advocate of the LGBTQ+ community, Jennifer envisions a radically transformed organization in the way it embraces people’s voices, feelings, and passions. And in our new normal of digital connections, amid our collective sense of uncertainty and threats to our wellbeing, she could not be more thrilled about the prospects for more attentive, inclusive, and just human leadership styles.
Stephen Ladek: In this really intimate conversation, Jennifer and I talked about why she is adamant about bringing your full self into your organization or team as opposed to being fearful of showing who you are in the workplace. We also talk about the things that get in the way of organizational culture and how DEI can often be a powerful way to address those things. We talk about why even privileged leaders can benefit from more open ways to communicate and collaborate, that, among other things, lets everyone know that it’s okay to share and feel vulnerable. We also talk about how you can reinvent as a person, a professional, or as an educator without losing your identity, but actually evolving it, and why crises are often fantastic catalyzers for personal growth.
Stephen Ladek: And then finally, we talk about the value of being comfortable with being uncomfortable, which for Jennifer, is an ideal state for a learner and as an educator when it comes to the topics of diversity and privilege, as well as pretty much any other subject.
Stephen Ladek: Hello, Jennifer. Welcome to the show.
Jennifer Brown: Hey, Stephen. Thanks for having me.
Stephen Ladek: Jennifer, we’re recording this at… okay, not the top of 2021, but we’re right in the middle of January here, 2021. Where do we find you sitting today?
Jennifer Brown: I am in New York City. I have been here for the duration, she says proudly. There’s a certain badge of honor for those of us that truthfully didn’t have anywhere to go. However, it’s been just a ride, as you can imagine, from I live right in the hotbed of Union Square, Washington Square, right, which is where, historically, for hundreds of years, people have come to protest and use their voice, and it’s just been really intense, but amazing to be here too in such a tough city, right, such a resilient city, and given what I do for work, to be around that conversation directly in that way has been just an opportunity of a lifetime.
Stephen Ladek: Fantastic. Take me a little further there. Something I’m asking everyone on the podcast, just how’s your COVID been? I mean, either you personally, has it affected you, has it affected your work and your practice or those around you? However you want to answer that question. But where do things stand right now and what’s that look like?
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. It just grounded me. I mean, metaphorically speaking, very true, also, but literally, like all of us who travel for a living, and I’m a keynote speaker, so I’m constantly at conferences and client events, and just to have all that stop in March and then starting to deliver online, many, many times a day even, has meant a shift for us, but I actually have really enjoyed it. It’s not just being able to be in PJs from the waist down and bunny slippers, but no, I think it’s added to the ability to have greater reach. you just realize the constraints of the way we used to do business, and I think we will never go back because we’ve discovered this whole other more scalable way to reach people. And then for the conversations, again, I’m having which are very vulnerable, often really honest.
Jennifer Brown: Strangely enough, I feel like people feel a sense of safety on a screen or in a chat, so they can ask certain things and feel a sense of community that they may have not been able to access in the physical world, ironically, because of, again, the reach of the interwebs. So yeah, it’s been incredible. It’s accelerated a lot of things. And probably a lot of us as business owners say we were hesitating to try this new technology or do this delivery mechanism, but we were already on that road but it’s definitely accelerated, not just us, but the way our clients think work has to happen versus how it can really happen and how it really can be delivered, and by the way, faster, cheaper, more efficiently. So, literally, our capacity and our capability has accelerated, which is super cool.
Jennifer Brown: We got busier than ever. The topic we focus on, of course, is super duper on fire and continues to be into 2021, which is really exciting that it’s not something that was a moment in time but really was a fundamental shift that’s here to stay.
Stephen Ladek: So, you almost told us what it was. You are a diversity and inclusion expert, you’ve already told them you are a keynote speaker, you are an expert out there, you’ve got a best selling book, How To Be An Inclusive Leader. Just give us a little bit more about who Jennifer Brown is, what your practice is and what you normally deliver as your profession, and then we’ll dive into the weeds from there.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah, sure thing. Yes. So, I am indeed in the diversity, equity, and inclusion world, we call it DEI, for short, but there’s also other names out there, the word belonging, you may hear around as well. We study organizational culture and we think about what would create cultures of belonging where everyone can thrive, and fundamentally, what gets in the way of that thriving. And often, what gets in the way of it, based on our research and everybody else’s, is identity; stigmas related to identity, choices we make about not bringing our full self to work because of the fear of stigma and stereotypes, that so many of us engage in, around both are visible diverse characteristics, perhaps, or many, many invisible ones as well.
