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This special takeover episode of The Will to Change features a candid conversation between author and equity strategist Tara Jaye Frank and Leilani M. Brown about driving meaningful change and making a way for equity, inclusion and belonging. Discover the convergence of events that led the way to an awakening about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, and who needs to drive DEI efforts in an organization. Tara also shares insights about her new book The Waymakers: Clearing the Path to Workplace Equity With Competence and Confidence.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
TARA JAYE FRANK: I think we had stuffed all of our thoughts and feelings and needs into a box. And we kind of put the lid on it and we tied it up with our little ribbon and we put it on a shelf, and we had to do that in order to go into that environment and contribute and be successful and survive, if you will, in some ways. What happened when George Floyd was murdered, and then everybody wanted to talk about race at work, which by the way, we were all trained to never do. When I was growing up in the workplace, there were three things you did not talk about, religion, politics, and race. So we were all trained to never do that, even though we were living the experience of racial injustices every single day. So when that happened and then everybody wanted to talk about it, it’s like that box was kind of unceremoniously knocked off the shelf and fell on the floor and the lid popped off and all of the contents went flying everywhere.
DOUG FORESTA: The Will To Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling 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 to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now, on to the episode.
Hello, and welcome back to The Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta. Today, you will hear a special takeover episode of The Will To Change, which features a conversation between author and equity strategist, Tara Jaye Frank, and Leilani M Brown, award-winning thought leader on workforce development, equity, inclusion, and the future of work. As they discuss how to drive meaningful change and make the way for equity and inclusion and belonging, Tara and Leilani also discuss the awakening that’s happened over the last couple of years around diversity, equity, and inclusion and the ramifications of that awakening. You’ll also hear in the episode about Tara’s new book, The Waymakers: Clearing the Path to Workplace Equity with Competence and Confidence. All this and more. We hope you enjoy this special episode of The Will to Change.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Thank you to Jennifer Brown and giving us the opportunity to do a takeover of The Will to Change for our conversation. Because the thing is that the audience needs to know that this is at once easy and a challenge, because we are friends, and so that’s the easy part, because it’s always easy to be in conversation with you because we are authentic friends and simpatico. But the challenge is reminding ourselves that the audience doesn’t know what we know about each other. And so-
TARA JAYE FRANK: Yes. Very true.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Be mindful of that too, when we go over it. And so get into it and I’m going to try to keep it focused in a way that really takes them on a journey to get them to know about you and your work, which is so impactful, I think, and so critical because it’s not work, it’s life for you. And you’re so immersed in it and you’re so committed to it. So let’s just get into it.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Sounds good.
LEILANI M. BROWN: So before I do that, I want you to give the listeners a sense of who you are and the many, many hats that you wear because there are many, many hats that you are wearing in addition to the work that you do. So who is Tara Jaye Frank?
TARA JAYE FRANK: Who is Tara Jaye Frank? It’s interesting. I almost want to start where you just left off. You said that my work is also my life. I actually just completed a magazine interview 30 minutes ago, and she said, “Well, I know you just wrote this book, but tell me what else you’re working on.” And I was like, “Uh, there’s other stuff?” “Nothing?” “That is all I’m working on.” So it really has taken over my life in the very best way. And I know we’ll talk about that more later. In addition to my work though, I am a wife, as you know being my friend, a very happy, grateful wife to an amazing man whom I greatly respect. I am a mother to six children. It’s hard to call them children because they are now ranging from ages 15 to 24. I am a new grandmother. I am a loyal ride or die friend-
LEILANI M. BROWN: Yes.
TARA JAYE FRANK: … to an intimate circle of people who know that I would do anything for them.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Drop anything for them.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Anything. I am a daughter to aging parents, who we moved from New Bedford, Massachusetts to Texas a couple of years ago to live around the corner, to make sure that they were cared for and had everything they could possibly need. So lots of roles. To your point, I’m a mentor, a sponsor, all of those things.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Yes. Before you get to the work part, and I think what’s so great, and we’re going to get to that, the life is so full and so vibrant, but the fullness of the life gives your personality… There’s a necessity to getting straight to the point, the punch. There’s not a lot of room for the fluff or beating around the bush. And we’re going to get into that too, which I think –
TARA JAYE FRANK: I’m cracking up because-
LEILANI M. BROWN: Delightful.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Because you know I’m getting part of my personality that I try to moderate, but you are absolutely right. I am very much-
LEILANI M. BROWN: No. I don’t think you should.
