Minisode #11: Gaffes and Grand Gestures: What We Can Learn from Watching Well-Intended Leaders Respond to Crisis

Jennifer Brown | |


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In this minisode, Jennifer shares her reflections and thoughts about a recent incident at Starbucks, and the lessons and takeaways for all organizations. She reveals the limiting beliefs and obstacles that can lead to blind spots and gaffes, and what leaders need to do to create more awareness and shift culture. She also discusses the role that storytelling plays in this process, and how to create powerful and authentic stories that support diversity and inclusion efforts.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Jennifer’s thoughts on a recent corporate diversity crisis (1:30)
  • The obstacles that can lead to missteps and gaffes (3:30)
  • How to develop more awareness about diversity and inclusion (4:30)
  • The need for leaders to truly listen (6:30)
  • How to create a true culture shift within an organization (10:00)
  • The need for allies and how they can help (13:30)
  • Some of the potential limitations of bias training (15:00)
  • How storytelling work can support diversity efforts (20:00)
  • How to communicate with authenticity (22:30)

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

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta, this is another one of our minisodes.

Today, we’re going to be talking about—well, Jennifer is going to be sharing her thoughts and perspective on a recent incident that happened at Starbucks. We’re not going to go into the incident. What I want to say is if you want to learn more about it, just Google “Starbucks” and you’ll find more about it.

Jennifer, welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. I want to start with a departure point. Obviously, a lot is being written and said about this, but I wanted to get your perspective on what you think of the incident.

JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. For some people, this was not a surprising incident, right?

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s the first thing that occurs to me, depending on who you are, your lived experiences, and how you identify. If you’re a person of color, you were shaking your head and said to yourself, “Yep. Another example of the unequal treatment, the assumption of guilt, problematic behavior, and the inequities in the day-to-day treatment of people in my community.”

Similarly, then, for white people, the learning, the “ah-hah” moments we’re having that continue to occur. Wow, this is another data point that is a stark reminder and opportunity to truly believe in the inequity of the experience that all of us are having. The fact that we’re having different experiences based on our ethnicity in this society.

I can hear both sides reacting to this incident in a very different way, still. There’s denial on one side that inequities are so persistent and overt like this, and then on the other side, here’s yet another example of how I am not trusted, effectively, in this society. Getting arrested for no reason out of the blue is a perfect example and perfect storm, in a way, for illustrating this moment that we’re in right now, which is this reckoning. Particularly, a reckoning for the white community to understand how persistent and pervasive this is.

DOUG FORESTA: Can you say a little bit about the other side of the argument, like what you’ve heard? When I say the “on the other hand side of the argument,” I mean maybe people that have a certain amount of privilege, right? For those of us that are white, I’ve never been kicked out of a Starbucks, I’ve never been arrested in a Starbucks. What is some of the gist of the other side of that argument of what people are saying from the vantage point, I guess, of privilege, really?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Well, in the business world, Doug, we talk a lot about the myth of meritocracy. It seems to be a relevant point to bring up right now. When I work with business leaders, whether they say it or not to my face, I know they’re thinking it. Which is, “Everybody has equal opportunity. We all have the opportunity to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Equality is baked into the system.”

You’ll hear even with the Me Too movement, for example, you’ll hear people say, “I believe in gender equality, our company does great with women.” So there’s a lot of this denial that makes us feel better, to try to soothe ourselves and let ourselves off the hook, frankly.

What’s been interesting, and I can’t exactly quote the research, but when the actual numbers around gender equality are showed to both men and women, everybody presents a rosier picture than the reality. We want to tell ourselves that this is not a reality, and we’re still telling ourselves these lies. It’s frustrating for me.

It’s a great opportunity for me to be able to come into these rooms and say, “There is no such thing as a true meritocracy. Bias is happening to people differently than it’s happening to you, whether overt, covert, conscious, or unconscious.” It’s not just an individual being well meaning, it’s actually systemic, unfortunately, it’s baked into our organizational systems and the way that we hire and the way that we interview.

It can be very overwhelming, Doug, because it feels like it’s everywhere, and where do you start?

I do think that these moments of awareness, like the Starbucks incident, I hope are a further wake-up call—as if we need any more, but I do think there are many, many people that still need more stark reminders that we are all not treated the same, and that these things can have dire consequences on people’s liberty, humanity, and fair treatment.

