In This Together: From Privilege to Persistence for Change

Jennifer Brown | |


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Author and speaker Mike Robbins joins the program to discuss how those with privilege can use their influence to help create positive change. He reveals a powerful exercise that he does with groups that helps to deepen the conversation around diversity and shares his thoughts about how and why men need to call each other out on their behavior. Discover how and why to best use your voice and influence to help others.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Mike’s journey of moving from a professional athlete to writer and speaker (5:00)
  • How to dig below the surface to find our common humanity (11:00)
  • Why diverse talent often hide their true self at work (21:00)
  • What needs to happen for more men to become allies (27:10)
  • A powerful exercise that can help deepen the conversation (30:00)
  • How those with privilege can use their power for good (36:30)
  • How men need to call each other out about their behavior (39:30)
  • How men and women analyze their skills differently (43:00)
  • How Mike uses his sports background as a means of influence (52:00)

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

JENNIFER BROWN: Mike Robbins, welcome to The Will to Change.

MIKE ROBBINS: Thanks, Jennifer, glad to be here.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m glad to know you. It’s funny, you came to me because we talk about the same concept, and the title of your last book, which is: Bring Your Whole Self to Work. And I thought to myself, “Who is this person?” (Laughter.) It turns out, we’re existing in parallel speaker-keynoter-author lives.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: But from very different worlds and backgrounds and it’s such cool synergy when you discover that.

We always start The Will to Change with our diversity stories. And I know a bit about yours, and it is rather fascinating and unexpected in some ways.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: So, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you consider that to be.

MIKE ROBBINS: Well, thank you. I appreciate being asked that, particularly in that context. I grew up in Oakland, California, right outside of San Francisco. I still live in the Bay Area. My dad was Jewish and my mom Catholic. And both grew up on the east coast, but met in San Francisco. They actually split up when I was three. And, you know, I grew up going to city schools, inner-city schools in Oakland. And definitely by the time I was in late elementary school and into junior high school and high school, was very aware of the fact that I was one of the few white kids in the school, particularly playing sports. I played basketball and I played baseball. And in high school, I went to Skyline High School in Oakland, California. And not only was I the only white kid on the basketball team, I was the only white kid in the whole league.

So, my awareness of my whiteness and my race was pretty significant as well as even, you know, my religious background. Neither of my parents were very religious, but I understood that my dad being Jewish and my mom being Catholic was not so much unique, but just different. And I grew up actually going to a Lutheran church. So, the whole religious thing was confusing for me.

But I also had an older sister, Laurie, who I grew up with in my house. And my mother never remarried, so I was raised by a single mom who was a very strong feminist and took me out of school when I was ten years old when Geraldine Ferraro was running for vice president. She came through Oakland to speak in front of City Hall and women like Gloria Steinem and Billie Jean King and Susan B. Anthony were talked about in my house as heroes in a very significant way.

So, then I get drafted out of high school, actually, by the New York Yankees, because I was pretty good at baseball, that was my primary sport and I didn’t sign with the Yankees because I went to Stanford to play baseball. And I get to Stanford and all of a sudden my diversity world was very different. I had never been around that many white people in my life and my Stanford baseball team, which a lot of those guys are still really good friends of mine, literally felt like the Young Republicans Club. And I was like, “Oh, my God, what is this? I don’t even know where I fit.” (Laughter.)

So, it was interesting and I learned a lot and became very aware of my being white and being male and what that meant in the world, very different than the house I grew up in and the city I grew up in and the schools that I went to as a kid. So, it was an interesting journey. I actually got my degree at Stanford in American studies with a specialization in race and ethnicity.

Just to complete it, there is more to my diversity story, but I ended up getting drafted by the Kansas City Royals out of Stanford and I signed a pro contract, went into the minor leagues, as you do in baseball, and I unfortunately got injured. I was a pitcher and I hurt my arm when I was still in the minor leagues. I was 23, and then three surgeries and two years later, by the age of 25, like you in the arts, I had to move on from my life. 18 of the first 25 years of my life playing baseball, and after my injuries and surgeries, I wasn’t able to come back. I had to move back home to the Bay Area and figure out what was next for me and what I was going to do after baseball.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. And, naturally, became a multi-book author, right? I think you’re on your fourth book, is that right?

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes. Yes. Bring Your Whole Self to Work was number four, and I’m just flirting with the idea of number five at the moment.

When I got home, I’m 44, almost 45 now, so this was 20 years ago. I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do. I ended up getting a job. It was the late ’90s, I got a job in sales working for a tech company. I was just trying to figure myself out and was going through quite a process, as I imagine you did as well. Who am I if I’m not an athlete?

I was seeing a therapist and going through my own process, but I got really involved in taking lots of workshops and reading lots of books that were about life and purpose and also just dealing some of my own pain, shame, and my own confusion about who I was as a human being. I got so interested in that work for myself personally, I started to have this fantasy – and it really was a fantasy at the time. I want to be a part of this world. I want to write and speak and help people along their journeys in life, whatever that might look like. But I had no idea how one started to do that or became qualified or credentialed to do that, if you will. I always thought maybe if I made it to the major leagues and became a famous baseball player, people might be interested in some of my theories on life and success because I was well known. But not being well known, I thought, “Who the heck is going to listen to me?” (Laughter.)

But just a couple years of a couple tech companies and then I got laid off and I had a mentor of mine really challenge me and say, “If you could do anything and you didn’t have to worry about paying the rent and everything were handled, what would you do?” And I said, “Well, I would write and I would speak and I would try to teach and inspire people. And he was, like, “Okay, great you should do that.” And I was like, “Now?” I’m, like, “I’m just barely almost 27 years old and I don’t know anything.”

