Influencing the Systems We’re In, with Egon Zehnder's US Head of DEI Dede Orraca-Cecil

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

Dede Orraca-Cecil, Egon Zehnder's US Head of DEI, joins the program to discuss her career journey and the formative experiences that led her to become an advocate for more equitable systems. Dede shares how leaders can act as bridges for their communities and organizations and create spaces for others to make contributions. Discover the importance of being aware of rapidly changing dynamics and how to infuse the values of diversity, equity and inclusion into the culture of an organization.

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Dede Orraca-Cecil:

There is a much wider array of people who have the skills and capabilities to lead at the top of the house, whether it's in government or in corporate America or in the not-for-profit sector. But to get there, to even know that those are possible, there are actual paths and doors and labyrinths and invitations and firms that are looking for people. Right? That all exists and yet, if you don't know that how can you increase your chances of being discovered on one of those paths? If somebody doesn't pluck you and show you that, you don't fall into it. Then it's really difficult to go from A to Z. So I think realizing that, that those worlds existed I felt compelled to one understand it. Because here's another system to understand, but also to do a part to actually create a greater equity and access.

Doug Foresta:

The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, best-selling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate, committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting the Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty and now onto the episode. Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change, this is Doug Foresta. Today's episode features a conversation with Dede Orraca-Cecil, Egon Zehnder's US Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. As Dede talks about her career journey, the formative experiences that led her to become the advocate and leader that she is today. Dede also shares how leaders can act as bridges for their communities and organizations and create spaces for others to make contributions. All this and more, and now onto the conversation.

Jennifer Brown:

Dede, welcome to The Will to Change.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Hi. Thank you for having me, I'm excited to be here.

Jennifer Brown:

It's been so neat to get to know you and I first heard you on a panel at an event that Irene Natividad had for the colloquium, the Globe Summit of Women. I was floored by you, your story, your insights, the work you're doing now. I just tracked you down and I said, "Hey. Would you join me and give me a window into your world right now? Also, just your whole world." As we've gotten to know each other I've learned so much more about your background, your past, your parents story, your story, your story of origin as we say. It's been so neat to reflect on these things together, this moment that we're in and our sort of hope and frustration with the pace of change.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

I think that's a really good... Yes, hope and frustration. [inaudible 00:03:09].

Jennifer Brown:

The dull side, yes.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yes.

Jennifer Brown:

We live there. I will leave this for you to describe, but I think we both kind of describe ourselves in our place in the change equation very similarly. Interestingly, having come from super different worlds except for college which we both attended small liberal arts colleges very similar to each other and we were comparing notes on what that was like. But other than that, very different stories. But such a shared passion and also shared role, ideal role which is so important. We talk about it a lot on The Will to Change, all roles are needed and I think life is about if you care and you're an advocate. Life is about finding as much as you can, sort of getting as close as you can to that ideal kind of way of being of service and what you're most unique at and what you can do. Perhaps that other folks can't do or don't love to do as much like people like you and I do. So I'll leave that to you to describe if you'd like, but let's go back to go forward.

Tell me about your family, your origin story, whatever you'd like to share about where they came from and what those early years were like. I always ask, what would you consider to be your diversity story or stories? Plural, that you credit for awakening you and propelling you into what you do today?

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Well I would love to share that, even before I do one comment. When we met or at that conference, I don't know if you saw I brought my daughter to that and then-

Jennifer Brown:

I did. Oh my goodness.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

It's funny, because I'm glad you had a positive experience with it. Because my daughter on the other hand was sending me text messages while I was on stage saying, "Are you done yet? Are you done with this [inaudible 00:05:02]?" So anyway.

Jennifer Brown:

I still know someday she will appreciate. Someday.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yes, someday. So a little bit of my background. So I am originally from Ghana, in West Africa. I was born in a town called Koforidua, and my whole family's from Ghana. But I know when we were getting to know each other I shared that, one just it is a big part of who I am. Right? My own identity. But we came to the States when I was quite young, and one of the interesting things about coming to the States and I think what probably ended up being a pattern of behaviors for me was that when we moved to the States I moved as a child. Right? You ultimately start to grow up and have this kind of... As children you want to adapt, right? To the different environments, and anybody who's listening who has parents from outside the US might appreciate this which is that you have kind of who you are in your house. For us it's all about education, we are the rules following immigrants.

The Ghanaians in house, and then you go to your new American school and there are all these freedoms and different ways of working and people who are so open and different and you're trying to figure out. Wow, that's a world that can exist and how do I exist in that world and then come home and make sure that I actually know how to also follow the rules inside my house? Because, right? You can't. So it's always I think an interesting. I think for lots of people that kind of journey, especially when you come at a young age when you're such a sponge and you're taking so many things in what it's like to live in those two worlds. So we lived in The Bronx and then eventually made our way up and down New England and Connecticut, Massachusetts. Then I would say home where my parents still are is in the Midwest, which is where they've been for some time. But what I would say is that that journey and coming over and growing up here, it's interesting for a lot of reasons. Right?

As you can imagine in Ghana, it's not as though... Unlike here, you don't necessarily have the big kind of whether it's a melting pot or a mixed salad or what have you. It's not as though you're seeing so many different types of faces, right? Ghana, primarily everybody looks like you. Right? That's not the case here, right? In the United States. So one of the luxuries that you don't realize is a luxury, is that when you're in a place where everyone looks like you that's not really part of the conversation of the equation. Right? Your race for example is not part of the equation. Maybe your tribe, right? Or kind of maybe your social class, the dialects you speak. But it's not really this kind of first come first look type of discussion and certainly not to the extent that it is here. Right? So sometimes I say I didn't realize that I was different until somebody told me I was different. Right? Because that was just not the nature of the game in that regard, if that makes any sense.

Jennifer Brown:

Yes.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Now I realize I probably lost your [inaudible 00:08:31]. So I came to the States when I was young, we moved around a bit. The bridge I make is that... To the work I do today, which I can talk about is that those early days were really important. One to be an observer, because I realized when you're young you're taking in a lot of things, you're taking in different cultures. So I've spent a lot of time observing and absorbing, and in some ways in a non-judgmental fashion. Right? Being very open to any type of person it's all new, it's all different. Also being a bit of a, I called it like the translator or the bridge. Right? Being able to kind of see how in one setting in a classroom or in a mall or something. How people behave and explain what those behaviors meant to a household or a family where we had very different kind of ways of working and being. Right? So going back and forth, that became a natural... I'm a firstborn as well.

So it just became a natural role to play, which is how do I become a bridge across these two worlds and actually try to explain as we're all trying to learn this place together. If that makes any sense.

Jennifer Brown:

Yeah, absolutely. Well I think that our approaches are birthed in our family situations, where we're challenged, our role in the family, I was a firstborn too. Absolutely kind of... I don't know if it's peacemaker, maybe reluctant leader.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

You kind of have to get the job done, yeah.

Jennifer Brown:

Yeah. So realizing okay, so this is the way it is here and I think in reflecting on your adult life and your sort of philosophy now. The ability to hold the fact that a group of people can be a lot of different identities within that group, I feel like was also what you were figuring out at that young age. That is one of the tensions that... What I call the diversity within the diversity and sort of to see that, honor that, hold the space for that. Not make assumptions and stereotype large groups of people and not ever sort of rest at being one spokesperson for one identity. I do think that, that has enabled you to sit between worlds and look at respective systems around us that we have various roles and sort of comfort in and maybe membership in. But also realize how the world sees us as parts of groups that we may or may not fully adopt. I don't know if that's the right word, but there is no such thing actually as a group with a single norm.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Right.

Jennifer Brown:

I just loved when you said that 'cause I've always felt that way when I came out. I was like, huh. So I did this personal thing, I made this sort of personal choice to love who I love. But then I was plopped into this movement really, and I was like oh my goodness. So now the implications of how the world is going to see me are all over here and now I have to understand what have I joined? What have I become a part of? What have I entered that now I sort of inherit all of that? As I walk through the world, it's something I'm going to need to navigate but it was almost... Not that it was a joy, it wasn't. But I was going to say it was a little odd because you never realize sort of the far-reaching implications of identity, and that's one of those things we learn as we grow older. I would take up the mantle and I would absolutely jump all in as an advocate and be extremely proud.

But it was just this weird moment where I thought okay, but making this personal choice has had this huge implication for my life and it has enabled me to discover all of the advocacy that needs to happen. Then it enabled me to also discover my role in that advocacy, which was really a fascinating thing and I wanted to hear your thoughts on that.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Well it's a little bit of I mean you can know who you are but you might see yourself... We're all the protagonists in our stories, we're only with ourselves. Right? So we're walking through, we're living our lives and it's when somebody else all of a sudden starts to tell you who you are. Or kind of assign some identity or put you into a group where now you ask these questions like well, okay. Yes, maybe that's a big... I think I had mentioned to you race wasn't a big topic in my house growing up. Right? It just wasn't. It was not really a thing that was talked about at the table. We didn't talk about kind of history, a history of or kind of structural or institutional racism and that was in part. Because we had come from a country where our challenges, and we certainly had kind of issues of colonialism and what that meant for our identity and kind of becoming independent from the Brits. But this concept or this notion of kind of race in our daily lives and how kind of racism might show up in our daily lives.

It wasn't something that was explored, right? In fact what that meant was from an early age we walked into... My brothers and I, my parents. Walked into every room just kind of being like okay, not thinking about it. Then I said until... And this question of this identity and the nuance in it was when I was in third grade and I will not say her name on this podcast. But there was someone in third grade who called me the N word, and I still clearly remember that. But it's funny, at the time I don't think I understood the weight of it and that's not to say that... My son today we have conversations, I have four kids. My youngest is in third grade right now so it's interesting to think about. I think he would appreciate the weight of that word more than I did at that time because it wasn't part of my vernacular, and really we hadn't explored history in this country.

But what it makes you realize is that, well one it's important to understand the history and kind of the roots in the country you're living in and also how people will assign how people see you and their experience of you and what they bring to that. So all of a sudden I'm at this young age trying to figure out what this word is, the weight of this word and trying to figure out how to respond to it. How angry I should be or not be, and what was interesting was that it was even more the new friends I had made in that community and at school who were much more angry than I was about it. Because I didn't really understand the concept, right? It was a word, right? Those who I was friends with who kind of were here already knew that that was a word that carried a whole bunch to it, and so to me that was the beginning of something.

It was one the beginning of starting to see myself and see race as a thing that was going to be something to explore and to hold and to identify and to call, all of that. Right? But it's interesting that it wasn't the case for the first years of my life. Because I hadn't had that, I hadn't had somebody else telling me. It's interesting when you start and that happens, how you then start to adjust and respond to now kind of an external environment. Right?

