As we enter the first Black History Month of the “New Roaring ‘20s,” I find myself reflecting back on the last decade. The US (and other major markets) saw tremendous economic growth coming out of the Great Recession. The business landscape has innovated beyond measure – AI, Blockchain, marketing technology, consumer-centricity – I could go on and on. The social consciousness of for-profit institutions is being reimagined and challenged, pushing leaders to think further beyond the economic bottom line than ever before.
So what does that mean for the next decade? And what does that have to do with Black History Month?
This past summer I had the opportunity to sit down with my mother, one-on-one, and dive into my family history in a way I hadn’t in the past. I was home in Des Moines, Iowa, attending the funeral of my elder cousin Alma Morris, who was considered the matriarch of the family and had recently turned 100 years old. The celebration of a long life richly lived struck an emotional chord, a thirst to learn more about the interconnected fabric of my family history. So, in the small kitchen of the home I grew up in, my mom and I started down a path. Starting four generations back with John and Adeline McDonald, we traced the lineage down – John and Adeline had McQueen (one of many) who would eventually marry Minnie. The two of them gave birth to many more children, Bettie Jean McDonald (my grandmother) included, who would marry a gentleman named Edward Frazier. Edward and Bettie Jean had seven children between them, one of whom is my mother, Elizabeth Eola Sharp (nee Frazier). Elizabeth, or “Lizzie Bet” as a child, now commonly known as “Lizz,” would marry my father Larry Sharp in 1982. Almost two years later to the day, Larry and Lizz Sharp gave birth to me in 1984, and then my sister, Liza, a couple years later. Over the course of a couple hours, I had taken copious notes in a work notebook. I had tracked sibling branches, unlocked joyous tales of love, hard work, poverty, faith, life and death. I mean, who needs Ancestry.com?! (Just kidding, I’m a fan of Ancestry.com.)
In those hours, I had traced a small piece of my black history.
I felt fulfilled, nourished, almost galvanized. However, we only traced the five generations. It was difficult to go further back. This isn’t uncommon among black Americans. The separation of families during the slave trade, inequality in documentation and record-keeping, the destruction of records, terrorism and lynching during the Jim Crow period, the forcing of black people into manufactured ghettos ripe with drugs and violence – all have contributed to a spotty history for millions. Furthermore, the history that we do know is inadequately taught in our school systems and reduced to a few prevalent eras and movements with a handful of key notable figures.
However, I would propose to really know American history, one must know black American history.
And to really know black American history, you must do your homework. We must do the work to know who we are and where we have been as a society in order to know where we are going. As the old adage goes, to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.
Over the last few years that I’ve been in the leadership advisory and executive recruiting industry, there are many things that have given me hope and optimism. Numerous organizations (including Russell Reynolds Associates) have joined the CEO Action Pledge for Diversity & Inclusion. This commitment is centered on creating trusted places to have courageous conversations, exploring unconscious bias, and creating actionable plans. The technology industry has been lauded for publishing diversity statistics (which are widely viewed as terrible) in an effort to be transparent and create accountability. US states are enacting policies that require public companies to include a minimum number of female board directors. Just last month, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon publicly shared that the firm would not underwrite IPOs for any companies that did not have at least one female board member starting July 2020. All of these organizations have much work to do – but they have been actively doing the work to analyze the mistakes of the past and create solutions to better diversity, equity and inclusion for the future.
In order for your organization to know where it is going on its diversity, equity & inclusion journey, it must know where it has been.
Say for instance, you have trouble building diverse slates when doing executive searches. An analysis of where bias exists in your talent acquisition process may be paramount to course correcting. Perhaps you’re having trouble building inclusivity into your environment? An intensive inclusive leader diagnostic may be necessary to REALLY unpack the inclusion, or lack thereof, that exists today. You can’t seem to retain ethnically or gender diverse talent and promote up through the organization? Think about creating a sustainable DEI operating model with the right governance, accountability, and resourcing. Put the same intention into it that you would when building your annual revenue plans. Create an intense passion around doing the hard work.
The moral imperative is clear. The last several years the business imperative has also become increasingly transparent.
Russell Reynolds Associates research shows that the payoff of getting DEI right is astounding. Businesses that are “getting it right” (or at least doing it better than the rest) have +30% performance, +35% employee loyalty, and 30% more innovation than their peers.
So, as you ask yourself “What are our leadership commitments to DEI goals? How do we bring diversity into our talent management processes? Do we have cross-cultural mentoring and sponsorship?” and other questions, let us not be deterred by the hard work of studying the past to steer the course in the future. As we look to our heroes that have come before us, whether we channel the courage of Harriett Tubman, the wisdom of Frederick Douglass, the improvisation of John Coltrane, the patience of Martin Luther King Jr., the activism of Fannie Lou Hamer, the creativity of Shonda Rhimes, the assertiveness of Malcom X, or the drive of Serena Williams, remember this – they all knew their history, charted their course, and got to work.