JENNIFER BROWN: What do I have to say?

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes. Who’s going to listen to me? But I just started coaching, speaking, and ultimately started writing. It wasn’t easy at first, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I got a lot of good mentorship and support and some luck.

Looking back, because we’re going to talk more about race, gender, and diversity, being straight, being white, and being male and having gone to Stanford and living in the San Francisco Bay Area – all of those things were huge privileges of mine that I don’t know that I would have fully acknowledged or understood as privileges at that time, but I was able to network and leverage some of the relationships that I had and some of the confidence I’d built over the years as an athlete in other things.

It took a lot of work, but here we are almost 20 years later. I’ve written four books and I get to travel around the country and the world speaking to lots of people.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so cool. Certainly, you dig into real issues in your keynotes. I’ve seen you speak a couple times, and funny enough, we both teach an exercise around the Iceberg Model.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: The fact that much of what makes us who we are and that which is most true about ourselves are perhaps things we hide, are ashamed of, that we don’t share. You lead it by asking the question: If you knew me, if you really knew me, and then if you really, really knew me – and you prompt people to share these things. It’s so cathartic. I know you find people just jump in, they can’t wait.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: There is an unanswered need to be seen and heard by so many people.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Coming from my work in D&I, it transcends what we might have thought around race and gender. It goes to somebody with a disability in your family, addiction issues, socioeconomic background, not having the right education for the role that you’re in. There are so many different family situations that occur to people that they feel they can’t bring into work.

MIKE ROBBINS: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Your book is well titled – Bring Your Whole Self to Work. What does that really mean?

You stand up on that stage and vulnerably share. You say, “I’ll go first and I’ll share some things.”

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Would you tell us a few of those things that you have to choose to reveal and feel vulnerable about from the stage?

MIKE ROBBINS: Usually, whether I’m speaking at an event – and you and I were recently at the Better Man Conference in San Francisco. I did that exercise in a very brief format in front of a couple hundred people there. Sometimes I’m in a room with more people, the could be less. I could be sitting around a table with ten people on a team. What I always try to do is tap into what’s true for me in that moment. It’s less about my story, per se. Sometimes it is, but it’s really about how am I feeling in that moment or what’s on my mind or what’s going on in my life?

If you really knew me, you would know right in this moment, I’m excited to be talking to you. As we talk about issues of race and gender and privilege, it’s exciting to me and it’s scary. It brings up resistance and fear. I’m going to say the wrong thing and offend people. That’s what’s going on in my head right in this moment.

If you really, really knew me, you would know we just got our 12-year-old daughter a new iPhone and I’m excited about it and totally terrified.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh.

MIKE ROBBINS: There’s a whole world of everything out there. I want her to have access to certain things, but not others and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. My wife and I are looking at each other all the time like, “Where is the instruction manual?” (Laughter.)

What I try to do, one of the things I’ve learned over the years is this weird concept, but it’s so true: The more personal, the more universal, right? The more I’m willing, you’re willing, or we’re willing as humans to share our story and our truth in what we’re feeling, in some ways people can look at me, look at you, or look at others and can’t relate on the surface of all the things that might be on a resume, how we look on the surface, where we came from, race, gender, age, background – all that. The humanity that we all share has to do with a lot of that stuff that’s down below the surface of the water line.

When I was a kid, I’d sit in class in junior high and high school. I was a good student, I did well, but I had all this stuff going on in my life at home. My dad had bipolar disorder and there were issues, my mom was angry, we didn’t have a lot of money, the house was a mess, and I was ashamed of that. I have a crush on that girl over there, but I don’t know how to talk to her – all that stuff. And then we’re sitting in class learning about trigonometry. And I’m like, “Who cares? Why are we talking about this stuff?”

And I just thought, “Well, maybe I’m just weird.” I have all these thoughts and feelings and everything going on inside of me. I’m looking around and nobody else, particularly the other boys that I was friends with, they weren’t talking about that stuff. So I thought, “Well, I must just be weird and something’s wrong with me.” Of course everybody feels like that, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Right.

MIKE ROBBINS: I’ve been on this mission for most of my life. It’s not about oversharing, but I want to get real about my own experience and I want other people to be real about their experience because it just makes me feel more human, more connected, less crazy when we’re all telling the truth.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Well, of course. Doesn’t that make the most sense? Tell me, where do you think men are vis a vis their involvement in diversity and inclusion? You mentioned that we were just at the Better Man Conference in San Francisco.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I highly recommend it. Mike and I and so many amazing leaders come and speak and hold this space for, largely, the male audience. There are some women who come, but it was probably 80-90 percent men.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: They are feeling all of these things – uncertainty, perhaps unarticulated resistance.

MIKE ROBBINS: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe it wasn’t too articulated in the room. We felt like there was a huge willingness in the room to be there, be open minded, and a real seeking of knowledge.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Not to give away any secrets, but with your next book you are planning to dig more deeply into diversity and inclusion.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And you know as well as I do that when men – particularly white men – start to position themselves as someone who has something to say on the topic, it can cause some interesting responses. You know you’re stepping into this, but I know you as a person. I know you feel it’s important. I agree that certain audiences need to hear this from you – period.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Just like certain audiences need to hear it from me. It’s not fair, it’s not right, it’s not just that certain people can walk into certain rooms and not be questions and be able to show the variety of emotions that we do without criticism. We’re allowed to tell the truth in different ways. As you start to dig into this work, you and I know the messenger is symbolic as much as the message in terms of getting that message across. While it haunts me, sadly, it’s something that sometimes our consulting clients say, “You know, I really need a white guy to come in and deliver that session.”

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Other times, I get, “We really need a person of color.”

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I try not to judge that. I use it as a teachable moment. We discuss it and maybe they change their mind. But I do think that people listen to other people in their group. Therefore, I’m really excited to have your voice emerging more publicly on this topic.

MIKE ROBBINS: Thank you. There are a couple of important things you just touched on. For me – I’ll talk about my journey with this and then also how it relates to men and specifically white men. Obviously, I can’t speak for anyone but myself.

My background and my story, a bit of which I just shared, issues of gender for sure growing up in my house, issues of race growing up where I grew up, how I grew up, and whom I was around as a kid and a teen and a young man in particular. That’s always been very important to me.

Part of why I got my degree in American studies with a specialization in race and ethnicity, I graduated from high school in 1992. The spring of ’92 was when the Rodney King riots happened in LA. At my high school, Skyline High School in Oakland, there was a huge protest and a huge walk-out. I remember the day. I was the senior class president. I was class president for all four years in high school.

JENNIFER BROWN: Whoa! You underachiever. (Laughter.)

MIKE ROBBINS: Part of it was I was this kid who was a popular kid. I was cool with just about everybody in the school, and most of my African-American friends, and even some of the African-American kids I wasn’t friends with, one of the highest compliments you could get as a white kid was, “Hey, Mike, you’re pretty cool for a white boy.” (Laughter.) I got that compliment. That meant a lot to me.

Knowing you and I were going to have this conversation, I remember being on the senior lawn at Skyline High School the day after the riots. The kids, the teachers – everyone was so upset. We didn’t know what to do, and the teacher just let us walk out.

But there was a group of us that gathered. I was feeling a sense of animosity from some of my African-American friends that I had never felt in my life, and some of these kids I had grown up with. There was an anger and a feeling of “us versus them,” and “You don’t know what this feels like.” It was scary for me. I was really upset. I was upset about the verdict and what had happened and everything. But I’m, like, “What do you mean?” Some of my friends said, “Listen, this is a problem that you don’t understand that black people have been dealing with for generations with police and in the community and this is a problem that we’ve got to figure out and we have to solve.”

We’re standing around, and in my 18-year-old mind as I’m listening to this and trying to have empathy and feeling scared and sad and all of it, I remember saying my understanding at the time, and I think it’s true now, is that about 12 percent of the American population is African American. And it was really scary for me to say, but I said, “If there’s this boulder that needs to be pushed up the hill, and there are some of us outside of that 12 percent who want to help push, can we help?” The response at that moment from a number of my friends was: “Not right now. We don’t want your help.”

I remember not totally understanding it. I’m not exactly sure why I’m sharing that story.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that story.

MIKE ROBBINS: There are times when those of us who aren’t part of a particular group need to understand that the anger, the sadness, the fear – all the emotion involved, as much as we may want to help, participate, and support, we have to step back and be able to allow that group of people, whoever that group may be – and that group’s not a monolith, they’re not all going to act and think the same way of course – react and deal with in the way they need to deal with it.

Some of this is akin to what we’ve seen over the last year or so with the Me Too movement. There’s a way in which men need to just stand back, listen, but allow women to express themselves in the way they need to express themselves without us running into the rescue, “Well, we’re here to save the day!” You know? That’s not necessarily needed or wanted, and may actually not help the situation. It’s super confusing and uncomfortable. One of the definitions of privilege is when we don’t have to participate in something. As a man, I’m privileged to not have to participate in issues of gender. I’m the dominant gender. It’s not to say I’m not aware, but it just doesn’t impact my life in the same way it would a woman. As a white person, I can opt out of conversations and dynamics around race for the most part, unless I happen to live or work in an environment that’s just, by its nature, incredibly diverse. A lot of white people walk around and aren’t even really aware of conscious of their own whiteness. Why would they be? When does it come up? How do we talk about it?

So, it’s a long way of saying I do think for men it’s really tricky because when we do step in or speak up or lean in or try to address issues, let’s just say, of gender, what can happen is you can screw up, which we inevitably do, and upset people on both sides. Upset other men, like, “What are you doing? Stop doing that? What are you saying? What are you accusing me of? Who do you think I am? You’re part of the problem.” And then upset women for, “Oh, now you’re ‘mansplaining’ and you’re not listening and you think you know everything.”

And so it’s, like, okay, I don’t know what to do. So, we’ll just say that feels really uncomfortable, I’m going to opt out of this because I can.

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly.

MIKE ROBBINS: Because I don’t know how to participate in a way that’s meaningful and also not going to get me in trouble not just with the quote/unquote boys’ club, although it might, depending on the environment, but just in general because it’s like I don’t want to cause more harm.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m being told I already cause harm –

MIKE ROBBINS: Exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: – just in who I am and what I’ve inherited or what I haven’t challenged in my life. Or the fact that I don’t know the issues and you and I can sit here and say, “How could you not be awake to all of this?” But I agree with you, there are many, many who haven’t been.

You just articulated the conundrum that is at the heart of inaction.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: The problem with inaction, of course, is that you just said, 12 percent of one marginalized community, and other communities are even smaller than that and even less seen.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Because some of us with disabilities or LGBTQ+ people can hide who we are in plain sight. I know with my corporate clients, they always say, “Well, we need to do self-identification and we need people to feel safe enough to check the box so we can count how many we have in our workforce,” people with disabilities, et cetera.

MIKE ROBBINS: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Meanwhile, from the communities, they say, “Well, I don’t know if I can trust the institution to check that box. Am I safe to do so? What are they going to do with that information?”

Now, this happens in the most progressive companies in the world that I work with directly. There is still that lack of trust. And so institutions really need to do better, but how can they communicate that this is important, you can trust us, and if you bring your full self to work that it will be honored and it won’t cause more problems for you?

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes. Well, absolutely, look, I’ve gotten the feedback over the last couple years in particular, “Oh, great, Mike, it’s awesome for you to talk about bringing your whole self to work, but you’re a straight, white man. It’s different. You don’t know what it’s like to be – fill in the blank.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Right.

MIKE ROBBINS: You know, and my response to that when I hear that, and sometimes it comes with a lot of anger and a lot of righteousness, and sometimes it comes with, “Hey, you might want to think about this or consider this,” or wherever it comes across that spectrum. My response, first and foremost is: You’re right. I have no idea what it’s like to be anything but me. And what I do know, and you talk about this a lot in your work, in your book, in your presentation that you gave at the Better Man Conference, you talk about the research around covering. And what we know from that research is that, yes, certain marginalized groups cover more than others, but so do straight, white men. There are a lot of people in the dominant group in an environment who are covering a lot of themselves, what they think, how they feel, who they care about, what they’re affiliated with, aspects of themselves.

And so one of my approaches over the years, although I haven’t been as overt about talking about race and gender and inclusion and diversity specifically for a couple reasons, which I’m happy to talk to you about here, I’ve also looked at it as like if I can help people open up and be more real about who they are in their humanity and help all of us find the places where there’s a lot of common ground, that’s a huge deal for us being able to do that because at the end of the day, you know, there’s a ton of stuff that doesn’t get addressed or dealt with or acknowledged and it doesn’t specifically have to do with race and gender and some of the different ways that we’re different, it just has to do with human beings being human and being scared to actually be seen and to show up and for how they might be judged or excluded or ridiculed.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. So, the broader definitions, the acknowledgement that we all know what exclusion feels like.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: We have all overcome challenges, and Kenji, who authored covering report, I say this all the time, that he always said, “It’s not the pain Olympics.” The goal is not a race to the bottom in terms of the hierarchy of privilege.

I say that, and we laugh and we see what we do in that statement, right? We do tend to do that. But I think that it might have harmed our ability to progress and the way that we’ve looked at diversity work in general, who is centered in those conversations? And, yes, do we need to center marginalized voices? Do we need to do that and continue to do that? Absolutely.

But at the same time, you know, when you see in the diversity networks I work in so much in corporate America, whether it’s the women’s group or the LGBTQ+ group, particularly in the gay groups, there has been a flood of straight allies.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: They now outnumber the number of people who identify as LGBTQ.

MIKE ROBBINS: Oh, really?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. In some of my clients. They have the matching shirts and they’re very proud and they’re so invaluable in their numbers and the protection that that can give. You can’t overestimate the importance and the optics of that for those of us who are still closeted.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Why don’t we see more men not just outsourcing this whole gender conversation to women? Because men have a gender, too, FYI.

MIKE ROBBINS: Of course.

JENNIFER BROWN: News flash. White people have a race and ethnicity that comes with lots of implications.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: If you think about it, well, I don’t have a culture, I’m Scotch-Irish, U.K., Anglo – whatever I am.

MIKE ROBBINS: Right. Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: But we actually do, we just don’t notice it because it’s all around us and it happens to be a primary culture – I might say a dominant culture in much of the work world anyway. And we get to make all the decisions, we’re comfortable walking through our lives, and how do we awaken that knowledge of when privilege gets such a bad name, but really it’s just a fact of some of our lives? How do you talk about that with other men and create the “ah-hah” moments that we need?

MIKE ROBBINS: You know, it’s tricky because I think, again, to the question you just asked and one from before, too, I think there’s a lot of men in particular – specifically straight, white men – who just aren’t paying attention; they’re just not aware. And not because they’re jerks and not because they’re insensitive and just because it’s not in their world and on their radar screen, do you know what I mean? I can’t tell you how many – like I have a number of men in my life who are now in their 50s and 60s who have kids who are in their 20s and 30s and just as a few examples I think of in my head who are pretty conservative, socially conservative, and then one of their kids is gay. And then that had a whole journey they had to go through to make peace with that themselves, but now it’s amazing to me these men are advocating for things about LGBTQ rights and things. I’m having these conversations. It became very personal because their son is gay and they had a personal connection now with the gay community that they didn’t before.

And so I say that for a lot of men – and you hear men in a way that sometimes they can get criticized for that will pay more attention to the plight of women or what’s going on or the Me Too movement because they have daughters, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Totally. We roll our eyes a bit when we hear that.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yeah. And I get it, but at the same time, the reason why many of us are passionate about these issues, let’s be honest, it’s not because we just were born with this sense of, “I know what’s right; I know what’s just.” Maybe there’s some of that, but it’s because it has a personal impact in our lives, right? If you happen to be female, if you happen to be African American, if you happen to be Asian American, if you happen to be any marginalized group, of course you’re going to pay attention to this to some degree. And if you’re in communities where there are lots of people that are impacted, that’s not to say that the white person or the white man who’s off hanging out with mostly other white men can’t pay attention. But, again, understand that it’s harder to understand and have empathy because it’s not his experience.

