2020’s Silver Lining: We’re Finding Our Humanity

One of the legacies of 2020 will be how governments, organizations, and individuals responded when the stakes were high and decisions were hard. Did we “circle the wagons” and act selfishly or did we work for the greater good? Did we act out of fear or out of compassion? Did we follow our professed values or did we make short-term decisions that benefitted a few at the expense of others?

One of the reasons that 2020 has been so emotionally devastating for so many people, apart from the pandemic itself, is because it has highlighted just how ugly human behavior can be. However, we have also proven that we are capable of grace and nobility. Some governments, organizations, and individuals chose the right path, even when it was harder. In the workplace, for those of us fortunate enough to be employed, we’ve seen the human beings behind what used to be a workplace façade. We’ve seen into their dining rooms and kitchens on Zoom calls. We’ve heard the noises of their everyday lives. We’ve shared the vulnerability that human beings always experienced, but that traditionally was unfortunately left at the office door. We’ve had to completely redefine concepts such as “professionalism,” whose historical definition actually devalued us as human beings and often put us in untenable situations. We’ve been pushed to the breaking point, and amazingly, kept putting one foot in front of the other. “Frontline” workers—the ones who keep our grocery stores stocked and deliver goods and provide care to the sick—have continued to report to work in the face of significant risk to their own health and wellbeing.

2020 has given us permission to think very differently about what matters to us and how we live our lives. Crisis can be devastating, but, not so ironically, it can also be liberating, because it takes us to places where the very calculus of our decisions has changed. What we thought had to be true in terms of how we make a living or where we live or what we can live without, or even what makes us happy, necessarily evolves when the very foundation of our lives shifts. When we’ve been pushed beyond normal boundaries, we become emboldened, whether that relates to our own life choices or lending our voices to advocate for others.

We know that the multilayered crises of 2020 have resulted in greater mental health challenges, for more people (adults and children), than at any other time in modern history. The economic devastation wrought by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has put tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people world-wide in a precarious situation related to employment, food, housing, and health care. On the contrary, we also know that this same crisis has done more to mitigate the stigma against mental illness than any previous period in modern history. Literally millions more people in the U.S. alone have sought professional care for mental health challenges in 2020 than did so in 2019. And maybe most encouraging of all, the devastating challenges of 2020 have validated the approach to life that many millennials and GenXers were presciently advocating even before the multiple existential crises of 2020. Once criticized for valuing time and purpose and relationships over soul crushing work, money and status, it turns out these young people were far wiser than their elders, who now, in their older years, wonder where the hell their lives went and what they were thinking dedicating decades of 50 and 60 hour weeks to material pursuits, that, in the end, will be of little value to a life well-lived.

Another key lesson of 2020 is: How we treat one another is a choice. We have seen people at their ugliest and their most noble over the course of the year. Stress pushed some people to be their worst selves and others to a place of grace, but in the end, we humans are capable of acts of kindness, generosity, and agency. We are also capable of shifting our focus to things that support better, more sustainable lives for ourselves and others. It is unfortunately true that we crossed so many lines of previously unacceptable behavior in 2020 that it will take a long time to recover from that, but we also achieved new levels of enlightenment. In the darkness, we are finding our humanity.

What Recent Research Tells Us Are the Two Most Critical Factors for Colleges Surviving through Crisis and Thriving in the Future

Image Credit: NBC

Recent research and work in the field have confirmed multiple factors correlated with the likelihood that a college or university will survive an existential crisis and thrive afterwards. These elements range from financial models to product strategy to organizational culture among other areas, but in virtually all cases, for institutions facing existential challenges, game changing institutional leadership and effective board engagement are unavoidable requisites for success.

While growing numbers of colleges and universities have become highly stressed and distressed, in a trend that began over a decade ago, the COVID pandemic has pushed, and will push, many more into insolvency over the next few years. Even before the pandemic, nearly a third of all private and public colleges were operating in the red, relying on layoffs, consolidations, deferred maintenance, delayed accounts payable, credit lines, and mergers to stay afloat. For many, those “tricks” have been exhausted and their fates are already sealed. For others, with enough liquidity to operate for the next two or three years, it is possible to survive, and ultimately thrive, but only under certain conditions. The two most critical are:

  1. Game changing executive leadership that is capable of running the daily business, managing through crisis, and laying the foundation for a very different future all at the same time.
  2. A board that is capable of recognizing even painful realities while fully leveraging its trusteeship obligations to support transformative thinking and action.

And, critically, both the institutional leadership and the board have to fear failing more than they fear change—even foundational change that might alter the nature of the institution itself.

Fortunately, in addition to what we know at a high level, the research identified seven critical success factors demonstrated by boards whose at-risk college or university was successfully transformed:

  1. The board recognizes that a crisis is imminent or looming.
  2. The board accepts that survival will require a departure from tradition.
  3. The board ensures that they have a president suitable for leading a turnaround.
  4. The board partners with the president to support change initiatives and actively works with the president to overcome resistance to change.
  5. The board intentionally recruits and develops board members who will understand and support the turnaround.
  6. The board works with and learns from outside advisors skilled and experienced in college and university turnarounds.
  7. The board uses its authority to take action.

Importantly, even in the absence of crisis, institutions that have realized significant success, particularly those that have experienced substantial growth, such as Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors’, Grand Canyon, etc., all had dynamic leaders and boards that were willing to support transformative change.

Institutional Characteristics that Support Success

Assuming capable executive leadership and an engaged board, the two most critical requirements at the institutional level for surviving and thriving through crisis are 1) ensuring a compelling value proposition for students (they have to have a reason to choose a given institution over another and stay there), and 2) a financial model that delivers revenue from diverse sources, with at least some high margin revenue streams.

