Lily Zheng, Author, Organizational Consultant and DE&I Changemaker, joins the program to discuss how organizations can move beyond performative allyship and create real change. Discover a powerful stepping stone for leaders, and the need to focus on high-impact behaviors.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Code switching explained (7:20)
- Organizational change in the DE & I field (15:00)
- Getting specific about intentions to deliver the appropriate outcome to clients (21:00)
- Starting from a place of value to create empathy (27:00)
- Creating systems that make equity a biproduct (32:00)
- Protests: Helping employees find and use their voices (35:00)
- Companies should value their impact over their PR (43:00)
- “You can’t solve trust with PR” (50:00)
- Acknowledging that you are a learner, even though you are a leader (55:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Lily, welcome back to The Will to Change.
LILY ZHENG: It’s so great to be back.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know. I’m happy to engage with you at this time because I trust you and your viewpoints on current events so much. You are in the thick of it. You are extremely well-versed with the tech industry in particular, and so I always enjoy our conversations, as we’re not so tech-focused. Also, because you’re a member of my community, and somebody who’s been on The Will to Change several times now. I just keep bringing you back because it’s good. I just can’t wait to reacquaint you with our audience, and our audience with you.
If you would, take a moment and give us whatever introduction you’d like to your own diversity story, your journey, how you got into the work you do, what you do these days, who you do it for and with. Anything you’d like to share about what fuels your tremendous commitment to the similar ideals that I, of course, share with you, of building a more inclusive world where all of us can thrive.
LILY ZHENG: Well, that’s a hell of a prompt, Jennifer, so I hope you have 30 minutes for that.
JENNIFER BROWN: There you go.
LILY ZHENG: I’ll keep it short. I’m Lily Zheng, for the folks who haven’t seen me here before. I use they, them and she, her pronouns. I am a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant based in the San Francisco Bay area. A condensed version of my story. I would say that I got my start around four or five years ago doing intro-level D&I education within higher ed, actually. What ended up happening from that is I realized that I didn’t really like the work. I actually came to higher ed from a background of organizing, and so I was protesting. I was organizing rallies, I was doing teach-ins, and I was doing a lot of that on the ground work.
Going from that into a 101 D&I education space was a little jarring because day-in, day-out it is the same basic conversations about, “What is racism? What is sexism? Why is racism bad?” I realized that what I wanted to do was to go beyond those conversations and really do strategic work around actually creating better workplaces, actually creating better outcomes. Because D&I, as a field, isn’t just about changing hearts and minds. It’s actually about the hard, long-term work of organizational change, and that’s where my passion lied.
For the last four or five years or so, I’ve been in that space. Things have only picked up in the last six months, as companies have realized that to actually walk the talk, they can’t just release a statement on Black Lives Matter. They actually have to do the work, and so now everyone is saying, “Oh, wow. We have to do the work. What is the work? We have no idea.” Just as an industry, I think D&I is exploding right now. There’s so much demand. It’s really transformed the way that our field works.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, you’re so right. Isn’t it nice to feel like pulled in for once, versus pushing all the time to educate, to make people or compel them, in whatever ways we do, to care?
LILY ZHENG: Sort of.
JENNIFER BROWN: Sort of, yeah? Do you agree with that-
LILY ZHENG: Sort of.
JENNIFER BROWN: … or does it feel different for you?
LILY ZHENG: It feels very different for me. I think, just my own experience. I’ve had so many people reach out. On its face, that’s a really nice thing, but I’m having to spend so much time vetting people. Because I tell people this often, my favorite time for the D&I field is the dark time right after COVID happened, when a whole bunch of D&I professionals were laid off. That was actually my favorite time.
JENNIFER BROWN: No way.
LILY ZHENG: I say that not because it was great, because it wasn’t, but because I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that companies asking for D&I work, at that point in time, genuinely wanted to do it. They valued D&I so much that at the start of a pandemic, they were doubling down on supporting their people. Those folks, the clients that I picked up at that time, I’m still working with. They’re phenomenal folks.
I think right now, D&I is really popular, so I’m having to do so much work to talk to clients that I’m realizing one or two calls in don’t actually care, aren’t actually committed, just want a quick checkbox solution. It’s a very bizarre time right now. On the one hand, yes, I’m being pulled in, but sometimes, the intentions that the folks doing the pulling have aren’t always the right ones. That makes it more difficult, I would say, for me, at this point in time.
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. Sometimes, they’ll surprise you. It seems performative at first, and then they may connect the dots and get committed in a deeper way.
