Opening Up Executive Board Conversations About Systemic Racism

Shereen Daniels - Nov 21, 2022

“We have an open door policy and we listen to all our colleagues. Those issues are in society. We definitely don’t have that problem here. I would know if we hired racist people.” - CEO, 2021

None of us could imagine a time when there was an expectation for anyone, other than HR(!), to have conversations about race and racism.

You could probably never foresee that you, and other members of your board, would have to spearhead some of these conversations and take accountability for turning commitments into action.

Regardless of whether you are a fan or a critic of environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards and to what extent you believe they are a legitimate tool to drive more sustainable and responsible business practices, it isn’t possible to operate in today's and tomorrow’s environment without an awareness of how your company operates against these standards.

Financial Times

“I just feel like we are fatigued as an organization. We’ve been talking about racism for well over a year now. It’s all becoming a bit much if I’m honest, and I’m not sure our CEO has the appetite to drive this forward.” - People Director, 2020

The leadership teams with an edge on adjusting their approach to delivering against new expectations in tackling racism are those who are using this movement to redefine their values and purpose to ensure there is an alignment between their words and actions. On the flip side, stakeholders are continually looking for indicators that reinforce commitments.

You can never deliver against these evolved expectations, if you don’t at least have the strategic conversations about systemic racism.

It’s easy to claim you are a people-centered company and give the illusion of caring about your stakeholders, even if your day-to- day culture and practices tell a different story.

“Empty rhetoric does nothing to address the racism that remains deeply entrenched in finance, but that doesn’t mean rhetoric is pointless – at least for executives. The ultimate outcome of performative anti-racism is the preservation of the status quo – which is, of course, the point.” – Adam Lowenstein, The Guardian

Why am I talking about this now, when technically we’ve had at least two years of raised awareness? Since the murder of George Floyd sparked global protests and led to a plethora of companies change their social media feeds to black? When they incorporated the latest trending Black Lives Matter hashtag to ensure they were seen to be acting in solidarity with the Black community?

Back then, the world was distracted, therefore there wasn’t an initial focus on the substance of these commitments. The hype was real, and well-known brands swiftly committed to doubling or tripling the number of Black hires in senior positions (conveniently using percentage language, which doesn’t sound nearly as great when you realise that doubling the percentage of Black managers by 50% actually means hiring one more Black person if there’s only currently one Black person on the board), and propelled ever-increasing budgets to social justice funds like auctioneers at Homes Under the Hammer.

Anecdotal stories abound of companies committing millions in social justice funding, only to have it revealed that a year later barely a penny had been spent. It quickly became apparent that a lot of organizations opted for style over substance.

Bank of America

The preceding two years, has shown that the sudden pressure to act, caught many unaware. In their bid to do something, it was common for knee-jerk and fragmented actions that abounded to nothing more than simply rehashing old approaches to diversity and inclusion and relabelling them as anti-racism.

Struggling to get board buy-in is touted as one of the key challenges for organizations who are still stuck at the awareness raising phase.

They know they should do something but managing the pollicization of racism and finding a way through defensiveness and discomfort is difficult.

Yet the level of difficulty should not hold you back.

Have frequently have you had discussions with your executive team to answer the following:

  • How do we ease the friction between competing stakeholder interests?
  • What is the impact on the decisions we make about allocating capital and resources?
  • How do we think about risk (political, public perception, colleague expectation and changes to customer attitudes)?
  • How confident are we in the leadership capability of our teams to play their part in dismantling systemic racism? Or is there a nagging thought that they might be part of the problem?
  • How far do we understand how systemic racism shows up in our organization? Or are we still stuck debating about whether the problem out there, affects us in here?
  • What has changed since June 2020? Has changed since June 2021? June 2022? Do we look and feel like an organization that has taken this issue seriously? Or are we still debating about the appropriateness of what to do and how?

Macro issues are now having a direct impact on strategy and execution. What were once abstract theories for once-a- year conferences are now monthly if not weekly conversations with no one person having all the answers.

It’s a lot, isn’t it?

We’ve moved on from being able to get away with vague platitudes and sound bites that look good in a social media post or as a quote in your diversity and inclusion report – although this is still extremely commonplace.

I wrote this brief yet practical guide: Opening Up Executive Board Conversations About Race [access here - no email address needed] to focus the mind and the conversations.

The ability to context systemic racism within a workplace/business environment is key. As is asking the right questions that call for answers that move beyond platitudes, vague commitments, and snappy soundbites.

Even if you believe you’ve made progress, this is still worth a read and the way it is written will allow you to add a few of these questions as an agenda item to your next board meeting.

Even if you believe its political correctness gone mad, this is the new expectation and the ‘S’ part of your ESG report won’t write itself if you cannot mention how your organization is tackling racial inequity.

And by the way, hiring more Black people, doesn’t count.

“I’d love to advance racial equity in our firm, I really would, but the board would never sign off on something that focuses solely on Black people.

We’ve got to be mindful of all our colleagues, and it would be impossible to justify.

So can we do something for Black colleagues but also for everybody else, because we don’t want to leave people out?”

- Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, 2021

Adapted from The Anti-Racist Organization: Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Workplace (Wiley, 2022)

Speaking of which, may I ask a favour?

I need 6 more reviews on Amazon to reach the magic 100 so if you have bought the book from Amazon (or any other online retailer), would you be open to writing a review and/or providing your feedback?

I would also like to extend me thank you the following individuals who have taken the time to record videos - Dr. Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey, Host of The Element of Inclusion and share their thoughts on what stayed with them after reading the book – Erin Caseley, Chief Officer,  Samantha Falode, HR Business Partner, Stephanie Hart, Strategic Communications Leader, Paul Bennun, Senior Vice President Employee Experience and Alexandra Knight, CEO & Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor.