It has been almost a year since I first launched my #1 Amazon best-selling book, Inclusion: Diversity, The New Workplace & The Will To Change.
In the book, I talk about the rapidly changing business landscape in which we find ourselves, and how essential it is that we harness the power of diversity and inclusion for the very viability and sustainability of every organization.
But I also emphasize the fact that this will only happen if those in leadership pivot from command and-control management styles to reinvent how they look at people—every organization’s greatest asset.
It is also critical that we build systems that embrace diversity in all its forms, from identity and background to diversity of thought, style, approach, and experience, tying it directly to the bottom line.
In June of this year, Google invited me to come and share proven strategies to empower individuals within organizations to utilize all of their talents and potential to drive positive organizational change and the future of work, and they have since published the conversation their YouTube channel.
You can watch the conversation by clicking the video link above, or read the transcript below.
In this conversation you’ll discover:
- How I lost my creative voice (1:36)
- My diversity story and how I found my calling (6:24)
- Why I feel a responsibility to be an ally to others (7:40)
- How to speak to leaders about diversity and inclusion (11:17)
- How to overcome “imposter syndrome” (12:40)
- How to navigate between power and vulnerability as a leader (19:50)
- How to create change within your organization at any level (25:35)
- An industry that has been very active in diversity and inclusion work (33:30)
- How quiet leaders can be heard (38:36)
- How to use your diversity story as a tool for positive change (42:48)
- How small companies can build a diverse pipeline (45:15)
Moderated by Nicole Farkouh.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Thrilled to be able to introduce and converse with Jennifer Brown of Jennifer Brown Consulting. She not only is the founder of a well-reputed diversity and inclusion firm, a published author, and just a generally fun and exciting person, but she is also a native Californian.
She hails from behind the orange curtain. I’ll let her explain what that is. I’m not sure if it’s okay to say, but she is also a “recovering” opera singer?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Recovering opera star.
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely.
NICOLE FARKOUH: We’re going to have a lot of fun talking today. I’m going to ask her a number of questions, and then there’s a Dory associated with the talk. Anyone who is virtual, we invite you to post any questions you may have up there as well. And then we’ll open up to the floor for questions also.
Jennifer, I’d love to ask you to start off by just sharing a little bit about your story.
JENNIFER BROWN: Okay. Typically where I start my story is I grew up in a musical family in southern California. I was the oldest of three kids. When I was 27, I decided I was going to pursue my love of music full time, and as one does, I moved to New York City to “make it.”
I went to a music conservatory. I got my master’s in operatic voice, and that was really what I wanted to do. One thing led to another, and in the course of the intense training that ones goes through in the opera world, and unfortunately, I injured my voice and had to get several surgeries.
To recover from vocal surgery, you must be completely silent for several weeks as your mechanism heals. When you’re finally able to make a sound, all that comes out is a little squeak.
I worked with speech therapists and coaxed my voice back. But the writing was on the wall, and I knew that I would never be able to use my instrument full-time as a performer.
It was heartbreaking to literally lose my voice and my creative means of expressing myself and connecting with audiences, which is what I loved to do. Luckily, friends in the performing world said, “Why don’t you look into the field of corporate training? You like being in front of people on the stage, you get to work with people every single day, and that’s your job.” I thought, “Wow, that sounds really fun and right up my alley.”
So I got another master’s degree in something called organization development, organizational change, which some of you may know it as I/O psychology, which is industrial/organizational relations — anything having to do with how organizations and humans in those organizations function optimally. That kind of saved my life and gave me more inspiration to continue and build into the whole field of leadership development.
I was meant to use my voice, just not as a singer. I would come to understand how profound the metaphor of the voice was for me because I was also in the LGBT community. I’ve had a female partner for 20 years, I’ve been out since I was 22, and I’m now in my 40s. While in the corporate workplace in a series of roles, I absolutely wasn’t using my voice.I wasn't using my voice. #diversity #inclusion Click To Tweet
Even as I started my company 10 years ago, I wasn’t sure how it would go for me trying to sell contracts to people that were different than me. Would they believe what I say? Would they accept me? Would they trust me and my opinion? Still to this day there are moments when you wonder strategically, “How much of my full self can I bring into this situation?” Does it serve me to share that? Is it a learning point? Is it a teaching point, or is it just going to distract the conversation? Does it really matter?
