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The Future of Work Requires Anti-Racist Leadership

By James D. White & Krista White

While phenomena dubbed “quiet quitting” or The Great Resignation feel disorienting and frustrating, they boil down to workers demanding to be treated with respect and human dignity. The pandemic, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ongoing reverberations of #MeToo have shone a harsh light on the status quo of corporate culture. The traditional hierarchies aren’t going to cut it for millennial and Gen Z leaders.

The future of work requires an anti-racist leadership, a shift that must be owned and led by the CEO. She cannot delegate this work. Only the CEO and subsequently the senior leadership team have the power to ensure that this work is implemented throughout the company. But how to begin? The CEO must start with empathy and humility. Often, leaders feel as if they must have all the answers, but anti-racism is a collaborative and ongoing practice. Empathy is what unlocks compassion and leads to action. Empathy is often the missing skillset that leaves DEI initiatives falling flat. To build empathy, start with listening. Whether that is through town halls, roundtable discussions, or one-one-one conversations, create formalized opportunities to hear what your people are saying. These conversations can be difficult, and one way to start is by the CEO breaking the ice with their own vulnerability. You can only start where you are, and transparency can go a long way in facilitating honest conversation. 

Leaders must also evaluate every system and process that touches the people within the company. This includes auditing the recruiting, hiring, and promotions processes, the systems in place for succession planning, how reviews are conducted, and more. It is also key to review these systems with an eye towards intersectionality. If examining your hiring demographics, for example, disaggregate your data so that you know not only how many women and people of color you are hiring, but also how many women of color. This is a practice that helps reveal the challenges of the most marginalized among us. Improving conditions for the most historically excluded populations improves conditions for everyone.

Another clear focus on delivering sustainable change should be on middle management, who touch the largest number of people in an organization and make or break a company transformation. Leaders can engage their middle management by collaborating with them on designing policy and culture changes with cross-functional, intentionally diverse action learning teams. These teams offer an opportunity to co-create a future that empowers middle management to be a part of the culture change inside the company. 

Finally, disciplined measurement and frequent review is needed to maintain the momentum of a shift to an anti-racist culture. If it matters, measure it as you would any other objective. By treating culture, anti-racism, and DEI as a business imperative, the actions around them are reframed. Anti-racist leadership is an ongoing and constantly evolving journey, and it is required for companies who want to attract, retain the best talent, and remain resilient for years to come.

James D. White

James D. White is the former chair, president, and CEO of Jamba Juice. He currently chairs the board of the Honest Company and is the Executive Chair of the startup Air Protein, in addition to several other boards. He is the author, with his daughter Krista, of Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World (Harvard Business Review Press, 2022)


Krista White

Krista White is a writer and consultant in the DEI space, focusing on work at the intersection of race and queerness. She is the founder and CEO of Kiki for The Future and the co-founder of Culture Design Lab, two DEI-focused startups.

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

 

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