TARA JAYE FRANK: I am very much about the business. I want things to move. I want them to change. I want people to kind get on board and get the party started.
LEILANI M. BROWN: We don’t have time to waste. We talked about this. We don’t have time to waste. We don’t have time to beat around the bush. Okay. So I love origin stories. I love memoirs, as you know, but I love origin stories. And I would love for you to take us back to Tara at 12. Who was she? What was it like growing up in New Bedford, Mass? So you’re an east coast girl and growing up in New Bedford, Mass, I know that you’re of Cape Verdian descent. And tell me about Tara at 12 and what should we know about her and what you’ve brought forward about who she was at 12.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Yeah, it’s interesting you asked me that, Leilani, because I am learning, have learned, to love and respect, and I’ll say protect, Tara at 12 as an adult. If you had asked me that even 10 years ago, I probably would’ve pulled forward for you all the things that troubled me. I would’ve said, “I was high anxiety. I was not popular. I was awkward. I was insecure. No boys liked me, ever. I second guessed myself all the time.” You probably would’ve gotten that answer if you’d asked me a few years ago, because it took me time and therapy, quite honestly, to reflect back on my 12 year old self with love and patience and compassion.
And so you’re asking me today, which is a good thing. And I will tell you that 12 year old Tara was creative, she was emotionally astute, she was curious, she was constantly in pursuit of harmony, not only in her own heart and mind, but between other people in situations. She was a word person through and through. Avid reader, prolific writer. I’m not saying all the writing was good, but she wrote all the time. And she was a questioner. At the end of the day, I describe 12 year old Tara as a bridge builder in search of the materials needed to build those bridges.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Yeah. And so you go on to college, not at 12, but at 18, 17, 18, 19. And how did you pick your college? Where’d you go to college and how’d you pick your college? And why did you pick your college?
TARA JAYE FRANK: This is not a very heady tale, by the way, probably the story of a lot of other people. So I went to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. For those of you who do not know, which it boggles my mind that anybody would not know, but let me just say-
LEILANI M. BROWN: Who does not know –
TARA JAYE FRANK: I have to say this, the premier black women’s college, historically black college.
LEILANI M. BROWN: I always hear people say The Spelman College for Women.
TARA JAYE FRANK: The Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. And I did not know about Spelman College… Now remember, when I went to college, we did not have the interwebs. So let me just say that somebody’s listening and going, “What?”
LEILANI M. BROWN: Right.
TARA JAYE FRANK: People are still alive today who didn’t… But you know-
LEILANI M. BROWN: You fill out a little card, you get the catalog in the mail, maybe-
TARA JAYE FRANK: We didn’t learn about stuff the same way then, but I watched the Cosby Show and then watched A Different World. And A Different World, a lot of people who came in to Spelman around the time I did have this exact story. I am not special. We watched A Different World. We watched these young black people who were curious and intellectual and who challenged each other and who were human and funny and a little bit unique and quirky. We watched them navigate this college environment. And we knew that it was modeled after Spelman, Morehouse, and the like. And when I learned that, when I learned the prototype behind the show, I was like, “That’s where I need to go.”
LEILANI M. BROWN: Yeah.
TARA JAYE FRANK: So, I literally applied to Spelman. I only wanted to apply to Spelman. My mother had to make me apply to two other schools just to have options. Thankfully I got in, and that’s how I ended up there.
LEILANI M. BROWN: That’s actually an incredible story. I mean, I’m a little bit older than you. So I was watching, we would watch as students on a predominantly white institution’s campus, every Thursday night, The Cosby Show and A Different World, as a collective. The 10 of us, black students, [inaudible 00:11:57], we would all get together and we would watch it. So we missed that data in our set of choices.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Yes.