Jennifer Brown:

That's right, and we'll get to that in a bit. I mean subsequently take us through the different fields and degrees that you got and sort of went into. I'm curious how acutely aware were you of how you were being perceived, how unusual you were or not in each successive field? Because you have several degrees. So you have many [inaudible 00:16:57], I think four careers or something but [inaudible 00:17:00] quite amazing. But tell me about each of them and how did your advocacy and your ability to look at the system you were in and your advocacy within it. How did that begin to shape? Because that seems to be a theme throughout every role you've ever had and continue to have today.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

I would say that probably the pieces from when I was younger, when I talk about that kind of being the observer and then also being that translator was that when you're constantly observing you start... You're observing and absorbing. I think you realize the patterns of relationships, the kind of different social structures... I mean schools are rife with that, right? But you start to understand or appreciate that there are people systems around you, that there are leadership systems. There are kind of various norms and those that aren't, you start to... Whether you name it or not. I think by taking a stance where you're kind of constantly observing communities around you, right? Over time, I don't know for me personally I started to realize anytime you go somewhere people organize themselves formally or informally in some systems. That sometimes they are hierarchies again, whether they're appointed or taken. Right? That kind of evolve, and with that different spheres of influence and somehow some people get things and other people don't and it's really hard to... I remember always trying to think about why.

So when you're young, why is it that two people who wear the same outfit and kind of live two houses down from each other on the same street have completely different social experiences? Right? Or why is one the most popular and the other one isn't, and as you get older there are different versions of that. What is it that makes so-and-so... You look back and you're that person. So I think I was always looking at that and as you carry that forward, this idea of trying to understand your environment and actually on top of it. For me, I was always interested in why some people had access to things and other people didn't because that just didn't make any sense to me. Right? These kinds of invisible limitations. So yeah, after kind of college and being a history major and doing a lot of things I eventually-

Jennifer Brown:

Another thing we have in common.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Nice. We were meant to talk.

Jennifer Brown:

Wow.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

But then I eventually ended up going to pursue global health and development in epidemiology, and I think part of that was this bridge between one I come from a family of healthcare professionals. So there's always kind of an interest in health and then this idea around people systems and communities and why is it that... Health is something that we should all have access to, right? I mean if there's skilled providers of it, why don't we all have access to it the same? So I really became interested in what were the underpinnings of a community or of a society that would make some communities thrive and others not? Particularly through the lens of health development. So my first of a few careers was actually more focused on public health and equity internationally and then I moved back to Ghana to do that work, and over time the States was calling. I came back and we continued to do work in the healthcare space. But really kind of taking it out of global health and doing it focused on women's health.

But always again with this eye towards what kind of structural interventions are there that you can put into a system to ensure the greatest amount of equity and access to care. Then I made a hard and became an attorney, and this is where-

Jennifer Brown:

This one does, I don't know why.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

I think the idea was that when I was getting my masters, I realized that the piece around... It's one thing to observe and identify, right? Both in inequity in a system, identify social structures and even think about ways to intervene. But without a real strong platform for advocacy you may be able to impact maybe one person here, one place there. But how do you have the most impact, right? How do you have the loudest voice? How do you influence, not just in the provision of care in my clinic but at a government level. Right? Or at an inter-government level, right? So that idea of that notion of advocacy became really important to me. It's almost you've been given the gift to observe and understand something and can see ways to address it, then it's a failure if you don't then do something to advocate for that solution. Because not everybody will have the gift of being able to have seen it and thought through, so if you know that you have to do something with it is how I felt.

Jennifer Brown:

Yeah.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

So that's why I ended up becoming an attorney, it was more for the advocacy piece. Right?

Jennifer Brown:

'Cause you were a megaphone. I mean really-

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yes.

Jennifer Brown:

A platform, yep. Really I think access to a different part of the power equation, right? If you can you need to. If not me who? It's the classic sort of thing, but I love it. So you're adding these pieces onto your toolkit for change.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yes. I'd love to say that it was this beautiful, yes. I'm very much focused on equity and health and justice and advocacy. But we're human, right? So I like to make sure that everybody always knows all the pieces. The other reality is when you're 20 something and you're in New York and you're like oh my gosh, how am I going to pay for law school? Or oh my gosh, I need to live right? It's not this beautiful linear path. It was okay, I'm also going to work at a big law firm because I need to pay for my rent. Right? I did practice at a big law firm for some time and I credit that actually with kind of bringing also more rigor and an analytical eye to what ultimately would be work I would end up in. Also, a way of actually being in different rooms that you wouldn't normally be in.

Jennifer Brown:

Yep.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Seeing how decisions got made in different settings, right? Kind of out of the social sector and more in that kind of corporate for-profit environment, right?

Jennifer Brown:

Right.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

What levers people pull in that environment to get what they want.

Jennifer Brown:

You talk about observing a system and the haves and the have-nots and how decisions get done and the unofficial sort of unwritten rules, norms, whatever. I love how it kind of led you to tell us about what you do today and I really want to dig into that of-

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown:

You're working with some of the actual leadership now and in that world and trying to influence there and bring all the passion, insights, knowledge to bear on that. In many ways it's one of the most sort of pesky areas to influence. Which is what you and I shared too, we're sort of drawn to... I don't know if you feel like it was sort of ordained that you would end up focusing on this particular population. But tell us more about where you focus today.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Sure. So today I work at a firm Egon Zehnder which is a leadership advisory firm, right? Our kind of mission, we really are focused on leadership for a better world. Which it's like how can you not want to be a part of that? Yet my interest when I came and what I discovered and why I like this work is that we're a firm that works across sectors. Where many firms like ours that work across industries that work across the for-profit, not for profit, public, civil society with a common thread of really trying to identify, unpack, develop kind of leadership to make us all better. That can be with individuals, one on one, that can be with leadership teams, with CEOs, with boards. So I do a lot of work with executive officers and with boards in addition to leading the diversity, equity and inclusion practice for us here in the US. I think one of my motivations for coming here was actually kind of the almost the falling into or the discovery through a former role that I had with the startup.