It really does matter. And if it doesn’t matter to me, it certainly matters to people that are looking for more role models who look like me and have my story. That’s what I always come back to — it’s important for all of us to stand up and tell our diversity stories.
For me, giving voice to the voiceless in the workplace — and that to me means all diverse talent, i.e., women, people of color, LGBT people, anybody who doesn’t really conform to what a leader looks like in so many companies… I believe in them. I was one of them. So it’s really “us,” it’s not them.
We dedicate our work at my company to really raising those voices up and also teaching the company why diverse talent is so valuable in so many ways, and bringing that awareness to people.
Isn’t it funny? It makes sense in hindsight when you look at all the pieces of your life. Why did things happen the way they did? I absolutely feel like we’re in the sweet spot now, and this conversation is hotter than ever, which we’ll talk about today. We’re in the right spot to be carrying this message.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Yeah. I was going to jump in and hit the nail on the head and ask you, as you’re talking about finding your own voice and the struggle — your diversity story — you also carry with you the privilege of being able to hide your diversity story.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
NICOLE FARKOUH: I’m curious how you navigate the space in which you’re trying to work on behalf of people who cannot hide their diversity story? How do you build credibility with those people? How does that come up in the work that you do?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it’s interesting. It reminds me of when I first got into this work, whether people said it to me or not, I think they wondered, “What is a woman that looks like that doing in this work?” I don’t know if that was really said to me all that much, but it’s actually preposterous that I’m in this work in a crazy way because I grew up with a lot of class privilege. I went to very expensive schools. Honestly, I don’t think anyone in my family forecast me doing this work. It just wasn’t something they even knew about. That’s true for so many of us who feel called to do this.
Coming out was a really big part of that. Women’s studies in college and discovering my feminism was probably even a bigger “ah-hah” moment for me after growing up in a traditional family with traditional gender roles and expectations.
The whole process of casting that aside and striking out on a different path to say, “I’ve got to live true to myself.” But I always felt compelled, if I needed to be a role model, I was ready to do that. If people needed me to be a champion for them, I was ready to do that.
I learned how to do that being in the LGBT community, where we need champions. We need our straight ally friends so desperately to even just be safe, let alone have conversations that we can’t have on our own behalf.
So the way I’ve come to think about it is: I just show up. I admit what I don’t know, but I also talk a lot about how I have a responsibility to be an ally to others because I have relative privilege because of certain unearned things about me. Whether that means I can walk into an executive room and have people listen to me in a different way because they’re making stereotypes about who I am — often incorrect — only for me to then reveal, which is a powerful “ah-hah” moment for many people as well.
I see myself as needing allies, but also identifying as an ally. The LGBT community really gave me that language because I experienced directly what that meant for a marginalized community.
I see it as my job to make sure I’m employing my privilege on others’ behalf. I don’t know if workplaces are going to figure this diversity and inclusion thing out until we have more people who are thinking about their intersectionality more deeply and asking, “What do I have that others need?” Where can I take the hit, or have the tough conversation? I can be the one that challenges where others can’t.
If we had more of that going on, those of us who are always the squeaky wheel wouldn’t be so penalized. We are always bringing up something said that was inappropriate or challenging somebody’s choice about who they pick for a team or who got the job. It can’t always be the woman, the person of color, or the gay person. There are lots of studies that show that it puts you in a difficult spot from a perception standpoint. It can actually hurt you.
So we’re not alone. We’re not alone in fighting these battles, but we’ve got to figure out how to utilize people around us. I’d like them to step up and say, “I don’t need to wait to be asked to do something; I’m going to do something. I’m going to use my privilege to be an ally.”
NICOLE FARKOUH: Yes. I’m curious, you mentioned that you come from a background of class privilege. How do you think that that privilege facilitates the work that you do?
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that question because it’s something I wanted to hide for a really long time.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: There’s really wonderful research on “covering” out of Deloitte. I recommend you all read it, it’s called Uncovering Talent. “Covering” is the hiding or minimizing of a stigmatized identity. Some of us can hide it, some of us can’t.Some of us can hide, some of us can't. #diversity #inclusion Click To Tweet
Honestly, my class background is something that throws people off and I don’t really talk about it that much. However, my education forced me to write voluminous amounts on all sorts of subjects. It forced me to be on stage in front of hundreds over and over and over again, which means I’m fearless. You can’t stump me, you can’t frighten me. I am so resilient.