And fair to whom? Who’s defining fair? If you’re in a position of power and you say, “Well, I was treated fairly, we’re all treated fairly.”

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Right. I’m treated well wherever I go. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Doug, that’s good for you. And the opportunity for leaders, as we talk about on The Will to Change, is truly now listening and truly hearing the experience of others—especially when it is different from yours. Take that on board and make it your standard belief.

For me, it’s I hear, “Believe that person when they tell you that this happens. The first time. Believe them the first time.” Don’t ask for more data. Don’t ask for somebody to explain something over and over again. Believe them when they tell them that this happens to them—that they are followed around in a store or that cabs don’t pick them up. I could go on and on.

I still feel there’s a defensiveness because there is a lack of true listening and taking the experience of others as gospel. A lot of us need to just do that. We’re wasting a lot of time arguing with the reality, that time could be spend asking, “How do we remedy this?”

DOUG FORESTA: I want to step in a second to say it would be easy to beat up on Starbucks, and people are doing that, some people are out there doing that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

DOUG FORESTA: If you think about it, I would say that Starbucks is actually a company that does have good intentions. If you look at the range of organizations out there, I would say that Starbucks is a company that really does want to do the right thing, but one of the things that you’ve said many times, Jennifer, is that good intentions are not enough. Can you say a little bit about that disconnect between a company saying, “We want to be that company, we want to do the right thing,” and then to have an incident like this where there’s a disconnect between the intention and the execution?

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s huge. First of all, they are a great company that is dedicated to this. We saw the Race Together program—somewhat flawed, but incredibly well intended initiative.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. They were courageous to do it, to do something.

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. That was spearheaded by their white, male, straight CEO, Howard Schultz.

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: He is doing his work on a personal level, that’s pretty clear from where I sit. I don’t know him personally, but I agree, I think of Starbucks as a brand, and a company with a leader that is going after some of these persistent systemic issues like economic opportunity, like school and education, like truly investing in the way that they support their baristas and their retail population to truly tackle some of the things that hold people back from changing their lives. I think that’s a very inspirational story.

I think to boycott a company like Starbucks, maybe choose a different target.

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly. Can we choose our targets? Exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. But I think, too, and this was one incident, right? So it’s hard to globalize one incident to an entire culture.

DOUG FORESTA: Sure.

JENNIFER BROWN: Also, it’s a beautiful teachable moment, too. Now we get to watch how a company with incredible intentions and maybe not the greatest execution in the world, how are they going to tackle this?

I think we’ve seen some great things so far. What’s going to really be the measure of all of this is what happens next. Just so everybody knows, I thought the speed of response of the CEO was amazing, it was quick, it was detailed, it was heartfelt, it got right out on the airwaves I think within 24 hours of the incident. I think he actually flew to Philadelphia, there were conversations had.

And then they decided, which is very interesting, innovative, and a somewhat flawed strategy, which is to close all the stores at the end of May for a day and do training at the same time. Right?

I have a lot of thoughts on the pluses and minuses of doing something like that.

DOUG FORESTA: Well, you just took my next question, because I was going to ask you about that. There you go! (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: In full disclosure, I know the Starbucks team and I’ve done some work with them, also, but this is me as an organizational change advocate, and somebody who’s also an activist on a personal level, but somebody who really wants change to be sustainable.

First of all, it’s a bold gesture. It’s quick, it’s bold, it is sweeping. It is expensive for them to commit to doing something like that.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Every single store.

JENNIFER BROWN: From a lost revenue perspective, yes. Originally, they talked about the NAACP being their partner on it. I think there is probably going to be—and I hope I’m not telling tales—but there will need to be several partners, a coalition of partners that helps guide them through these next steps, NAACP being one, maybe companies like mine and others who are really deep in the training work. We believe in training as “a factor” not “the only factor” to creating change after something like this.

It’s a great first step. How do you scale a training to 8,000 stores on the same day? Who decides on the content of that video? How quickly can you mobilize around content that needs to be resonant, accurate, and up to date? For the Starbucks employee, it needs to feel like, “This is my world, I’m going to learn about something and not feel patronized. I’m not going to feel defensive.” It’s got to thread that needle that we do all the time at JBC, which is to design content that speaks to all sides of this, and doesn’t alienate people.

Unconscious bias training can be tricky. Just listen to what we call it.