Jennifer Brown: So, the bottom line is that the bottom line is impacted, right? When we have legions of people who are struggling with psychological safety and microaggressions on a daily basis in an organization full of unconscious bias, or conscious bias, we are literally leaking out productivity, potential, amazing talent, people just can’t perform at their best, and so it’s a total waste of human potential and it’s a drag on the bottom line. So, that’s literally where we live. And it was my story too, because I found my voice in a really interesting way. I was an opera singer and I came to New York, and I studied opera and vocal performance, and I got a Master’s from Manhattan School of Music, and my plan was to be on Broadway and be, what we call a legit soprano, which means that I’m an operatically trained stage soprano that can be in musicals. That’s the shorthand on that.
Stephen Ladek: How do you put that on the resume? I don’t know.
Jennifer Brown: I know, I know. Believe it or not, there’s a niche for that.
Stephen Ladek: Yeah, sure.
Jennifer Brown: And I also dance and the whole thing, but then I ended up hurting my voice and I got vocal surgery to fix that, and I had to have that several times, so I knew I had to reinvent. And I tell this story all the time, so apologies for people that already know it. But stage performers, we’re agile, we’re flexible, we’re resilient. We’re cats, we land on our feet, so I landed on my feet and I found and discovered this field of leadership and organizational development and I just fell in love with it. I thought, this is so important, it’s the human side of business, it’s something I could really sink my teeth into and my heart into, and also, I identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. So, you talk about not bringing your full self to your work, right? So, as a performing soprano, looking this way, I was always cast as the 18 year old love interest-
Stephen Ladek: Sure, yeah.
Jennifer Brown: … and meanwhile having this whole other truth of my life, and who I love, and the fear of casting directors learning that. So, it was really terrifying to imagine, “How is my career going to play out with this? At some point, how will the world reconcile with this?” And this was 20 years ago, or a little more than that, so different times, right? I actually would argue it’s kind of the same times. I mean, some of these worlds are very old school, and they’re very slow to change around LGBTQ+ characters and also actors and performers playing different kinds of roles and being out about who they are. So, there’s slow progress on that front.
Jennifer Brown: So then, as an entrepreneur, though, I would subsequently really find my voice and realize that my differences are such a powerful toolkit from which to teach and from which to facilitate, and that it would actually make me stronger as a practitioner and also give me credibility, because I have a foot in marginalized identities, and so having experienced that, but I also have many feet… if it’s possible to have more than one foot… many appendages in the world of privilege based on how I was raised, my skin color, my educational background, I have two master’s degrees, I never went hungry, I didn’t have violence in my home, I don’t have a hidden disability, they just go on and on and on about the things that I think of them as tailwinds that are speeding me along in whatever I endeavor in this world. And not that I don’t work hard. I really work hard, but it doesn’t have to do with that. It’s really the way the world looks at you, the way the world regards you, and it does not do so in an equitable way.
Jennifer Brown: And so these days, I use the privileges or the access that I have and I get into rooms, and I shake things up, and I tell the truth, and I teach in a way or I challenge people, especially executives, which is what I spend most of my time on, because I can be listened to, because people make assumptions that they are somehow maybe more comfortable with me because of what they see. And then I choose sometimes to come out and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m also LGBTQ, and were you aware of that? Did your biases and your lens prevent you from even considering that that might be true about me?” So, right away, I’m able to neutralize impressions and then direct learners that I work with in the right direction and then we can get down to work and do some really good stuff.
Jennifer Brown: My whole life I always say all these things didn’t happen as accidents, losing my voice, having to get surgery, having to find another career. All of it might have felt like heartbreak at the time, and certainly did, but I believe these things redirect us in life in a way that we need to be redirected. And I never would have discovered what I do now if that hadn’t happened and it’s such a gift, it’s so profound. So anyway, yeah, that’s a good life lesson, isn’t it?
Stephen Ladek: I love it. And ultimately, at the end of the day, it comes down to perspective and reframing, right? It’s how do you choose to look at the situation and what it offers to you? Is this a defeat or is this an opportunity, right?
Jennifer Brown: Right.
Stephen Ladek: Speaking of opportunities, you have a book, and your book is called How To Be An Inclusive Leader. You talk about why it’s important to, rather than what maybe leadership in a typical corporation, in our case is institutions of higher education, or learning and development departments in these big corporations, a lot of times we hear, “Hey, don’t bring yourself to work. You’re here to work, keep your personal stuff at home.” Right? But you’re making the argument that bringing your full self, you say your full self or your whole self, you’re saying that’s actually the right move. Tell me about that?
Jennifer Brown: Well, and 2020, I think, put a lot of pressure on us to do exactly that, but we have been talking about it for a long time in our field, but it was hard to get on the radar screen of decision makers that this was indeed extremely important and that our concept of, I guess, what leadership looks like… and I mean leadership at all levels. I’m not just talking about people with direct reports, we all lead. Whenever we are in colleagueship with others, we have an opportunity to lead, with a small L.