Part of our output at JBC is tons of thought leadership. We’re always writing and researching. I’m using my ability to connect ideas and speak the language in a way that my readers can absorb and understand.
The level of polish that you need as a performer is something that really helps you deal with the executive level at companies. It’s a tough place to be; it’s challenging. You have to really hang in there, build trust quickly, influence, and establish credibility. You’re already a woman walking into those largely male spaces, so I’m already aware that I’ve got to overcompensate and be extra perfect and extra creative. Are they listening to me? Is that landing? Do I need to take another tack? Do I need a personal story here or do I need some data? I like the challenge of it, but I think my background prepared me for it.
NICOLE FARKOUH: In the middle of all that, you have to show up as powerful. You are a successful businesswoman. Do you struggle with imposter syndrome?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I work on it a lot. Does everyone know what imposter syndrome is? It’s the feeling that you’ve not earned the place you’re at or the opportunities you have. I think some of us do it to ourselves more than others. Women are notorious for “playing small.”
It’s a muscle you have to build. It involves a little bit of drinking the Kool-Aid. It is believing the things that people say to you about the difference you’re making every day. It is actually allowing that stuff to land instead of pushing it off and saying, “Oh, they’re just saying that, it’s nothing.” We’re so good at minimizing.
When you’re successful, you have to let that stuff in, you’ve got to start to believe it to a degree while also being practical and realistic. It’s just like branding. Brands are always listening to their audience; I’m always listening to mine. What is resonating with people? What do they really appreciate about what we’re doing? I’m constantly thinking, “How can I be more valuable? What do they need, and how can we be of service?”
If you’re in service of, far from being called overly confident or self-promoting, you’re actually adding value all the time. My MO as a business owner has always been to ask, “What can I write about that’s not being written about what now? What can I lend my credibility to or give some weight to so that people start to talk about something I want them to talk about?” I love having that. That’s power, but it’s power for good.
You just have to look at yourself and say, “I have all these tools at my disposal. It’s harming me and the world if I don’t use them for the purposes that I judge are important.”
After a while in the same field, you become an expert. Read Malcolm Gladwell when he talks about the mastery. He says 10,000 hours. How many thousands of hours have I spent? 300 pages was nothing. I thought, “Oh, I have to stop?” (Laughter.) You learn so much. You’ve got to just embrace that you are an expert. I don’t even know if 10,000 hours is really needed.
Our world is going so fast — we were talking about this last night — to call yourself an expert is even changing. The best experts are people who are present, people who are listening, who are agile, who are responsive, who are willing to challenge norms. So I don’t know if it means you have five PhDs. I mean, in what?
Our world is changing so quickly. Those of us who are at the top level of these conversations can synthesize, we can connect the dots, we can make people feel heard and seen. To me, that’s the kind of expert we really want, not the ones that have been in an ivory tower forever studying a discipline.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Yes. And what would you say are some of the successes you’re most proud of when you say they have to actually land, you have to let them in?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, giving a TED Talk was insane. Speaking of imposter syndrome, I almost didn’t do my TED Talk. That fell into my lap. I made a lot of excuses about why I wasn’t ready. I knew I needed to come out in the talk, it was important to me and the organizers.
In 2009/2010, there weren’t a lot of out LGBT TED speakers, and there was nobody talking about diversity and inclusion on the TED stage.
It was the wild west of the Internet comments sections, and I just didn’t know what would happen. But even bigger than coming out, I almost didn’t do it. I began to think, “This is what happens to women. We don’t think we’re ready, we’re scared it’s not going to be perfect, we think we have to do more homework before we’re ready to be bold.”
I delayed in calling the organizers back, I hemmed and hawed and procrastinated. That’s really odd behavior for someone like me, who so many people want to hear from. I almost said, “I’m not ready for that.” That makes no sense. That’s a wiring thing that’s going on and a lot of powerful socialization.