LILY ZHENG: Sometimes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I agree with you. Sometimes, yes, exactly. How do you discern what they’re made of? How do we know which way it’s going to go? I agree, the burnout is real right now. I’m just being pulled on so much, and having to work so hard to, I think, backup and educate a lot too. Are you feeling like you’re having to go back to go forward? Which is hard too. You and I talked a lot about being sort of 2.0 and having 1.0 conversations, and the fatigue of the practitioner. How do you manage that in yourself? You’re a business owner too, so you have to be practical as well, of course, about everything.
LILY ZHENG: Yeah, yeah. Well, my one sentence answer is, I outsource it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yay.
LILY ZHENG: I’ve built a really big referral network of folks that have made their living doing that work and honestly, it’s a godsend for me to be able to say, “You know what? It sounds like you need something that I can’t provide.” One of the benefits of having so much work these days is it’s a lot easier to say, “No.” It’s a lot easier to say, “This isn’t my area, my zone of excellence. Let me send you to someone who does this work better than I can.” That’s been really helpful. I’ve really enjoyed leaning on my network of practitioners. That’s a really positive way to just say all of us are burned out, and overwhelmed, and dealing with too many clients.
I’m just going to say I enjoy referring out because it means that I can pick the engagements that I want. Sometimes, I do have the energy to do that 101 education work. I spoke with a client very recently that wanted a Trans 101. Nine times out of 10, I would have said, “No,” but for whatever reason that day, I was like, “Okay, okay. You know what? I haven’t done a Trans 101 in a couple months. All right.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Might be refreshing.
LILY ZHENG: “You could be my refresher.” It’s been a struggle, for sure. I think knowing so many folks doing this work is keeping me afloat.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, that’s such a great answer. I really appreciate that. The ability to say, “No,” because there’s such an influx is really kind of a new feeling, honestly, for a lot of us, but we’re finding our way. We all have different specializations. What would you say is your specialization, Lily? One of the things I’m fascinated by with this recent executive order, which, it came down from the Trump administration a couple days ago. It was very specific to anti-racism work and mentioning of white supremacy. It was fascinating, because it made me think about the diversity of approaches, I guess, that exist in our field in terms of how we teach.
I was reflecting as I was reading the “target” content or teachings in that executive memo, and reflecting on how we talk about … My background is in organizational change and it’s in leadership. My lens, when I come to the work, is not from the lens of, maybe, activism and being an educator, or even an academic. It’s from, honestly, a learning development perspective, which is what I got my degree in. Being LGBTQ as well, obviously, informs all of it in that. I’m just curious, how do you think of your place in this equation? Then, how do you relate? Maybe comment a little on that executive order and what is actually being targeted and why. How can we keep the work going in spite of that? Which of course, we’re all going to do.
LILY ZHENG: Oh, gosh. Well, you’re just laying it on thick with the big questions today.
JENNIFER BROWN: Big questions.
LILY ZHENG: I’ll start with the first half. The way that I see my own role in this space, I think, first of all, I do want to say that I did start from that activism space. I started out with a very firm education and grounding in anti-racist work from the grassroots, and I still hold some of that. What I do these days, I think there’s a lot of code switching that happens. It really depends on the organization. I would say a solid third of my clients are coming at me from the perspective of, “Our organization is struggling with white supremacy. Help us fix that from a systems point of view.” That’s a very different engagement than an organization that says, “Help us understand how we can create an inclusive culture for everyone.” Now, the scopes of both of those projects will probably overlap, but just the way clients talk about specific challenges clues me in to how I’m going to be approaching the project in question.
When my clients are very well-versed in this sort of activist, grassroots language, I pivot. I use that language myself because I’m very familiar with it. I know how to make change using those frameworks. Oftentimes, no matter what the client is, I do have to code switch, because the vast majority of senior leaders don’t speak that language. I find myself in a position where, when I talk to ERGs, or junior employees, or the folks that are really passionate about this, I use the language of anti-racism, fighting white supremacy, ending oppression, fighting cis heteronormativity. All of these things are really crucial and important and I understand that, but then I have to translate that.
I have to translate all of that work into, “What does this mean for your organization in terms of its policies, its practices, its culture? What does this mean to create an anti-racist or anti-white supremacist hiring process?” These are two things that require you to meld the grassroots language with the organizational language. That’s something that I find myself doing a lot more often these days. It helps because a lot of leaders are looking to be reassured. Now, I’m not trying to reassure leaders that the problems don’t exist, but sometimes, speaking their language builds buy-in in a way that me walking in and saying, like, “What are doing to end white supremacy,” doesn’t do. Right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. I hear you.