That said, for the ones who are aware and more awake, the question then becomes: What do I say? How do I say it? How do I engage? My own story with my own background and my own interest in this, when I first got into this work and started to speak and write, “What do I have to talk about?” Well, I was an athlete. I could talk a bit about sports and success or teamwork. Okay, well, I’ve gone through this experience. What are the things? Oh, my gosh, I actually know a lot and actually have education in race and ethnicity and diversity. But my thought was like, “I am not going to as a straight, white man, venture into that arena because, A, it feels a little scary, and B, it almost seems like it would be disrespectful.”

There are people who are doing that work who know exactly what those experiences are like and can talk about it from experience and with credibility. My fear was that I couldn’t and that I would actually be stepping on people’s toes in the process, do you know what I mean? And it was like this is scary water to get into because it touches on some really emotional, very personal things. And, inevitably, what happens is we say the wrong thing, we do the wrong thing.

My sister, who was four years older and has, sadly, passed away from cancer, but was a huge influence on my life. My sister was the PC police from the time I was really young. I mean, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my sister was constantly editing the words I was saying. It was like junior high school, the girls’ basketball team, she would say, “The women’s team.” They’re 13, Laurie, what are you talking about? She was really mad at me all the time.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s adorable. (Laughter.)

MIKE ROBBINS: It’s really cute, right? But she would constantly say it. I would refer to someone as a black person, she would say, “African American.” And this is back in 1987, right? And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” But she was really adamant about language and being mindful. I both appreciated it, but at the same time my sister, who I adored and who taught me so much, in a lot of ways she epitomized a very intense, liberal, progressive mindset of like, “You have to say these things, think these things, and believe these things. And if you don’t, by the way, you’re not part of this group.”

So, what I’ve seen in the progressive environment in which I’ve grown up, that there are a bunch of rules you have to follow, and if you don’t follow those rules, you’re in big trouble. I’ve had people in companies in Silicon Valley come up to me after an event and say, “You know what? If you really knew me, you would know that my faith, my Christian faith is really important to me and I never talk about it at work because it is so not okay to talk about that. And it’s like, whoa, and then I could be somewhere in, you know, Louisiana or Texas and it could be the exact opposite where someone would come up to me and say something totally different after an event. But it’s essentially the same feeling and the same essence of this is true about me, this is important to me, and I don’t feel safe to bring it up and talk about it, because it is not the dominant and accepted perspective to have.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Right. And in the south, that might be being an atheist, by the way.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yeah, or it could be being a Buddhist or being a Democrat or a progressive. Do you know what I mean? I remember as a kid being at school one day and someone said, “You know, something, something, something, my dad’s a Republican.” And I looked at them and I said, “What?” And he said, “My dad’s a Republican.” And we were all like even or eight. And I said, “I don’t know what that means, but I know it’s bad. I just know that you shouldn’t say that out loud, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. (Laughter.)

MIKE ROBBINS: I had just gotten the sense at home in my house when that would come up, it was always talked about in a very negative way, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Right.

MIKE ROBBINS: Again, we have those things. And it’s the same thing I would imagine on the reverse in certain other parts of the country.

JENNIFER BROWN: I mean, how are our own worst enemies amongst progressives? Let’s talk about that a bit. You know, the Silicon Valley bias of the Bay Area, of many people covering around elements that are not welcome and not talked about.

I find it really harmful. While I’m grateful that we’re having conversations about what values mean to us and our own experiences, I feel as conscious about the left and the extreme judgments of me as somebody who, like you described, is on stage talking about these things. What am I going to get wrong? Am I going to capture the nuances? Am I going to be inclusive of everyone that I deeply care about and love and want to represent?

But it’s just fascinating for me in my own learning, I just happen to be doing it relatively publicly and hoping that nobody calls me out on Twitter or sends me a direct message privately to say, “You know, when you say this, it comes across as this. I just thought you should know.” And I’m so grateful for that stuff, but I’ll tell you, you know, I thought maybe I would have more to be worried about from more conservative viewpoints, but I’ve presented to a lot of those audiences. And my message is a relatively unique one because it is such an inviting, inclusive message, right?

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Your keynote and my keynote are very similar in that way. Folks who haven’t been heard and acknowledged feel comfortable enough to share, “I identify as a conservative in my organization and I don’t really talk about that.”

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I feel so proud that I create enough space for that admission to happen.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And I feel equally proud, though, when marginalized communities come up to me and say, “Thank you for naming me and calling my experience in the body you’re in as Jennifer, it’s so much more powerful than you’ll ever know.” Those are also my favorite moments because we exist in this middle of being a channel through which these many polarized conversations can come together. And it’s an exquisite and sacred opportunity that we have in these very short keynotes that we do.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I wonder, does it feel the same for you? I guess, how do we not spend this energy tearing each other down on one side or the other when, really, we’ve got to come together and get organized around this message?

MIKE ROBBINS: Absolutely. Well, I think a couple things. One of my favorite Dr. King quotes is this: He said, “We have no morally persuasive power with those who can feel our underlying contempt for them.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, that’s in your book. I highlighted that.

MIKE ROBBINS: I love that, right? And that means both from one side to the other, so we’re trying to influence people who we think are thinking the wrong things and coming from the wrong place. This is not about not standing up, this is not about not even fighting for what we think is right, but if it comes from that energy of, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” the righteousness, the contempt, what it does – and there are some situations, some issues in the world right now where we feel like, “Look, this is not okay, this is not safe, that’s not acceptable, and I don’t care.” You know, that’s fine. If you’re clear about what the goal is.