When I ended up doing it, I was one of the two or three women speakers in a lineup of maybe ten men. It was at TEDx Presidio, which is right in San Francisco. So big, maybe 1,000 people. I asked the organizers, “Why are there not more women on the agenda?” They literally said, “None of the women called us back; all the men got back to us immediately.”
NICOLE FARKOUH: Note to self.
JENNIFER BROWN: Note to self. “They got back to us immediately, they got all of their stuff to us so quickly, and they were so self-assured about the message they were going to give.”
NICOLE FARKOUH: Wow.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know, right?
NICOLE FARKOUH: That is a great anecdote.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a crazy anecdote. I thought to myself, “That was almost me.” Thinking my story wasn’t important enough to share.
The crux of my story was the voice story that I just shared. I thought it was just a “nothing” story. I thought, “Who’s going to care? It’s just me, poor me. How dare I? I’m so privileged. I got to study opera, so why am I up on this stage talking about this?”
Subsequently, what I’ve found in telling that story so many times is that so many people can see themselves in your story in ways that are not literal. It’s a metaphor. The fact that you’re being vulnerable on stage, sharing something that you hid, that you were ashamed of, that broke your heart, that you almost didn’t recover from — that’s so human and so universal, and an important lesson for me, too.
Now, as I teach diversity stories, especially to people who don’t think they know anything about diversity, I say, “You absolutely do know something about this. We just have to find that for you. We need to prepare you to tell it in a way that’s authentic and connects audiences to you.”
My friend says, “It’s not the pain Olympics.” Let’s not stack up all of our grievances and compare suffering. Yes, some of us have suffered more than others, absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that you should be silent. Actually, a lot of eyes are on you — especially leaders. We are watching leaders. We need to see who you are, not just your fancy title or your big name. It’s so much about your diversity story and when you understood exclusion. Most people know something about that.
NICOLE FARKOUH: One of the things that’s striking as you’re speaking is a polarity that I’m seeing between power and vulnerability. I imagine that you have to kind of navigate both, flip between them, stretch between them, whatever it is.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
NICOLE FARKOUH: I’m curious if that’s a frame that you’ve thought about at all.
JENNIFER BROWN: I like it. I like it. I’m envisioning a graphic that I could mock up.
It’s especially true for leaders for whom power meant knowing all the answers and being seen as in charge. Vulnerability was the last thing they wanted to share. You all should know Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability. She gave a very famous TED Talk. People nicknamed it the “Vulnerability TED.”
Her talk was all about her research around vulnerability and what a powerful — and completely unutilized — leadership tool it is. But it’s interesting that women being vulnerable is different than men being vulnerable, which is different than people of color being vulnerable. The message shifts. There’s a degree of risk of vulnerability for people who already have less power.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’ve got to be aware of that.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I feel like you must show vulnerability if you have power. That’s where I get to be an ass-kicker in the boardroom. You are safe. You are protected. For you to go out on a limb looks very different than for others to go out on a limb.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Therefore, you have a responsibility to do that.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Yes. That leads me into wanting to talk about one of the notions that you cover a lot in your book: the change agent. If you can just share a little bit about that. I feel like we’ve been dancing around that this whole time without naming it, so I want to name it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
NICOLE FARKOUH: And invite you to talk about it a little bit. In the corporate space, how do you define a change agent? What is the role of a change agent?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I love the term because a lot of us feel called to challenge the system around us regardless of where we sit in the hierarchy. You don’t need to be senior. A lot of junior people are creating change from where they are, influencing discussions, being allies to their colleagues, volunteering to be part of efforts and initiatives.
A change agent is anyone who takes on the mantle of having courageous conversations, showing up more boldly, speaking on behalf of others when needed, and honestly showing themselves. Especially if we have stigmatized parts of who we are, bring those to the fore and really lead with them.
As a change agent, you need to think of where you are in the organization, and ask, “Who are you trying to influence? What are they going to listen to?” We have to be really good at having a lot of tools at our disposal.
If I’m in an executive room and I want to create change, I’ve got to know where everyone is on the topic. Early adopter? Totally get it? Super enthusiastic? Apathetic, but listening? Active resister? Somebody who doesn’t show up? Somebody who will show up and be combative or even challenging of the data?