Jennifer Brown: But yeah, so I think the 2020 showed us that the old style of leadership is not enough because it doesn’t include empathy to the extent that it should, and I’m probably generalizing here, but it traditionally has been command and control, having all the answers, never admitting vulnerability or uncertainty, a lot of the hallmarks that worked, I guess, in a more certain world. However, when the deck of cards gets thrown up in the air, like it did in 2020, and we’re not sure it’s ever going to come back together into a nice, neat deck, the best leaders are agile, flexible, responsive, know how to resonate, know how to win trust across difference, and are very comfortable and confident in that conversation.
Jennifer Brown: And all of a sudden, I think a lot of leaders woke up, particularly of certain identities, right, that I share, some of, and said to themselves, “Wow,” as Marshall Goldsmith says, “what got me here won’t get me there. I’m going to have to just do a wholesale revisiting of how I’ve looked at performance, how I’ve looked at accountability, how I’ve looked at seeing the whole person and not sweeping things under the rug because I’m uncomfortable with them and I don’t want to deal with them,” when now, 2020, showed us the pervasiveness of things like mental health issues, the pervasiveness of the difficulty being Black and Brown in a corporate environment that wasn’t built by and for people that look like you.
Jennifer Brown: All of that has been now shown to us, and one of many gifts of 2020 is the truth has been told, in a way. I’ve been trying to shout the truth, however, it’s been really difficult to get the attention, and let alone, then the appetite to say, “We cannot let this happen.” Pre 2020, to find the unusual company and leader who upon seeing the data says, “I don’t want people to struggle to work here, I don’t want them to feel that every day is a battle.” Unfortunately, those kinds of leaders were in short supply. I think now we have a lot more to work with, and they are fearful, scared, hesitant, feeling extremely vulnerable, because it is a completely absent skill set. It is something that we have not taken seriously in the leadership toolkit at all, we haven’t invested in it.
Jennifer Brown: With diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’ve actually jobbed it out, we’ve outsourced it to our diversity team, we’ve also outsourced it to the women, and the people of color, and the LGBTQ people in our organization thinking they were going to carry the water for change, when by the way, newsflash, they don’t have actually the positional power… where they are in organizations, because of all the things we’ve been talking about… to actually own change. It’s not realistic, if not located in the right place.
Jennifer Brown: And so these days, I’m really fired up about where is the responsibility for change located? It’s located amongst those that have positional power and can literally sign something or commit to something and have it be so and do that quickly. So, short-cutting the years and years of labor that a lot of us have been putting in to make our organizations better from the bottom up, that’s great and that is so important and has never been appreciated to the extent that it should. However, I’m really interested in engaging a whole group of people that have traditionally said, “This is not my issue, it’s not on my to-do list, it’s not important for me, or I know nothing about this because of my lived experience.” If I had a nickel for every executive that says, “Jennifer, I have every privilege in the world. I don’t know how to lead on this.” And I love that question, I love it, I can do a lot with that, because there’s a lot of things we can do. This is not a conversation that we’ve had.
Stephen Ladek: I’d love to hear how you do answer that because I’m just thinking in corporations and in schools and whatnot, the people that we speak with, oftentimes, you hear the term, “Hey, we’re KPI driven. I have a responsibility to move this part of the corporation, and I’m responding to shareholders.” Right? I would assume, having not been in these conversations, I would assume that would be a typical response you’d get. And so, “I care, I’m empathetic, I’d love to see this happen, but really, my responsibility is this set of data or whatever outcomes.” Where does that conversation go? Let me stop there. Go ahead.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. So yes, it is the what gets measured gets done, which is the prevailing wisdom, so let’s measure it. The most progressive organizations I know measure, not just diversity, which is the who, right, so that’s the demographics… And by the way, if you aren’t measuring that and holding people accountable for that, that’s coming, whether that’s your president reality or soon to be, it’s going to be something that needs to be measured and I predict will be measured, because our institutions have to look like the external world that we do the work in, they have to look like our stakeholders, they have to look like our students, our faculty needs to reflect the diversity of our students, our administration needs to reflect that, right?
Jennifer Brown: In the corporate world, we have a complete lack of non-white, non-male, non-cisgender leaders at the executive level. I mean, it’s truly shocking when you look at the numbers, and I encourage anybody who doesn’t know the statistics I’m talking about to definitely check it out. But there is no way that that kind of leadership team makeup can see around the corner, can anticipate what’s coming next, can, by the way, deal with the rolling social justice crises, rolling. 2020 was not an aberration. You will need the capability to respond quickly and, I think, correctly to the moment. Your young people in your institution expect you to be good at this, and you can’t be good at it if you don’t have diversity around the table being listened to and consulted to say, “How can we prepare ourselves to respond?”
