John R. Kirksey CEO at TKG Global Advisors on Facilitating Diversity and Inclusion through Education and Conversation

“I avoid the word training. Training is didactic and patronizing. We train dogs.”

The groundswell of social activism and calls for diversity, equity and inclusion in workplaces and society at large dominate the headlines and have reached a crescendo, ­­spurred on by the untimely and unnecessary killings of too many people of color – with the two most recent , George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, sparking a global backlash second only to the civil rights protests of the ‘60s. The perverse killings of these two individuals caused the world to stand up, take notice and demand action. And while there have been a series of apology tours, new appointments to boards and some hirings at the top level – Reddit comes to mind – I can’t help but wonder if all this represents kneejerk reactions or whether people are really ready to learn how their own behavior and actions can create positive lasting results.

I have hurt for my African American and Hispanic male and female colleagues whose complaints about the equity and inclusion gridlock they face I’ve been privy to, as they tried to navigate corporate positions. These are level-headed, college-educated individuals whose training made me inordinately proud – as if they were members of my own family and saviors of our race. From those in corner offices, to those in senior-level positions, to those within diversity initiative cubicles, there were never-ending stories of psychological difficulties related to race relations at work. “How could everyone be this miserable, where is HR?” I once asked a colleague. “You are confused,” she told me, “HR serves the needs of the company, not the employees.”

The call for diverse voices in decision-making rooms looms large today. The answer is inordinately multifaceted and complex, but doable for those who really want to make a difference. It is certainly not simply apology tours or “Black Lives Matter” street murals and T-shirt insignia. These are symbolic gestures, not concrete fixes. There needs to be real work and shifts in mindsets, beginning with studies in history and cultural appreciation, if you are going to effectively manage a diverse workforce.

I remember the founder of one company where I worked had an annual cultural trip for senior managers. These included camping at the foot of the Great Wall of China; living among, and learning the survival skills of, the Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Rainforest; and living for a week on a sailboat to experience life as a sailor. It was far from luxury – these trips took the senior managers out of their comfort zones to have very different experiences and learn the ways of other cultures. This Chairman was ahead of the curve.

As protests raged across the city, country and the world, friends and former colleagues who care about the issues have reached out, some to ask have they ever done anything to offend me, others to ask how my sons were handling what was going on and some to express their sorrow for how “people who look like you” have to survive in an environment of inequity. It could not have been comfortable for them, and while I appreciated the sentiments, I was uneasy for both them and me. “Thank you kindly for asking, but its not only about me, because you know me.” We are supposed to be an enlightened society. What’s going to be our legacy, another 400 years of barbaric behavior? Just think ­– Baby Boomers are facing their sunset years, and society is still embroiled in atrocious racist practices. How ignorant. It is about time we think about more than ourselves and consider how our behaviors and actions towards others in society may be able to change the trajectory of inequity. It is time to teach a new generation how to truly live and operate in a racially equitable environment.”

For healthy diversity and inclusion environments to thrive, there has to be inherent value recognized in all people. Oftentimes, so-called workforce leaders have no clue why they should care about or understand the true meaning of diversity. They were hired and placed in control of employees’ careers with no clear direction. I can only imagine some of the points of view at the task ahead of them: these people are different; they are not from my neighborhood; they did not attend an Ivy League school (please explain the significance of IVY LEAGUE to me); they talk differently; they only have their jobs because of affirmative action; they eat different types of food; I don’t like their attitude; they are not demure; I hate their hair; I hate the way they dress….

To offer some perspective on what it takes to promote healthy diverse environments, I decided to approach an expert voice, John R. Kirksey, an executive with deep experience in facilitating diversity and equity practices in corporate workplaces. I’ve had the pleasure to assist Mr. Kirksey in the past. He agreed to share some lessons from his work experiences, as well as his point of view on immediate steps he would recommend that companies take to get on an effective path to facilitate equity and inclusion in their work culture.

Q. I remembered your work in diversity pointed to educating the entire workforce. How important is it to make the point that true diversity is meant to include everyone in the conversation?

