Challenging Leaders To Create Real, Systemic Change

A White executive coach realized she wasn't doing enough to move the needle. She is now challenging her CEO clients to take the following steps.

Like so many of my friends, family, and colleagues, I have spent these past few months thinking deeply about racism in our society, wondering how it got to be as systemically entrenched as it is and wracking my brain trying to figure out how we effect meaningful change.

In the immediate wake of George Floyd’s murder, I found myself drawn to different websites of organizations asking for donations to fight racism and better the lives of those who have been marginalized. It was easy for me to click the “donate” button, and I did so readily. I signed petitions, I forwarded them to friends and family, and I shook my head in disgust at what was happening in our society. And all of it left me feeling flat. It occurred to me that I was responding in a very privileged way. I was sitting in the safety of my own home, clicking buttons on my computer, simply because I could. Don’t get me wrong—organizations fighting for equality need money and petitions need to be signed, and I will continue doing these things, but for me, it is not enough.

As I was wrestling with what I could actually do to move the needle, a colleague of mine told me, “Don’t look to your Black brothers and sisters to solve this; this is a White person problem to solve. You need your Black brothers and sisters to help inform you about the reality of their experience, but it is then incumbent on those in positions of power to take actions that result in change.” It was a profound statement.

Some of the people I love most in this world are Black, and I realized I’ve been living in blissful ignorance, assuming that loving people is enough to create equality. It is not! It struck me that leaders of organizations are uniquely positioned to effect change, both within their organizations and within their communities.

As an executive coach, it has often been my practice to meet my clients “where they are at,” focusing on the things that are most urgent to them. Recently, however, I have shifted this perspective a bit, and have challenged my clients to consider how they can leverage their positions of power to create meaningful, systemic change. These conversations have felt risky and uncomfortable, and I’ve wondered aloud whether they are the right ones to be having. I’m not sure I know the answer to that question—it is an ongoing learning experience, but the prompt has led to some significant and meaningful discussions with my clients. It has become increasingly clear that there are some specific things leaders can do, in addition to promoting talent acquisition and development programs to attract, retain, and promote minorities.

• First, recognize if you are in a position of power, influence, and privilege. You carry a responsibility to use that position as not only a force for good, but to drive change—embrace this responsibility and be willing to own solutions within your sphere of influence.

• Second, acknowledge that there is an extraordinary amount of learning that needs to take place—for you personally and for your organization—and that this can only happen when people can come together honestly and authentically, with the goal of trying to understand the experiences of others.

• Third, be willing to be vulnerable and say, “I’m not sure what the right answer is, but I’m committed to figuring it out.”

• Fourth, know that you will inevitably make mistakes. As hard as it may be, be willing to accept the feedback that is provided and commit to continued efforts to improve and learn.

• Fifth, resist the urge to be silent. Even if born from fear of not knowing the “right thing to say,” your silence is complicity with maintaining the status quo and will not help to drive change.

On the surface, these may seem like obvious suggestions, but they can be surprisingly hard to enact both personally and professionally. Constructive conversations about inequality must be deeply grounded in trust, which is something that all leaders should be vigilant about building, now more than ever. Placing myself on this journey, I have learned a lot, know I need to learn more, and pledge to continue pushing myself and those I work with to take the actions that will allow me to meet this challenge. It is the only way forward if we want to create real change in companies and in our society.

Real change won’t happen overnight, but we can all start to take small steps toward making a difference in our companies and society overall. Collective action can create systemic change.

Appendix

Over the past several weeks, these are some of the things I have done to try to be a force of good and create change:

• I have challenged my clients directly when I’ve heard biased statements or uninformed viewpoints. Where possible, I have offered perspectives, but I’ve also been an advocate for them looking at the various situations from the perspectives of people of color and trying to understand why they might see it differently from the White majority perspective.

• I have encouraged clients to speak up, even if they don’t know what to say or don’t have an answer. (I have suggested that just acknowledging that they don’t know what to say might be a good start.) It promotes transparency, builds trusts and creates an environment for dialogue.

• I have asked my Black friends about their experiences with law enforcement. In one conversation, I asked, “Has there ever been a time when you have seen a police officer, say, at a Fourth of July parade, where you have taken comfort in the idea that law enforcement was present?” The response I got was a quick, “No. Never have, never will.”

• I have talked openly and honestly to my 16-year-old daughter about her responsibility to use her privilege to make the world a more equitable place, and I have listened to her when she told me to watch “13th” on Netflix.

• I have challenged my 75-year-old mother to consider that different dialects are not indicative of one’s intellect, but rather, are simply that—they are dialects that carry their own rules and cultural significance and should be respected, not judged.