LEILANI M. BROWN: And so that’s interesting how media influenced it. So upon graduation, you end up entering the corporate world, and take us through sort of those early career experiences to getting through corporate… Your corporate experiences and then ending up in this space as an entrepreneur and writer, and I would say leader activist. Which I think for me, those two terms are interchangeable.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Yeah. Oh, I like that. I hope we’ll get to talk about that more a little later. But to try to truncate it, I was an intern at Hallmark Cards between my junior and senior year at Spelman. I had a successful creative writing internship and was essentially offered a job the August of my senior year, which made it really difficult to focus for the remainder of the year. But I was offered a job as a writer. I started as a writer and then kind of moved my way through creative writing and editorial, and ultimately was serving as Vice President of Creative Writing and Editorial at Hallmark Cards for a time.
So what this means is my entire job was to better understand human behavior and motivation, was to better understand relationships, better understand what people wanted to hear from those who loved them and whom they loved, and what they wanted to say. And that’s important because that is a thread that continues in my work today. So very focused on consumer, very focused on the consumer’s emotional life, on meeting those evolving needs in a meaningful and sustainable way. And that mattered because the more I started to think about how the organization could show up genuinely to a changing American demography. The more I started thinking about what it would require on the inside to do that.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Right.
TARA JAYE FRANK: So I kind of developed this perspective that said there’s no way for us to meet these needs into the future if we do not have these perspectives and lived experiences represented on the inside. Because without that, all you’re ever doing is holding focus groups and asking people outside of your company what you should do and how you should do it. That keeps you maybe in step, but most often behind step.
LEILANI M. BROWN: For sure.
TARA JAYE FRANK: So I got really passionate about not only marketplace, but also workplace and by extension workforce. In the latter years, I was VP of creative writing editorial and then VP of business innovation. Then I designed and stood up a multicultural center of excellence, which was an embedment arm really, meant to help all of the consumer facing divisions better understand how the country was changing, and what those needs were and to meet those needs in relevant ways. Then my last role there was as corporate culture advisor to the president of Hallmark. So someone could look at it and say, “Whoa, you went from of creative writing and product development to marketing to culture. That’s kind of interesting.” But for me, people have always been at the heart of everything I do.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Yeah. It’s interesting to me because I think, really, it just is culture at the center of it. Culture as people and people as culture. For business people, there’s this tendency to dismiss that work as the soft stuff and I always say, no. You’re running away. You’re dismissing it as the soft stuff, because you know it’s the hardest stuff.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Yes.
LEILANI M. BROWN: It’s the hardest stuff. I know this and the listeners may not know this. You were also tasked with or given the great responsibility and opportunity to work with one of our greatest most giant feelers, Dr. Maya Angelou. I think that, that is also a unique experience. I think when you think about the work that we’re doing today, these are roles and things that weren’t thought of 20, 30 years ago, but there’s an agility around creative thinkers and feelers like you. Can you talk to us a little bit about what it was like to just even sit at the feet of a giant like a Dr. Maya Angelou? I can’t even imagine.
TARA JAYE FRANK: I reflect on it a lot, Leilani because when I first started working with Dr. Angelou, we were essentially creating a greetings and gift line based on her work. I was 25 and I remember because I started working with her before I had my first child. She sent me flowers and made a cake. I mean all kinds of stuff. But I started at 25 and then it lasted for about a decade. Just in and out, I kind of changed roles throughout that time, but I always served as her editor in a way. I was the person that she would send legal pads full of writing to. I would take my time to look at that writing, try to make some suggestions if you will –
LEILANI M. BROWN: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait, wait, time out, time out. I’m geeking out here because hold on a second. I know that Dr. Angelou used to take the legal pads and go into a hotel room, I think. Correct me if I’m making this up because I am such a Angelou nerd geek. I think she used to take some brown liquor into a hotel room and write. Did she send those to you?
TARA JAYE FRANK: Well I don’t know about the brown liquor part. I don’t know about the brown liquor part.
LEILANI M. BROWN: I think I read that.