When you think about, “How do I speak to each of these groups differently?” A really effective change agent is somebody who can shift their message and work with the listener. If we lose them, we lose our mechanism to create change. It’s really interesting work because, to me, it’s audience analysis, and I enjoy that a lot. I enjoy trying to figure that out. Where are people? What are the questions they have? What are the triggers for change? I write a lot about that in the book.
Companies call us for a host of reasons. They call us because they’re ready for change. For instance, a CEO who is moving over to a fast-growth tech company will say, “What’s going on right now? I came from this company to this company. I went from a totally baked, mature strategy that everybody understood to literally nothing. This is not acceptable, we’ve got to get on the train.”
They may call us and say, “We’ve got to build. What I had over there, you’ve got to build over here.” Or they may be a very competitive person. They might look at their industry ecosystem and say, “Well, we’re behind them, them, and them. And I’m not okay with that, so we’ve got to catch up.” That’s also good. I don’t know if I believe it’s the most altruistic reason in the world, but I’ll take it.
Sometimes it’s a personal reason. Perhaps it’s a male CEO with daughters who’s been intimately courtside around equal opportunity for women and girls and has a personal need to leave a legacy that is better than the one they’re seeing.
Sometimes CEOs get really galvanized around the pay gap. Many companies don’t even know what their pay gap is — or they know, but it’s closely guarded in HR and not shouted from the rooftops. But then you’ve got Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, who’s doing some really radical things around pay gap. He wrote a check for $3 million just to gross-up pay for all the people that were underpaid, and that was just his first salvo in the conversation, while at the same time tackling the systemic problems that led to that.
Everybody’s on this big, long continuum. You’ve got to meet your organization where they’re at. You’ve got to meet your manager where they’re at. You’ve got to meet your team where they’re at. Start local. Start to suggest an open dialogue about this stuff and build a container for it. There are a lot of suggestions in here about what you can do at your level to create change.
But know that the big organizations need pretty sophisticated structures to shift a culture towards inclusion. It’s one of those things that it’s fascinating. How does a huge company that is growing, surviving, dealing with new markets and everything shift towards inclusion? It’s way more complex than hiring and fixing your problem by hiring X number of this, this, and this. Who, by the way, won’t stay if your culture isn’t inclusive. So you’ve solved one part of the problem, but you haven’t actually adjusted the culture so that they will stay, grow, and thrive.
NICOLE FARKOUH: That was actually a segue into a question that I have for you. We’ve seen great actions publicly where companies are taking a stand politically. Whether it’s against the Muslim ban or Black Lives Matter or issues that are coming over the news, companies are taking public stands against those.
You write in the book, “Great actions at the top of the house, great scores on all the indices and lists, and a whole host of awards do not guarantee a healthy culture for all. There’s a big difference between talking the talk and walking the walk.” What is your recipe for moving a company to walking the walk?
JENNIFER BROWN: You love the hard questions.
NICOLE FARKOUH: I told you I wasn’t going to be easy on you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, I know. I love it. I love it.
Companies can buy a lot of fancy marketing. They can even be really well intentioned and active in social issues. Although, I have to say, most companies don’t say anything about what’s going on in the political realm — Black Lives Matter, the Muslim ban — most are silent. I can tell you that a lot of employees were walking around feeling really jittery, distressed, and they had to hide all of that as they came into work over the last six months to year and a half.
Leadership needs to realize that it’s not always about the grand public gesture, although they actually need to do that more, and that’s nowhere near as widespread as I’d like to see it. Even just an all-hands e-mail or an honest discussion about inclusion. Even town halls, dialogues, and just a space to talk makes a lot of legal departments are jittery. Maybe not here at Google, but a lot of companies I work with want to stay away from it.
The silence really speaks volumes. People are looking for leadership in those times to really speak about, “Why am I important to you working here?” It’s really human. Am I seen? Am I heard? Am I understood? Even if leadership doesn’t look like me, and even if it’s not from my community, I still want to hear those messages and I want them to be heartfelt, authentic, and vulnerable. Even if leaders don’t have all the answers, they need to say, “I don’t have all the answers, and yet I’m committed to finding them out together.”
Just something like that. It is not about taking political stands. I think a lot of companies stayed quiet because they thought there was just no way to talk about these things without coming out on one side or the other. It wasn’t about that. Inclusion and inclusiveness is a universal topic that we can all talk about.
