A Hard Look In The Mirror

On advancing racial equality, I encouraged and even mentored, but, regrettably, was never the champion I could have been.

The pandemic has cloistered many of us in our home offices for months now, restricting the once abundant opportunities we had to casually engage with each other over a cup of coffee or a meal. For some of us, though, it has gifted time for reflection as we personally confront a more visible and never ending stream of racism and social injustice.

Almost daily I read about or sign into webinars focused on best practices of boards and executives who have embraced or are determined to embrace diversity and inclusion throughout their enterprises. Their focus doesn’t seem like the intellectual exercise it perhaps once was but hopefully instead, like a final awakening. Two prevalent themes get my attention; written policies serve only as optics and, this time around, responsibility cannot be delegated. As directors and executives, we own this.

I began to look in the mirror.

My childhood neighborhood was safe; we played ball in the street, never locked our doors and went inside when the street lamps came on. Around the age of twelve, I was talking with a kid down the street about the wrestling matches we watched on our black-and-white TVs. We decided to put each other in a bear hug to see who was strongest. He started and squeezed me as hard as he could for as long as he could; nothing. My turn…within a minute or so his body went limp. I thought he was faking and let go. He fell face down onto the pavement and I watched a tooth fly off to the side. His body began to convulse; he came to, stood up crying and ran home.

I will forever re-live that experience. Whenever I think about it I shudder. From that day forward, I vowed never to risk harming anyone again. Today, I grieve when someone is injured on the job but even more, I grieve as I watch the senseless and disproportionate violence so dominant in our daily news cycle.

Paraphrasing Gary D. Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry, I didn’t have any money when I was young but, I was white.

Chances are I’m a bit older than most of you and as such formed my first impressions about economic disparity and racial inequality through ‘film at eleven,’ not from the streets, and I remained just as naive through my college years at the University of Buffalo. In the early ’60s UB was a melting pot of nationalities/ethnicities, religions and colors and the student body was polarized more by the war in Vietnam than by each other. But then – 1964; riots in the east and the west, the Civil Rights Act and the EEOC. Shortly after that, I joined the real world!

My first two jobs after graduate school were with Fortune 100 companies and both internalized the requirements of the Act. In retrospect, they ‘sponsored’ its intent but did not champion it and so it was that I did the same for too many years thereafter. In my executive responsibilities and my advisory roles that followed, I ‘encouraged’ and even mentored but almost always, I depended on others to lead day to day. I was well-intentioned, but never fully engaged.

How blessed we are that so many in the generations that followed us have embraced diversity and inclusion as their pillars, not just as cheerleaders, but by personally committing time, energy, leadership and resources to their beliefs. Some of you contributed to that as role models and hopefully more will. Regrettably, I was never more than a sponsor.

And so, sequestered in my home office, I’ve studied, I’ve listened and I’ve learned. I’ve had plenty of time to look inward. For many years I lived between the cracks and am a late adaptor, but if I strive to finally be a champion, I can help tip the scales. I’ve learned!

Want to borrow my mirror?

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.