Where I spent a lot of time in boardrooms and a lot of time with C-suite execs was the discovery that there are rooms and there are systems and there are leaders who exist and who have gotten into these roles. Because of processes, and... I keep using the word system. But because of maps [inaudible 00:26:30]. Right? Paths that are not visible to everyone. Right? So when we talk about representation and we talk about leadership. Leaders look the way they do today not because that's the only talent pool that's available. Right? There's a much wider array of people who have the skills and capabilities to lead at the top of the house. Whether it's in government or in corporate America or in the not-for-profit sector. But to get there to even know that those are possible, there are actual paths and doors and labyrinths and invitations and firms that are looking for people. Right? That all exists and yet if you don't know that how can you increase your chances of being discovered on one of those paths. Right? If you don't know that, if somebody doesn't pluck you and show you that.

If you don't fall into it, then it's really difficult to go from A to Z. So I think realizing that those worlds existed, I felt compelled to one understand. I guess here's another system to understand, but also to do a part to actually create a bit greater equity and access. Right? It's not that I'm here saying I can promise everybody opportunities to be on a board or be a CEO. But in terms of information and understanding kind of this is how some of these systems work. People should understand that and know about that, right? Then do my part to also maybe in some cases disrupt the systems where we can to create better leadership. But I have a colleague here who says that some people are islands and then some people are bridges. Right? So sometimes she'll say, "We're bridge people. We see what's happening on these islands but we want to make sure that we're creating bridges so that people can kind of traverse them." So I think about that with this work.

Jennifer Brown:

That's beautiful, so that's the thing we share in common.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yes. [inaudible 00:28:44].

Jennifer Brown:

Because I told you Dede I'm the speaker for my high school graduation next month and I said, "I really want to encourage the building of the bridges." I see my role that way too, but how can we create more bridge builders? Because I do think that's the work. It is absolutely loving your island and finding your people on your island for sure. But at some point you got to pick your head up and say, but the greater good, the sort of 2.0 version of all this is leaving the shore. Leaving the safety of the shore and embarking on a bridge that you are not sure how you're going to build. That you don't know what the other side looks like and there's a lot of uncertainty in being the bridge people, but that's part of the fun.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

I think so. So if we look at the space for DEI, right? Some people say you're an expert, you're not an expert, you this kind of thing. My thinking is well, if anybody was truly an expert we wouldn't be in the situation we are in right now. Because anybody who had all the answers would surely in this space truly have given them and allowed us. Right? So this is a space that continues to grow and evolve, [inaudible 00:30:18]. Right? So therefore what do we do as leaders to continue to learn and grow and sharpen our own tools and then serve as kind of again those bridges in communities or organizations. Right? But when I think about some of this... So when I think about a lot of this work. It's not like you have the backpack of answers and you're at this island and there's the bridge and you're just going to cross the bridge and you're going to give the backpack to the next island. It's a little bit like, is it Indiana Jones? When you get there and you're not sure?

Jennifer Brown:

Totally.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

There's the bridge, and so then it's like you take... There's nothing there, it looks as though... You see the temple across the way or whatever. But there's nothing yet you're supposed to believe, right?

Jennifer Brown:

Yes.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Right? You're supposed to believe and think that you'll figure it out and then you take that first step and all of a sudden the invisible becomes the visible. You know what I'm talking about?

Jennifer Brown:

Sure, I get that. Yeah, I love that.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

[inaudible 00:31:18] pops up and then you take the new [inaudible 00:31:20].

Jennifer Brown:

Then it pops up.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Right? You have to kind of fall forward and hope and believe and then try and build as you go, it's probably not that perfect. My husband's a writer and he would be like that's a horrible analogy or a horrible metaphor [inaudible 00:31:32]. But you get the idea, right? Which is that-

Jennifer Brown:

Totally.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

It's not like there's the prepackaged plan, right?

Jennifer Brown:

No.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

But there is the willingness to engage and ask the hard questions and then the tools that are required of change management and of leadership development and of culture building. Right? Of listening, right? Creating spaces for others to make contributions. All of those pieces will get us where they are but it's not like-

Jennifer Brown:

That's right. We need to repair that bridge, we embark on it and I think part of our job is to strengthen it if it's rickety.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yeah, yes.

Jennifer Brown:

Right? It's like a keep out sign. Right? Too. I think our world makes us see that sign and give up too. I love what you said about... What I hear you saying is faith. It's taking that step and the net appears, right?

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown:

Not knowing if you have what it takes to cross that bridge or let alone build it for others so that they can cross. But this work requires a lot of faith, a lot that sort of somehow something is guiding this forward. That there's a rightness to it, that it's based in love and kindness and opportunity and all these things that we believe in and you just have to believe that it will appear. But I think that that uncertainty and the failing forward, if you will or the sort of step into the unknown is part of what I think leaders are really dealing with now in this very uncertain world. So it's funny like DEI sometimes is put to the side and diminished or dismissed as something that's ancillary. But the skillset to literally take that next step and kind of be prepared for anything and be resourceful and go where people haven't gone before. Is literally the same exact thing that leaders I think are most struggling with now 'cause they're being looked to to build the bridges too.

I don't know if they have the same kind of resilience that, for example those of us who do this work all the time. We know that we're not sure the step is there and we know what we need to rely on and we know where our strength comes from and we know how important belief is. Also, belief in people. Belief that these bridges can be built and will be crossed someday with frequency, that's our vision.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

I mean if you think about this role, right? You have to be able to influence, right? Because so many times you may be walking into a room or discussion. Where because you were wearing this hat there are preconceived notions as to what you were going to talk about, what you're going to deliver, what that backpack looks like. So you already walk in and are kind of either need to work with or against that or by influence, right? The ability to collaborate and to draw out kind of potential ideas and solutions from people who are advocates and champions and people who very much are not. To do so with kind of courage and openness where others would not, where others can self select be with their own. 'Cause you're truly trying to create solutions that if you're doing your job are not just for your own interests, right? Are for a broader good. So that means putting yourself right in the pit of those who are with you, those who aren't and those who kind of also just are not sure which way to go. Right?

Then there's actually just truly being open to the complex and the unknown and trying to draw from that strategies that not only are going to impact the livelihood of the people around you. But will also impact the services that you and your organization are providing, the products you're providing. Right? This job at its height is touching everything, and it's informing everything. So it's not just this part of the spreadsheet or that, it's like this job has the ability and so it takes an individual who one sees that and sees all the possibilities with it. But who also will in some ways kind of avail themselves to all parts of the organization. Right? I think that this role has so much in it, in an organization and if done well really, really truly can transform an organization. Right? Because it's a role that can both tap into kind of the hearts and minds of individuals and kind of allow them to be their best. Right? Which in turn can impact them into the internal community. But then can also impact the outcome, the output. Right?

Jennifer Brown:

Right.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

That these companies create.

Jennifer Brown:

It's the hardest and the most amazing role, truly and we could do nothing else. Right? I mean it's just-

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

There's enough work, there's so much to do.

Jennifer Brown:

There is just so much and it's so... Yeah. Highs and lows and really fulfilling and really frustrating all at the same time. But really when you put your head on the pillow, you feel like rung out in a really good way. Sometimes that image comes to mind. It just uses every part of you in all these unexpected ways and the job is to get really creative with all those parts and what do I use with this situation? What are the many pieces I want to put together in a solution so that I can get to my destination in the quickest way. But also in the most... Not just the most efficient way. But the most lasting way, and I think that's another tension we carry around the short road and the long road. The quick win and the sustainable win, changes over time that are sustained are a real legacy. If you can make things stick, right? That's where measurement we go beyond what gets measured gets don, to you don't need to measure it because it's the DNA.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown:

So there's all these really interesting tensions you can think about and your work with boards and it just makes me so much think about what a powerful group of people, usually 12 to 15 in most public and privately held companies. You are at those tables where there's this whole conversation going on about this. You've got these really influential folks which are some of the least I guess ethnically diverse, gender diverse, certainly other diversity dimensions. Least diverse, defined that way groups of people with an inordinate amount of power and influence and the big conversation of course is representation in those boards.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Right.

Jennifer Brown:

You were educating me a bit about look, in America turnover there's no term limits. So turnover can be extremely and excruciatingly slow, which makes it really hard to pipeline new talent into boards versus some other parts of the world. So we have some unique challenges when we tackle board diversity here, and yet it's like it's just such a critical... I think we'll all agree that it's a critical piece of the change equation. If we can get them on board, if we can diversify them and yet it feels like we're sort of making incremental progress. So can you just educate the audience about sort of your view. When you're at those tables, whether you're evaluating potential board members, whether you're educating a board about how to create an environment in which it's like the seed and the ground. We've got to prepare the ground for the seed to be planted and thrive, and sometimes I fear existing executive suites and boards are not very hospitable places.

So we can do all this work to get the candidates in and yet it's a miserable experience because we're paying attention to diversity but we're not paying attention to inclusion, etc.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown:

So anyway, there's a lot of stuff swirling around in there. But yeah, tell us what's it like and what are you learning and what's working, what's not, what's the current state, future state of this whole board question? Because it's so much good work that's happening there but so much further to go.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

When we chatted we talked about this idea of cross-training. Which I think comes if there's cross-training in terms of a skillset and all the things that you deploy. There's cross-training in terms of tackling some of these questions around diversity at the executive level and at the board level. The thing there is... That's probably why at the end of the day everybody's so exhausted because they're cross-training with them. But I-

Jennifer Brown:

Good point.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

I think [inaudible 00:40:52]-

Jennifer Brown:

But we're so strong.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

I know, just keep going. So in the board space, change doesn't happen because of... It's not a linear progression and nor is it kind of one input leads to one output or outcome. Right? I think that the thing about a lot of times when anyone is trying to drive change, you're looking at a problem from all sides. Right? So if you think about kind of why are we looking to diversify boards. It's actually for greater outcomes from kind of the board stewardship, right? Over a company and more and more, because there's a lot on the table to deliver not just to shareholders but to stakeholders. We've heard this discussion before, companies have much, much more of an imprint on how we live. Right?

Jennifer Brown:

Yeah.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

So therefore if you think about these groups that are kind of... Well not meeting the organization. They are kind of like the coxswain who pull strings here and there to help kind of shape and nurture an organization in some direction. So therefore the composition of who's in that room, making some of those judgment calls and having those conversations it matters. Right? You want it to be reflective. But the very richness and the thing that you look for to make that room kind of a tapestry is also what you look for within an individual. It's like what's the tapestry of the individual and then what do they bring to the board? So we've spent a lot of time 'cause it's easier quite frankly and it's a proxy for something more. We spend a lot of time on representation in very simple terms, right? A lot of what is tracked we do a board diversity tracker and a lot of what is tracked is gender identification, race and ethnicity. I think recently we spent more time talking about LGBTQ+ identity in the boardroom. Right?

Because we've had the benefit of organizations out leadership that have been beating the drum. Right? But still those are one, and I just mentioned those three as three components of representation. There's so much more, and also they also are just singular components of a person who brings so much more. Right? So we are trying to tackle all things at once. I just to put that statement out there that I don't want to suggest that this is overly simplistic and that each person who... As we think about representation it's really about this one piece of a person's identity.

Jennifer Brown:

Right.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Right? Because it really is about more. But by opening the door to talk a piece of a person's identity, we're actually opening to broader discussions of board members around the importance of various experiences including aspects as visible or invisible diversity that will be additive into the room. So the plus is that it almost gets us into this conversation. I think what we're seeing is that there have been increases. So even between... I was looking to see, because I know we had... Even between 2020 and now, if we look at the percentage of directorships held by race or ethnic or ethnicity for example, globally. Right? In 2020, I think we ended the year with 5%. I think it was 5% and I might have these wrong, so we'll have to stat check after. But I think it was like 5% black or African-American, 4% Asian, 2.1% Hispanic or Latinx and this is just again race ethnicity as an example, 0.6%, middle Eastern, North African, and 0% on Native American. That was looking at just... I'll have to come back in terms of the data we used to support that.

But I believe that was actually looking at the Russell 3000 companies, right? In 2022, so you went from 5% to now in 2022, 8.1% for example on the black and African American representation. You went from 4.7% to 6.9% in the Asian community, so in a two-year period you are seeing increases. It's not also at the same time to your point, it's 50% right? You know what I mean? But you are seeing increases. So we mentioned that because when we say coming at this from all angles, there's also reality that there are only so many seats available. People will cycle off them when they do and so part of our work is not just to focus on those numbers per se. But also what are some of the inputs, what are some of the behaviors, what are some of the questions that we're asking at the outset to ensure that directionally over time we are asking questions that increase our chances of having greater representation. Sorry, that was all over the place but you can edit me out.

Jennifer Brown:

[inaudible 00:46:21]. But that was great. So progress is being made, and I think for this audience on The Will to Change we are the DEI architects in the systems that we're in. I know we don't get to influence the board very often unless we're at a high level, practicing this work like a chief equity and inclusion officer for example. But even so I think it's instructive to think about our influencing our different stakeholders when we do this work. It's so critical, and you were telling me that boards must expand their knowledge of what's going on for our markets, what's going on for our customers. How are our employees feeling? What is experienced and what's the feedback we should be receiving that often senior people don't? Because somehow it just never finds its way there or it's watered down or it's political or whatever. But I think that there's a risk actually for senior leadership to be in the dark about rapidly changing dynamics and this includes the board, not just the C-suite. I was asking you, could we encourage...

Part of the job of an effective DEI change advocate is literally meeting all the time with different stakeholders and knowing their world and bringing them helpful information. Helping them to do their job better, see around the corner, anticipate changes, right? So the value add of us and the work and a board too. Is to get that information and get the right information at the right time to the right people, to the right stakeholders. It struck me that I thought to myself, how often do we ever get access? We don't even know who's on the board and we never hear from them. But I love the idea and I think-

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

That is another bridge. That is a bridge to be built and that is a bridge-

Jennifer Brown:

Love it.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Whether it's directly by being a part of that agenda to have those conversations, or indirectly through kind of the chain of advocates within an organization who end up in the board. Recognizing or appreciating that, that is a bridge that is an option that is valuable I think is important, right? It's not necessarily doing the work either in a silo or in a chamber, off to the side. We talk about how this work permeates all aspects of an organization. You think about people, you think about product, you think about services, you think about marketing, you think about suppliers, you think about partners, you think about your social impact in a community. Right? There's so many prongs to this work. All of those prongs you just identified are of interest at the board level. Right? You may have insights, whether it's through an affinity group or a business resource group or through a particular initiative. You may have insights that ultimately are going to impact... Well that may allow one company to respond to market challenges in a different way.

May allow a company to anticipate some tailwinds or headwinds with certain kind of communities or markets, may give insight into new leadership models that you want to infuse into an.... There's so many things that you might be privy to that honestly through that butterfly effect are of great insight and import to a board. So seeing yourself as an agent and a contributor to the strategy of the organization more broadly and doing that work to sit down across the org or have counsel with the board. I think it's a great one, right? But on the board side, not every board. But there are some boards who really want to understand, well what should we be asking? 2020 hit and all of a sudden this rose to the top of the agenda and we are responding and reacting because our constituents are telling us we need to respond and react, and in our guts it feels right. But when am I supposed to ask? We haven't been doing that for 20 years and all of a sudden now this a...

It's a topic that we all knew existed, but now it's right there front and center on my plate. What am I supposed to hold you accountable to? Where is it fair? Is it fair to all of a sudden kind of have a call to action for a company and say the CEO needs to be doing so much more and yet not know what that CEO is supposed to be doing or not be able to then hold that CEO or that leadership team accountable. Right? So there's a lot of... It's like we want to make sure we're in the moment and we are making the right decisions and we're asking the right questions. But there's also a lot of opportunity for education across the board and across the board [inaudible 00:51:35].

Jennifer Brown:

I like that.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

[inaudible 00:51:39] great. Because it's like if I'm going to hold... I also need to understand the ties between this work and the outcomes we see from this company so that I can also ask the right questions in the room.

Jennifer Brown:

That's right, yeah.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

I can also make suggestions, where I can also hold ourselves and hold our companies accountable and that's a role that DEI executives can really jump into and play. Right? It's like almost they're accompaniment of executives and board members who haven't historically wrestled with some of these questions. Is it fair to just expect everybody to be able to know how to do this? I don't know. I don't think so.

Jennifer Brown:

I don't think so. I agree with you and ESG, like some of these playbooks and metrics and requirements and suggestions. They're all out there and I think boards can decide to take on what fits and also perhaps crawl before walking, before running. I mean, I think I'm also a fan of biting off pieces that you can do well and not perhaps going so fast. But really digesting the meal and really metabolizing it and making it a part of the fabric of how you hold yourselves accountable and then how you hold the leadership team accountable. But it's so risky not to undertake any of this. So it's like that's head in the sand and I think that's a really frightening place to be.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

It goes back to that point. Earlier on in this conversation, I said I've personally felt and so this is my bias and I'll put that on the table, it's a bias. Which is that if you are privy... I have this, if I'm privy to information, if I observe something or a point that I think other people don't have. Then part of it is my responsibility to not assume that they can do anything that they have the answers or can should be running with it. Part of it is to share what I have and with the hope of trying to jointly come up with a solution or to advocate in new ways. I think similarly, there's a bit of accompaniment that can happen across an organization. If you have been working in a space for a really long time, why not share some of those insights and suggestions and potential solutions to those who have not been swimming in that space for a long time.