LILY ZHENG: 99% of the leaders that I know, If I said that, they would just end the Zoom call right there and hide in their closet. Right?
JENNIFER BROWN: True. It’s true. It’s so true.
LILY ZHENG: Like, terrified. It’s really scary. Sometimes, you just have to translate, and that’s tough. Now, on the second thing you said related to the executive order. Yeah, there’s a lot of parallels there. I do think a lot of it is this fear, this fundamental fear that a lot of folks in power have, which coincidentally or not so coincidentally, happen to be cis gender, heterosexual white men. There’s a lot of fear that people in these positions have around the power that they hold and knowing that, to some extent, it’s illegitimate, and so the language of anti-racism is particularly threatening because it powerfully names that disparity.
It powerfully names the fact that white supremacy is a problem because white people should not be holding this much power. White supremacy is a problem because oppression, white people oppressing people of color should not exist. I completely get it. I completely understand why this administration would release an order like that, because they’re scared. I see the same sort of fear in some of the leaders that I talk to when they’re coming to me nervous and saying, like, “Our employees are so angry at me. I don’t know what they want. It just seems like they hate white people. What do we do here?” It’s the same emotion. It’s the same sort of insecure worry that they’re about to be taken down. That’s where a lot of this defensiveness comes from. I’ve seen it so many times in the corporate space. I just don’t usually see our corporate leaders making executive orders that affect the entire country, for a good reason too. Because we’re seeing how much harm this one executive order is doing already.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yeah. Boy. To say to somebody, “You get here quasi-illegitimately because of, perhaps, the tailwinds of privilege,” and it’s really difficult-
LILY ZHENG: Well, nobody wants to hear that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Nobody wants to hear it. How do you continue to hold that conversation together and move it to where you want them to be? How do you turn that into a productive, teachable moment? I’m curious.
LILY ZHENG: I wrote about this in an HBR article a year or so ago. It’s called How to Show White Leaders that D&I Efforts Need Them. One of the things that I talked about in that is framing individual identity as insight. What I mean by that is first, we need to talk about the fact that in our country, in the U.S., we only bring up race as a critique, typically, and so the only times people use the word “white” are in naming white supremacy, in naming whiteness and saying, “Whiteness is bad.” Now, whiteness, I think, in a lot of ways in our history has been weaponized horribly.
Oftentimes, we do need to talk about white supremacy, but thinking from the perspective of these leaders, they have never talked about privileged identities in their entire life. To have them engage with these ideas and then to immediately put them on the defensive, oftentimes, is too much for them to deal with. It’s basically being told that, “Hey, guess what? You’re a member of a group that you didn’t know before.” Then them going like, “Okay. That’s interesting.” Then you going, “Guess what? It’s a bad group.” Right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
LILY ZHENG: That feeling, that very speedy transition, where leaders are being sort of slapped in the face with like, “Wow. Now I’m the bad guy,” is happening very frequently. I think a lot of practitioners are exasperated by this. Rightfully so, because everyone who’s not white has known since they were a child that whiteness is kind of a pain in the ass. Right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Right, right. Not a newsflash.
LILY ZHENG: Like, “Come on.” Right. White privilege is so obvious to everyone that doesn’t have it. For the folks that do have it, and this applies to any privilege, there’s this learning that has to happen. What I find is most helpful when I’m working with these leaders is to say, “Look, you are white, you’re a man, you’re cis gender, and you’re heterosexual.” I just stop, and I watch them flinch because they’re ready to hear me say terrible things about them, and then I don’t say anything.
I say, “You are those things.” They say, “Okay. What does that mean?” Then I say, “Your identities give you a very unique insight into how the world works for other people like you. Because you are white, you know how the world works for white people.” Then I even say that that’s valuable. “I’m not white. I have no idea how the world works for white people. You have something that I don’t, that’s so valuable. You’re a man. I’m not a man. I have no idea how the world works for men. Your identity is valuable.”
I start from that place of value and I get them thinking like, “Oh, okay, okay.” Now I’m building competence with using these identity terms. Then, I basically say, “Not everyone’s experience is the same as yours. Not everyone’s experience with their race is as positive as yours might have been, so let’s try to understand what these experiences are like and get to the root of them such that everyone can have the positive experiences that you might have had.” That is a really powerful stepping stone for leaders to start understanding that, “Wow. Racism is real.”
This is like babies’ first racism 101, but I do think that the first step is to help them understand that their identity, by itself, is not something they should be ashamed of. It’s addressing the power inequalities created by white supremacy, by misogyny, by transphobia, homophobia. That’s what we’re trying to fix. Just because they’re part of a privileged group means that they actually have a lot of insight into how those systems work, they’ve just never thought of it before, so … I used in that piece, I was talking to a man who was just like, “I’m skeptical about this idea that you say that I’m an expert on gender. I’m a man. Why would I be an expert on gender? I know how my organization works, and what you want to do if you want to get a promotion, but my wife is the expert on gender. She’s been teaching me so much about how women have it different, how things are harder for women. She is the expert, not me.”
I basically said to this person, “Doesn’t that mean you’re the expert on how your organization works for men?” He was like, “I’ve never thought about it that way,” because that’s exactly right. He knew so much about how his organization worked. He just thought in his head that it applied to everyone, and his wife was like, “It doesn’t.” The corollary of that is, his insight is still valuable, just for men, just for cis gender, heterosexual white men. That helped him understand his own identity in a way that gave him an in into the conversation.
JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent. Love that. This is why I love talking to you. You get me all fired up. Lily, then so you do that. Then the question, to me, is, “Okay. Now I’m understanding my place and the power I have,” so the influence, whether … There’s so many kinds of privilege. There’s access, there’s comfort, there’s permission, there’s credentials. There’s just so many things that go beyond white, straight male, cis gender male privilege. What I’ve been doing lately is trying to say, I’d like people to acquaint themselves with things that are easier or more comfortable for them. Then, think about who may not have those things and how the sharing …
The dynamic we really need to encourage is the, “I can leverage this. Now that I understand the Rubik’s Cube of who I am, I can leverage some of these pieces to change outcomes, to rebalance a system that might have been dominated by people that look like me and worked for people that look like me. I can share it.” I wonder, is that how you guide them from that? They did the inventory, they sort of …. Utilize that and wield it to change our organizations.
LILY ZHENG: I think about it from a very structural point of view. I think one of the challenges of doing this work is I think DE&I has a long history of being very interpersonal and saying, “Now that you understand how racism works, you can be a good ally to people of color.” There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but at scale, what we’re doing is we’re teaching cis gender, heterosexual white men that they can, as individuals, be saviors and help other individuals not get discriminated against. It’s not a scalable approach, it’s not sustainable.
What I try to do when I have conversations about allyship, I say, “Because you have all of these privileges, you, especially if you’re in a position of power, can’t be just playing out your own fantasies about being the hero. You need to do the work of creating a system, of creating policies, practices, procedures such that equity is created as a default outcome rather than as a result of your act of charity.” That’s so important. Individual leaders are always so excited when you say, like, “Hey, did you know when you say this word instead of that word, people feel less terrible?” Leaders go like, “Oh my gosh. I can’t wait to try that word to the next 20 people.”
JENNIFER BROWN: “Oh my gosh. Now I’m an ally.”
LILY ZHENG: Right. I’m like, “No, no. Stop that.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, gosh.
LILY ZHENG: Like, “I cannot give you the list of words you can say to be a good ally, but if you want to create a real impact in the workplace, I don’t know, maybe do something radical like commit to your entire leadership team having 50-50 gender parity, having representative demographics on race by 2025.” I don’t know. Then, leaders will always hem and haw and be like, “Oh, no. That’s too scary.” Then I’m just like, “Well, guess what? I can’t do that for you. Your employees can’t do that for you. Your ERGs can’t do that for you. In fact, this is the one thing you can do, as a leader, that no one else in your organization can do, so are you going to do it? Or are you going to play with words that make you feel good?”
That’s, I think, the focus of this work. We need to be laser-focused on getting leaders to take the actions that make the most impact based on the position that they’re in. That requires a more structural approach to DE&I education beyond just this feel good sort of 101 allyship. That’s my big problem with this work, is it’s often too shallow, and leaders get away with doing pretty much nothing.
Oh my god. I was talking to this CEO a couple years back, and his employees were protesting the company for, I believe that it was forced arbitration. They had a really bad policy around that. The leader went to the protest, in disguise, and then patted himself on the back for going to it. He said, “I joined a protest. I was part of the movement.” Then I’m just like, “Buddy, they were protesting you. They were protesting your complete lack of ability to make this decision.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.
LILY ZHENG: “You did not make the decision. You went to the protest to feel good.” I think that is the perfect example of why allyship, these days, is messed up. Because we don’t focus on the high impact behaviors that we want these leaders to take.
