Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is speaking about race as I write this. Humiliated by his boss, he’s trying his best to sound like a nice guy who doesn’t believe that Nazis and people who oppose Nazis are equivalent. He is going to try a diversity effort at the State Department.
He’s making some classic mistakes. When a white man says “regardless of” race/gender/orientation/disability — look out, they don’t mean what they’re going to say next. If we are addressing existing disparities, it is never regardless of; it is because of. “Regardless of” dismisses the person you’re referring to. It assumes a neutrality a white man like Tillerson simply doesn’t have. Was Tillerson able to become the CEO of Exxon regardless of the fact that he was from Texas, an engineer and a white man The person who succeeded Tillerson at Exxon is from Texas, has an engineering degree and is a white man, not an Asian woman with a nursing degree. If you cannot start the conversation with honesty, insight and clarity, you will never have the credibility to earn a successful conclusion.
He also quoted “my friend” Condoleezza Rice with another classic phrase of (perhaps well-meaning) clueless people: “It doesn’t matter where you came from.” Oh yes it does — especially for the State Department. Where you come from is going to shape your point of view and how you approach problems and solutions. I would think that the State Department should especially desire differences of where people come from (even from within the United States). When you dismiss people and their backgrounds with “it doesn’t matter,” you fail to honor or respect who they are. Not the basis to start a relationship. Certainly not the way to get the maximum productivity and advantage out of the differences — if you fail to recognize them as assets.
Secretary Tillerson is also describing diversity management initiatives that are very 20 years ago. The “Rooney Rule” for senior positions is just foolish if you’re limited to promoting from within and your organization has not developed talent equitably. You are never going to be successful if you don’t have goals, the means to accomplish them, an executive diversity council to oversee the efforts and the guts to hold specific people accountable.
After we have all recently seen white male behavior in Charlottesville and subsequent white male behavior from the president of the United States (the stereotype stings, but that’s how most non-white, non-male people see it), white male leaders need to be very careful in their communications and efforts. The level of scrutiny, distrust and frustration has never been greater. I recommend white men be well-read and well-informed. It is offensive to assume the imprimatur over a diversity effort simply because you are/were a CEO, just as it would be offensive to go to MIT with your 40-year-old engineering degree and start teaching 400 level math. Start with books: “Chokehold,” “Slavery By Another Name,” “The New Jim Crow,” “White Rage” and “My Bondage and My Freedom.”
Engage in honest dialogue, perhaps through your resource groups, with people who don’t look like you and are not from your privileged background. Listen more than you speak in those encounters. Understand it may take some time for people to trust you enough to be honest with you. Have (and express) some humility for your ignorance — you will find it received with great warmth and acceptance. Remember that actions speak louder than words; volunteer in places where you may pick up some first-hand experience and knowledge.
I wish Secretary Tillerson success, but I’m not betting on it.