As with board characteristics, in addition to the two high level realities noted above, we know what the traits are of the institutions that are managing to thrive in the current environment. Although every IHE has its own particular challenges and opportunities, there are common threads across the schools that are finding success, one of which is simply that they understand the reality and have a plan to address it. Several common factors in addition to dynamic leadership, value proposition, and a workable financial model are:

  • Capacity to Innovate
  • Deep Industry Collaboration
  • Aggressive Partnerships
  • Retention of Existing Students
  • Differentiation in the Market (Programs, Services, Delivery, etc.)
  • Licensure Programs/Programs Required for Employment
  • Alternatives to Traditional Degrees
  • Focus on Sustainability
  • Finance as a Core Competency
  • Being Really, Really Good at Basics
  • A Culture that Promotes Success (entrepreneurialism, risk taking, collaboration, etc.)

A simple and more eloquent way to think about what’s necessary comes from Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, who said, “In this new environment, higher-ed institutions that are less in love with tradition and more in love with their students will be the ones that thrive.”

In short, despite an overwhelming, unprecedented, and existential crisis, the good news is that we know what schools have to do to dramatically increase the likelihood that they will be among the group that survives and thrives post-COVID. You can see a comprehensive example from a webinar I delivered on the subject here.

What We Have Learned So Far from the COVID Pandemic

Image credit: Getty

We are approximately nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic and a number of things have now become fairly clear, both in society at large, and in the workplace. In addition to widely accepted observations, my executive search firm, Top Gun Ventures, conducted multiple executive roundtables, which we called “GameChanger Dialogues,” with executive level leaders across multiple industries (including higher education) and regions across the globe. We learned a great deal from those sessions about how different companies and organizations are navigating what are broadly understood to be unprecedented challenges, some of which I’ll share in this article.

Starting from a high level first, however, it is evident that the pandemic has served as both a cause of change in its own right and an accelerant of already existing trends. The most salient lesson has probably been that given the right circumstances, we can change the way we do almost anything—and relatedly, what we thought was “sacred” and untouchable before the pandemic became negotiable in the face of an existential crisis. What has also become evident is that some things will not go back to how they were even after we are ensconced in the next normal. Some examples likely include less business and recreational travel, and continued working from home, hybrid education (even on campus), telehealth, and low or no contact shopping and dining. 

So, what are some of the other significant takeaways so far?

In Society

Inequities that existed before COVID have been exacerbated by the crisis (for individuals, families, communities, and organizations/businesses).

The pandemic revealed that the “recovery” from the 2008 recession was both uneven and fragile for many people and businesses. Tens of millions of people were pushed into the gig economy, working for less pay and no benefits[1], and many “essential” workers make the lowest salaries and earn the weakest benefits in the workplace. Many millions also lost homes and businesses in the last recession and never recovered previously held assets and wealth. Access to healthcare, education, and full-time employment with benefits was already declining for many people and, as noted by the Federal Reserve, nearly half of Americans had greater monthly obligations than income before COVID. The crisis has made clear that many children and families do not have the technology resources or internet access to engage in education or telehealth, further separating them from the “haves” in society. One of the most glaring examples of inequity so far relates to the fact that about 10% of the population has grown more wealthy during the pandemic due to holding 92% of the equities in the stock market. The top 1% of Americans now hold half of all the equity in the stock market.

Political polarization has penetrated something as seemingly straightforward as public health policy.

Political polarization, particularly over the last several years, is not new. However, the politicization of something as basic as public health policy has resulted in greater COVID-19 infections and deaths due to the lack of a centralized policy and support structure, as well as turning preventative measures into an individual rights issue. As we head into fall and soon winter, we are already seeing daily infection records in many parts of the country and world, and that is before what is likely to be significantly worse infection rates in the winter season in the Northern hemisphere. A telling example from earlier in the summer was the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in which, despite local opposition and public health recommendations against the rally, roughly half a million people descended on the Sturgis, SD area. Because of nearly non-existent contact tracing, it is impossible to know how many infections came directly from the rally, but it is clear that the infection rates in surrounding states surged dramatically in the two weeks following the event, tripling and then quadrupling in South Dakota. Willful disregard for the wellbeing of others is not new in the human condition, but it is relatively new at such a large scale in American society. Interestingly, the same people who choose not to follow public health guidelines because they believe it is their right not too, still follow many other “rules” that are designed to protect others such as buying liability insurance for their vehicles and not driving drunk.

Our collective mental health has worsened over the course of 2020.

According to the American Psychological Association, Americans in particular were more stressed in 2019 (before the pandemic) than at any time since the APA began surveying stress levels many decades ago, primarily because of political divisiveness, climate change, and mass shootings among other issues. By October of 2020, a global survey conducted by Oracle found that an astounding 78% of respondents claimed that the challenges of 2020 have made their mental health worse than it was in the previous year. The National Institute for Mental Health has also found that anxiety and depression have increased significantly over the course of 2020 and that mental illness related mortality may equal or even exceed the deaths caused directly by COVID-19!

Our behavior directly impacts the ebb and flow of the virus itself.

Although there was some confusion early in the pandemic about transmissibility and best practices for prevention, it has been clear since at least late spring that three simple behaviors dramatically reduce the transmission of the virus: wearing a mask, maintaining modest physical distance, and good hygiene with the hands and face. The epidemiological science is clear that where these behaviors are practiced, by individuals and groups, infection rates are very low. Where they are not practiced, infection rates are high. In countries that were very disciplined early on (South Korea, China, Singapore), life is nearly back to normal. In countries such as the U.S., Russia, and India where the public was not disciplined, infection rates are as high or higher than at any point during the pandemic. The head of the CDC has said that if everyone in America wore a mask and washed their hands every day (in the presence of others outside their immediate family) that the pandemic would be effectively ended in roughly eight weeks, yet substantial numbers of Americans simply won’t do that and, as a result, the pandemic continues unabated.

In Organizations

It’s really hard to manage a crisis, run the daily business, and strategize for the future all at the same time.

As we discovered in our GameChanger Dialogues, it is very difficult for leaders and their organizations to do three difficult things at once. Although it’s possible, it is rare, and we found that most organizations are still mostly focused on business continuity relative to the crisis rather than actively seizing opportunities for the future. While this was common across industries, it was even more prevalent in higher education, where leadership teams seem to be confusing the efforts and changes related to crisis management with planning for the future. Not so ironically, those leaders who were focused on future opportunities reported that their employees were less stressed out by the crisis itself and saw the focus on the future as a competitive advantage that will pay dividends going forward.