JENNIFER BROWN: What a story and image, and I’m so not surprised that you needed to correct that person. Talk a little bit more about protest. Talk more about employees finding and using their voice in different ways, which I’m so here for, obviously, and the leaders who are not knowing what to do, scared. Of course, being I think that the organization hasn’t built the muscle that it needed to before we were in a crisis point, and now we’re in a crisis point. I’m worried, A, I think the hard work is ahead of us. I think we awakened to a lot of things this summer, but I really don’t want to lose steam, and I don’t want to stop telling the truth, and I don’t want to go back to sleep. I don’t want people to go back to what’s comfortable, but this next phase is really going to matter so that what happened this summer is not squandered, or not minimized, or doesn’t go slide back to this, I don’t even know what.
I wonder, what do you see as the companies that want to stay awake and be kept awake, how do you see the transparency that is being demanded on the part of employees and on the part of customers? The role of the company is fundamentally changing, and these leaders need to change in the company. Then the company needs to change its stance. This is not going to go away. What’s happening with all that, and what is your prediction about the coming weeks and months, and what’s going to continue to evolve?
LILY ZHENG: Right. I’m already seeing a pretty wide gulf developing between companies that are saying, “The crisis is out there” and companies that are saying, “The crisis is in here.” I think that’s the biggest difference. Companies that have been able to look inwards and say, “White supremacy lives here. Trans misogyny lives here. Ableism, classism, Islamophobia lives here.” Those are the companies that I think are going to sustain that momentum because they will be inpatient. They will look inside and say, “Oh my gosh. We have so much work to do.” That’s, I think, what’s needed.
I’m talking to a whole bunch of clients that are basically saying, “What can we do to help the world?” I’m just like, “Nothing, because you need to clean house. Why are you talking about the best place to make a donation to Black Lives Matter when the black employees you have don’t stay for more than six months because they hate it there? You have your own problems to work on.” Leaders that don’t realize that are so hyper-focused on, “What can we do to control our public image? What can we do to restrict our employees from protesting?” Those are companies, if we’re going to use the language of awakened or not, those are companies that never woke up. Those are companies that are doing the bare minimum to try to cling to this old status quo that never really existed, that’s been shattered by COVID and the George Floyd murder, et cetera.
Those companies are still doing that. Unless they realize that the harm exists within, they’re never going to get out of that. That’s already happening. I don’t think it’s this universal awakening and then we’re going to lose steam. I think it’s been a differential awakening, with some people getting it and some people really not, and understanding it just as like, “Well, first our employees were fine, and then our employees are mad, so the problem is our employees are mad. How can we shut them up?” That’s, honestly, a lot of leaders. That’s quite a lot of leaders.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Yeah. Most, maybe, we could even argue.
LILY ZHENG: I really do think it’s most.
JENNIFER BROWN: Lily, what do you say to … I get this question so much and it just breaks my heart over, and over again. When people say, “I’m in this organization that doesn’t seem to care.” Or, “It’s performative, but we have so many problems.” I know we can’t always say to that, “Hey, change companies.” That’s presuming a lot of privilege, and flexibility, and resources. What do you say to those who are really trying to shift that system from wherever they sit in the organization? Often, it’s not those of us who hold the power of executives, like you said. They actually can’t create changes with a stroke of a pen. What do you say?
LILY ZHENG: There’s so much here. I think, the focus is on preserving the safety of the employee first and foremost. I’m not going to tell employees to do things that will put them in danger. Especially if they’re not working at a very supportive company, I don’t want them to get fired and lose their job if they’re not willing to do so. I think, now this is a good space to talk about, what are the different things you can do with different levels of risk to make a difference within your company? That ranges from talk to your manager, to start a pilot project using the authority you have to create your unit as a place that actually embodies all of the aspects of the organization you want writ large, and then hope that that scales. That’s a pretty safe approach, assuming you have a good manager.
Now, assuming you don’t have a good manager, look to move … Look to transfer into a manager, a boss that can treat you well, that can enable you to feel included. Maybe not within the company, but at least within the team. I think that’s the bare minimum. Now, let’s say you don’t even have that, and you can’t leave. You’re in a toxic situation, you can’t get out, you’re not willing to quit. Unfortunately, this happens very frequently. I tell people very frankly, “The job doesn’t have to be your life. Clock-in 9:00 to 5:00, put in your hours. Make that money, get yourself a paycheck and funnel that towards doing work that you feel more empowered by elsewhere. Get out there. Organize, protest. Get out the vote. Engage your community. Help work with nonprofits, volunteer.”