Stephen Ladek: So, if I could, right there, I feel like there’s a real great moment right there because I love where you’re going with it. And the first thing that I’m terrified is, hey, you’re looking at me. I am a 40 something White man, right? As a leader in these organizations, these institutions, I don’t want to get canceled.
Jennifer Brown: I know.
Stephen Ladek: I don’t want to make the mistake in a meeting or a town hall or a whatever, where all of a sudden, I’m just, “Okay, whoops, I said the wrong thing,” or I tried, I made an attempt, right? And so, one of the things that you talk about… I’m really interested in hearing your advice here… is how do I use this voice that I have or how do I use this position to actually start to take action? But then, do I ask the audience for, “Hey, I’m going to stumble here,” or, “Hey, I’m going to screw this up probably a couple times. Help me to do this”? Am I answering my own question here or what?
Jennifer Brown: You kind of are. That would have been one piece. I think back to our question of what we talked about with leadership changing, right, the definition of getting comfortable being uncomfortable, not having the answers and talking about not having the answers, talking about your identity, even if it’s one that is not talked about. Until very recently, saying the words White and Black was not okay. I mean, I used to have to take White out of my presentations until several years ago.
Jennifer Brown: So, I think naming our lack of lived experience and our deficits, doing so publicly almost inoculates us in a way and I think is part of the learning and the muscle that we need to build, which is the, “I’m not going to fake it like I know, because there’s no way I can know, however, what is most, I think, fairly judged would be that I am endeavoring to stretch. I’m on my learning journey. Here’s how I’m undertaking this. Here’s where I’m going to stumble, here’s what I don’t yet know, here’s what I am feeling awkward about, here’s the support that I would benefit from, if at all it can be given,” welcoming of that feedback or the seeking of the feedback.
Jennifer Brown: It’s not just like, “Oh, I accept your feedback, my door is open,” it’s very much like you need to push into this moment, and push into the conversations, and push into… think about like, “How often am I in an uncomfortable place where I’m unfamiliar with the discussion going on, with the identities that are having voice, and how often can I put myself in those positions so that I can start to sensitize myself to what it feels like to walk around in the same exact environment, but have a totally different experience?”
Jennifer Brown: And so, if people listening to this have affinity groups at your organization, sign up for every single one, and when you are invited, when it’s open to allies of a certain community, which means that you don’t have the specific identity represented in the affinity group…
Jennifer Brown: And I say this because sometimes there’s closed meetings just for the identity, and then other times it’s open to all… so respecting that, the more you can put yourself in those positions, the more you will listen, and absorb, and understand the language and terminology, and develop empathy, and also develop the lenses that aren’t your own. Because leadership, I’ve always said, it’s really about the recipient. It’s not about what I intend, or how I define things, or what I think success looks like, it’s literally trying to see the world through other’s eyes, see the value proposition of working in a certain place through their eyes, like, “What would be the value proposition and how can I be a part of removing obstacles for others in this institution, and what can I challenged to remove those obstacles?”
Jennifer Brown: When people say, “I don’t know what I can do,” what I’d say is, so first, we just said admit what I don’t know, talk about it often, and then activate different kinds of privilege that we have, which goes far beyond White privilege and male privilege, right? Those are the two things we hear and, unfortunately, have been weaponized, which I don’t think is terribly helpful, and actually destructive. But I think what we can be talking about is like, “What do I have access to comfort with? Who’s in my network? How can I champion people who aren’t championed? How do I add my capital, with a small C, right? Social capital, professional capital, reputational capital? How can I join whatever access and power I have, really, with those that deserve to be pulled up and supported?”
Jennifer Brown: Because think about it, we’ve been doing that for people that look like us since the beginning of the modern workplace. I’ve been letting a family member know about a job opening, and then I’ve joined my capital with that person, or they went to my school, so therefore, I put in a good word for them. I mean, this is not new. The question to me is, though, how can we be more strategic from an equity lens? How can we really not take our power for granted and activate around it, every single day in a million ways, to change the trajectory and the ease of the path for others? Because I can tell you, the path has been difficult. Ask any woman who has achieved the executive ranks about the sacrifices that she’s made.
Stephen Ladek: Sure.
Jennifer Brown: Ask any person of color who’s the only person of color at their level, the only one left standing, effectively, and say like, “How have you experienced covering your identity, minimizing your cultural identity, modifying what you talk about or the mannerisms and the way you speak, and the way you dress?” I mean, there’s so many stories about the double work that a lot of us do, and I don’t think any leader worth their our salt should be happy with this. When you are shown that this is true, how does that not impact performance? How does that not impact your accountabilities, your KPIs?
