DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson Discusses Values-Driven Leadership in ‘Rebels with A Heart’ Panel

DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson took part in a panel discussion Wednesday, Jan. 20, which explored how diversity and inclusion leaders are shaping the working world and advocating for justice. The Rebels with a Heart: The New Rules of Leadership conversation hosted by LifeGuides CEO Derek Lundsten covered lessons leaders gleaned from 2020 and the action they’re moving forward with in 2021.

Also on the panel were Sophia Khan, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Thomson Reuters and Joy Fitzgerald, vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Eli Lilly and Company (No. 3 on the 2020 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list).

The conversation started with the leaders discussing the implications of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s inauguration, especially with Harris being the first woman — and first Black and South Asian woman — to hold the position. Fitzgerald hearkened back to an old adage her grandmother used to tell her: “It’s hard for people to dream what they don’t see.”

“And we get to see all women, all girls, all men, we get to see what’s possible for women who look like us,” she added. “And for me, that gives women and our organizations permission. Because sometimes people are just waiting for permission to do what they know is right to do and advocate for talent that looks different.”

Khan said she hopes the past year taught leaders humility and inspired them to discuss issues of diversity and inclusion in ways that are driven by true values, saying it would require “the engagement, the conversation, the willingness of our leaders to actually talk about justice and talk about equity without the cliche [notion of] ‘competitive advantage.'”

Johnson said the first few weeks of 2021 have pressured leaders to continue talking publicly about issues of justice and equity. She said the Jan. 6 Trump-incited insurrection at the Capitol made it clear that people still need to protect one another and their democracy. Leaders had to admit there was a problem before beginning the journey of solving it.

“We are seeing a group of people who are saying, ‘No more. We will protect each other. We will protect this democracy and we can do this together as long as we are resilient,’” Johnson said.

 

Lessons from a Painful Year

Although the conversation started with a message of hope, it did not shy away from the reality of violence and racism that made many leaders reassess their actions and values in the past year. After the murder of George Floyd, Khan said, engaging in real conversations about the trauma many Black colleagues were experiencing became critical. Reuters’ goal at the time was not to report or gather data but to really just listen to the emotional needs of its employees.

“It was about us, our people, people that we feel are like family to us and that mattered to us,” she said. “And it became real. And it went from a head conversation to one of intellect to one that pierced the heart.”

When it came to George Floyd’s murder and the grotesque footage that went viral, it became clear which organizations were throwing money and press release statements at the issue to save face, and which were truly invested in creating systemic change.

“A lot of organizations were quick to take to the waves and talk about the money that they were giving and how awful it was to see. And then they went away, never to be heard from again,” Johnson said.

Consumers are starting to notice too. Fitzgerald said that as a consumer, she’s begun not supporting organizations that have an unfavorable stance — or lack of stance — on issues that matter to her.

“If you have not been listening, if you have not been asking, you cannot just go and think that you are going to have a watershed effect from people trusting you,” Johnson added.

The pain surrounding George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other racist murders in the U.S. got to a point where it couldn’t be sanitized by corporate lingo or vague statements, she said.

“When George Floyd was killed, it removed the numbness that I had allowed to protect my heart around this work,” Fitzgerald said. “And I think if I could have screamed, I probably would have not stopped screaming. … Yet the people that you serve, the people that you lead, they look for you for guidance, for strength, for answers, for encouragement. And it was that time where I had to do deep reflection to help fit with where I was around and face my own realities so then I could help serve others. And I can’t remember a time in my career like that before.”

Johnson also discussed her personal and professional experiences in the past year. Professionally, Johnson said she’s worked to grow DiversityInc to help companies understand the work they need to do prescriptively, in addition to continuing the Top 50 survey, which assesses the previous year in review. On the personal level, she said, she’s been too nice to people and has sometimes offered grace where it wasn’t deserved. Now, she works to hold people accountable.

“I give it to you how you need it so that you can go do the work and make the right changes so that we all can move on and be better together,” she said.

 

How Leaders Can Move Forward

Leading with values is the most essential step, the speakers agreed. These values also apply to retaining diverse talent. Data can reveal areas of strength and weakness in maintaining a diverse and equitable workforce, but only talking to employees and learning about their individual experiences can give leaders a holistic view of employee well-being and inclusion.

“What I mean is not to just say, ‘I have a red, green, yellow heat map that says I got to know people,’” Fitzgerald said. “No. Do you know why they stay? … And how are you sitting down and asking someone, ‘What do you want to do? What are you interested in?’”

Additionally, CEOs need to partner with each other and lead diversity and inclusion efforts, Johnson said. The tone gets set from the top.

Additionally, Johnson’s advice for leaders included making sure they have a diverse group of advisors supporting them who are different from them and represent various points of view.

“You first have to start with yourself,” Johnson said. “Do I have the right people around me? Am I making the same mistakes over and over again? Am I really committed to this change or am I just offering lip service so that people won’t really challenge me?”

Fitzgerald added that leadership participation in — and prioritization of — diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across business areas should be a given.

“You’re dealing with business leaders who do business every day,” she said. “They’re very innovative, they’re very competitive, they know how to get things done. Why can’t we believe that they can get things done as it relates to respecting and honoring the humanity of all people?”

Johnson also stressed that leaders must champion transparency and creating partnerships throughout the organization. She said the health of an organization’s employees is the same as the health of the organization itself.

“Our people are our greatest asset,” she said. “And we cannot be the most competitive, we cannot be the leader in our space and we cannot be organizations where people want to go and stay working if we truly don’t understand the culture, what it’s like to come and work here.”

“You’ve got to understand the temperature at all times of your greatest asset, your people, if you’re going to be effective,” she added, saying measurements, check-ins and asking hard questions are all part of assessing the success of your organizations’ efforts. She also added that external accolades and awards don’t mean organizations stop trying to improve.

“You’ve got to do the work inside so that the beaming comes from outside and the people that work at the organization own the recognition that you get externally,” Johnson said.

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