There’s so much that people can do that don’t involve their workplaces. There’s just a lot out there that people have, in terms of opportunities to create impact. It’s our responsibility to determine for ourselves where the balance lies between where we can make the most impact and what we can do that’s an acceptable level of risk to ourself. Everyone’s going to have a different answer.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s such great advice. Thank you for answering that, because it’s a question I get constantly. How are you guiding companies to have a voice on all the issues that are swirling around? Say that you are guiding them and they’re an open book. They’re willing to do what you are recommending that they do to show up, right now, as places that are striking the right tone and that are both doing the work internally and educating externally and wielding whatever … I think companies have privilege. Companies can shift entire things. They can shift industries, they can shift workplace practices, they can go first.
When they share their workforce demographics, for example, it’s like, “Thank you for the transparency. You have a lot of work to do.” That’s a brave and bold move too. I guess, what do you look for, right now, for the best way an employer can show up? What does that look like, sound like? What do you wish you’d see a lot more right now? What is the opportunity ahead of companies should they choose to take that and really step into this?
LILY ZHENG: A few things. I think the companies that are doing best at this are companies that we don’t hear from until their employees brag about how good the company is. That’s the crucial distinction because when that happens, it shows that the company is valuing its impact before its PR. We don’t have enough companies doing that. These are companies that are saying, “Look, we need to redesign our impact on society from the bottom-up. From how we treat our employees, to how we treat communities located within the cities that we’re headquartered in, to how we engage our customers, to how we design our products, to how we sell to markets, to how we engage with our vendors, to how we engage with our investors.” These are all things that are very non-transparent.
No company is going to say, like, “Hey, guess what? We just tried this new thing with our investors,” because that’s not something that companies tend to brag about. When companies put in that work, you genuinely see folks feeling really happy to work there. You genuinely see employees going, like, “I’m working on this thing that’s going to change the industry. I’m working on this thing that’s going to create so much equity. This process has involved people of color, and disabled folks, and women, et cetera. Not even our customers, but just random people that might intersect with our company. I’m so proud of the way we’re doing this work.” You hear about it, and we need more of that.
Now, in terms of what companies can do to lead the way, if we’re talking about leading the way being communications, do what Ben & Jerry’s is doing. I don’t mean release a nice BLM statement and educate. I mean have a consistent track record of doing what you’re doing well. I see a lot of companies trying to copy Ben & Jerry’s model, and I don’t think that’s a smart decision because Ben & Jerry’s has had a long history of standing behind these issues, and educating, and ensuring that they’re having the impact that they’re having. Now, Ben & Jerry’s is not perfect. A couple years ago, they, I think, got into a labor dispute around undocumented workers, so they’re definitely not perfect, but I do think that the way that they’ve addressed maybe just anti-Blackness, in particular, is really commendable. Not because of what they’re doing now but because of what they’ve always done.
I think that’s where a lot of companies have room to grow. To think about, “Look, we haven’t always done this, so how can we build a platform for ourselves and something that we can do consistently that maybe won’t give us positive reviews in three months, but will give us positive reviews in 10 years, when people have seen that we’re consistently on the right side of history?” That’s going to depend on what the company does. That’s going to depend on what service they’re offering, what product they’re selling, what customers they’re engaging, but it’s unique. Folks are looking for companies that can walk the talk and have their own unique way of addressing these issues.
JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent example. Interesting that Unilever is Ben & Jerry’s corporate parent, so it’s also, I’ve been fascinated to watch Unilever’s work too, but also that they remain separate and distinct too and are on their own paths. Ben & Jerry’s has continued to have that agency to continue to demonstrate its commitment. I love what you … You keep circling around to the build the system so that it continues, the machine continues. It’s not a one and done. Circling back to what you said about senior executives having this very special opportunity to build a system that’s going to create different outcomes. That’s their job. That’s what they do all day long for customers, for products.
If equity work can happen on that level versus, like you said, the individual transformation level, like if you’re doing your job as a leader you are literally interrogating the systems, and the processes, and the policies, and you uniquely have the ability to put things in place that are literally going to change things permanently. I think, that lens and that responsibility and, really, opportunity is something I talk specifically to those leaders about. Because meantime, the rest of us are in the organization, in the belly of the beat, trying to storytell, trying to educate, trying to bring our full selves to work when it’s really hard.
I think, and meanwhile, we have often these executives that are not utilizing with … They’re not doing their job. They’re not seeing the problems through the lens that only they have. I think that’s such an important piece, so thank you for raising that. I also wanted to say, so companies get it wrong. Like you just brought up an example, mistakes are going to happen. Apologies are going to need to be made. Imperfection, we got to embrace the fact that we’re on journeys, both individual leaders and companies.
