Fireside Chat with EY’S Kelly Grier: Unapologetic Leadership

During DiversityInc’s Top 50: Leadership Accountability event on Nov. 4, DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson led a fireside chat with EY’s U.S. chair and managing partner and Americas managing partner Kelly Grier about how to be an unapologetic leader. Grier, whose company is in the DiversityInc Top 50 Hall of Fame, talked about how she leads with transparency and accountability, especially when it comes to using EY’s influence as one of the largest professional services networks in the world to lead the fight for racial justice.

Johnson began the conversation by bringing up the chaos and hardship that came to a head in 2020. Between the global COVID-19 pandemic and countrywide protests against systemic racism, corporations, leaders and individuals faced a reckoning. She asked Grier how these challenging moments have inspired leaders like her to be unapologetic in speaking up for others.

Grier said first and foremost, leaders should be values-driven. She said the pandemic and issues of racism are also intertwined, especially because COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. After George Floyd’s death and the protests against systemic violence against Black people followed, Grier said she could not remain silent.

“It was really important for me to be explicit about that with all of the EY family members. I wanted them to hear that we’re not going to stand by and allow this to happen without exerting all of the influence that we have with our enormous platform,” she said. 

Grier said she had to be unapologetic about asserting that corporations were important catalysts for change because of their influence. She said EY had to make a commitment to racial justice that was enduring and sustainable — and be held accountable for it. 

“We’re going to be explicit about this. We’re going to be measurable in the actions that we identify,” she said.

Grier also elaborated on how EY was driving actionable change. The company’s program centers around self-reflection first and foremost and is designed to bring humility to conversations about how the company aspires to move forward through diversity and inclusion. EY also addresses policy to better interact with clients as well as diverse suppliers. 

“We’re looking at a whole variety of ways that we can influence policy matters that will combat systemic racism and help to remove impediments that stand in the way of progress for people of color. And we are looking at the relationships that we have from a policy and a political perspective to ensure that there is alignment of those commitments and our values with the relationships that we have,” Grier said. 

Building on this idea, Johnson brought up the importance of truth-telling — laying the truth bare no matter how ugly it might be. Research offers insight into diversity efforts, but on an even simpler level, employees want the truth.  

“They want to work for a leader that is not scared to say racism. They want to work for a leader that will talk about a plan to make sure that they are psychologically safe, just like everybody else is when they go to work,” Johnson said.

Similar to that base level of honesty that’s so important, Grier added that a business also cannot be truly inclusive without a foundation of trust and transparency. When leaders don’t hold back or sugar-coat social problems and when they’re honest about what they know and what they still must learn, employees are more likely to trust them and feel that their perspectives matter. 

In response to this, Johnson fondly remembered the late Bernard Tyson, the former chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente (DiversityInc Hall of Fame company). Johnson quoted Tyson, saying “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Grier added to Tyson’s sentiment by saying that even early on in her profession and in the accounting field, professionals are given leadership responsibilities fairly early. 

She said the idea of “the more people a leader has power over, the more successful they are” is less of a leadership mindset and more of a management mindset. 

“I have seen the power of steward leadership and what happens when you bring out the very best in others and when your mission is yielded,” she said. “I think leaders see the difference between those two principles, not managing people but really serving people and being in service to the people in their care. This unlocks their potential. It allows them to advance and grow and contribute. In doing that as a leader, you create this incredible compounding impact. And that is a value and ethos that I’ve held dear for really the better part of my career.”

Grier said enthusiasm — rather than resistance — toward change is also an important leadership trait. Transformative leaders embrace change and constantly adapt to a transforming world. 

On the topic of allyship, she added that leaders can’t ask others to be allies to underrepresented groups until they are allies themselves. She said leaders should go beyond words and statements to make sure actionable, sustainable commitment starts with the leader and trickles down to all employees.

“I think you have to ask the same for your direct reports, your leadership team. They have to bring the voice that you represent at the top of the organization to bear throughout the circle of leadership, throughout the organization, and to continue to cascade that from leaders to leaders and from groups to groups, but all the same principles,” Grier said, emphasizing that leading from the front is “essential to really being an effective ally and really driving that commitment in a way that’s going to have the desired effect that is sustainable and truly is measurable.” 

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