But I would say within the groups, and we talk about – you know, you talk a lot in the D&I work about intersectionality and all these different ways which we separate and there are subgroups within groups. But what happens, often, is that within the groups, the people that are on the side, we’re on the same team, we’re standing for the same things, and then we’re tearing each other down because you’re not doing it the right way. You’re not saying all the right words. How dare you? You don’t know what this is like.

Look, we’re human and these are really touchy and personal and emotional issues of course, but what ends up happening, and this is where a lot of allies start to get in, people who look like me who start to say, “Hey, I’m interested, I’m interested.” And all of a sudden you get slapped down a few times and you’re like, “Oh, that hurt and that didn’t feel good and that could be a problem for me. And I don’t want to all of a sudden get myself into trouble when I’m trying to help.” I’m not trying to claim some kind of, “Oh, woe is me, someone said something mean to me on Twitter.” But it doesn’t serve the purpose.

The book that I’m working on right now, the working title of it is: We’re All in This Together. To me, again, without being overly naive or corny about it, I’ve always looked at the world that way. It’s like that comment I made at 18 years old to my friend the day after the Rodney King riots. I’m like, “If I want to help, can I help?” I don’t mean that in some condescending way, but I’m really interested. And if you’re telling me that I’m not invited or I’m not included or you don’t want my help, okay, I can hear that, but then I don’t know exactly what to do because it feels to me like a lot of these issues, they do impact all of us. Some of us are significantly more impacted than others.

But if we’re going to figure that out in a way that works better for more people, those of us who do have privilege, I think being able to and being willing to wade through some of the choppy waters to figure out how we can be most of service I think is a really important thing to do.

You know, I’ve said to my wife, Michelle, a few times, because she gets worried sometimes. I wrote a piece, I think you and I talked about this recently. Right after the election, I wrote this piece called An Open Letter to My Fellow Straight White Men. And we posted it on my blog and we posted it on the Huffington Post and LinkedIn, all the other places we syndicate. And I was not prepared for the nasty comments and all the vitriol that was going to come back at me.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yeah.

MIKE ROBBINS: You know, I write about things like teamwork and appreciation and authenticity and these things that if you don’t like it or agree with it, you’re usually not going to make some nasty comment or a death threat or call me a name. But I was like, “Oh, my God.” And Michelle got really nervous.

And I said, “Look, I understand, this doesn’t feel good. I’m a little upset about it myself.” But, really, I’m about as insulated and I feel about as safe as possible, what’s anyone possibly going to do to me? And I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, but it’s like I can take it. And, in fact, s someone said at the Better Man Conference a few weeks back that I really appreciated, one of the best things that men can do to support women is not show up and say, “Hey, how can we help or what we can do?” Call out other men that are doing stuff that we know is not cool.

I don’t mean to be too weird about it, but it’s like being at a bar and some drunk guy is being obnoxious and you stand up and, like, “Dude, knock it off. Shut up. Get out of her –” you know what I mean? It’s just a physical reaction. Yeah, that’s a little scary. He might punch me in the face, but I’m going to do that anyway because even if it’s not my wife or my daughter it’s like that’s not okay.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right.

MIKE ROBBINS: And that’s part of what we can do, among many other things, is say, “Hey, knock it off. Thought’s not cool.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. And then hear other men around this stuff, too. I’ve seen it over and over that we might get called the squeaky wheel or the broken record or angry. I say “we” as women, pointing these things out and you can just fill in the blank in any diverse dimension.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: When we’re the ones in the covering report, it’s advocacy-based covering, which means that after a while, you don’t want to be that squeaky wheel because you perceive, rightly and sadly, that there is penalty that builds over time when you continue to use your voice to advocate for your community. Meaning hear the joke, comment, challenge it, give people feedback. Everybody ends up rolling their eyes when they see you coming, you know?

MIKE ROBBINS: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: And you get this reputation. And it’s not right because these things are important. These aren’t just, “Oh, I’m going to be angry for anger’s sake.”

MIKE ROBBINS: No.

JENNIFER BROWN: If you are a leader and somebody’s telling you that you or someone else is using exclusionary language or subtle micro aggressions and they are taking the time to tell you why, what it sounded like, and what you might do differently, I cannot imagine the kind of leader with a growth mindset, which you and I both talk about. I’m going to be writing about it in my second book, but Carol Dweck’s work, when we fail to do something, why can’t we simply be curious about knowing more, not asking any questions or you’re wrong or my intent was this and I didn’t mean to have that impact.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: That whole rabbit hole. And just take it in because I think we’ve got to let go of the need – and my friend Wade Davis, who was an NFL player.

MIKE ROBBINS: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Who was closeted and came out and is a motivational speaker now, too. He says in his workshops with men, the very first thing he says, “Can we just agree to not needing to be right today?”

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Just for today. It’s funny that it needs to be said right at the beginning. As a woman, you would never say that to a room full of women.

MIKE ROBBINS: No.

JENNIFER BROWN: It doesn’t even need to be said.

MIKE ROBBINS: Look, it’s humbling. One of the things I’ll say for a lot of us as men, this is true for humans, I would imagine. Obviously, I can speak to it more from a male perspective. Part of the evolution a boy to a young man, teenage boy, through the development of becoming a man, what ends up happening is there are a lot of situations where the expectation is that we know something that we don’t know.

Look, this varies, I would imagine. For me as a straight man, I just think of my evolution of, again, being interested in girls when I was growing up. I then I learned, “Oh, I’m supposed to go ask her to dance or I’m supposed to go ask her on a date or I’m supposed to know.” How am I supposed to know how to do these things? These are really hard and scary and vulnerable, right?