Leadership practices that worked at least reasonably well prior to the pandemic are much less effective now—and some are simply counterproductive.

Although “traditional” leadership profiles were becoming much less effective before the pandemic, the crisis has quickly separated the wheat from the chaff when it comes to leaders that are capable of leading through the crisis vs. those who are not. The need for people leadership skills and traits that make leaders accessible and trustworthy to their followers have been drastically amplified through the pandemic, in which organizations need leaders who are compassionate, authentic, and vulnerable, but who have a plan and can instill hope and stability. In short, what we’ve learned is that people don’t need their leaders to know everything or be bullet proof. They do need them to be honest and genuine. They also need them to have the integrity to make decisions based on deeply held values rather than fear or short-term thinking.

Leadership matters: Within organizations, communities, and government

Relatedly, it has, not surprisingly, become very clear that leadership matters in the face of crisis. Prior to the COVID pandemic, many entities were benefitting from a high tide that kept most afloat regardless of the quality of their leadership. What the crisis has made clear is that regardless of the kind of entity or organization in question (municipality, company, university, or even a national government), those with high quality leadership have fared much better than those without. As noted above, basic things such as honesty, transparency, compassion, integrity, care for people, having a plan and clear communications about the plan, etc. have been critical to those entities that have survived and even thrived through the pandemic. On the contrary, ego, dishonesty about the breadth and depth of the problem, competition over collaboration, short-term gains over values, concern about image over people, etc. have been detrimental and even lethal in worst case scenarios.

Actions taken over the next six to 12 months will determine future winners and losers

Although a few industries have actually benefitted from the pandemic, most have experienced a continuum from modest challenges to existential crisis. In some industries such as dining and hospitality, hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed and millions of employees are out of work. In higher education, about a third of all colleges and universities were operating at a deficit before the pandemic and many will not survive into the near and mid-term future. About 250,000 employees in higher education have been laid off since February and it will almost certainly get worse in the coming year as institutions, both public and private, realize that their expense is still materially greater than their revenue. For the survivors, the actions they take now and in the next 18 months in terms of preserving liquidity, developing alternative revenue streams, strengthening the customer value proposition, increasing efficiencies, opening new markets, etc., will determine whether or not they have a future. More importantly the extent to which they make decisions that create a legacy they want to have, will be remembered by employees and customers for a long time. As Mark Cuban recently said, “The way companies treat their employees in times like these will be their defining feature in the coming months and years.”

So, we’ve learned things from the COVID crisis that are encouraging and we’ve learned some things that give us pause. As with any crisis, there are challenges and opportunities. Some people rise to the occasion and some fail—and many of the failures are backfilled with new, entrepreneurial approaches that present openings that would not have been possible in status quo times. One encouraging result of the pandemic is that we are collectively accepting things that we didn’t in the past. We are seeing each other as actual human beings, even in work contexts! We are accepting change, even dramatic change, that would have not been possible prior to the crisis. We’ve learned that we can be more flexible, and at times, more empathetic than we realized. And maybe most importantly of all, the COVID crisis has peeled back deep, problematic realities in society that have long been ignored such as systemic inequity and systemic bias. As brutal as the pandemic has been, with nearly ten million known infections and nearly a quarter of a million deaths in the U.S. alone, not to mention the worst recession since the great depression with tens of millions of people out of work, and rapidly declining mental health, this global crisis also represents opportunities to finally address critical, structural issues we have declined to effectively tackle in the past such as adequate health care, deep economic inequity, systemic racism, quality education for all, and adequate housing among others. As someone who was born in the last year of the Baby Boomer generation, on the early edge of Gen X, while I have little faith in people of my age, I am heartened by what I see from young people today. It is clear that younger Gen Xers, Gen Y, and even Gen Z, who have inherited the worst deal of any generation since the depression, are much more open, less biased, more socially conscious, and less selfish than their elders. They are the ones who will build a better world, and the pandemic of 2020 may just have broken things enough to allow the new construction to begin.


[1] The current unemployment numbers are significantly under reported because they do not include the many millions of people who were working as “independent contractors” in the gig economy before the pandemic struck.

New Webinar: How to Ensure that Your College or University Will Survive the Current Crisis and Thrive in the Future–Oct 28 and 30

In partnership with the EdUpExperience!

Topic

How to Ensure that Your College or University Survives the Current Crisis and Thrives in the Future

Description

Higher Education was in the midst of an extended, eight year decline even before the COVID crisis. As a result, the industry was in a weakened state previous to the pandemic, which has pushed many institutions to the brink. The good news is that there are strategies for surviving and thriving and we know what they are. For institutions that are prepared to accept the challenge and take the necessary steps, there is a path forward to a bright, relevant, and sustainable future.

Presenter

Dr. Wallace Pond, Education Practice Partner, Top Gun Ventures

Oct 28th Noon EDT Registration https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_eE0bMmQjTjKhnwkaaXZ_Aw

Oct 30th 3 pm EDT Registration https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_LJlghWMlQJeiDUh6kX4psg

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: No More Excuses

Image credit: GRESB.com

Setting the Context

Everyone has felt excluded at one time or another. The difference for people who are the targets of institutionalized and structural bias is that the exclusion and discrimination they experience cause deep, life-long disadvantage. As employers, there is clearly a role for organizations to play in ameliorating this disenfranchisement. In fact, there is no longer a defensible argument in any organization for not actively supporting equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).