To walk the talk, it’s got to be heartfelt. We’ve got to have the hard conversations inside and not just go for the big pop on the external metrics — although, we need to do more of that too, trust me.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: The vast majority of companies aren’t doing anything on any of these lists.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Yes. I have a whole set of other questions that I’m dying to ask you, but I also want to open up the floor to anyone else who wants to ask a question. Either on the live stream or in the room.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, please. Love to hear from you.
NICOLE FARKOUH: And I’m happy to keep going if no one’s thought of anything yet to ask.
JENNIFER BROWN: I see a lot of shaking heads out there, though.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Does anyone have a question that they’d like to ask?
JENNIFER BROWN: Hello.
QUESTION: You quoted several books and people that you follow on TED Talks and whatnot. I was just wondering, are there certain people that influence you? And were there certain people that you followed and looked up to that helped you to get to where you are now?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a great question. Well, I’d probably say there are some leading chief diversity officers that I’ve had the privilege to work with who are fearlessly leading their company without a lot of resources. It’s a really, really hard job. You constantly are in doubt in terms of the legitimacy of what you’re actually doing, and there’s so much pushback. You spend so much of your time trying to figure out how to steer the ship and get it to move.
I was always following the diversity leaders at companies like IBM, Wells Fargo, and a lot of financial services companies. They have been doing this for a really long time — longer, deeper, and more widely than the tech space. They’ve baked it into their structure.
I’ve learned a lot from those really advanced cultures that have been going after this for a long time. I’m listening to CEOs who talk about diversity and inclusion and carefully monitoring how they talk about it so that I can then take that and teach other CEOs and executives how to talk about it.
Jim Turley, who was the CEO of Ernst & Young, was a really amazing guy, especially on LGBT rights. He was a straight, white, cisgender man leading this massive global company that was very, very adamant about LGBT equality and gender equality in his workforce. Just getting to interview him on the stage was really cool.
Honestly, that’s kept me going. People like him give me hope that there are more out there on the learning curve, they’re on the journey. They need to be awakened, equipped, and made comfortable with being a spokesperson. Meeting people like that has been transformative for me because I know that it can happen, we just need to create more of them. That’s the big thing that keeps me up at night. How do I ignite leaders that look like him to speak about these things so that it makes it safe for the rest of us to show up and bring our full selves to work? That’s going to really shift it.
NICOLE FARKOUH: I’m going to ask a follow-up question. It’s interesting to hear you say that the financial services industry has been doing this work for a long time and deeply, because that’s not necessarily what I would think of as a particularly inclusive industry.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
NICOLE FARKOUH: So I’m curious. It’s interesting to hear you say that, and I’m curious what the impact of that investment has been in those companies. What do you see when you’re in there doing that work?
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Well, you see a lot of employee resource groups that are really huge. They’re just massive. They have tens of thousands of people, sort of a city unto themselves with their own org charts, lots of executive buy-in, multiple levels of steering committees, and executive councils in different parts of the business. So it’s really baked out. If you were envisioning it, it’s got arms and legs at different levels, and especially penetration to the senior levels.
Wells Fargo, for example, is investing in diverse talent by graduating thousands of diverse leaders through a particular leadership development program just for each segment. I’m involved in their LGBT program, where we’ve graduated 500 high-potential leaders.
I’m not seeing that in tech. We need it desperately. We need it in every single industry. It doesn’t matter which one. They’ve graduated thousands of black leaders through their high-potential program. These are people who are mid career. They’re in that really critical time where they need to sit back in a homogeneous group and say, “Here’s what’s getting in the way for me for my career. Here are my peers, and we share these experiences. How can we think about shortcutting this? Where are there biases showing up? Who can we leverage on the plus side that is supportive? Who’s your mentor? Who’s your sponsor? Could I have lunch with that person?”
The whole networking thing that happens amongst these communities behind closed doors shores up that community, gives that community a voice, gives them confidence, and it makes them feel important to the company. So it’s a really cool thing.
NICOLE FARKOUH: And is it moving them up?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It is. It is.
NICOLE FARKOUH: It is?
JENNIFER BROWN: The promotion rates for Wells coming out of these programs are way higher than average promotion rates for people who haven’t been through them. I interpret that as the lift, it’s the investment, it’s the deep dive into our journeys, but it’s a safe space to talk about those things.
