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Sage-Gavin: What it takes to build Black leadership in corporate America

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected].

The eyes of the world are on race relations here in the United States, and globally. And from the board room to the family room, it’s spurring necessary conversations.

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I have many thoughts on this topic. This month, though, it is more important that you hear from Black executives on the role HR leaders can and must play. HR leaders are uniquely positioned to help ensure Black employees have access to leadership roles and progress in their careers.

See also: HR has made little progress on D&I. Here’s why

Several Black executives, from board member and CEO advisor, to CHRO and rising leader, engaged with me on this topic. All are respected colleagues who bring wisdom and passion to the discussion of race in corporate America. I asked this question: How can we ensure our leadership ranks are more diverse?

Kaye Foster, board director, former HR leader for Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and other global companies, as well as trustee for Spelman College, offered wise words for the C-suite: “It’s easy right now to fall prey to the ‘do more stuff’ mentality, to feel you must do more and say more immediately around race, equity and equality at your organization. But this is a movement, not just a moment. Pause. This time is not about your content–’what you do as a company.’ The moment is about your character–’who you are as a company.’ There is wisdom in the pause. And then, only when the subject has been given measured consideration, determine what action is appropriate to proceed.”

Action can take many forms. Choosing the best course of action weighs heavily on the shoulders of CHROs. For this month’s column, the Black executives I talked to offered valuable ideas about starting points.

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I wish I could share our conversations verbatim, but that would take many more columns and still wouldn’t do the topic justice. Instead, I’m going to focus on three key themes that came through again and again.

  1. Start with listening. If you haven’t been born into the Black experience, proactively focus on building education and awareness of the Black experience in America–and by extension, the Black experience in corporate America.
  2. Use data insights to inform your inclusion and diversity strategy as you would for any other business imperative. Diversity is a competitive differentiator and a lever for value creation.
  3. Create systems that reinvent the playing field. Eliminate bias and help your company move forward.

Start with listening

It seems so basic. But it is powerful. While data should drive decision-making, it doesn’t replace active listening. David Jones, CHRO at Stanford Health Care, stated his reality and that of many Black executives so well: “In most every organization I’ve been in, I’m the only senior Black executive on the leadership team. I’m the only Black man in the room. This has just been a reality in my career since I was 26 years old. And it’s still the case today.” Jones went on to say that when his white colleagues are initiating one-on-one conversations with him, asking for reading material about issues regarding race, while showing a real hunger to be part of the solution, it goes a long way. For Jones, acknowledging his experience and the desire to learn matters.

In each conversation I had for this column, I took away that, as we listen, we must also be deliberate and mindful of our language. Rhonda Morris, CHRO of Chevron, talked about hearing the word “qualified” in front of other descriptors for Black candidates up for leadership positions. “It’s assumed a candidate is qualified if they are white and male. Let’s assume all candidates–regardless of color, gender or anything else–are qualified if they’re up for a leadership position.”

Johnathan Medina, a senior manager on my team, mentioned that he is often complimented on how articulate he is. While he recognizes the complimenters are trying to be positive, he raised a good point: “No one is surprised when white males are articulate.”

I’ve always known words are powerful, but especially right here, right now. Words are particularly subjective.

Use data insights for diversity as you would for any other business goal

Data tells an ultimate truth that takes the subjectivity out of our business reality. CHROs, CEOs and other senior executives need data metrics on Black employees’ career trajectories but also data insights on sticking points.

Foster says she asks CEOs a simple question: “Do you have a fundamental belief that, in the absence of a diverse workforce, you are sub-optimizing opportunities for your company?” She says companies with CEOs who truly believe diversity is part of a solid business strategy look a lot different than their peers. She sees that CEOs who truly believe diversity is integral to business strategy have a different approach, as well as documented enhanced performance, relative to their peers. Diversity becomes more than the right thing to do. It’s recognized as a business advantage.

Medina is all for rigor–what he calls “tech-enabled truth telling.” He explains: “Historically, CHROs haven’t applied the same rigor to diversity and inclusion that their company does with other business imperatives. They have metrics but they’re rarely actionable–things like the number of Black employees in certain roles at various levels. Those metrics might show you a surface picture, but they’re lacking indicators of what’s actually happening.”

He explains that technology can help you spot the bias in the Black employee experience. “If you want to understand the bias points–the moments standing in the way of inclusion–you need data. You need actionable insights.” By linking your HR systems together–employee records, performance management, team sites, chat groups, compensation and more–you can gain a more accurate picture. “You can compare a group, like Black employees, to the general employee population and suddenly you see not only trends, but also the reasons for those trends.”

Create systems that reinvent the playing field.

Foster believes board members should be “unapologetic” about pushing for true accountability on diversity measures. Morris agreed and added: “Everybody is going to be uncomfortable. This is just an uncomfortable time right now. But you don’t succumb to organizational paralysis when you have a fire at a facility. You act. This situation–like any business challenge–requires action.”

Involving frontline managers is key. Foster put it well: “Our frontline leaders, the ‘mass in the middle,’ haven’t been properly engaged. They control promotions, performance and professional progress within the organization for the majority of Black employees.”

Jones believes CHROs can be the crux of the change, with CEO backing. “As CHRO, I’m the architect of the management and leadership systems that most impact fairness, justice, equity. I am in charge of the selection process, reward systems, development, promotions, internships. HR designs those. We can make the right social engineering happen. We can build it in.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Jones’ statement and the views of the other Black business leaders I engaged with on this article. We need to listen, use data and create systems that push true accountability for building Black leadership in corporate America. It’s long overdue.