As I reflect on an enormously painful and exhausting year, I find myself in a hopeful place. And yes, I am surprised by that.
Part of the hope stems from the many conversations I didn’t expect to have. Some have been with chief executives who have committed to address issues of race and inequity with humility, determination, and grace. (Check out this year-in-review episode of Leadership Next, my podcast with Fortune CEO Alan Murray, for more.) Some have been with mid-career executives on the Fortune Connect platform—now our largest executive community—who represent the cohort who will be responsible for leading and implementing the radical reimagining of work and society going forward. They give me life. (More on Fortune Connect here.)
For the better part of a year, I’ve also been Zooming into conferences and other private meetings to share what I’m learning from my 2020 reporting, and to learn what’s top of the mind for decision-makers. When it comes to race and inequity, so many leaders are—miraculously—on the same page, but not always clear about what comes next. I did my best to represent all of you. Looking back, I’ve come to see that my responses can be condensed to one simple prompt: It is up to each of us to notice who is not in the room, and to ask why.
In the “why” is the work.
The act of noticing is a powerful one. It’s the first step to inclusion and puts you on the road to understanding, allyship, and the elimination of the kinds of barriers whose roots lie far beyond your workplace. It takes twenty years to grow an entry level employee, and a lot goes wrong for them along the way: Unequal access to health care, education, clean water and food leads to unequal life outcomes. Living in communities that offer little promise of safety or civic life, leads to deep despair. Not an insignificant pipeline problem.
“Room,” then, becomes a metaphor for wherever history, power, and commerce operate: To stand for inclusion in the workforce is to notice who isn’t on your board, executive suite, high potential pool, store shelves, professional service value chain, customer base, teams, and professional membership groups. Take a look at your LinkedIn connections. Your social feeds. Look around the neighborhood where you live. Where you worship. The zip codes where your (mostly empty) corporate headquarters are. Who’s not there? Why?
Pull the threads, and narratives begin to emerge that will help you better understand how outside forces—like a historic lack of access to capital markets—have created the seemingly intractable gaps in wealth and agency that plague so many in the U.S. and beyond. New questions will emerge about how those forces have worked their way inside your firms. Whose family was decimated by COVID-19? Why was our new accommodation for working from a distance not the pre-pandemic norm for disabled employees? How could it possibly be that working women have lost so much traction in the last nine months? Why do so few employees of color make it past their first leadership assignment? What specific benefits and services do the extraordinary people we are frantically trying to hire our way into a better diversity report really need to thrive in their jobs?
Once you see exclusion you can’t unsee it. And that’s a good thing.
Are we prepared to ask why and act on what we learn?
Currently, it feels pretty unlikely. Global inequality is on the rise at a time when people are literally stabbing each other in the streets at political rallies. And yet, most of us are just trying to get through this thing called life.
I get it.
So, my best advice is to do as much of your looking and listening as close to home as possible. One soul at a time.
To help with that, I’m moved to repeat this simple advice from David Kyuman Kim, a professor of religious studies, and a philosopher and scholar of radical love and inclusive democracy. He is currently the founding director for the Center for Values, Ethics, & Culture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. His advice: Open your mind, and then listen. When you give genuine attention to other people, they find the courage to talk about their lives. The simplicity masks the power.
“We have a responsibility to draw our attention to co-workers, to community members, and ask a simple question: ‘How are you doing?’” he says. “And then listen, really listen, as if you don’t already know the answer.”
Not knowing. What’s the worst that could happen?