For the LGBT community, the conversations are around authenticity, bringing your full self to work. It’s exhausting to cover and minimize your life in front of your customers and your branch in the Midwest or wherever they are. It’s a really honest conversation.
We talk a lot about if you’re a lesbian, not looking like somebody’s idea of a successful woman leader. Or a gay man saying, “I get this feedback around how I speak or how I gesture.” It’s really ridiculous stuff, but it’s real. We’re still fighting against this monolithic idea of what a leader looks like, and a lot of us don’t fit in that.
Bias is still keeping us from achieving what we really should, but we’ve got to take control of that, name it, and be really savvy about how we navigate around it, through it, using our allies to help us.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Yes.
QUESTION: So around what you were saying about the shift in what a leader looks like. We’re hoping to shift from bias of what a leader previously looked like. But isn’t this still, in a way, a construct of how a leader should show up in thinking about inclusivity and bringing your full self to work? If someone’s not necessarily extroverted or the type who feels comfortable sharing these types of stories, how do they navigate that balance of making sure we’re inclusive in a leadership group, but also having the responsibility to show up in the way that you described?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a great question. That’s a tough one. I have to think about that a little bit more. It’s true that this is a little bit of an extrovert’s model, right? It’s especially hard to expect an introvert or somebody who’s a little more analytical to even come to the table with their story. Vulnerability means something totally different to that person and feels way more risky. That’s very true.
I had my friend Wokie Nwabueze of the Seen and Heard Project on my podcast. She describes it as being the quiet. She’s the quiet girl. Seen and Heard is all about the quiet voices. We’re not ever going to be the one on the edge of the stage being that loud leader or the expressive leader, but we’re going to lead in a different way. We still have an opportunity to lead and stretch. So what does our edge look like when that’s our profile?
How can a leader who’s a quieter leader or someone who leads from behind or someone that’s analytical still work their edge? That is really the biggest point. Showing up that way is going to resonate with people who need to see that kind of leader.
I always say, “If we’re not uncomfortable on a regular basis, we’re not probably doing our work.” But the definition of what uncomfortable looks like feels different for all of us.
I really appreciate that question. It doesn’t look the same for everyone. Quiet advocacy, noisy advocacy, leading when no one’s looking. You can be an incredibly inclusive leader in a quiet way by the questions you ask, the listening that you provide, the way that you represent inclusion that maybe nobody ever sees, but they experience its impact. That’s beautiful and important.
Get others to tell your story. That’s why I tell Wokie’s story. It’s my way of signaling to people that you have a role as well, it’s really important, and that’s going to shift the reality for other people who may not be shifted by me and my style, but may be shifted by you.
NICOLE FARKOUH: That’s actually a great transition to another question that’s kind of percolating for me. How do you dance between fighting to establish your credibility and your power and being the voice, exerting your voice, but also creating space for other people to exert their voice who maybe have less power? How do you navigate that?
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, I love that question. Oh, man, it’s so true.
We all have a different style. Even though I deliver keynotes a lot, I’m actually more of a question-asker versus a talker. I love focus groups. I love interviewing people. I like my podcast not because I get the platform, but because I can give other people the platform.
But there are some times when I’m called to be the definitive voice, the one with the credibility, the one that wrote the book. Even though I will say the book is nowhere near a perfect solution. It’s just one person’s lens and experience.
As a change agent, we need to understand what does this moment need of me? How can I be in service right now? Is it to listen? Is it to support others? Is it to come through with the statement or show the power? We can show power just with our bodies, our voice, and our presence.
I’m very conscious of using the power differently if I’m walking into a room with employee resource groups and it’s very lively and open and informal. How does my power need to show up in a very different way? But if I’m walking into a room with executives, how you walk in, how you speak, how you use your voice, what you say really matters.
In my experience, you meet power with power, frankly. You’ve got to learn how to get your grounding in that kind of room and use your vulnerability, but you’re always watching how to be savvy about it. It’s a tool in your arsenal. You can’t fall apart in an executive meeting.