TARA JAYE FRANK: I know that I received yellow legal pads filled with would be could be greeting card sentiments. I would make suggested edits and then we got on the phone and talked them through. So you can imagine-
LEILANI M. BROWN: If you ever just dropped any of that, a piece of paper off at my house as a gift, I would appreciate it, but keep going.
TARA JAYE FRANK: I’m explaining it at that level of detail, because let me tell you, the very first time we had one of these calls I was freaking out. I don’t know how much time I spent in advance of the call, ringing my hands, doing deep breathing. It’s not every day you have to get on the phone with Dr. Angelou and basically say, “Well, I like the idea here, but the word choice isn’t exact.” You know what I’m saying.
It was very intimidating. But what I loved is she was so gracious. She was always so gracious. She was the expert on her. She was the expert on her worldview. She was the one who had all of her lived experiences that essentially created this perspective that we were trying to bring to life. But I was the one who knew greeting cards and she always really respected that, which I found just mesmerizing. She never treated me as the kid who didn’t know as much or hadn’t done as much. She treated me as a professional with expertise that she did not have, even though she had all of these other things.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Worldly experience, just so much thought and so much… I mean, she was an icon then. Was an icon in her twenties, thirties. She had so many experiences and I think probably instilled a level of confidence in you at an early age.
TARA JAYE FRANK: And humility. And humility simultaneously.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Right. Yeah, that’s special.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Because being in her presence, it kind of automatically shifted you into a learning posture. She was always teaching. She considered herself… We considered her a writer, a poet. I believe she considered herself a teacher and a lover of people.
I will say the one piece of the poem that we developed the whole entire line around said, “I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike my friend then we are unalike.” I will tell you, Leilani, that that piece, which I identified that time as the piece we should anchor to.
LEILANI M. BROWN: I think so.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Was a reason for that. My spirit anchored to it and I have never let it go. It shows up in the work I do today and in how do I do it.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Well, it’s the work. It’s not diversity work. It’s not equity work or inclusion work. It’s humanity work really. I think it will over time, it will earn that title. So thank you for that and indulging that conversation, because I think she’s such an icon and I would imagine that she’s looking down and smiling and just so proud of everything that you’re doing. That heavy lifting.
TARA JAYE FRANK: I think so. I call on her now and then.
LEILANI M. BROWN: I listen to her on Audible on repeat. On repeat. So 2020, I think people are talking about it as a year of racial reckoning. I don’t like to use this word of reckoning because I don’t think that it has course corrected. I felt like it was… That’s the truth of it. I think there was a lot of paying attention, knee jerk reactions, response, maybe some awakening. I thought we could talk about that a little bit. I wondered what surprised you and what didn’t surprise you coming out of that experience. First, talk about companies. What surprised you about companies and what didn’t surprise you?
TARA JAYE FRANK: That sounds like a really straightforward question.
LEILANI M. BROWN: I know it’s not.
TARA JAYE FRANK: But the answer… Yeah. It’s not. The answer is really expansive, but to try to be concise, what surprised me is how few white professionals had given any thought at all to race and racism before this point in time. What didn’t surprise me was how ill-equipped and insecure they were as leaders to navigate this situation. I knew they didn’t deeply understand it. I knew they didn’t necessarily have the tools to navigate it, to talk about it, to create space to talk about it, to meet people where they were. Of course, I knew that because I had been in the workplace for a long time and I had already mentored a lot of people at that point and worked with many leaders. But I was surprised by the degree of oblivion that kind of made itself plain over the last couple of years.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Do you think that the combination of the lack of preparedness fostered a willful ignorance?
TARA JAYE FRANK: A willful ignorance on whose part?
LEILANI M. BROWN: On the part of white professionals and white leaders. They’re sort of like I don’t want to pay attention to this because it would require an action.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Me to do something.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Do something about it.
TARA JAYE FRANK: I think they did not necessarily believe it was as bad or as prevalent as it was. When I say it, I mean, racism. Both in society and in the workplace, which of course is a microcosm of society. So I believe they knew it was a thing. I don’t think they believed it was as bad and as far reaching.