Do you recommend being very transparent about things we get wrong, being very transparent about where we’re going and how we are not there yet? I recommend leaders talk about this, and I think companies should talk about it too because it’s not ever finished. This work is evolving. Also, being comfortable speaking in that way, or showing up in an imperfect, not finished way is another one I feel like you understand the power of that. That it doesn’t need to be, nor can it be ever finished. It’s a moving target. How do you encourage showing up as imperfect and owning things that don’t go ideally? How can we come out of that actually stronger?
LILY ZHENG: Right. I would say that the core factor that decides whether communications about failure succeed is not about communication strategy but is about trust. If you have the trust of the organization, you can fail and they will believe that you can do better. If you don’t have the trust of your organization, no matter how you word your apology, people will think you’re being disingenuous. The pivot that I’d like to make here is, how can you build trust with your organization such that everyone within your company knows that you are on the right path, and can accept roadblocks, and stumbles, and obstacles along the way?
That’s a lot harder than just, what’s the right thing to say? That really factors into, “How are you talking about problems? How are you conceptualizing problems? How are you showing up as a leader? How are you tasking the organization with addressing these challenges? How do you respond when members of your own org mess up? What is your company doing, collectively as a whole, to make progress towards these goals?” Because, again, I don’t think it’s as simple as just leaders saying, “Okay. Our company is going to try to be anti-racist,” and then there’s some big scandal, and then they say, like, “Sorry. We’re not there yet. We’re still trying to be anti-racist.”
The challenge here is if your company is really on the right track, it needs to have those processes in place to say, “Why are these challenges happening? Why are these scandals happening? What can we do to prevent them? What are we doing on the day-to-day to do anti-racism?” such that your own employees will say, “All right, all right. It looks like the media is not being very happy to our CEO because they’re blaming our CEO for this big problem. We know that there is so much happening on the inside. It’s not just him. He’s been doing a lot of good work. We’re making a lot of progress.”
When your own employees are defending your actions, you know that you have the trust of your organization. It’s not about what you say. It’s never been about what you say. It’s about ensuring that the employees that are most marginalized feel like you have their back, and then approaching public communications and PR as just a PR issue. If your employees know that you’re doing the right thing, then that’s the thing that matters most. When you lack that trust, you can put all the money into PR you want. One of your employees is going to leak the whole story to media, and then people are going to hate you. That’s unavoidable because you can’t solve trust with PR. That’s just not how it works.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think that advice you just gave is so perfect for the individual leader as well. It strikes me as the same thing. It’s the trust building and the way that leaders can say, “Here I am. I’m on a journey. I don’t know, actually, almost any of the answers.” Particularity if you’re a straight, white cis gender man, this is an area of a total lack of competency, I think, when it comes to … I wonder, what do you say to people who are like, “I don’t know. I’m realizing I’ve been so shielded from all of this, and now I need to step in as a leader and establish an authentic connection and somehow use something in me to create that trust, so that people will tell me when I am a good ally or when I got something wrong. Or they will extend the space and grace to me,” that you’re talking about?
That flexibility and the mutuality of that is what we really want. I wonder if you have any advice for leaders that are like, “I’m trying. I want to build trust because I know it can hold me as I learn, and as I stumble, as I get things wrong.” Maybe it’s just as simple as saying as what I just said. Is that your approach? Is there any other tips you give leaders who are really trying to step into something completely unfamiliar and open that dialogue?
LILY ZHENG: Yeah. Well, so the advice that I tend to give is, “You may be a leader in a lot of respects, but you’re not a leader in anti-racism, so stop acting like one. Just listen. Be a follower for once. Show up at these things and be humble. Be in a beginner’s mind. Just sit there and be like, ‘I have no idea what’s going on. I’m going to shut up and learn.'” That’s, I think, one of the most important things that folks can do.
I talk to so many leaders that are just like, “Ah. I’m going to be a leader and post every single step that I make on anti-racism, publicly, on our company’s Slack.” “Well, I guarantee if you do that, people will think that you’re being performative. Because why would you use your leadership platform to promote that? That’s your own personal learning, so shut up and learn. Be a leader in the respects that you can, and recognize that you’re growing around this particular thing, so maybe don’t announce it until you feel like you’ve learned a bit. Listen for once.”
You wouldn’t do that around any other thing. Let’s say you had a leader that’s like, I don’t know, learning C++. You wouldn’t have them making a company-wide announcement every time they write a new line of code. That’s ridiculous. They’re in that learning space. Embrace it. Say, “You don’t have to be a leader here. You are having your first lessons on race. You’re going to sit here, absorb it. When you’re finally in a place to actually lead effectively on it, we want to see you do that, but until then, put other people, let other people talk. Let other people lead. Take their direction. You don’t have to be the center of attention around all this.”