Jennifer Brown: When somebody is not feeling psychologically safe, they are not able to create at their best. When you’re managing, “Oh, my goodness, when’s the next microaggression going to hit me? And how is that going to make me feel diminished and small and remind me of my identities that are represented here.” And then by the way, we need you to also be brilliant, and bring your best ideas, and feel that sense of trust that the best teams have to create together. So, it’s an impossible equation.
Jennifer Brown: And so I just wish I saw leaders that were more invested in digging into what I’m talking about and taking ownership for changing it and using whatever we have within our toolkit to shift that, however that looks. So, I’ll just put that there that I think just don’t… And you said the calling out, the cancel culture. My answer to that is, yes, admit the things we don’t do well, that’s important to inoculate and level set, I think, the conversation, so that people don’t expect it to be, and you open the door to feedback. But I think your institution has to also… we’ve got to have each other’s backs and commit to a learning culture where we can fail forward and extend the grace to each other to do that, right? When have we ever had to learn something and done it perfectly the first three or four times? When did that become the standard for developing a new skillset, or a new product, or a new innovation, right?
Stephen Ladek: The answer is never, incidentally.
Jennifer Brown: Never. Yeah, exactly. So, you learn from the failures, and yet, with this work, we expect everybody to show up perfectly the first time, and I don’t think it’s fair. So, those of us who cancel others, I would say that the better alternative is to call in, and a call in is an opportunity for a conversation, is an opportunity for feedback-
Stephen Ladek: Oh, I like that.
Jennifer Brown: … and it extends compassion to people. And when we get on our high horse and cancel, I would ask that person, “What have you done imperfectly as you were learning about a new identity or your own allyship?” There’s so many opportunities for all of us to get things wrong constantly, and the learning never stops. And so, I think just be careful. When you do the scorched earth, think about that scorched earth for yourself. Like, is that the way that we want to play? I think it causes a ton of destruction, and mayhem, and breaks trust, and also worst of all, for its potential allies on their learning journey to the point where these folks could be the biggest champions.
Jennifer Brown: If we can figure out how to hold the space for our own growth, we will get there faster, and not through the battle of cancel culture, but we’ll get there through the sheer desire to grow in our humanity, in our compassion, in our vocabulary, in our empathy, in our lenses. All that is just an incredible space to hold for each other, so I do think institutions have to figure out like, “What are we going to level set as the learning process? What is okay and what’s not okay that still makes space for failing forward? This is, by the way, The Growth Mindset. I’m sure you know Carol Dweck’s work, but it’s such a critical thing to progress.
Jennifer Brown: So, I want the chance to fall off my bike a bunch of times before I figure out how to ride it, and I want the grace and the space from others, and the support, not to say, “How dare you fall off that bike.” You are a horrible person.
Stephen Ladek: So, take me to structure, okay, in that conversation, as part of this conversation, someone who’s a part of this conversation, just the grace of being able to skin my knees a few times, or actually, constantly.
Jennifer Brown: Pretty much.
Stephen Ladek: I had a great friend, or I have a great friend, who always had this great analogy of… he’s like, “Look, we’re all like adolescents. As you’re growing, your body’s going crazy and it’s growing way too big, and you stumble a lot, right?” And so as you’re coming into this new conversation, the interesting thing I find really interesting this conversation is, at what point do you arrive? You know what I mean?
Jennifer Brown: That’s always a question we get.
Stephen Ladek: It’s a great quest- I don’t know. Is it a great question? I’m asking you right now. And I think that that is probably something that is held in the back of a lot of people’s minds, where it’s like, “Look, I’m willing to take the risk, I’m willing to make the effort, and I’m willing to be a part of the conversation. At what point do I arrive?” But let me attach that to what the question is [inaudible 00:33:18]. When you’re speaking about this, talk to me about structure and what moves they can make structurally in organizations, in schools, in colleges and universities and whatnots, to crack this code as well. So, not only when do I arrive, but when does the organization arrive? How can we get there? And maybe the answer is we don’t have a formula, but is there one? That’s what I’m asking.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you some of the common mistakes with the structure, maybe that helps. Organizations often start with training and think that training is the same as strategy. It’s not. Education and awareness building, and the conversation about behaviors is part of what should be a macro strategy as an institution. So, we tend to piecemeal all this work, or we do the bare minimum, like everybody needs to go through unconscious bias training, and then I check the box, and we move on, and we get on to the business of the day. And unfortunately, that’s the level of lack of respect that we’ve given this work.
