The organization I worked for before quitting had a Leadership Model. And the theme of this model was “Lead from Any Chair”. The idea was that anyone at any level in the organization was capable of being a leader. It’s a fantastic theme, encouraging those in any type of position to take active roles in improving their organization.
If only it had been true in practice.
We’ve all heard the expression “if you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk”. What I found interesting in my ten years at this same organization, was that management continuously got better at talking the talk – and yet the walk never changed.
Managers became very good at talking about respecting staff and valuing diversity. And yet their actions still led to employees feeling ignored, invalidated, and defeated.
Shortly after I left my job, I had two very similar conversations with two different co-workers. Both of them are women who care deeply about their jobs, and took a leap of faith in making themselves vulnerable and going to management to talk about a concerning problem within their respective units. And both of them, in different cities, in different departments, got the exact same response.
“No one else has said anything,” replied both managers. And that was the end of both conversations.
Some may say this is just a coincidence. But I don’t think it is.
It can feel very empowering the first time an organization admits that it has a diversity problem. When there’s been a history of denial and gaslighting, it can feel as though someone just flipped on the lights in a dark room. Finally! We’re finally being honest!
But the heartbreaking thing is that it soon becomes clear, in so many cases, that admitting there is an issue is just one more way to punt the ball further down the field. So if questions arise, management can point to their Diversity Committee, or their Inclusion Officer, and say, “See? We’re working on it! We promise!”
And many of those in management may genuinely believe that they are doing good in this regard. But I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Good intentions mean nothing without action.
In my former training department, there are two different leadership programs. One, the one I co-ran, is open to employees of any classification, from office support to management. The other is only open to employees of high level salary ranges. So high, in fact, that some managers do not qualify, because they don’t make enough.
And in this “lead from any chair” organization, I’ll let you guess which program is the one that gets the highest budget and most attention. I’ll let you guess which one opens the most doors.
I’ll also let you guess which program has the higher number of participants of color.
Now there will be people who will attempt justify all this. They’ll talk about succession planning and budgets. They’ll have pat answers for everything. But I don’t care. Because you can’t justify the impact. You can’t justify who gets left out and who gets let in.
I could go on with more examples, but I think everyone has plenty of examples of this in their own workplace. And we know that talking alone doesn’t break down barriers.
So what does?
To those who have power in their organization, here’s what I think:
You need to listen. When someone comes to tell you something, even if it bothers you or makes you feel defensive, you should never dismiss it. Because if you haven’t heard it from anyone else, it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. It just means that people may not feel safe enough to tell you it’s a problem. This goes double for a man being approached by a female subordinate or a white person being approached by an employee of color. They are reaching through a big power differential to try and talk to you.
You need to accept that inequity is institutional, and you can’t just trust things to balance themselves out. Because they won’t. Acknowledging that you haven’t been taking action and need to do more is not an admission of personal failing. It’s something to be proud of. It’s a sign of leadership.
And you need to act. Stop just saying you care about problems. Show, don’t tell. Whether it’s hiring or putting together a workgroup or finding a panel of speakers for a presentation, you need to be actively looking to find and promote diversity. (Good grief, don’t be one of those people who puts together an all male panel on women’s empowerment).
For those who don’t have power in their organization, this can be a lot harder. Just finding someone to listen can be an uphill battle. Seeing the mediocre being promoted can feel incredibly defeating. And I wish I had an easy answer.
But I will say that your voice matters. In fact, it more than matters, it’s critical to making things better.
I loved training leaders in my program. I loved that we had receptionists and janitors in conversation with caseworkers and managers. I loved all the voices that came into the room. I loved that when we asked people to share their passions, they made themselves vulnerable and spoke their truths, and often touched their co-workers’ hearts in unexpected ways.
It’s not always easy to see the impact you’re making in the moment. But it’s there.