And this could be true – so what we do is we try these things. And of course, inevitably, we fail at them. We get our feelings hurt. We don’t know what we’re doing, and then it’s not an excuse, but then we start to harden ourselves up. Don’t do that, that hurts, that’s scary, everyone laughed at me. I had to walk – you know.

And then we also pretend like we know stuff we don’t know. And we’re socialized that way, right? And it’s all of the data that we see that a man will look at a job application or a job posting and say, “You know, I’ve got a few of those things.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Give it a whirl.

MIKE ROBBINS: I’m close enough. I’ll throw my hat in the ring. A woman looks at it and it’s like, “I have seven of the eight, but I don’t have the eighth one, so I’m going to wait four years and get three more degrees, then I’ll go back and apply for that job.” You know, what’s happened is a lot of us as men have acted in our lives, particularly our professional lives, is this fake bravado, “I know how to do it, I got it.” And part of what ends up happening is the righteousness or being in charge.”

I mean, I see this even as mindful as I can be, even in my own home. My wife, Michelle, and I have two girls – Samantha, who’s 12, and Rosie, who’s 10. And about a year ago we’re in the car and we’re pulling the car out – and it’s the car that my wife normally drives, we have two. They’re in the garage and we’re pulling the car out of the garage. The way my wife had parked the car, it was a little tough to get out. And I’m explaining to her, “If you park it this way, it’s easier, and you won’t –” you know? And as I’m doing it, Rosie, who’s nine at the time, says from the back seat, “Hey, daddy, stop mansplaining to mommy.” (Laughter.) And I’m like, “What?”

JENNIFER BROWN: At that age? Oh!

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes. I stopped in my tracks. And I say, “First of all, I was not mansplaining. Was that mansplaining?” And then I look at all three of them who are looking at me like, “Yes, you were.” And I said, “Second of all, Rosie, how do you know what mansplaining means?” (Laughter.) She says to me, “Oh, Ms. Leah told us,” which is her teacher. And I was like, “Oh, my God.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.

MIKE ROBBINS: But it was a really humbling moment where it’s like my nine-year-old was calling me out for mansplaining. And I realized, I thought I was being helpful, but in reality as I took a step back and got curious, what was I saying? What was I doing? In that little moment we’re all laughing and it wasn’t a big thing, but oh, I just unconsciously go into that mode. It was about the car and the garage and it was with my wife. I mean, not even a car guy, you know what I mean? It was just this weird, unconscious, arrogant thing that, of course, as a man, explaining to a woman about here’s how to – but we do that and we’re not even aware of it.

It takes a lot of courage for a female, a nine-year-old or anyone, to point it out. But if we as men can point it out to each other respectfully but like, “Yo, man, were you aware of that or did you notice that?” Right?

I was with a group of executives about a year and a half ago for a full day. At lunchtime I was facilitating this whole session, but someone had to come in and give a presentation. The executive team actually was all men, there was one woman in the room who wasn’t officially one of the executives, but reports to one of the executives and he wasn’t there so she was there in his place.

And the person who came in to present was female. She gave her presentation about something they were doing marketing-wise whatever, and then people left. After we were debriefing I said, “Before we go back into what we were talking about, I just want to ask you all, how do you think she felt presenting to all of you just now.” And they were like, “What do you mean?” I was, like, “What do you think? When she goes home to talk to the people at home or goes back to talk to her team, what do you think she’s going to say about how that went?” They weren’t really nasty, they just weren’t really paying attention to her is what was going on.

And I said, “Do you think she told her spouse this morning that she was going to meet with the executive team? Do you think the people on her team knew she put that deck together and came? Do you think that was a big deal for her?” And then, again, I asked, “Also, look, we’re busy, we can get better.” And I said, “Do you think you would have treated her the same way if she were a man?” And then it got really uncomfortable in the room because they were looking at me like, “What are you saying?”

JENNIFER BROWN: Okay.

MIKE ROBBINS: And I was, like, “Well, what do you think?”

JENNIFER BROWN: (Laughter.) Good for you.

MIKE ROBBINS: And then we could start to have a conversation about it. And that wasn’t part of the agenda, that was not at all what I was talking to them about. But it was like let’s – because I was there talking to them about them as an executive leadership team and how can they operate more effectively together and how can they be more aligned so they’re more effective with the company? But I was like, that was a real-time example. What do you think the reputation is of this executive leadership team outside of this room? And, by the way, that’s one specific data point because she’s not going to keep it to herself what her experience was just like in here. They were all like, “Whoa. We can do better.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I’m so glad you called that out. I mean, I just think these little tiny moments of courage – every coach, every leadership consultant. We have a lot of people listening to us on The Will to Change who do this work as independents. You raise an interesting way that we can use our voice, which is as that third party, we are truth-tellers.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Unlike people who are internal to organizations who have to deal with the politics and the blowback and all of it, we can call the question.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: My wish for every leadership consultant and executive coach out there, many of whom don’t have a great grasp on diversity and inclusion issues and how they arise and how they are so – they’ve always been fundamental to team performance and all of those things, right?

MIKE ROBBINS: Uh-huh. (Affirmative.)

JENNIFER BROWN: But more and more, now, every team and every leader must have some muscle and some self-awareness and the ability to hold a mirror up to themselves or have a consultant or a coach who does so. Inclusion and inclusiveness is becoming – companies are starting to and already do hold leaders accountable in a financial way for leading inclusive organizations.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And they measure that through 360 feedback, they measure it through the composition of the workforce they hire and promote.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: They measure it and they literally attach bonus money and compensation packages to it. I imagine that will be more and more widespread the more time goes on. Frustratingly, as you and I know, in this business world, what gets measured gets done. Apparently, if it doesn’t get measured, it doesn’t get done, which is not what I want and not what you want.