So when they learned, essentially during the course of that time that it was that bad and that it was that far reaching, I believe for those who cared enough it was a wake up call. Now for some, it was just a wake up call and then a looking and being like, oh my gosh, that’s so terrible. For others, woke up though and got out of bed and started moving. But yeah, people responded in very different ways. So yeah, maybe a lack of preparedness, but I think more a lack of awareness and a lack of appreciation for just how systemic, just how embedded in their own minds and also in their own companies, racism truly was.
LEILANI M. BROWN: We had three major things happening at one time. We had the pandemic, we had a convergence of racial… Awakening around racial tension as well as uprisings, and then you also had a very divisive election.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Yes.
LEILANI M. BROWN: People working in many ways, office workers working remotely. Not everybody working remotely. Office workers working remotely and I think that that’s very different when you start talking about labor in this country. Office workers working remotely, and isolating and not having to deal with the office politics in the same way. So there’s still work politics, but there’s not office politics in person. So that’s sort of different.
I don’t think we talked enough about what the George Floyd moment awakened in black workers. I think we talk about the companies. What do you think it awakened in black workers and the black workforce? Amidst this backdrop of the great resignation. So we also have a lot of opportunity out there and choice. What are you seeing? I think it’s interesting, you can say more because you sit outside of these organizations. What do people tell you?
TARA JAYE FRANK: Yes. Well, there was a lot in what you just that said. If you don’t mind, I’d like to kind of separate those two things from what did it awaken in us, and then what do people tell me. One of the things that I described to many of the white men, quite frankly, who I had audience with right in those early days, is that as a black person in the work place, I think we had stuffed all of our thoughts and feelings and needs into like a box and we kind of put the lid on it and we tied it up with our little ribbon and we put it on a shelf. We had to do that in order to go into that environment and contribute and be successful and survive, if you will, in some ways. What happened when George Floyd was murdered, and then everybody wanted to talk about race at work, which by the way, we were all trained to never do. When I was growing up in the workplace, there were three things we did not talk about religion, politics, and race. So we were all trained to never do that, even though we were living the experience of racial injustices every single day. So when that happened, and then everybody wanted to talk about it, it’s like that box was kind of unceremoniously knocked off the shelf and fell on the floor and the lid popped off and all of the contents went flying everywhere. We were then faced with having to navigate through that debris, not only white people who were like, what am I looking at and what do I do about it? But especially us, because all of a sudden, all that pain and those needs and those experiences were in our eyes and in our hair and on our skin.
I think it was a point in time that we had to contend with our own trauma. Before that point we felt it but we did not talk about it, we stuffed it down, we sometimes thought it was just us. I know this because one of the things I’ve learned in the time am since when I draw out these lived experiences at work and in the world through surveys, et cetera, that I’ve designed, is people will say I thought it was just me. I thought it was just me. So this awakening happened on both sides of the conversation. We had to kind of deal with the trauma, deal with the harm, deal with the pain. Any healing process takes time. So it’s, one, acknowledging that it’s there and then what am I going to do with it and how am I going to move forward. I think for some of us now against the backdrop of the great resignation, some of us now, office workers, are saying, I am no longer willing to sacrifice myself right for this job.
So the value equation is shifting the risk benefit ratio has flipped on not only us, but on the companies who are trying desperately to retain us.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Let’s talk about specifically black office workers. There’s a lot of data, some of it’s anecdote, but there’s some data that suggests that black people don’t want to go back to the office. They’re experiencing a greater productivity, fewer microaggressions, a greater sense of relief, less stress, and they’re articulating that by working from home. They don’t want to go back in into the office. What do they gain and what do they potentially lose? What do companies need to be mindful of with respect to black employees and other people of color in terms of bringing them back to the office if they care about inclusion and belonging?
TARA JAYE FRANK: Great question. So I’ll start by saying that every person at work needs to be seen, respected, valued, and protected. What we gained by working from home was a greater sense of protection. So to your point, we didn’t have to deal with microaggressions in the meeting, being talked over in the meeting, being dismissed, having our ideas dismissed, having our expertise questioned in a conversation where everybody’s looking at you to see how you’re going to respond. We didn’t have to deal with racism or even sexual harassment. So what we gained by working in our literal safe spaces for two years, our homes was a greater sense of protection. What we are losing, however, is visibility. The problem with losing is that visibility is a precursor to being respected at work and to being valued at work.