This is part of owning your story. When I gave my TED Talk, I thought, “How am I going to get up on that stage and not cry? Am I going to get through my talk?” I was really worried about that. But as you make your stories your tool, you learn how to protect yourself while being vulnerable and you’re reliving something that happened to you, but you’re always mindful and watching from a distance to see, “How is this going over?”
I’m giving you guys all of my tricks. Honestly, this is how I think about it. Your stories become your tools, and bringing them out strategically at the right moment leads to a sense of power and mastery that has been really surprising for me. It’s been really healing, actually, to tell it over and over. I’m reinforced by audiences telling me, “You’re enough.” Feeling that over and over again has added to the strength that I carry around.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Every time I’m in community, I feel strengthened. I was just at Pride in New York. It’s such a wonderful experience to realize how much power is around you, behind you, in front of you, or has gone before you historically.
Personally, I like to tap into that and know that I’m just part of a river. My job is just to keep grabbing what I can, passing it along where needed, channeling some messages in a certain way as seen through my lens. It’s going to sound different to someone, but I’ve got to keep trying. That’s what it feels like. There’s a real flow. There’s a flow to it once you get into it. That’s an interesting question.
NICOLE FARKOUH: We have one minute left.
PARTICIPANT: We have one more question.
NICOLE FARKOUH: One more question.
JENNIFER BROWN: A question. Yes, absolutely.
QUESTION: Hi. I lead a diversity initiative with my vendor team. One of our main difficulties right now is building a diverse pipeline. We don’t have enough resources to hire someone who could tell us what to do or not to do. So right now, I rely a lot on materials that I find online and studies.
I wanted to know if you can give me any tips for small companies or teams that don’t have a lot of resources. How can we build a more diverse team?
NICOLE FARKOUH: The vendor pipeline you’re talking about?
JENNIFER BROWN: And the hiring on the vendor side? Their own hiring?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. It is difficult. You’re constrained geographically. And what age are you hiring? Out of school or more experienced hires? All of the above?
QUESTION: Yes, all of the above.
JENNIFER BROWN: All of the above? The answer is different when you’re looking at young hiring out of schools. Are you looking at a broad array of schools? Are you throwing the job description away and thinking more broadly about the kinds of capabilities that you’re looking for, non-traditional talent?
That means hiring across difference. Usually, if your founder team is largely white and male or Asian and male, it’s going to mean that they have to be committed and to taking a what they believe is a risk. I don’t believe it’s risky to hire outside of your own image, but they will believe that it is.
We have to help them understand that hiring in your own image can harm your ability to be innovative and to generate that creative abrasion that happens from a diversity of talent.
You’ve got to start with that resistance. Then take some leaps of faith to look around corners that you wouldn’t have normally.
I have a friend, Adam Pisoni, who founded Yammer and recently sold to Microsoft. For his next education startup, he refuses to interview white, straight men like him. Literally, they’re not even getting into the pipeline. He refuses. He said, “If we let any of that happen, it’s going to end up that our founding team is going to be largely male. I’m not okay with that. And so I’ve got to take some drastic action about even who I let into the pipeline to be interviewed.”
There are so many male candidates that come his way, and not a lot of diverse candidates. He’s had to literally say to the team, “This is a non-negotiable for me because this founding team is so important. Who you hire is going to send a signal to your next hires and your next hires and your next hires.”
What you do when you’re small really, really matters because it will make your job so much easier in the future. You have to be uncompromising. You might want to put some metrics in place and then think outside the box.
Watch out also for gendered language in job descriptions. Really interesting. There are some fascinating startups like Unitive and Textio. They will look at your job descriptions and flag gendered language which might keep women and non-traditional candidates from applying.
The way that we describe roles is gendered, and begins that process of bias causing people to self-screen out. If you’re looking for a “rock star coder” and using this kind of language, women might say, “That’s not for me. I just don’t see myself in that.”
NICOLE FARKOUH: Especially if you’re an introvert.
JENNIFER BROWN: Especially if you’re an introvert.
There are so many places bias occurs which keeps your pipeline from being welcoming. We can talk afterwards, there are a lot more ideas I have about how to do it.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Well, with that, unfortunately, we’re going to have to end.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Thank you very much for the rich conversation.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. Thank you for coming.
NICOLE FARKOUH: Thank you all so much for coming. (Applause.)
JENNIFER BROWN: It was so good to see you all.
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