Yes, there is a business case for diversity, and many publications have laid out the bottom line benefits, but that is probably not the primary reason any organization should support EDI. Make no mistake, this is not only a business decision, it is a moral imperative. Diversity and inclusion should be a sacred, strategic initiative because it is one of the most righteous things an organization can do to support humanity as it exists, both internally and externally. As the world-famous advocate for victims’ justice and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel so eloquently and powerfully said, “Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

Before we get into the how, the what bears some discussion. We tend to throw the word “diversity” around pretty casually or we think about it from a compliance perspective, i.e., federally protected classes of employees (race, sex, age, religion, etc.). For the purposes of increasing diversity to the benefit of an organization and the people in it, however, I would argue that we have to think much more broadly. Examples include culture, language, mental and physical abilities, neuroprocessing and cognition, gender identification, mental health status, and even political views and ideology. Acronyms that are often used in discussions of diversity include BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer). These are helpful acronyms, and I’ll use them here, but as noted, true diversity goes beyond racial, sexual, and gender categories. One other note is that I will use “race” as a social construct rather than a biological or genetic concept, since there is no compelling evidence that race exists as a biological phenomenon.

And to be clear, no “diversity initiative” can work without a deep, concomitant commitment to equity and inclusion, which is about ensuring that people feel welcome, valued and respected for who they are. In fact, many diversity initiatives appear to have initial success, then wither on the vine, because folks effectively recruited into the organization do not feel welcome, included, or respected once they’re there.

So, what fundamental things have to be true for diversity and inclusion initiatives to have a chance of success?

First of all, as the author Joseph Conrad said, you cannot fix what you cannot face. No matter what else we do, it starts with acceptance of the reality that the reason we need active initiatives for equity, diversity, and inclusion is because many opportunities in society are not, in fact, open to all and many people in society and in organizations do not regularly experience equity and inclusion. Once we face the reality, there are a number of process requirements that also must be true. Examples include:

  • Executive leadership has to believe it’s the right thing to do and that it is equal to or more important than other strategic initiatives.
  • EDI has to be a long-term commitment (not the initiative of the quarter), with the goal of permanently altering the organization.
  • The effort has to be supported from the top down and as a grass roots project as well.
  • The organization has to support transparency and be prepared for difficult, even painful conversations and realizations.
  • The organization has to encourage and validate minority viewpoints.
  • People do not have to be diversity and inclusion experts across the organization, but they have to approach the effort with empathy, an open mind, and a willingness to learn.
  • Probably most importantly, in the spirit of Conrad’s observation, there has to be nearly unequivocal acceptance that concepts such as systemic racism, unconscious bias, patriarchy, and privilege exist and are insidious. The reason this is critical is because in the absence of such acknowledgement, it is not possible to address the systemic and structural realities within organizations that mitigate against diversity and inclusion.

Relatedly, concepts such as intersectionality and micro-aggressions are also real and ignoring them has been a significant barrier to supporting success for BIPOC, LBGTQ and other diverse populations. This is a critical point. For example, people can believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist in the same way they can believe climate change doesn’t exist, but by definition they cannot be part of the solution and it isn’t productive to attempt to change their views. As this relates to discrimination, however, “non-believers” still must be held accountable for behaviors that perpetuate the oppression of others. Ignorance is not a free pass. This is one reason that EDI efforts are often so fraught within society and organizations. It’s not just about equalizing opportunity. There are inevitably people with privilege within the human hierarchy (and the organization) who will see increasing opportunity for diverse colleagues as a threat to their own place (and their privilege).

In her new book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson frames the four-hundred-year American history of sometimes brutal repression and subjugation in the context of a caste system, whose very existence is for the sole purpose of preserving privilege within the hierarchy. Her book is a helpful way to think about the structures and behaviors that preserve privilege and fossilize the place of most people in the caste into which they were born. Of course, there is socio-economic mobility up and down for individuals within any group, but broadly speaking there is very limited upward mobility for traditionally disenfranchised groups because the social institutions that support mobility such as education, housing, employment, healthcare, etc. are less available or of lower quality than for those from more privileged groups. And the criminal justice system, rather than protecting diverse populations, particularly those of color, often compromises opportunity through disproportionate arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. To be clear, the point of EDI efforts in organizations is not to redress 400 years of discrimination and subjugation. However, such efforts need to acknowledge the history in order to have credible context.

Organizations as a Reflection of Society

If we think of organizations as societal microcosms, then we have to accept that in order to grow diversity, and in particular to achieve inclusion, we have to dismantle the structures that promote privilege and disenfranchise those who are outside the “mainstream.” Just as in larger society, the objective is not to weed out the “bad apples” who act inappropriately. The objective is to address the systemic realities that perpetuate discrimination and mitigate against genuine equity, diversity and inclusion.

Similarly, EDI must be supported by organizational culture or it will fail miserably for the same reasons that anything not supported by culture will fail. It is culture that ultimately determines how people behave in organizations—not rules or proclamations, or management directives.

Moreover, diversity and inclusion efforts have to be long haul initiatives dedicated to making diversity the norm. They have to transcend time and leadership, which is why culture is so critical. The values have to be deep and invulnerable to changing budgets, leaders, competitive environments, external political realities, etc.

The Basis of a Plan

The first requirement of a plan is to elevate diversity and inclusion to the same level as other strategic initiatives with the same tangible treatment (financial resourcing, performance metrics, accountability, etc.). And ensure that it is not just an “HR initiative.” It must exist in the organizational mainstream with accountability for functional areas and business units.

The Role of Leadership

Acknowledging and addressing racism and other institutional systems of oppression are core

leadership responsibilities. Leaders cannot equivocate when prejudice rears its head. As the remarkable Elie Wiesel said, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Leaders must also consistently model desired behaviors, including zero tolerance for bias. Zero tolerance means that no case of discrimination or bias can go unacknowledged and or unremediated. Every example is a “teaching moment” that doesn’t necessarily end in disciplinary action. In fact, enlightenment is a better objective than punishment.

Policy

Policy must support diversity and inclusion. This includes recruiting, compensation, job descriptions, performance evaluations, benefits, bonuses, scheduling, training, promotion, discipline, etc. Talking directly with BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse employees about how policies directly affect them in problematic ways is a good place to start.

The Whole Organization

Executive sponsorship can support compliance and even culture, but ultimately commitment has to exist at all levels for equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives to grow and prosper. One key strategy for achieving this is to ensure that all levels and parts of the organization reflect similar diversity. Since that is a longer-term proposition, in the interim, policy that supports and incentivizes EDI is essential. Relatedly, social structures within the organization, whether work or non-work related, must facilitate integration and inclusion so that traditionally excluded populations can benefit from the informal systems that support success.

Education and Training

Any EDI plan should include educational components on how bias impacts BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse populations and how privilege impacts everyone. Organizations should make this commitment in the same way they would commit to learning anything else folks need to know to do their job well. Individuals do not need to be experts in every esoteric issue connected to race or gender or ableism, etc., but they must approach these issues with a sense of humility and empathy commensurate with their privilege.

The Role of Diverse Employees

While it is critical to give voice to diverse employees, EDI efforts should never require that marginalized employees do the heavy lifting. BIPOC and LBGTQ employees can certainly play a role in supporting diversity and inclusion, but they cannot be tasked with enlightening everyone else or carrying the message of why diversity and inclusion are necessary. It is not their job to dispel ignorance or motivate others.

Support for Diverse Employees

In addition to changing and creating policy that supports the needs of BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse employees, purposeful support systems such as mentoring (by both similar and mainstream mentors), training to mitigate skills gaps (technical and soft), and possibly most importantly, letting BIPOC, LGBTQ and other diverse community members be different and search out “their own kind.” Success cannot come through forced assimilation. It can only come from genuine acceptance and respect, which includes ensuring that typically disenfranchised employees are not only free, but encouraged to speak up and speak out.

Moreover, once people of diverse backgrounds are successfully brought into the organization, it is crucial that it is a place they actually want to be. Businesses and institutions do not have to be perfect, but they do have to feel safe and marginalized folks have to believe that the organization’s efforts to make them feel welcome and included are genuine. It is also essential that BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse individuals believe that they have the same opportunities as their mainstream colleagues—this does not mean special treatment—it simply means a fair shot.

Undoing Systemic Bias

EDI efforts also require undoing structural barriers and replacing them with support systems that help to mitigate centuries of systemic bias and related disenfranchisement. Many of the most diverse (read “different from the mainstream”) people in society, and thus in our organizations, have been structurally disadvantaged relative to education, healthcare, housing, criminal justice and other institutions, in many cases generationally, and as such, often come into organizations (if they’re recruited at all) with life experiences and frames of reference that are quite different from their mainstream colleagues. One terrible reality of living through structural bias is the affect it has on certain mindsets such as fear, confidence, and self-efficacy. Being marginalized does not affect intelligence or innate ability. It can, however, compromise traits that in privileged employees are often associated with success such as risk taking, having strong opinions, communicating in “standard” language, dressing “appropriately,” etc. That is why it is critical that EDI initiatives, at their core, include a commitment to deconstruct systems (hiring, promotion, compensation, scheduling, etc.), that rely on criteria that fundamentally disadvantage non-mainstream employees (and perpetuate privilege for mainstream employees). A good example is the fact that organizations have long blamed their failure to increase diversity on the claim that they simply cannot find qualified minority (both racial and other diverse characteristics) candidates. While it is true that there are not enough traditionally credentialed applicants to meet the needs of every organization in a given industry, there are plenty of candidates for the organizations that truly want them and even enough for all vacancies if HR departments and hiring managers are willing to think more creatively about what “qualified” means—and what support they’re willing to provide to new hires. Not so ironically, it is often true that the very requirements written into job descriptions that make diverse candidates “hard to find,” reflect the systemic bias that makes the same organizations both impenetrable and unwelcoming to BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse candidates. This is a complex and difficult process because so much of the systemic bias in society and in organizations is “unconscious” (or even denied) on the part of those folks most in a position to make positive change. It requires discipline, humility, empathy, and an open mind.

Assessing the Effort

As noted early in this article, in order for EDI efforts to get traction and be sustainable, they have to be treated and supported in the same way as any other critical, strategic commitment, with concomitant objectives, metrics, and accountability. One key factor, however, is that determining the success or failure of EDI initiatives must include the opinions of BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse individuals in the organization. In the same way that systemic bias is often “invisible” to those of privilege, so are the outcomes from commitments to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion. For example, people in the mainstream (at all levels of an organization) are much more likely to see numerically increasing diversity as “success,” with little or no insight about improvements in equity or inclusion, which must be judged by diverse employees themselves.

EDI Initiatives Headed by Privileged, Mainstream Leaders

Can a privileged, White male lead a diversity initiative? Of course. In fact, in most organizations, the most senior executives are almost all going to be White males, so if the C-Suite is going to be involved, it will require leadership and commitment from White men. Of course, this presents an interesting dynamic in which a campaign to permanently increase diversity and inclusion is driven by someone who, by virtue of his privilege, likely has little or no direct experience with overt discrimination, micro-aggressions, racism, sexism, etc. On the other hand, with the right education, coaching, empathy, and commitment, folks with privilege, even significant, intersectional privilege, can be highly effective advocates for the kinds of change necessary to support diversity and inclusion—mostly because they have power. Over time, if the change is systemic and includes the necessary support systems, senior and executive management ranks will reflect the same diversity seen across the organization and leadership will reflect the important perspectives of those previously disenfranchised.

A Way to Think about Supporting EDI

Long before I was a senior leader, let alone a CEO, I was a schoolteacher. I taught mostly at-risk youth from bilingual kindergarten through high school.  Whether I was working with migrant children, kids from socio-economically deprived families, BIPOC students, or privileged, mainstream youth, as educators, we had to accept students where they were, not where we wanted them to be (from our mostly privileged perspective), and figure out what interventions were necessary to facilitate their success. Even the most prejudicial people would be unlikely to say that non-mainstream children don’t deserve to go to school and achieve to their potential. Certainly, we can say the same about the workplace (and other organizations). In the same way that culture, language, sex, gender-identity, “race,” financial means, cognitive processing, and other factors impact the way children engage with and are served by schools, a similar dynamic applies to organizations comprised of adults. If we believe that everyone deserves an opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and I hope we all do, then we should also believe that the opportunity to achieve those goals should also be available to everyone. In order for that to be true, organizations can no longer justify any reality related to equity, diversity, and inclusion that disenfranchises anyone due to their uniqueness. Period.

Acknowledgement

Although I have been a personal advocate for diversity and equity for as long as I can remember, I also represent the pinnacle of intersectional privilege. As a result, despite my extensive experience in places in which I have been a “minority,” in terms of language, culture, race, and religion, I have never been disenfranchised by structural bias. Ever. Even though I am probably more “woke” than most White, male, English speaking contemporaries, my privilege still creates massive blind spots and there are some things I can only infer or imagine. One of the most important, recent factors in my own enlightenment was the book, So You Want to Talk About Race, by the author Ijeoma Oluo. Oluo is a queer, female, black immigrant (not necessarily in that order), who also recognizes her own privilege where it exists, and who is a profound thinker and great writer on the subject of racism and other examples of bias. If you are a privileged, mainstream person who would like to quickly be enlightened about the differences between disenfranchisement and privilege, told from both a scholarly and very personal perspective, I strongly recommend Ijeoma’s book.

Footnote

This article refers to many interventions for ameliorating bias and disenfranchisement of BIPOC, LBGTQ, and other diverse individuals, but does not provide many specific details. For example, it is essential that policy supports EDI, but the article does not provide examples of hiring policies that disadvantage diverse applicants (or policies to support the hiring of diverse applicants), which is beyond the scope of the article. However, for any reader who would like to see specific examples, or simply discuss the content of the article in further detail, please reach out to me directly at wkp@wallacekpond.com.

Additional Resources

So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeamo Oluo

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson

Eight Best Practices for Changing Culture

Diversity and Inclusion Practices for 2020

What Meetings Tell Us About Organizational Culture

Image Credit: Susan Beaumont

I have done a lot of work related to healthy organizational culture, both as a CEO and consultant, mostly because it’s so darn important for success—and so detrimental when it’s unhealthy or just disregarded. Ironically, despite the centrality of culture to just about any positive outcome, it is one of the most ignored areas of focus by executives. One reason it is frequently ignored is because it is foreign and mysterious to typical leaders—they’ve simply never been led to believe it’s of value nor tutored on how to support it. Secondly, it’s time consuming, complex, and requires a long view commitment. Most executives got to where they are because of their ability to deliver short term “results,” even at the expense of the development of human capital and long term sustainability. Organizations and the people in them suffer as a result. And ultimately, so do the leaders who’ve ignored the role of culture in their own organizations.

Even though there are a number of characteristics we can safely ascribe to healthy culture in typical organizations such as transparency, honesty, care for people, teamwork, accountability, etc., the reality is that what ultimately matters most is the extent to which culture is rational. In other words, do the values, beliefs, and behaviors in organizations support the achievement of stated operational and strategic goals? This is so critical because ultimately, it is organizational culture that determines how people behave over time—not proclaimed values or mission or management directives.

Interestingly, meetings are a great microcosm of organizations that can tell us a whole lot about culture!

Meetings are often the punching bag of water-cooler talk (or whatever the remote working analogue to that is). There is frankly a lot of disdain for meetings, but that is not because meetings are inherently bad or a waste of time. There is disdain because meetings are frequently used for the wrong purposes and often reveal the worst in organizational culture.

Let’s take a look starting with “bad” meetings.

At their core, meetings typically reflect the hierarchy in organizations, because by design, one person controls the participation and time of others. In fact, when folks get double booked, the decision about which meeting to attend rarely has anything to do with which one is more important. To the contrary, it is usually governed by which meeting is led by the person higher up in the org chart! At its worst, organizational culture relative to meetings completely ignores the opportunity cost of making people attend a meeting simply because it was called by someone senior to them, rather than considering the value of what the person might be doing differently at the same time. The more traditional the organization, the more common this dysfunction is and it’s a good lens into whether the culture values autonomy and the ROI on peoples’ time or, to the contrary, values hierarchy and ego.

Another example of bad meetings and dangerous culture can be found in “artificial harmony,” which causes more long-term damage than even unhealthy conflict. At least conflict, even if somewhat driven by hidden agendas, bad faith, or ego, results in challenges to accepted ideas, plans, etc. It generates dialogue that represents differing opinions, objectives, and values, which challenges pre-existing conclusions. And, to be clear, artificial harmony leads to conflict anyway because it is based upon a false commitment to what was “agreed” in the meeting. This happens almost immediately as people find ways to share what they really think in a hallway conversation or text message, etc., sometimes before they’re even back in their office! There is nothing worse than passive acceptance of a plan or strategy that some number of people don’t actually agree with (but didn’t say so), because when that happens, the organization commits resources and focus to a path that key people don’t actually support with their actions, or worse, may sabotage behind the scenes. And on top of that, the organization incurs the opportunity cost for the path not chosen! I personally believe that artificial harmony (and false agreement) result in more failed initiatives than the quality of the initiative itself. Even good ideas need full, shared commitment and effort to succeed.

Bad meetings also tend to be for poor reasons such as reporting mundane information that can be easily shared through other means, addressing trivial or pro-forma issues, confirming things that have already been addressed/decided, stroking the leader’s ego, because it’s on the schedule, or, for the worst purpose of all, which is calling people out publicly. Meeting agendas and behavior can tell us a lot about cultural values.

In contrast, in healthy organizations (and meetings) the desired outcome is not unanimous agreement and certainly not “false” agreement. The desired outcome is thorough due diligence in the decision process, with full participation, contribution, and hopefully disagreement by all involved, about issues of significance. When that happens, there is likely to be much deeper commitment to a better final decision, even by those who would have chosen a different path, because their opinion and input were carefully considered as part of the decision process. Simply being heard often offsets the disappointment of having a viewpoint that did not carry the day. Moreover, the active, even passionate sharing of multiple viewpoints inevitably results in positive modifications of the chosen idea, thus making it better than it would have been without contrasting input. And, of course, such meetings show alignment between healthy cultural values such as respect, collaboration, transparency, safety, and teamwork among others.

