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Trend Talk: What does Anti-Racist Leadership look like in practice?

By Daryl Brewster James White and Krista White, CEO, CECP; Former Chair, President, & CEO, Jamba Juice; and co-author of Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World

Daryl: James and Krista, thank you both for making the time to talk with us about your book, Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World. It seems fitting to begin with the book’s opening lines – “This book is not apolitical. This book is explicitly anti-racist, pro-Black, pro-LGBTQIA+, and feminist.” Why did you choose to open the book this way?

James: We wanted to be very clear about our intent and what we stand for! Our book is about being human and creating opportunities for all. We stand against all forms of bias and want to state explicitly that we are including everyone in our anti-racist framework. This is about building a “for all” culture that great companies can use to design initiatives and programs.

Krista: Back in June 2020, during the pandemic and racial reckoning, I sent my Dad an email with the subject line “More radical book intro idea”, which basically became the intro you see today. I was energized by the unique moment of the time, and will always encourage our readers to get off the fence and take a bold stance for what’s right.

Daryl: As a country, our understanding of what it means to be anti-racist is expanding. How do you define anti-racism, and more specifically, anti-racist leadership? 

James:  It’s about leaders creating space for all backgrounds and voices, and rethinking every process, system, and ritual in a company that touches humans. This is to ensure we all have the opportunity to bring our full and complete selves to work, as well as equal access to the necessary tools, resources, and support to succeed. One example we share in the book is the work by Schnucks Supermarkets, a regional supermarket chain in Missouri, and their Unity is Power campaign. It may seem simple, but in a traditionally conservative state like Missouri, this kind of unabashed anti-racist messaging is a big deal.

Krista: Anti-racist leadership is also about expanding the conversation beyond Black and white. Not only must it include other races, religions, and ethnic groups, demonstrably important by the recent prevalence of anti-Asian attacks and anti-Semitism, but it must also include every aspect of identity. Queer rights, trans rights, disability rights, and women’s rights, just to name a few, are included in how anti-racism is defined. To proclaim that Black Lives Matter or to Stop Asian Hate, we must first acknowledge and honor all intersections of these identities.

Daryl: James, can you share about a time when, in your corporate experience, anti-racist leadership was implemented exceptionally well?

James: The most thoughtful examples of effective implementation of anti-racist leadership following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, include the work of Medallia and The Bay Club. At Medallia, the employee experience company, CEO Leslie Stretch tied equity compensation to improving the representation of Black employees from 1% to 7+% over two and a half years. He also implemented a series of structure and process changes, such as monthly reporting to monitor employee experience and attrition. Medallia has successfully reached its first representation goal of 7% and is on its way to reaching its long-term goal of 13% Black representation to reach parity with the U.S. population.

At the Bay Club, the company is educating the entire organization and rethinking every people-oriented system. CEO Matthew Stevens launched a diversity task force in the summer of 2020, and since then, company leaders have been using action learning principles to answer the question: “How can we create an environment where people of all backgrounds are celebrated and can thrive?” During the first year of the initiative, the luxury sports club company focused mainly on the associate community, where its coffee chat series about diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging would be most impactful. Like Medallia, The Bay Club has worked to increase diversity at all levels, particularly to reach 50% women and people of color at the senior vice president level and higher.

Both examples involve CEOs who are actively leading, engaging DEI teams to take action and help operationalize change, have a laser focus on transforming people systems, as well as a focus on middle management and active measurements.

Daryl: As you’ve touched on, business has made strides in enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) inside and outside company walls, though there will always be work to be done. Today’s leaders primarily struggle with inclusion, specifically how to foster and measure it. Based on your experience and the research conducted in writing your book, what advice would you share?

James: Building a company’s culture on a foundation of DEI and belonging sets an overarching tone for what is truly valued in an organization. Leading companies embed DEI and belonging into their vision and value statements, and then integrate it into strategies and management. In business, we measure anything that matters and then incentivize leaders to execute on what we value.

Krista: We emphasize in the book that the use of action learning teams – which are intentionally diverse, cross-functional teams – can help resolve issues within a company. Collaborating with employees, particularly middle management, is key to shifting this work from lip service into practice. When it comes to measurement, leaders may want to consider disaggregating their data based on identity. This is an intersectionality issue. Are the experiences of, for example, LGBTQIA+ of color the same as their white LGBTQIA+ counterparts? Intersectional measurement helps acknowledge the fullness of our human experience, while also demonstrating impact.

Daryl: While it’s clear in reading the book that you two share many core values and beliefs, being father and daughter, you have very different generational, gender, and I’m sure other perspectives, as well. How did working together on this project impact it?

James: We worked together based on deep respect, love, and an overarching desire to deliver a book that could catalyze progress inside companies. We hope our unique lived experiences offer business leaders, managers, and boards a different view on  building a strong company culture that uses an anti-racist lens, one that encourages everyone to win and not to be left out.

Krista: Dad has this incredible career to draw from, and I learned a lot about the struggles he faced over the years from being one of the few, and often the only, person like him in the room. It brought us closer together. I also hope that my perspective as a writer and storyteller made the book more accessible to a wider range of people. Intersectionality and empathy are two driving forces in all that I do, so it was my goal to emphasize their importance in the book.

Daryl: Throughout the book, you offer checklists, case studies, additional recommended readings, and more actionable insights. If you were to choose the three most important or urgent takeaways for a CEO or C-suite audience, what would they be?

James: Our three most critical takeaways for CEOs are first – this work is about improving culture; the CEO should never delegate this leadership. Second – a rigorous examination of all people-related systems and processes is critical. Finally – the action and lever for sustainable change involves focusing on the middle management of the company.

Krista: As shown by the great resignation or quiet quitting, millennials and especially Gen Z are not messing around. CEOs need to recognize how representation is and to make way for the next generation of leaders.