DOUG FORESTA: Right, you’re unconscious.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. You’re biased, you’re flawed, you’re still operating like a cave person from your primal lizard brain and making these snap, biased decisions that land your company in a whole heap of trouble, and by the way, you’re totally unconscious to it, you’re blind to it. Therefore, are you really helpless against it?

Unconscious bias training has been shown here and there to trigger that defensiveness, to cast the conversation with a compliance energy meaning, “We need to check the box and make sure everybody goes through this.”

That sends a message, to everyone, but particularly to women and people of colors and others who are underrepresented that they feel tokenized or called out because your company is forcing everyone to talk about your issues. It’s uncomfortable for everyone. When you are in the minority, or you feel like the training is about you, it can feel very awkward.

I love the role of white allies in all of this to think about the guy in the video, for example, who was trying to document the situation who had come to meet the two men of color, who’s their business associate. He was literally filming and saying, “I want everybody to see what’s happening here.” He was using his voice in that moment as an ally.

There are many people who have done their work around this, I don’t want to discount that. They are trying to learn, stand up, and educate on a daily basis.

Bias training has a little bit of an unappetizing taste to it because it’s been used and trotted out in situations where everybody feels like the company is just trying to check a box. That can be dispiriting for everyone.

Maybe they will call it something different by the time it gets rolled out. Maybe it will be more about behavior changes that are suggested in order to manage the reality of unconscious bias—or maybe even conscious bias, by the way, because it’s not always unconscious. Sometimes it’s right in your face.

DOUG FORESTA: Right, that’s another thing that we assume.

JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe this was conscious bias, this incident, too.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. We don’t know that. Exactly, we don’t know whether it was conscious or unconscious.

JENNIFER BROWN: We don’t. We actually really don’t know what happened.

I would construct this training as a first salvo and an awareness builder, but we cannot stop at awareness. We have to talk about what changes in our behaviors to be more aware of. I believe everybody has a diversity story, as you know, Doug. We try not to have an “us and them” dynamic, this binary conversation that ends up happening with the “haves” and the “have nots,” or you have the majority and minority, or white people and people of color.

At the same time that we need to acknowledge the huge and prevalent differences in experience, we also have to hold the middle in conversations like this. We have to encourage all of us who have multiple diversities within us to talk about what we share in moments like this. There’s not a clear group that is the bad actors, and there’s not a clear group that is the victims. We all have tools that we can bring to bear on a situation like this.

I would want whatever is developed to truly name that and be very tactical in terms of behavioral change. And then I’d also want follow up around great examples of how people are doing their own learning as a result of the training. It would be really neat to crowdsource examples from baristas of all kinds of backgrounds to talk about how they think of themselves as utilizing their voice for change and stepping up when they hear something that’s said that they don’t agree with, and using their privilege or advantage to have a conversation or even hold each other accountable.

We’re still living in a world where leadership of most companies does not reflect the diversity of our world. Until such time as we can change that, people in power need to be having conversations with others in power about the nature of our blind spots. We’ve got to do that work.

You can turn to the woman in the room, you can turn to the person of color in the room and say, “Educate me.” But to me, that’s very passive. And it’s going to be a very long time if many of us are relying on a few of us to educate ourselves.

DOUG FORESTA: It’s not fair. I think you’ve said this before, it’s not fair to these marginalized groups who then have to explain themselves over and over and over again.

JENNIFER BROWN: You could see it in the expressions on their faces, the two men of color, as they left the store. They had a grimace of resignation.

DOUG FORESTA: Not again.

JENNIFER BROWN: Of knowing. To me, it said, “I know how this is going to go, I’m going to keep my head down, I’m going to be peaceful about this situation.” It broke my heart. It broke my heart. We need to pay attention to that and acknowledge that this stuff is deep for our society and that it’s up to us—and I say “us” in my community, in my identity of ethnicity. We are the ones that have to change this.

DOUG FORESTA: You touched on this, but I want to dig into it a little bit more. We have a day of training, it is a very bold move to close down every store in North America. But the danger is, of course, we get one day of training, now I’m trained, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Now I’m unbiased.

DOUG FORESTA: I’m unbiased. How do maintain and build that momentum? Is it a practice? I’m curious how you do it at JBC. How do you keep it going?

JENNIFER BROWN: Storytelling is a really important part of this. We can have the left-brain, rational, intellectual discussion about the business case for diversity all day long, but people remember stories.