Jennifer Brown:

Right.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

As opposed to expecting that they would have the answers like that.

Jennifer Brown:

Yeah. I like that what you're reminding of, we say all the time in my team meeting the learner where they're at and assuming the learner wants to learn. But has not been swimming in this and not taking that as I think we can add a lot of interpretation to why people don't know and we can kind of ascribe I think character flaws to put it light to people. Right?

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yeah. Like how do you not... Yeah.

Jennifer Brown:

How do you not know? How could you not know and call that kind of almost harm? There's this way that we're talking about this. The not knowing is the aggressive act and yes and no, I mean how a lot of us have not been exposed to a lot of lived experience, a lot of details, a lot of stereotypes, microaggressions, inequities. When you are protected, as so many of us are in a bubble of our kind and not have to walk that path. There's many, many reasons you wouldn't know. What matters is to be told and then to do something, to learn and to act and take responsibility and hold the body accountable for it. That's what should truly be measured. But I love what you're saying that the patience, the teaching, the illuminating, the sharing of the information and making this practical. So okay, now we know what can we do about it and how could we then measure ourselves against some kind of benchmark we develop for ourselves. I think that progress you don't want to go so fast that it's meaningless.

I've seen companies do that, I'm sure you've seen that. That we're going to achieve X board representation by X year and I'm like, hold on, wait a second.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yeah. 'Cause sometimes to do that, again it becomes what was the purpose of doing that.

Jennifer Brown:

Right.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Right? What kind of impact do you ultimately have, right? Because if you do that, you can do that and you can get that done. It's like a lot of financial services companies who wanted to create programs to bring people into the organization who look different from who historically have been there. But without doing the multi-pronged approach of also thinking about retention, performance management, culture, you could always get a bunch of people in and then people will leave. So what was that for? And it's the same, it's the big declaration. Yes, you want to make the commitment. But you want to do so in a way that's also going to think about what skills and experiences do you desire in the board and what's the overlay of that with people you're bringing in when you come onto a new board anyway. How does somebody integrate into a new board? What kind of onboarding is provided? How is that person, again shepherded when they first come in to understand the history of not just that organization but also the board and how they've worked?

So all of that is just as important because the idea is you want to create an environment where everybody can be a meaningful contributor. So I think those are the things now, right? It's like not now, but I'd say the conversation is a yes and right?

Jennifer Brown:

Yeah.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yes. We want boards to look a certain way and we want them to have a culture and a way of working that allows everybody to bring their highest and best use into that room. Right?

Jennifer Brown:

That's right. If you had a piece of advice to give some folks listening to this to say we could be those board members someday, what would it be? I guess in simplest terms where you are in your career. Because I know this is a long shot for some of us, but I think the criteria is really changing. I mean that's what's so great about the conversations, especially the last couple of years but it's been going on for a while. Sort of are we intentionally... Not intentionally, maybe intentionally keeping people out because of the criteria we use to evaluate board readiness? A lot of orgs are working on that. But what would be your advice for those of us that say that's a goal of mine, I think I could really do that someday? What could we be doing now to begin to prepare?

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

I'm going to capture some of that, I'm trying to think of actionable advice and one of the things I think about is how to get involved as an executive, as employee. How to get involved in, again kind of cross-functional or the other way of thinking of is enterprise-wide initiatives that actually require you to work in partnership with your colleagues across the org in different functions. The reason is we always talk about the room, there are lots of rooms where complex problems are being tackled. I think being in a room where a complex problem is being tackled, it's a problem that is of significance. It's material to the success of an enterprise where you are working across functions to drive that. That experience, it informs your judgment on something that matters to your business and ultimately in the boardroom I know sometimes we over index on different, "Are you the cyber person?

Are you the finance person?" But at the end of the day, really we're talking about judgment and leadership through uncertainty. That comes from you may not have been in the exact circumstance before, but you've had to grapple with a lot of complex things with people who are very different and have different functions from you repeatedly. So you exercise a certain muscle, you know kinds of questions to ask. You have a certain kind of judgment that can be applied in that area. So I think that's what we look for on the back on that end is that judgment and being able to articulate where that judgment comes from. So how do you have exposure and experience that helps to inform that judgment? And I think it is one. So sometimes it's seemingly there's something's happening and maybe there's a new... I don't know, I'm making this up. But maybe you've heard that your company wants to get into some new market or do try something. Right? Volunteering to be in some of those SWOT teams or what have you, getting involved in those kind of cross enterprise things I think it's actually really beneficial.

Because those problems that don't just require one vertical to solve.

Jennifer Brown:

That's right. I think that's brilliant advice and funny enough many listeners to Will to Change are in or lead or have been in business resource groups, which literally do what you're saying. But they could do a lot more of it, I think they could raise the hand, I think they could seek that big enterprise-wide challenge or opportunity and really pull that folding chair up to the table and say you want to be a part of this? We think we have something to contribute that's unique, a unique vantage point on a problem that innovation that comes from the creative abrasion of multiple identities. Kind of thinking about something for the first time, looking at a problem for the first time with fresh eyes. I love that and I think that it again, kind of brings us back to the bridge builders too. Because you're uniting all of these islands, those silos, those functional areas and organizations and you're translating like you and I began talking about and that develops that muscle.