So major challenge, right? I don’t see you in the hallway or in the meeting or ask you a question after the meeting, because I like the thing you said. Zooming has made us super efficient, we do not do a lot of just fraternizing anymore, catching up, asking people more questions, being more curious. The relationship building over Zoom is really difficult because we’re all kind of fatigued by it. So our human nature is to use it as efficiently as we can. But in the absence of that, we don’t get to know people the way we used to potentially, and we’re not really seen in the same way. So, that’s the downside and from a leadership standpoint, people need to recognize that there are people in their teams who were already relatively invisible to them who may be now more invisible to them. And when they don’t know what someone’s contribution has been, so meaning I don’t know what the work you’ve done, I don’t really know your skills, I don’t really know your results. When you combine that with a lack of affinity, I don’t know what we have in common, we don’t share perspectives, I don’t know you, when those two things come together, those have virtually no advantage in the workforce. I don’t know what you can do and I don’t know you, can completely be left behind.
LEILANI M. BROWN: You’re further marginalized.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Oh yeah. That’s a risk that I’m honestly very concerned about. And I think what’s sad is people intuitively know this, the people who say they don’t want to go back to work, but some of them are willing to sacrifice that visibility and that respect and that value for the protection, which I understand.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Right. But to consciously know that and to consciously make the trade off should tell us all how stressful it is-
TARA JAYE FRANK: How big a deal.
LEILANI M. BROWN: How big of a deal it is to consciously know that. Whose job is it to drive diversity, equity and inclusion and belonging at the company?
TARA JAYE FRANK: Yeah. My surface answer is everybody. But what I will say is leaders who are responsible for talent in any way, shape or form. If you’re responsible for hiring talent into the company, if you’re responsible for developing talent, if you’re responsible for managing, if you’re responsible for promoting, if you’re responsible for paying, if you have any responsibility for how to talent is respected and valued in the company, then it is your job to create and cultivate a more equitable and inclusive workplace. It is not the job of your chief diversity officer, their job is to better understand the circumstances to frame choices and to help you think about your options for moving forward. But their job is not to change culture, that’s the leader’s job. And it’s not your HR business partner’s job, either. Same thing, their job to help you better understand your options, to frame your choices, to support those operationally. But leaders create a culture by the way they choose and behave every single day. The norms they establish and sustain over time.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Yeah. This year is not your first rodeo up at this. You’re getting how many calls a week for a CDO positions? How many times a week are you getting emails and calls from recruiters –
TARA JAYE FRANK: Multiple. Yeah, multiple. I was just on with a client last week and they were like, well, I went to watch the EO and told them that they need to hire you to be our chief diversity officer. And I said, I am flattered, but I am not looking for a job. I have a job.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Right. I have a job. I have a job. There are always these studies that talk about the average tenure for a seat for chief executive officers, chief marketing officers, or COOs. What do you think, what do you predict the CDO tenure is going to be given the stress and the enormity of the job? And then the opportunities, quite frankly, to move around. If you go to a company that says, yes, I want to do it and express concern and not real commitment to doing it and you can make a change. What do you predict the average tenure to be? Somewhere in the CEOs it’s like three to five years. But what do you think? 18 months.
TARA JAYE FRANK: 18 months.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Yeah.
TARA JAYE FRANK: 18 months. That is what I predict based on my anecdotal evidence. So people I know and work with who are in position, the things I’ve read and just kind of what I know about the nature of this overall work. The work is hard. The work is hard for a lot of reasons. One, asking people to bridge across differences is not something we are taught to do or it’s not something that people who have power in position now were taught to do. So it’s exercising new muscles, it’s learning new skills, so it’s hard for that reason. But it’s also hard because for some reason we expect chief diversity officers to transform our entire company cultures with a team of two people. In what universe do you expect an enterprise-wide initiative to succeed with a team of two people and a shoestring budget? We’re asking to do impossible things-
LEILANI M. BROWN: If it’s important to you. Yeah.