Good meetings:

  • invite the right people.
  • ask important questions about things that matter.
  • encourage and validate the contributions of participants.
  • involve robust discussion and even disagreement about those questions.
  • are non-hierarchical (expertise and commitment are more important than where someone is on the org chart).
  • result in allocation of resources, expertise, etc. to support agreed upon activities.
  • result in high-quality decisions that align with espoused organizational values.
  • include follow up for what was discussed/decided

When we see these kinds of interactions and behaviors in meetings, we can have confidence that organizational culture is relatively healthy—and probably more importantly—that the efforts of those involved are more likely to lead to positive outcomes.

You can see a good resource for conducting better meetings here.

Footnote

In my CEO roles I have always given my senior managers the autonomy to engage in another activity at the time I’ve called a meeting if they believe the alternative will support more important outcomes. I’ve rarely been taken advantage of and if my meeting is worth attending, people will typically be there. When given the chance to use their own professional judgment, in my experience, the choice to be somewhere else doing something else supporting a more important outcome than would come from attendance in “my” meeting is almost always the right decision. BTW, this is leadership 101. If a senior manager is not capable of making a decision about attending a meeting, she or he is certainly not capable of the senior manager role to begin with.

A Life Well Lived: Happiness vs. Purpose

Image credit: Trans4Mind

As part of my executive recruiting and consulting work, I have the pleasure of speaking with several seasoned professionals per week who are in some stage of “transition” in their personal and professional lives. While this has been accelerated by the COVID pandemic, the trend was in play even before the novel coronavirus upended our lives. Interestingly, even folks whose employment is stable are finding themselves in a very introspective and reflective place, questioning the extent to which their current efforts and commitments support outcomes that matter in some larger context vs. outcomes that simply achieve performance objectives or some other unsustainable definition of professional success. Certainly, the existential and life-changing nature of a global pandemic has pushed some of us to this place of introspection, but as with other trends, COVID-19 is probably more of an accelerant than a change agent in its own right.

When someone says they are looking for a professional change, I first ask them if they are just looking for a new job or if they are interested in exploring what they actually want to be true in their lives. Eight out of ten times the flood gates open and 45 minutes later they’ve shared a story of deep dissonance and conflict about what they’d like to be true vs. what is actually true.

The reality is that the youngest baby boomers and oldest millenials are now at a place where they have invested many years and even decades in professional careers, and starting even before the pandemic, many were beginning to ask themselves if all the long hours, sweat and sacrifices were time and effort well spent. Perhaps not surprisingly, a majority of the folks I talk to have come to the conclusion that if they had it all to do over again, they would focus less on things like status, money, climbing the professional ladder, and creating an image of the hard working, “I can do it all” professional, and more time and effort on things that support sustainability, wellness, human relationships, and make the world a better place. Many feel dissonance simply because so much of their work lives have been dedicated to other peoples’ agendas, often in environments in which values and culture were/are often misaligned with their own.

It’s not by chance that there is an almost universal “crisis of purpose” that hits people in mid life. The cumulative effect of living and working for decades in the absence of purpose, which is common in the Western world, where people frequently live to work rather than work to live, is to find oneself exhausted and divorced from a sense of meaning in employment. Most of us have accepted a Faustian pact which suggests that if we just work long enough and hard enough, we will be rewarded. The problem is that even when that comes true (and it often doesn’t), the rewards are usually material, which although “nice,” do not support the humanity in ourselves or others.

While there is a spectrum of reflection and dissonance from folks who are in outright crisis on the one hand vs. others who just don’t feel good about where they are and are actively thinking about how to change that, my sense is that the discord has become palpable for a very large percentage of people. This discord has likely been exacerbated by significant overlaying issues such as political divisiveness, climate change, racial disharmony, etc. I recently wrote an article about how this is affecting our mental health, which you can see here.

For some, the challenge is about how they can make a difference, while for others, who’ve done well professionally and financially, it falls under how they can “give back” after many years of nose to the grindstone work. Regardless, the status quo is no longer working for many of us. I suspect that part of the problem is that we were all sold a bill of goods about what “success” in life and work was supposed to look like. Many of us have also probably gone down the wrong path in our pursuit of a “good life,” which in the West at least, is unsustainably based on things like never-ending material acquisitions and pursuit of status, which we’ve erroneously thought would lead to happiness. In fact, happiness itself may not even be the right objective.

To paraphrase the great poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, the key to a life well-lived is not happiness. It’s purpose. He goes on to say that it should make a difference that you have lived. Based on the many, many people with whom I’ve communicated (if not commiserated) over the last several months, it’s clear that what most of us are doing now is not working in terms of feeling validated and nourished in our professional lives. We seem to be intuitively feeling what Emerson said—that without some meaningful purpose, hard work or possessions or status by themselves will not provide us spiritual sustenance. For the many folks who wake up one day realizing that they have not been sustained by purpose or achieved “happiness,” that can be a jarring and disconcerting realization.

For me personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that my efforts need to primarily be driven by the extent to which my relationships with others are additive and positive for them as well as the extent to which my own efforts make the world a better place. Of course, that is aspirational, but it seems to provide far more internal consonance, and a much more admirable vision, than what I built much of my previous career on. Fortunately, I have often “done well by doing good,” but I’ve also given the best of myself at times to other peoples’ agendas, more than once in organizations whose values did not align with my own.

Making a change is not easy because it also requires a reassessment of things we’ve built deep narratives around such as what success looks like, what really matters to us (time, relationships, things, status, integrity, etc.), and what changes we’re willing to accept in the way we live our lives, since trading money for time or status for wellness will have downstream implications that go beyond creating greater consonance and purpose. On the other hand, when it’s all said and done, the only thing you leave behind of value is your legacy. How many hours you worked, what your title was, or how much you paid for your car will not only be irrelevant, if that’s your legacy, then it may not “make a difference that you lived.” Ouch.