Really that board muscle, because someday you may be on a leadership team that has a huge amount of power to influence a whole industry but this is where it starts.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

This is where it starts. I mean, that piece around having to sharpen this muscle of jumping into something complex with multiple stakeholders, multiple kind of functional insights required. Doing that and working in that kind of scrum, if you will [inaudible 01:02:31] that the rugby term-

Jennifer Brown:

I love that word, yeah.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Right. Doing that, if you fast-forward who would've said that we would have been dealing with a pandemic and a pandemic that also created billions of billions of silos. Because we're all in our own homes, and that then kind of created a tech and social environment of heightened anxiety and trauma for people. Then on top of that we would have what would be such a pivotal moment of social unrest and what that would mean for people's kind of emotional state, for their mental wellbeing, and also their ability to contribute to their day job when not surrounded by the communities and structures that they were used to having. Who would've [inaudible 01:03:27] and wrestling with that each of us as individuals. But also then with the additional responsibility of serving on a board that's supposed to help lead a company through that kind of change. That's not like you could have signed up for that job somewhere else.

Jennifer Brown:

Not really.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

So you are relying on... And it's not like just because you were the one person who knows everything about cyber, that you're the person who's best suited to take that on. But if you were somebody who actually has actually had to deal with different types of crises and you may know the questions to ask. So when I say, again to that point as I keep talking. It's the underlying skills and experiences that can inform your judgment when you're dealing with the unknown and the complex. Right?

Jennifer Brown:

I would argue when you... We could wrap up at this point. Which is that when you have the experience of being the other and or being outside and inside simultaneously of systems. It gives us a wonderful foundation from which to build these bridges. To listen, to hear, to connect, to make space for, to meet people where they're at, to sort of objectively choose our spot and influence from there. I've always been grateful to have come out, taught me so much that I never would've learned if I hadn't gone. It's such a gift and it was scary at times and thrilling at times. But it developed a muscle in me of being able to just a kaleidoscope of ways of being and of being helpful and of showing up in rooms and holding my identity and holding my experience at the same time and other people's attitudes towards me, and still kind of hold that space as whatever's needed. Teacher guide, space holder, challenger, whatever it's needed to be. But I do believe your story and the stories of first gen absolutely.

Americans incredible stories of creating change in a very unique way. So I just think the resilience and the additional competencies that are built through these kinds of life stories are fascinating to me. I believe we have so many ingredients that our larger environment around us needs to hear and be privy to. Because that's the good stuff that's going to enable the innovation and the preparation and anticipation of how, yet again is this world going to change? I mean, I think what you were just saying is this is the, "New normal."

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown:

We're going to go back to anything and nothing's ever going to settle again.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

No, and then you just said something that made me think. One of the things we both talked about was having a moment that actually, whether it was you needed to actually be who you are or someone forcing you to ask a question about who you are by saying something. In these instances, there's a moment where you actually whether you're in third grade or whether you're older. You actually take a moment from the day to day to think about your own identity and who you are and what that means. I think for a lot of people saying that they're like, "Yeah, I had to do that. I've had to do that." Right? Because I have been the one, I've been the only, I have been othered, so I've always had to think about who I am. It's like when you go into a room and you ask people to describe the black experience. They might all be different, but there'll be lots of things people will talk about and I have to imagine that if I'm... Actually, you can tell me.

But I have to imagine that if I said, tell me about your experience and your identity as being a member of the LGBTQ+ community you've thought about it. Right? So many people have not had to stop and think about their own identity until now. So what's happening is that as we have in these, I think... Right? All of a sudden it's like there's A heightened awareness if you have been part of a majority of now actually having to think about who you are. So in some ways... I mean, again, I don't want to get myself into trouble here. But it's more around that's a process that's happening right now. So it'll be very interesting to see how we all come forward after this in terms of lots of more people are reflecting on their own identity. What that means, what their contributions are, how people respond to them, people who have not had to do that ever.

Jennifer Brown:

Ever, you're so right. I mean, that actually really makes me hopeful actually. Because I can see the good that can come from that, which is I have skin in the game, I've never seen the system that works for me. Right? That I'm comfortable in. The water I swim in and heightening that awareness that what it's done for me and for others and what it hasn't done for others, and I hope what it awakens of course is empathy and compassion. I hope, I mean that's my versus division and separation from each other because that that's the pain. But I think that the unification of us to say we do have more in common, there is a universal experience without creating an equivalency.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Creating equivalent, yeah.

Jennifer Brown:

Yeah. But it's just even to see yourself as having much more power and potential to shift things. I think that if we can awaken that, then people like you and I can work with that. Where I was like, okay, there's also things you can do.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

You awaken something.

Jennifer Brown:

Yeah.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Right? As opposed to kind of just existence.

Jennifer Brown:

Yeah, it's so true. People that look like me I might be LGBTQ, but I'm many of these other things that would have allowed me to never explore. Honestly, that is probably what would've happened and that's why I'm so grateful because literally I went so deep and now realize I could go so wide. That's why I view it as a gift that I would never give up because it's made life richer, it's like a technicolor and it's given so many tools that I never knew that I had possession of it actually awakened those. So what you're saying is that process of awakening, it's very new, it's only a couple of years old. But what is possible if we have a whole generation that did this big shift and now is going to begin to ask boards, "I think I should know I should be doing something. I don't know what that is. Can you help me understand what that is? And then can you help me hold us accountable for measuring and actions that actually matter, that actually move the needle?"

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown:

That is a beautiful place to have people at because it is full of potential and possibility. So you must just... And I think you said this. You really love the work you do today because you must feel that you're very close to that awakening and you get to see it, and you get to coax it and encourage and support it and inform it which is super cool.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

And see what's possible.

Jennifer Brown:

Yeah.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Not perfect, but possible.

Jennifer Brown:

But possible.

Dede Orraca-Cecil:

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown:

I love that. Well, thank you so much Dede, this was incredible. Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

Doug Foresta:

You've been listening to The Will to Change, Uncovering True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you've enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening, and we'll be back next time with a new episode.