MIKE ROBBINS: No.

JENNIFER BROWN: But it’s a start. For people to realize this is real business. It matters and it costs the organization financially for people to leave, reputationally like you just said when that person goes back and shares what it was like. You’re right, that sense ripples through so many people who are trying to gauge, “Am I valued here? Am I listened to? Am I important?”

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Those things have everything to do with whether you accept that call from a headhunter or not or whether you’re starting to look. That’s why diverse talent bleeds out of companies. And I see it that the numbers haven’t changed. You know, the percentages of women and people of color at certain levels, they are literally static because we have not addressed the rest of the culture around them.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yeah. Well, I think sometimes, again, for those of us who find ourselves in certain positions, in dominant positions based on our gender, based on our race, based on our background, our education, our level in an organization – whatever it is. We can be in privileged positions whether we check all the boxes for that or not. It can feel a little scary and it can be a little risky for a variety of reasons. But being willing to use those positions of privilege to speak up and advocate in a way that can have people listen and have people understand.

I’ve now realized, particularly you’ve mentioned this earlier in our conversation that it wasn’t as clear to me even a few years ago that I’m seeing now that I am uniquely positioned to say certain things and do certain things that other people may not be. I’m, clearly, going to have my own bias and my own blind spots and my own unawareness of things and what’s going on and I’m probably going to use the wrong words and inadvertently offend. All of that is going to happen. And you know what? I’ll live and hopefully people will give me feedback and I’ll get better and I’ll keep getting the feedback and I’ll keep trying to stay curious so I can be as mindful as possible.

But like I don’t want to let those things and my own fear and discomfort stop me from saying things and doing things that I know are important. And I can sometimes see it both in comments that people will say – and this is not some holier-than-thou thing, but it’s like I can see the looks in the eyes of some people like, “Thank God. I’m so glad ‘you’ said that.” Right?

One of the things I learned way, way back when I started doing this work was I was going into these companies to talk about really personal, soft, almost spiritual topics I believed. And I realized, “How am I going to get them to take me seriously?” People could roll their eyes. It wasn’t about race, it wasn’t about diversity.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Right. You’re not following the “man code” by talking about that stuff.

MIKE ROBBINS: No, but what I did was I was able – my background, my story: I played baseball, I went to Stanford, I got drafted by the Yankees, these are all resume bullet points that on the one hand in my world, I realize they don’t actually mean that much inherently. They’re interesting, but that’s a lot less of who I really am, but they made people feel safe and comfortable and give me a certain amount of credibility. They would listen. This guy knows about winning and competition and he knows about this, that, or whatever it was. Or tell a story or share an example that all of a sudden what I realized was, “Oh, if I get people to listen and to trust me, then I can talk about things that maybe they would shut down about normally, but they’re willing to give me the space to talk about them.”

That’s one of the things I’ve really worked on over the years in my own journey is to get better and better at doing that because that, then, gives me more space.

And so for all of the people listening who are in those positions of influence who are consultants, who are leaders, who are different – continuing to work on what are the things that are important for me to do and say so that people will open up and really hear what I have to say? If we’re simply just banging on the table, they’re not always going to be open to listening to what – even though what we have to say is fundamentally important.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. I know. You just described what I liken to the Trojan Horse, you know?

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: They’re going to open the castle gates for certain people. Once you’re in, then you can unleash some truth.

MIKE ROBBINS: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: And tell the truth. But this is why all of us are needed in change. We all have different gifts, all of which are needed and necessary, and not all of us can do this in the same way.

MIKE ROBBINS: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: If we beat our hand on the table over and over again, people don’t respond well to that. That’s just a fact of human nature.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: It takes the anger, which has its place and is needed, and it also takes the careful finessing for certain audiences that I think, perhaps, you and I have a window into that’s unique to us and others who look like us.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: The next wave of this work is going to be to make that point and invite people to do more.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: What is the worst that can happen? I love that you said that. The fear thing is really – if you get underneath that and say, “What is the worst that can happen?” By the way, you’re still safe in your life.

MIKE ROBBINS: Completely.

JENNIFER BROWN: You driving around in your home and in your neighborhood, okay, so you’re called out on social media, but okay, let me learn and adjust. I love that you said that. If you’re a listener and you feel like there is this excuse of fear going on and it’s leading to inaction, apathy, resistance, and avoidance, Mike gave us some really great antidotes to that today in terms of the response.

When you have privilege, you are safer in your life. That is a fact.

MIKE ROBBINS: Completely.

JENNIFER BROWN: So use it.

MIKE ROBBINS: Yes, for sure.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so much, Mike.

MIKE ROBBINS: Oh, you’re welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: This has been incredible. I know we are going to have to wait till 2020 for your next book.

MIKE ROBBINS: But we can talk about it before then.

JENNIFER BROWN: Let’s talk about it before then. And we’re excited for it. But in the meantime, where can people find information about you and follow your work?

MIKE ROBBINS: Thank you, yeah. The best place to do that is just at our website, which is mike-robbins.com.

JENNIFER BROWN: Okay, great, perfect. Well, thank you for coming and joining today.

MIKE ROBBINS: You’re welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Keep up all the good work, and I cannot wait to hear your voice more loudly in my spaces. I will welcome it with open arms.

MIKE ROBBINS: Thank you.

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Mike Robbins

Bring Your Whole Self to Work