TARA JAYE FRANK: That’s exactly right. So the nature of the work itself combined with anecdotally what I know people are experiencing, and also some of the research, I feel like we will look back on this and say the average tenure of a chief diversity officer between 2020 and 2023 was 18 months. We’ll see.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Yes. I think that’s spot on. I think it will be a little bit less, I suspect it’ll be a little bit less. So we talked about the value of getting things done and the need to be direct. Talk about the freedom that you have, that you can exercise, and I think that you’re a free black woman and freedom of being an outside agitator on the issue. I say that because when you’re outside of an organization, there are things that you can do and to be deliberately provocative to move things along. But I want to quote you on a couple of things. Even yesterday, I didn’t even write this down, but somebody asked you to make the business case for diversity and you just said politely, no. But here’s one quotable, if you’re hosting a leadership conference with multiple speakers in this year of 2022, and there are no black and brown people on your speaker roster to add dimension to your content, you’re setting your audience up for failure. I’m not talking about diversity conferences either and I don’t mean black and brown people talking about diversity at your leadership conference. I mean, black and brown speakers at every leadership conference on various topics. So I can just see you just pouring your coffee and this is not you sitting down writing-
TARA JAYE FRANK: And another thing.
LEILANI M. BROWN: This is like, okay, I have a thought.
TARA JAYE FRANK: You know me so well you nailed it. Sometimes when I post those kinds of things it’s because I am sitting there in the morning thinking about something that is [crosstalk 00:41:06]-
LEILANI M. BROWN: Like reading the paper.
TARA JAYE FRANK: It has annoyed me or concerns me. And I’m like, and another the thing.
LEILANI M. BROWN: And another thing.
TARA JAYE FRANK: By the way, that’s usually what I’m thinking. So, I mean, yeah-
LEILANI M. BROWN: I’m not finished. I’m not finished.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Oh, good ahead.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Wait, let me share my two other favorites.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Okay
LEILANI M. BROWN: If you’ve lost two or more chief diversity officers in as many years it’s not them. Happy Saturday. Wait a minute. This is my last one, I’m not for everyone, only the honest and the brave.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Yes.
LEILANI M. BROWN: But I think that that’s great. But talk about the freedom to choose your clients and arriving at this place, I love that.
TARA JAYE FRANK: What I will say first, honestly, Leilani, that actually kind of bothers me is when I go into an organization and I’m working alongside the chief diversity officer, I have worked with some who are so smart. They are brilliant. They are strategic. They are thoughtful. They know exactly how to approach the work and what to do. They don’t really need me. They have to bring me in because they have tried to tell their leadership, the things that they should hear for months, and nobody’s listening. That breaks my heart honestly.
I just want to say to the CEO, “Hi, my name is Tara Jaye Frank. I’m so glad we had the opportunity to have this get acquainted meeting, because what I really wanted to tell you is that you don’t need to pay me, that you have a person sitting in seat who is thinking about this in the right way and knows the right things to do. And if you were to just listen to her or him, you would make some progress. Thank you very much. It was great to meet you. Goodbye.”
There are literally people I could and should be able to say that to, but I can’t. So back to your point, the freedom to choose my clients, I had one potential client reach out to me. They essentially wanted me to do work with them, to help them, to help them help their white males feel more comfortable about them focusing on advantaging, right? People who had been disadvantaged. And I was having the conversation, trying to navigate it, trying to understand it and I got to a point where I was just like, “I don’t want to do that.”
Not because I don’t care about white men. I care about everybody. And this is the point. If we were to center the experiences of those who are most marginalized, we would actually create an opportunity to make the workplace better for every single person, because people who have been marginalized are having the most extreme negative experiences and they’re running into roadblocks the fastest.
So just as in any root cause problem solving in any innovation work, you want to try to dig out the deepest frustrations, the deepest concern, right? The highest delight factors, the greatest preferences in order to develop a solution that’s going to help you move forward. The same is true here. So I care about everybody. But if you want to hire me to basically help soften the blow of you attempting to write historical wrongs, I am not your person.