I think a lot of leaders would actually welcome that, because they feel like they do have to be the center of attention around this, but sometimes you can just say, “You know what? I’m not the expert on race. I shouldn’t be here. You know what? I’m going to elevate this one employee that is an expert on race. Maybe she doesn’t have the role or the title, but I don’t care. I know she’s an expert. Everyone thinks she’s an expert. Let her talk. I won’t talk. I’m going to sit here and listen and learn.”
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. Also, but I would caution that we also can’t wait to show up, quote, unquote, perfectly, to show up. I think what you just said is, know enough that you can stand in what you’re learning, but acknowledging that you are a learner. You’re not at all, nowhere near a leader. That’s really hard for a lot of leaders to admit, that they don’t know the answers, on anything, right?
LILY ZHENG: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think that this is also a counterintuitive exercise we’re asking people to do, and a place to be that’s pretty uncomfortable.
LILY ZHENG: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Really good advice, Lily. Is there anything-
LILY ZHENG: There’s one follow-up question. Super quickly. Which is, how do you know that you’ve learned enough? The answer is, that’s what a coach is for. That’s what a confidant is for, to tell you when you can make that pivot from shutting up and listening to starting to talk. I wish that we could cut some more slack to leaders, but being in a position of power like that comes with a lot of responsibility, and you need some confidants that can give that you to real, whether that’s a coach, whether that’s someone in your close network, but you do need to get it right to some extent.
JENNIFER BROWN: You do. I think, to not cause more harm in your enthusiasm and in your super greenness. I think having people that will give you the real feedback means that you’ve built trust with people, right?
LILY ZHENG: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: To me, this is a measure of what you were just talking about which is, do people care about my journey of inclusive leadership, and allyship, and accomplishing enough to say, “Hey, I think I get your intent. This didn’t quite come across as well as it could have. Here’s what I might suggest,” and come back and try it again the next day. We can’t do this in a vacuum, but I think we do need to do our own work and bring something substantive to the table so that we have invested our time in learning new things and getting somewhat good, although not perfect, but better at advocating, at storytelling, or sharing space, like you said. “Let me step back so somebody else can be in that educator space.”
Even just role modeling what that looks like, I think, would help a lot of other leaders say, “Oh, okay. Now I understand how to step into this in an authentic way. I thought I had to know all the answers, but now I see a leader talking about the fact that they don’t know all the answers, or talking about what they’re learning.” I think that that admission of not just imperfection but incompleteness and the fact that, “I’m humble. I’m on the journey, I’m humble. I’m learning.”
Also, share the emotion of, “Is what you’re learning disturbing you?” I would like to see and hear more about that. Like, “How disturbed are you? How much were you maybe shielding yourself from understanding, or maybe seeing, or maybe doing more, or maybe looking the other way?” I think that, you’re not looking for a huge confessional, but I do think that there’s some introspection about this that is really powerful for other people to hear. To say, “Why haven’t we heard this from you before? Why have you hesitated?”
I think people want to see that because it establishes this vulnerability which leads to trust, so yeah, I think. Any last thoughts, Lily? I know we’re out of time. What would you give our audience as some parting thoughts, and perhaps advice and a little sort of shot in the arm if you have any for us too? Because it’s going to be a pretty tough season here come November 3rd.
LILY ZHENG: Yeah, yeah. It’s a mess right now in our country and the world. All I will say is that the work is so much bigger than we can see at first glance. When we try to conceptualize the moments that are going to determine the future of our communities, it’s not just the election, it’s not just the Supreme Court. There are things that we are doing on the local level, on the interpersonal level, in the corporate level that can make a difference, that are making a difference.
Don’t get caught up in dreading the one thing that feels really big and challenging when there are so many other things we can do to ensure that a future where all of us feel included and where all of us are safe is still possible. Don’t lose hope. There’s always work happening on the ground. There’s always work happening within companies, within industry, within communities, and you can be a part of that. Do your best. Try to stay motivated. There are people doing this and we’re all here together to be pushing toward that world.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful, Lily. Where can people follow your work?
LILY ZHENG: Well, you can go to my website at LilyZheng.co, or visit me on LinkedIn. I post a lot on LinkedIn.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, you do. I read everything eagerly, and I recommend everybody that listens to this podcast does as well. Lily, thank you for today. It’s been so concrete, so practical, so actionable. I just love how you look at these things, and I always learn from you. Thanks for coming on The Will to Change.
LILY ZHENG: Thank you so much for having me.
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