Lately, I’ve felt really animated about storytelling, that everyone has a diversity story, who’s telling their stories, who’s listening to those stories, and what kinds of formats can we build as large institutions with distributed workforces. That’s really hard, right? Technically, how do you do this? If you decide that you want more storytelling on behalf of people whose lived experience, for example, is one where they feel unequally treated, how do we create an environment where these stories can be told? How can we do the listening to have that “ah-hah” moment, and then shift how we look at things going forward?

I include not just those in the minority telling their stories. We need white people listening to other white people, male leaders listening to other male leaders. There are those of us in majority communities who are pushing really hard with our own learning. We may be listened to in a different way if we can elucidate what our journey has been like, and help bring other people along that look like us. People in same groups can listen to each other in a very unique way, and maybe get it more quickly because we don’t have to cross so many differences in order to listen and hear.

When we do storytelling work, it’s a “both/and.” It is storytelling on the part of those whose stories haven’t been told and are having a differential experience, and the listening. It is also teeing up leaders from the majority to talk more deeply about what their “ah-hah” moments have been, how they have learned another language across difference, how they have stepped up and become a more public and knowledgeable leader about differences—especially if they are in a relatively more privileged group.

That’s the piece I’m so curious about. I see the Starbucks CEO trying to be that kind of leader, to be that ally leader, to say, “I’m going to do the right thing right now, I’m going to do it quickly, I’m going to do it strongly, I’m not going to take no for an answer. Here’s how I’m going to show up in this moment, and I’m going to demand accountability.” It’s beautiful. I wish we saw more. We just need to see that, I think. We’re not even seeing that amongst most people with power in our country.

I watch these CEOs react to scandals. It’s fascinating. At one point, after the election, I knew a lot of CEOs were sending out internal memos to their employees. This goes back now a year and a half ago, December of 2016. Many employees were feeling incredibly disturbed and distracted—and heartbroken in some cases, not feeling like they could bring their full selves to work. They were saying, “Where does my company stand when I’m getting all these messages from our political process that I’m not valued?”

We collected a lot of those CEO communications. My friends sent them to me. Maybe they were released in a PR statement, but often they were just internal. I collected them all. I read them, and I asked, “Which ones feel authentic, and why? Which ones feel like this leader is really stretching themselves to step into this moment regardless of ethnicity or identity?” Whether they’re Indra Nyooi at PepsiCo, who made a beautiful and heartfelt statement. Whether it was Howard Schultz at Starbucks.

And there were some leaders who gave a sanitized version. You could tell that their legal counsel got ahold of it, and everybody scrubbed it to death, and by the time it came out, it had no emotional teeth to it. Then there were others that were very deep, meaningful, and personal.

These letters are actually up on JenniferBrownSpeaks.com, if you go way back in our blog. Maybe, Doug, we can publish the link to it.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes. Definitely.

JENNIFER BROWN: Go back and read those. We need to pay attention to how leaders are evolving in this moment. Watch them try to step up.

If it interests you, what makes something authentic? What looks like someone is stretching themselves into that uncomfortable territory, which is what we really want to see right now. We want to see people in power making themselves uncomfortable.

For Starbucks to forego the revenue from 8,000 stores for a day, that’s pretty uncomfortable. I like that.

DOUG FORESTA: Absolutely. That is a bold move.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a bold move, right? And it’s a bold move for a CEO to get a response out that was detailed as the CEO got out quickly. To me, that meant that he didn’t have time to have a lot of eyes on it, he just did it. It reminds me of how Howard Schultz just did Race Together. You can go back and read the Fast Company article about that campaign and how he bypassed all the internal controls to do this campaign. It’s interesting now to look back. He had this passion, he needed to do something, and it wasn’t perfect. He did pass over asking, “Okay, how should we do this? How should we roll it out? What would legal say? What could happen if we do this?”

We have to be careful in organizations to balance some of that healthy paranoia around how good, lasting, and sustainable change happens, versus that gut instinct of, “I need to speak, and I need to speak now. We need to step in.”

It’s fascinating. There’s no right answer. It’s really interesting. My bottom line is to say we need to see more leaders that do things quickly, boldly, maybe imperfectly, but let’s see more leaders doing this.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on an important topic. It’ll tell you, the headlines are giving us plenty to talk about in these minisodes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, boy! It’s true. I love it, though. It’s great. It’s giving us so much fodder and a lot of people are learning some new things. That’s always the first step.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s right, exactly. Thank you, Jennifer. Thanks so much.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug.