June 18, 2020

Dear White Male Leaders Of Any Tech Organization

My name is Alicia, and I’m an Inclusion and Diversity practitioner for a technology services company. A little about me for context, I’m a Black Latina from small-town Iowa. After making my way through University [first gen], I landed in Denver, trying to find a way to tie the content I care about [diversity, equity, and inclusion] to my professional career. I’ve worked in marketing and now support the technology sector through workforce management.

After 28 years on this earth filled with teaching moments [five in corporate America], I’m here to share this: You [White male leaders] hold the tools [and the responsibility] to drive the much-needed change. If this feels unsettling, then I kindly ask you to step aside.

No longer can you be silent.

Stop being silent in front of your people [regardless of your team makeup] after a string of devastating events occurs in our country.

While I hold the opinion that reaching equity in America will be achieved long after my lifetime, I have listed in this article my personal suggestions on where you can start as a leader. 

Tuesday, May 26th

On Tuesday morning, May 26th, I woke up, and after a quick meditation practicer, I followed my usual routine of checking social media. My heart started to ache at the video of George Floyd being murdered by Derek Chauvin. I had tears in my eyes looking at another thread of comments about Amy Cooper and her racially-charged 911 call against Christian Cooper. My spirit sunk.

Working during quarantine has its own set of challenges, but I felt a little relieved knowing I was in the comfort of my apartment for the workday. I kept thinking about how I was going to handle my scheduled meetings feeling so low. I remember looking at the clock, thinking about how I wanted to go back to bed, and it was barely 9:30 am. It got me thinking about the offices across our country. I wondered how leaders were going to approach the news of these two stories. I connected with teammates

People like me who had their morning routines disturbed by the news than were asked to join Webex stand up meetings delivering updates without a skipped beat. Now, there are so many things that I thought about when hearing this common denominator of response across my organization. Still, I started to listen to the same information from friends and colleagues in other tech companies.

My question is this: why are (White and usually male) leaders so afraid to approach these hard and heavy emotions? All quarantine, we’ve led the charged message of “Lead with empathy”… “Check in with your people“… “Everyone is experiencing something.”

So when we have issues around race and gender, why do we not carry this same energy? I’ve gotten a few responses in my short inquiry, and the answer is troubling and no longer sufficient: They don’t know-how.

Here’s where I start to feel discouraged and skeptical about the current leadership status quo in the tech sector– As leaders, you are expected to know in detail about the people you lead and your business operations. This encompasses many aspects. Casually cherry-picking what information you gather from your people to inspire business results is going to fade out as a successful tactic. The best leaders, regardless of their demographic, that I’ve ever been exposed to have no fear of having hard conversations. That’s what yields growth and change. It changes systems for the better. Your people of all demographics, but especially those that are underrepresented, may be experiencing emotional tax from events outside of your work walls, and the thought of carrying on their daily work path with no sense of acknowledgment is painful. Even more damaging, your lack of acknowledgment is conditioning and setting the tone for future leaders to think this method of silence is OK. That places us at risk for the same continued behavior when they enter the leadership ranks. I’ve seen the inverse also happen, where so much resentment is built from lack of awareness by a leader that it starts to damage the organization’s culture and livelihood. Your silence sends a signal of “I put your output above what goes into your input,” and that is a passive but damaging message that your people are as expendable as the thoughts and feelings you choose to ignore.

There are a plethora of opinions on how people think we all should be responding to these issues impacting our society. Here is my point of view as an Inclusion & Diversity practitioner in a technology organization where the majority of leaders are White men. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather a launching point that you can use to continue showing up as best as possible for your people.

1. Hold Space

Simply acknowledging and saying you want to be intentional in holding space for people to share how they feel can be heartfelt and effective. If your team make up has individuals who are underrepresented then try and ensure they do not feel especially called out to say anything, but your attempt to just hold space is a start. All you have to do is simply say, “I recognize there have been recent events that are devastating some of us today. I just want a moment to be sincere and attentive to anyone that wants to express anything.” Simply telling your people that you see them is validating, and that is such a powerful step for our humanity.

  • Host a call, or support a call being hosted that allows for further conversation based on the current needs.
  • Some teams have to follow rigid timelines due to operational demands, so work outside of that to give the proper time and attention needed.
  • Check-in with individuals who you know is most vulnerable.
  • It is OK to reach out to your specific employees who might be most impacted to say “I see you” and “I am with you.
  • You don’t have to take on anything people feel for yourself, but you can create a window to have sympathy and recognition for the varied emotions on your team. What people think is real.

2. Don’t Be Afraid To Trip Up On Your Words

There is no guidebook on how to reach nirvana around race, gender, or class in America. We are restructuring and laying that groundwork as we speak. I’m merely telling you because it is you as White men who hold the structural power in technology organizations that this is your battle to lead. It’s simple statistics. There are more of you; therefore, more of you should be helping create the diversity, equity, and inclusion we all have agreed based on countless research is necessary for corporate success. I’m not asking you to be perfect at this–just start with something. You may slip on words and be politically incorrect, you may use the wrong terminology, and you may quote the wrong thing, but I promise you we will see your intent over your impact. Now, there’s a degree of ownership and intentional effort you have to have, and there are copious amounts of access to information, but trust your intuitive heart coupled with the work you’re doing.

  • Read: For leadership skills in general, there is so much content to point out how to show up for your teams. You can apply similar concepts as you deliver this new level of empathy regarding race and gender as they inevitably make their way into our workday. As a leader, you’re always asked to stay on top of trends that impact the business to keep yourselves relevant. I’m encouraging you to also stay on top of trends to maintain or build your team’s belief in your overall emotional capability as a leader.
  • Connect: If you’re still at a loss, connect with other leaders, and discuss. You have set meetings regarding XYZ, save time at the beginning or at the end to ask how you all can be navigating as sensitively and effectively as possible. Don’t put the burdened question of “What do I do?” on your people, especially those who are underrepresented. You take the first iteration. Just like you would never go to a client and say “Hi. What are your problems? I can find a solution.” Take a little ownership amongst each other to identify areas you can support and come to your team prepared with: “I can imagine XYZ, here’s what i” m seeing others do or what I’ve read. Can I help with that?” You can also say, “I’ve seen this, and that doesn’t feel right for this team- what else can I be doing?”
  • Your employees understand business still needs to run and are showing resiliency by still coming into work ready to execute tasks. Be careful you don’t force the trendy narrative of “work-life integration” but passively imply people leave the hardest parts of their life in the Webex meeting room lobby.
  • Share: Some of the most beautiful moments I’ve witnessed come from those that don’t pretend to know the answers. Share what you’re thinking and do it in a way that provides a platform for them to safely reciprocate. You being silent is likely because you don’t know what to say, but I’m telling you that is more damaging than you being honest and saying “I’m so hurt and impacted by the pain this is causing you and the team that I’m not even sure how to direct this“. It’s open, honest, and shows your levels of empathy. Avoidance leads people to believe you don’t deem this a worthwhile or appropriate path to explore. It puts the responsibility to remove aspects of our authentic selves you don’t find comfortable to engage with back on the shoulders of your team. That energy exertion is exhausting and should be better utilized elsewhere.

3. Use your words to drive action

All week I’ve heard from White colleagues express how sad they feel, how horrendous this all is, etc. While I appreciate the words and the thoughts, I need those in roles with political pull to step out of the “My thoughts are with you” arena to help navigate the next wave of action. I understand in corporate settings this seems difficult but this is your chance to advance the evolution to where our companies need to go and fully maximize your leadership capability. We can’t invest in our People/HR/Diversity strategy and say bring your whole/best/authentic selves to work and simply dance around the areas that make us uncomfortable because they tie back to social events that seem out of our control. I’m not saying leaders have to have the answers to what we do, but either go back to suggest one to hold the space to collaborate and identify an area to start, or find a way to move from general conversation to progress.

  • Do your research.
  • There is an abundance of resources to how leaders like you can step in as Allies and Champions for the underrepresented.
  • Ask what your team needs and ask them often.
  • Ask in one on ones, meetings, open-ended conversations, etc.
  • If your mantra to your team is “Always Be Closing” or “Sprint Fast,” then you need to ensure you remove the appropriate barriers.
  • See your people as your stakeholders.
  • How are you managing them and caring for them?
  • Regardless of our current state, unemployment in the technology sector is still relatively low. Add in a global pandemic and employees are paying more attention to every detail of how you show up for them. Now more than ever, hold your team close and recognize their precious perspective. You need them to advance your business. Treat them just as you do your clients.

4. Understand your companies Diversity & Inclusion Strategy

If you got to this point and think “What a lofty ask for someone who doesn’t control what happens in the world around me. I’m just here to do my job,” then I ask you to take that energy into the strategy piece of your company’s Diversity and Inclusion goals. There is endless research that points to how diverse organizations do better in business. If you’re still insecure with how to navigate weak spots pertaining to how your employees might be absorbing events from our social world and bringing them into the corporate world, then hire for people who can support the areas in which you cannot. We see more and more how difficult it is to get away with mediocrity in any aspect, so I’m suggesting you support the initiative before you get overridden by someone with more emotional, technical, and likable capabilities.

  • Learn the hiring initiatives your organization practices.
  • This isn’t a call out to find your token minorities but rather an exercise to say hey, are we gathering as diverse a pool as possible that will constantly help us evolve in the direction we need? Instead of always tailoring your hiring for the technical aptitude, look at ways an individual can support the overall integration between work and life that is increasing in importance.
  • Check (continuously) for your own biases and gaps.
  • Find how you can ensure this is at the forefront so your talent acquisition or internal recruiting teams can help you have as well rounded of a team.
  • There are firms, organizations, and training that are specific to unconscious bias. We all have them; it’s just about recognizing how they are playing negatively into your day to day systems.
  • Memorize what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to your company, then reflect and understand what it means to you.
  • Do they align? Are they a little different? This is a small exercise that can help you connect with not only the greater company goal but what you might have for your team. This also is a great activity to engage your team to seed a bigger conversation on what it means to be an employee at your organization. Allow yourself to feel and get in the emotional weeds with your teams. It will help refine strategy and improve how you see and work together.

We want leaders who can demonstrate not that they are perfect, but that they value the differences in our world to unite around a common goal. Carlos Rodriguez from Happy NPO now virally tweeted: “I see no color” is not the goal. “I see your color, and I honor you. I value your input. I will be educated about your lived experiences. I will work against the racism that harms you. You are beautiful. Tell me how to do better”.
Tell your teams you see them.

Alicia Jessip

Inclusion & Diversity Manager at TEKsystems

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