As I have said for years, I don’t help people drag cats out from under the bed. It’s a surefire way to get hurt. And I’m not interested in that. I only work with clients who really want to change and who are willing to do the hard work associated with that change and to make real, tangible investment.
If somebody is unwilling to do that or unable to do that then I wish them and their people the best of luck. I send them off with all of my good, best, black girl magic fairy dust. I can’t go along for that ride.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Right. It’s not a good use of time. And we don’t have unlimited time.
TARA JAYE FRANK: And guess what?
LEILANI M. BROWN: Or energy.
TARA JAYE FRANK: A terrible waste of their time and money too whether they realize it or not.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Yeah. So we’re really about the Waymakers. It’s coming. It’s coming. So this is not your first book and you’ve written twice before and been published before. But I think this is certainly your most personal book. And you have poured every-
TARA JAYE FRANK: My most important book.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Most important book, and you have poured everything into this. This is so important to you, to many of us. I’ve had the opportunity to read it and pre-read it, and it really is… Let tell you why I think it’s important because I was oohing and aahing and writing to you and sort of live tweeting it as I was pre-reading it. But I think what I’ve learned in these last two years as we saw board appointments, particularly of black people happening right after George Floyd, what became really clear to me is that when you want to make a way, you make a way. When you want to see it happen, you just make it happen.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Yep.
LEILANI M. BROWN: And you clear a path like you have done for others that look like you.
TARA JAYE FRANK: That’s right.
LEILANI M. BROWN: And you don’t have to take a board course or a readiness course or check an 11th box out of the 10 or whatever it is. And that’s what I love about the title, the book. It’s the clarity and it’s the in your face plain talking, clear pointing out of where we make a way and where we fail to clear a path for progress. So what’s the most important thing that you want the readers to know upon reading this book?
TARA JAYE FRANK: Well, first of all, thank you for the way you explained what the book is about because you nailed it. Right? I wrote it because after spending all this time with C-suite leaders, I noticed they had three things in common. Many of them wanted to do the right thing. The second is they didn’t know what the right thing was. And then the third is they just felt a little unsure about how to get into the work. They didn’t want to bring reputational risk upon themselves. They didn’t want to insult or offend. Right?
So I wrote it to show people how to make a way. But inside of that. Or maybe that is inside of what I’m about to say, every black and brown person I know who’s made it to the top of their game did so not only because of systems change. Systems change is important. I would never say it isn’t.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Right.
TARA JAYE FRANK: But they made it not only because of systems change, but because someone made a way for them. Somebody opened a door, removed a barrier and ushered them through. Somebody had the courage to do that in potentially the face of opposition. Somebody had the discipline to do it. Somebody had the vision to do it, quite frankly knowing that, that would make their business better, that, that would make their team more successful.
So when you ask me, “What do I hope people get out of reading the book?” Here’s what I would say to you, I hope people don’t just read this book, I hope they use it.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Yeah.
TARA JAYE FRANK: If enough leaders use the Waymaker’s clearing the path to workplace equity with competence and confidence, we will change our workplaces for the better. We will create workplace cultures where more people can fulfill their aspirations and contribute to their utmost rental. I really believe that.
LEILANI M. BROWN: So if we’re at the retirement party, whenever that is at some point in the future, and I am asked to give a toast, what do you hope that I say about the work? Because I’m going to say something really personal about the person, but what do you hope that I say about the work at the retirement party? What do you hope to leave behind as your legacy?
TARA JAYE FRANK: I really hope that my work inspires and equips enough Waymakers that we change our workplaces for good. So I want people to say that I was honest in the work and kind in the work, and brave in the work, but I want people to feel that the work itself was helpful, that it made a difference, that it changed our conversation about equity in the workplace by having people think differently about their role and responsibility in achieving it. That is what I hope you would be able to say at the retirement party.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Tara, thank you for your generosity in writing The Waymakers and your authenticity in loving our community. Thank you for that.
TARA JAYE FRANK: Thank you. And big thanks again to Jennifer Brown Consulting for giving us an opportunity to have this conversation on their platform. It means a lot to me.
LEILANI M. BROWN: Yes. Thanks Jennifer Brown. Thanks Will to Change. Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: 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 in 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.
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