Jennifer Brown: But my firm actually comes into organizations with no strategy and builds one, which is a one-year, two-year, three-year strategy, that orients around workforce goals and objectives and accountabilities, workplace, which speaks to the every day culture, and then also, marketplace. So, marketplace is that third pillar which speaks to customers, right? Product development, sales, all that external facing stuff.
Jennifer Brown: And so as a strategy that’s properly lined, then all these pieces can be developed within it, and then it becomes accountable to the leadership team, because we also talk a lot about how this has to be driven from the top. Very important. Otherwise, people will view it as a nice to have. And so back to your question about KPIs, then KPIs might follow from that strategy, and then we have leaders holding other leaders accountable, and ultimately, all the way to the CEO and the board, or whoever your most accountable executive is in your institution, really, they have to be your biggest champion ever.
Jennifer Brown: They have to be the one who points everyone back to the strategy, right, includes the strategy and updates on the strategy in every single executive meeting. “How are we doing on this? How are we doing on this? What’s getting in the way? What do we not understand about this? Why is this not a priority?” That is what a real CEO leader sounds like in managing to that strategy, right? And so then everybody realizes, “This is real, this is part of the way we do business, and there’s no escaping it.”
Stephen Ladek: Sure.
Jennifer Brown: Look, I’m just a messenger from the future. I just feel like if companies don’t want to talk about this, I’m like, “Good luck. Good luck to you as an individual leader and as an institution. If this is too uncomfortable for you, then literally, you’re opting out of your lifeblood in the future, because you will need to be, not just competent in this… I mean, that’s kind of a baseline… you will have to be enthusiastic, passionate, committed, public about values. This will be something you are expected to have a voice on, to respond quickly to unrest or employee challenges, right?” Our timelines are collapsing, and our organizations are flattening, and the accountability is shifting, I think too, and leaders are caught completely unprepared, and that’s what we’ve seen in 2020.
Jennifer Brown: So, you asked what is the roadmap or the structure. So, the strategy has to be in place, never mistake training for strategy. Remember, Peter Drucker, culture eats strategy for breakfast, so to me, that speaks to the lived experience of your employees on a day to day basis, if it doesn’t align with what you say is important to your DEI strategy, then it will bite you. So, you’ve got to have your ear to the ground constantly, collecting information, engendering an environment where people will tell you the truth.
Jennifer Brown: One of the most dangerous places for leaders to be is in a vacuum, and generationally, is Gen-Xers and baby boomers are in a vacuum, in so many ways, and also identity-wise, if you’re White, straight, male, you’re in a deficit in terms of lived experience. So, unless you are a dedicated student of this and you are of that identity, most of us, our learning curve is incredibly steep, and so you got to become a student of it. You just have no choice, I mean, if you want to remain relevant and all that.
Jennifer Brown: And then beyond that, I guess, in my book, How To Be An Inclusive Leader, I did a four-part maturity model, which I think is really helpful for a lot of individuals, right. So, I’ll just go into that quickly. When you read it, you ask your question, “Am I in unaware?” Which is phase one, which is, “I don’t know there’s a problem, I don’t want to see the problem, I don’t want to take ownership of the problem. I’m a good person. Isn’t that enough?” It’s the, “I have daughters,” rationale-
Stephen Ladek: Okay. Sure. Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: … “therefore, I am a champion of gender equity in my organization.” Not the same. We’re all related to a woman.
Stephen Ladek: In some way, yeah.
Jennifer Brown: Anyway. But the, “I’m a good person,” speaks to intent versus impact, right? So, unaware is that, and then aware is phase two, which is, “Okay, oh, my gosh, now I know what I don’t know. Now I’ve been shown.” I have the light bulb moment, I’m reading, and consuming media, I’m listening to podcasts, and putting myself in conversations that are unfamiliar and are uncomfortable. It’s an overwhelming awareness.
Jennifer Brown: Phase two is a crushing amount of information, particularly for those of us that have grown up literally, not really studying the full history of our country in school, and getting the lessons of 2020 and being hit with the reality of our fellow Americans and humans, to say, “Wow, I didn’t know, I want to know, I want to do more, and now I’m realizing the overwhelming amount of information that I need to somehow quickly learn and become comfortable using,” which is the tricky part. And these are all really big leaps.
Jennifer Brown: And then from awareness to active, phase three, “What do I do with all the knowledge I learned in phase two?” I need to activate. And activate is, I think you were talking about, “When I do step out, when I do use my voice and I get it wrong, how resilient am I? Am I like bamboo? Am I going to bend and snap back, weeble wobble? Am I going to not get fragile and overly emotional or dramatic about making mistakes? Am I going to be tough? Am I going to say, ‘You know what, it’s not about me’? Am I going to try new language and try to always have the latest in my head as I show up?”