Magical Thinking Crashes into Harsh Reality

I wrote an article several weeks ago about all the magical thinking that had been employed in colleges and universities that had decided to bring students back for the fall term. I noted that it wasn’t the lack of good ideas or plans that was the problem—although lack of resources was clear in many cases. The problem was (and is) that otherwise really smart people were deluding themselves into believing that they could actually get college students to comply with those plans. We’ve now seen these plans blow up from coast to coast with universities cancelling their plans just before or within days of students showing up. Big names such as Notre Dame, the University of North Carolina, and Michigan State have all reversed their plans before they could even achieve a single week of instruction on campus and public health experts have said they expect the same dynamic to repeat itself broadly across the country in the coming weeks. At a college in my hometown of Colorado Springs, an entire residence hall went into 14-day quarantine after the first day of students moving in. The fact that a student tested positive for COVID on the first day was not a surprise. That was inevitable as students bring the virus with them. The problem was that other students in the dorm could not manage to follow the physical distancing and mask protocols for even the first few hours they were on campus, so all 155 residents had to be quarantined! There will now be other individuals who must bring food and other necessities to students in a locked down residence hall for the next two weeks.

To be fair, many colleges made plans for fall instruction on campus from a place of good intentions. In fact, that’s what most traditional students want themselves. And to be clear, some number of schools will manage to operate something approximating an academic term with some students on campus this fall. However, many schools were simply deluding themselves about what was possible and/or overly influenced by desperation around enrollment and revenue (or, in the case of the North Carolina schools, political pressure). I had a front row seat to some of those conversations and the rationalizations and group think was palpable. What is really problematic about the failed effort to bring students back to campus, however, is that collectively, the schools attempting face to face instruction have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on their plans to make face to face attendance possible, when in many cases, it was never going to work—and by definition, they were not planning to deliver the best possible remote instruction, which they now have to do anyway. The opportunity cost of wishful thinking for those who have reversed course and those who will do so soon is staggering. Just imagine if those same schools had spent all of that money and time on improving online instruction and services or on reductions in cost for students so they could attend at a distance in a more affordable way. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of students have traveled to campuses across the country, only to be told to pack up and go back home. That not only creates a significant financial and logistical strain for many, but a really bad idea relative to spreading the virus as well. It was bad enough that people converged on campus communities from all over the country, in many cases bringing the virus with them; they’re now going back or will go back to their home communities after possibly being exposed to the coronavirus on campus or during travel!

As the old country western song goes, “You got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” Folding now, as many institutions are doing is of course the right thing to do. Using good and courageous judgment a couple months ago (as some did) would have been much better.

Why Outsourcing Some Tasks, Projects, and Functions Is More Critical Than Ever

Image credit: Entreprenuer.com

One of the realities of the COVID-19 crisis is that many organizations have “circled the wagons” and have stopped purchasing services from vendors. Part of this is simply to preserve cash, but unfortunately these decisions rarely include an ROI analysis of a given expense. When times are flush, companies and other organizations tend to apply much less scrutiny to procurement, whether that is for products or services. When times are hard, they often create byzantine approval processes for even the most basic purchases, which, while achieving the purpose of spending less, also compromises agility and customer outcomes, and requires that senior people spend precious time on low level, low impact decisions. This dynamic also has a serious impact on decisions to outsource certain tasks, projects or functions, such as research, legal services, marketing, recruiting, etc. Unfortunately, whether in good times or hard times, these decisions are rarely based on a solid rationale or set of principles and more often end up being based on rote requirements, previously allocated funds or financial thresholds such as how much a given manager position can spend without subsequent approval from someone “higher up.”

It would make much more sense if the decision to outsource a given task or project were based on a set of principles that assess benefit to the organization (and its end users) rather than on cost alone, which in isolation, can lead to really poor decisions. Some examples include:

  • Would outsourcing a task or project allow the organization to deploy internal resources and people to things that can create more value by being done internally?
  • Would outsourcing solve a problem or support a capability more quickly than doing it internally, particularly if the outcome can be monetized or affects customers directly?
  • Would outsourcing a task, project, or function increase existing revenue or create access to a new revenue stream?
  • Would outsourcing materially decrease cost without compromising quality or the end user experience?
  • Would outsourcing allow the organization to complete tasks or projects in parallel rather than serially, thus shortening timelines?
  • Would outsourcing a task or project effectively meet a customer need, either more quickly, more efficiently, or with higher quality than doing it internally?

The core principle for making outsourcing decisions, which I learned from a very successful entrepreneur and CEO with whom I used to work is as follows. If the stakes of a given task or project are high, but the requirements of completing the the task or project are not a core competency of the organization, then it’s time to rely on outside experts for whom it is a core competency. He added that this often happens with things that are really important, but also episodic. An example he used is executive recruiting. The organization cannot afford to get it wrong, but it also cannot afford to build and maintain an internal core competency for an activity that only happens every few years, which is the case for C-Suite hires. In such a case, retaining the right executive search firm is a way to benefit from expertise and core competency, while only paying for it when you need it. Note that as with any outsourcing decision, I purposely said the “right” executive search firm. Many of the large, traditional firms are very well resourced, but they are often structured in ways that make it very difficult for them to deliver the game changing leaders that all organizations need today.

The reality is that, within reason, cost should rarely be the driving force in a decision to outsource a task, project, or function, partly due to outcomes, but probably more importantly, because the expense of outsourcing tends to be variable rather than fixed, which, in the end, provides greater budget flexibility even if cost is temporarily incremental. Cost should almost always be subordinate to issues such as time/speed, low stakes-high stakes, competency, agility, efficiency, disruption/distraction, quality, etc. In fact, the proper use of outsourcing can be a critical competitive advantage, particularly in a high-change, turbulent operating environment, because it allows for the quick acquisition of core competencies, but without a long-term obligation to fixed cost.

While some organizations worry about how customers will react to outsourcing, in the end, a firm’s clients tend to be agnostic about how a company or organization meets their needs and expectations relative to the role of outsourcing as long as the outcome is good and the company maintains full accountability, even for third party work. You can outsource work, but you can’t outsource responsibility!

In short, it is a mistake for organizations to think so conservatively that they sacrifice long-term revenue dollars for short-term expense nickels. Particularly in a time of crisis, access to highly specific, even esoteric competencies can not only support operations during crisis, but it can support a successful transition to a sustainable post-COVID new normal by maintaining customer confidence now while providing band width for innovation in the future.