To Make A Difference, CEOs Must Make Diversity & Inclusion Personal

As the CEO of a global organization and a member of CEO Action, I know I have significant influence in advancing diversity and inclusion within the workplace. Increasingly, this also means that it’s important for me and for leaders throughout our organization to engage on societal issues, as well. Why? Because too often these issues are inextricably linked.

For better or worse, people are looking beyond the leaders they have traditionally counted on — religious, community and political leaders — and are expecting businesses to do good and promote good. They’re looking to their employers, manufacturers and brands to align with their values. According to the 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose study, 79 percent of Americans expect companies to stand up for social justice issues, and are buying and boycotting based on companies’ beliefs and actions.

Despite what we know, taking a stand is not an easy thing for leaders or businesses to do. It’s uncomfortable. There are risks. Making the decision to do so requires us to closely examine our personal and organizational values, and think about if we are in fact living those values. But it’s important, now more than ever, as staying silent is becoming even riskier.

In August 2017, many of my Porter Novelli colleagues and I watched in disgust as the Charlottesville white supremacist marches took place. We were horrified by the intimidation we saw, and the violence and death that ensued. We wondered, “Is this what we’ve become?” At the time, CEOs such as Kenneth Frazier of Merck, resigned from the president’s manufacturing council, and a number of other leaders spoke out against hatred. I, too, felt a need to communicate to our colleagues and reaffirm our values.

The following August, as the one-year anniversary of this hateful incident approached, we feared that a new wave of hate might ensue in memoriam. At Porter Novelli, we made the decision to recognize the anniversary, but instead of focusing on the hate, we came together with love. We looked to the powerful words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” to help guide us.

Colleagues across Porter Novelli shared their own stories of overcoming hate with love through a campaign called “We Stand For Love.” More than 40 colleagues shared deeply meaningful stories and took action to learn how to become better listeners and connect with people very different from themselves. Over a period of about two months, we created programming such as unconscious bias training, diversity dialogues, panel discussions and other events.  

To kick off the campaign, I had the honor of sharing my own story of overcoming hate with love — something I’d been reluctant to do in the past. My message addressed the state of the U.S., Charlottesville, the 1968 race riots and my own father’s experience as a guardsman deployed to keep the peace during a protest. The feedback that my story and the stories of my colleagues received was nothing short of phenomenal. The campaign resulted in more than 20,000 email opens from 25 countries and six continents. But most importantly, due to the high engagement, we are changing hearts and minds and making a difference, our purpose and reason for being.  

Committing to action on diversity and inclusion, and engaging on societal issues are some of the most important things our organization, and I personally, can do to make an impact internally, as well as on our industry. But it requires us to make diversity personal. To lead through empathy. To find strength through vulnerability. I am convinced that if more CEOs take the time to connect with their own stories, and by doing so connect to others, we will all be more effective in making real change.

For CEOs and leaders, committing to diversity and inclusion means that we cannot be silent on societal issues, as they are often connected. The question is, how does one speak out in a way that is aligned with their organization’s purpose, values and stakeholders. For Porter Novelli, and for me, it means that we stand for love.

The CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion was spearheaded by PwC U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan.

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