Jennifer Brown: And you asked me earlier in our prep about performative allyship. I know that’s a lot of words. Perform allyship is joining your efforts with a marginalized or an underrepresented identity when you don’t have that identity. So, I like to think I aspire to be an ally, considered an ally by communities that aren’t my identity, every day I think about that. And at the same time, I’m an LGBTQ person, so I need my straight allies. I’m a cisgender woman, so I need my male allies too, and I need that allyship. And performative simply speaks to the fact that a lot of people have, I suppose, claimed ally, without earning it. So, we want to move 2020-
Stephen Ladek: This is the hashtag movement.
Jennifer Brown: Exactly, yes, it is, or the black square on Instagram for Black Lives Matter, right? It’s sort of the phoning it in, it’s doing as little as possible with the least risk that you can take, so playing it safe, versus, I think, allyship and even what we call accomplicing is getting in the water with people. Or I heard it referred to as like, I’m in your getaway car and I got the engine running, like I’m here, activate me. And I am not going to wait to be activated, I’m going to be looking for places where I can actually take action without being prompted, necessarily, which I think that’s truly where we need to go, beyond performative, is to in every room we’re in, in every decision, in every conversation, we are using our voice bravely, fearlessly.
Jennifer Brown: It doesn’t take a woman to be in that room, which we often aren’t in that room… it doesn’t take the woman in the room to say, “Hey, that’s inappropriate,” because somebody like us in that room and says, “Hold on. Can we just pause right there? That’s something that’s not inclusive language,” or taking somebody aside after a meeting and giving somebody coaching and calling them in, all those wonderful things.
Stephen Ladek: I love that, calling them in rather than calling them out.
Jennifer Brown: It’s so good.
Stephen Ladek: I haven’t heard that one before. I really like that one.
Jennifer Brown: Oh, you haven’t. Oh, yeah.
Stephen Ladek: Personally, I haven’t heard that one.
Jennifer Brown: I’m thinking about it a lot for my next book, I’m thinking about how could I define call in culture, like what would that actually look like on a day to day basis?
Stephen Ladek: I know. But I’ll tell you what, if you figure out how to do that as a next book, I mean, for someone like myself, again, who I embody the person who you’re speaking to most often, and I just feel like that is, not the missing… but one of the most… things that we need to be able to capture. I don’t have a great way to say this, because it reframes this conversation so much, where it’s just like, “Hey, wait a second. Let’s talk about this.” Rather than calling you out and being like, “Hey, you just screwed that up,” or whatever, it’s massively important.
Jennifer Brown: Massively important. I agree. I agree. It’s a little bit of an unpopular stance to take, because I think that tensions are running really high, there’s a lot of anger. And so sometimes I find myself feeling, “I don’t mean to not hold people accountable, that’s not my goal, but my goal is to hold space for learning.”
Stephen Ladek: I just want to say, that would be… I mean, you’ve got to go straight to the Gandhis and the MLKs and the whatevers of history where it’s just like, “Look,” just what you said, “Look, it’s not about not being accountable, and it’s not about holding people accountable to things, but it’s also saying, look, we have to also operate with grace, and love and kindness, and really, let’s move to those ideals,” right? That’s really where it is.
Jennifer Brown: I love that, I’m all about that. This is compassionate work, it’s about empathy, and that empathy has to extend to each other. Kenji Yoshino, somebody I quote a lot, talks about it’s not the pain Olympics. So, we can’t get wrapped up in this hierarchy of who has the-
Stephen Ladek: Who’s been in the most pain, who’s got the biggest crutch? Yeah, sure.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Or even who has the most privilege, because to me in sort of the Book of Life, what’s going to really matter is if I was an amazing ally that was like… and you asked earlier about the destination, like, how do we know we’re there yet? Are we there yet, mom?
Stephen Ladek: And you got to remember as well to take us to phase four in your book. You only talked about the first three phases. What’s the fourth phase?
Jennifer Brown: Oh, yeah. Well, thank you. Good listening. The fourth phase is advocate. Advocate is different than active, which is phase three, because actually, now I’m comfortable. I know how to wield what I have, I’m fearless, I’m brave, I’m courageous, I don’t wait for permission, I challenge people that look like me, which is really critical, I’m asking systems questions. And so I think at advocate level, you may be in a leadership position, and you may have the ability and the permission to say, “Why do we do it this way? How come we haven’t fixed this? How could we fix this at the system’s level so that we’re not just putting a bandaid on a symptom but that we’re actually getting to the root of why it’s happening in the first place?” That deep work, particularly that can be done, I think, by people with power, is what we need to see a lot more time spent on the calendar in those conversations. And it can be exhausting.