A. The two operative words in your question are education and conversation. I avoid the word training. Training is didactic and patronizing. We train dogs. In my work with people in organizations, I prefer a facilitative learning experience where the learning process is interactive exploration. Via individual self-exploration the learner will find his or her own path to new ways of viewing and leveraging differences.

Most of us want to see positive change. I seek to open the door to that positive change by not attempting to convince others that they should be like me. Instead, I encourage them to explore their own paths to better selves. One of my favorite quotes is from Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy said, “Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to change themselves.”

The facilitation of diversity and inclusion education require honest and probing conversations about our perception of others and of ourselves. I always start with facilitation of diversity and inclusion conversations at the C-Suite level, the highest- ranking executives. The reason for this approach is that modeling of inclusive behaviors cascades from the top down. If the CEO, COO and other senior leaders don’t get it, the rest of the organization will get the message that diversity and inclusion are not to be taken seriously. Diversity and inclusion must be a business imperative from the boardroom to the boiler room if the initiative is to be successful. I always stress that the education that begins in the classroom must continue outside of the classroom for it to be successful. The more everyday practical applications of conversations on inclusion, the more successful the initiative will be.

Q. It seems like some companies got it right and others are struggling. What is your advice to the ones who are struggling?

A. You knew me as Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at AXA. But prior to that I was a Principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers with responsibility for the Diversity and Inclusion consulting practice. Before that I was co-leader of the Diversity and Inclusion consulting practice at Towers Perrin. In my consulting roles, I advised on the development of several of the most successful diversity and inclusion programs in corporate America. Among the companies that I advised were trailblazers that include JP Morgan Chase, PepsiCo, TD Bank, Moody’s and Sony.

What allowed these and some other companies to get it right was their understanding from the earliest stages that diversity and inclusion was not a stand-alone, short-term project. These organizations understood that in a changing world, diversity and inclusion was a key business imperative that would need to become a permanent and valued part of their corporate DNA. They rejected the flavor of the month, paint by the numbers approach to diversity, and thoughtfully explored ways to embed diversity and inclusion in their culture.

Part of a company’s narrative should show how diversity and inclusion has impacted their business successes. The companies that struggle with their diversity and inclusion initiatives take a cosmetic approach, such as serving ethnic foods during Black, Hispanic or Asian history months. But these companies refuse to recognize the connection of diversity and inclusion in the business of their businesses.

Q. For companies that are struggling with putting in place effective diversity and inclusion narratives and initiatives, what are three things you would ask them to do in the more immediate term?

A. Three things that companies struggling with D&I initiatives must do are:

1. Answer the question of why you are embarking on the D&I journey.

2. Determine if there is a C-Suite champion or champions for a D&I initiative.

3. Figure out what the future state is that you desire to achieve through a D&I initiative. Then perform a gap analysis of your current state versus your desired future state in order to develop action plans.

In conversations about diversity and education, my sons’ and niece’s voices reign supreme in my head. “We are being saddled with large debt to mis-educate us. Then when we leave college, we have to scramble to find meaningful, well-paying work.” In watching them navigate their lives, I admire their trial-and-error mentality – a confidence I did not possess at their age. Like one son’s stint in Ohio in food service where he culled the positives from working in a town where people had had no previous interactions with African Americans until he arrived. And my other son, first in Hawaii, assisting ocean scientists with coral restoration, now in Daytona Beach living and working in a bastion of White life and serving the blind population. For her part, my niece started her own gig to help address food insecurity in the U.S. Virgin Islands – a problem that rears its ugly head every hurricane season, when boats with needed food cannot dock in the islands’ ports – and to assist local farmers as they aim to bring locally grown crops to market. I am inordinately proud and do think of them as saviors among their generation and as awesome descendants of Africans.

One can only hope that these new initiatives to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the corporate sector, the arts, the nonprofit world, as well as educational institutions, are sincere, heartfelt moves that will ultimately be successful and make a difference sooner rather than later. Maybe I’m naïve, but in this current moment of unprecedented societal reexamination, I know that I for sure look forward to a more inclusive America.

Thank you Ellie Meek Tweedy, Editor
Images credit: Google archives