Jennifer Brown: I think people at advocate level, I worry about self care because we just push and push and push, right, and we are so committed. And by the way, we can be advocate level around some identities and then we can be only unaware about other identities, and I’d want to just point that out too that you might be listening to me and say, “Oh, but she’s advocate level and everything,” and I’m not. I’m literally in the infancy of my learning on so many different identities that I don’t carry. I’m a student of those, and I’m constantly trying to say like, “What do I need to learn? What are the microaggressions faced by these communities? What are the common biases that occur? What is the latest language that this community wants to be addressed with?”
Stephen Ladek: Well, yeah. And I’m sitting here, as you know, I’m sitting here in Latin America, and I came from Southeast Asia, and so we don’t have time to unpack it in this particular conversation-
Jennifer Brown: Oh, that’s a lot.
Stephen Ladek: … but I’m just thinking, “Holy smokes,” you know what I mean? Just even to start those conversations in these cultures where I have been living. So, there’s a long road to hoe, as we say.
Jennifer Brown: Oh, and it’s intersectional, which is another favorite word, right? It’s cultural identity. And the way we have our particular history in America and all the conversations happening here, so different than… It’s fascinating. I love that the work is endlessly presenting new lenses.
Stephen Ladek: I was just going to say, the way that this continues to unfold, and not only job security for someone like yourself, but again, I want to end this conversation, not only by thanking you, because this has been absolutely fascinating, I absolutely love it, and it’s a conversation that not only needs to happen, but it needs to be something we just talk about on a regular basis, right? But I want to end it where we began where it’s like, this isn’t something to be afraid of, but it really is an opportunity, that it’s right there, it’s on your desk, whoever’s listening, for you to grab hold of and make it your own.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. And I would say, start small, I would say, get on the journey, don’t judge yourself, don’t be obsessed with the destination. And then I would start small with private work, that reflection, the reading, the analysis of my own biases. Where am I maybe repeating microaggressions? Maybe you get a reverse mentor and you welcome certain people or invite certain people into your inner circle who can give you the truth and who can react to how you are growing, how you are showing up, what you may not see about yourself in action.
Jennifer Brown: But start small, I would say, and start private so that you develop the muscle before you go public. Because what I really don’t want, Stephen, is a bunch of people jumping in and making a mess, causing more harm, inadvertently, with the best intentions, because they haven’t really studied this and haven’t road tested it, I guess, but also, that would mean that fewer people are canceled because we would have more competency before we show up. We want to have some competency when we show up, and a lot of us… some of us are overly confident and some of us are not confident enough, so that’s an interesting thing that I would argue-
Stephen Ladek: Well, but I think what you’re asking is not too much simply because if I were to go give a keynote somewhere on a topic, I would practice it beforehand.
Jennifer Brown: Anything you care about.
Stephen Ladek: Yeah, not only in the mirror, whatever. And if I were to go… let’s just take it to anything that’s even… if I want to go join the softball team, right, I’m going to go practice my pitches, I’m going to go practice batting, I’m going to become familiar with the nomenclature and the terms, I’m going to watch it on TV. You know what I mean?
Jennifer Brown: Yeah, exactly.
Stephen Ladek: So, it’s not a big ask, it’s not a big ask.
Jennifer Brown: No, it’s what we do in life, you’re right, and respect the game, respect what you’re walking into, know that it has a huge history and a long litany of human experience in it, much of which will be new and challenging to you maybe and challenging to your sense of self. But I mentioned earlier, not getting too fragile about it, meaning when you hear about these things and you feel disturbed, you feel upset, you feel guilty, maybe ashamed, that you’re coming so late to the party, or that you may have in fact participated in things and not challenged them when you heard them, what matters to me is that you’ve woken up, right? To me, that’s half the battle.
Jennifer Brown: And then if you can stay awake and then move into the practice, move into the riding the bike, falling off riding, getting back up, and developing your resilience and really sticking with it, I promise… this is one thing I say to leaders that I think makes a big difference… you will get better at this. It may feel tremendously awkward and unfamiliar like you are speaking a different language that doesn’t feel authentic to you, however, I think we learn by doing. Part of this is kinesthetic, right? Just the doing of it, right? The messing up, the way that you apologize when we mess up, it also matters.
Jennifer Brown: So, prepare yourself to get it wrong, let people know that you will, be ready to apologize and mean it and be very specific, and I would say learn what you need to learn and don’t take the hurt along for the ride, because I think we can tend to do that because our ego gets really bruised when we don’t get it right, and then we get angry, and then we get defensive, and then we take our marbles and go home and say, “Oh, well, that person didn’t do right by me. I tried.” No, none of that. This is not about that. It really calls on you to be so humble, and I think that in itself is one of the most beautiful unexplored competencies of leadership that I think will behoove all of us, and honestly, equip us to thrive in the future.
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.
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.
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