AT&T’s Anne Chow: Creating a Safe Workplace
Anne Chow is the first woman of color to be the CEO in AT&T’s history. She’s been with the company for over 30 years and throughout her career, she’s made it a point to have difficult conversations about race, equity, and inclusion at work.
She tells host Porter Braswell that unconscious bias is at the root of a lot of these race-related issues. They also discuss how she’s working to create a safe workplace for employees of color through leading internal dialogues and holding leaders accountable.
HBR Presents is a network of podcasts curated by HBR editors, bringing you the best business ideas from the leading minds in management. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Harvard Business Review or its affiliates.
ANNE CHOW: If you are struggling to get a place and I’m struggling to get to a place, the way that we help you and me get to a place it’s not the same way. And it shouldn’t be the same way. We have to meet each individual, each community in its own way. This is why success for us as a community, as a society will be about individuals connecting with each other.
PORTER BRASWELL: From HBR Presents this is Race at Work, the show that explores how race impacts our careers and lives. I’m Porter Braswell. I left a Wall Street career to start a company called Jopwell, because I wanted to help corporate America build a more diverse workforce. Each week we talk to a different leader about their experience with race and how it impacts our daily lives.
Almost every day we as working Americans go to work. So, it’s important to feel safe and welcomed in that environment. That’s not always the case though. Especially when it comes to employees of color. Obstacles that prevent a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture can make employees feel like they’re not welcome, or like they can’t do their best work.
In this episode, we talk to Anne Chow — the first woman of color to be CEO of AT&T Business. We discuss how business leaders can make the workplace safe and accepting for everyone — especially employees of color.
Anne has also co-authored a book called The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias: How To Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-Performing Teams. So, we start the conversation talking about unconscious bias, and how that might influence managerial decisions, or lead to workplace discrimination.
Let’s just, just jumped right into the topic of bias. In the introduction of your book, the leader’s guide to unconscious bias, you note that to be human is to have bias. If you were to say, I don’t have bias, you’d be saying that your brain isn’t functioning properly. So, can you elaborate a bit on that? And why did you choose to have that as a part of the introduction of your book?
ANNE CHOW: I fundamentally believe that the topic of bias is one that really needs to come to the forefront. Historically, I would say that it has a stigma to it, but the reality is that we as humans, the way that our brains work, our brains work to compartmentalize and help us organize the world around us.
The way that happens through the neuroscience of it is we form perspectives and biases. And what is a bias? It’s a preference. It could be a prejudice, but it’s favoring something over another thing. And our biases are both conscious — we are aware of them, and we know them. And they impact all facets of our life. Right? How do you know you don’t like, you know, I don’t like eggs.
I have a bias against eggs. I have a bias against eating eggs for any other meal than breakfast. But what is so important in leadership today is for us to reframe the topic of unconscious bias. That bias, which sits right beneath the surface. And we all have it. And the reason why we wanted to start the book that I was so fortunate to coauthor with Pamela Fuller and Mark Murphy is to, in a way, disarm everyone from having this defensive reaction to say, I am not a biased individual.
Because in actuality, all of us absolutely have bias. It’s a part of the human condition. We are more cognizant of conscious biases, but where we have significant opportunity is to take and understand and unpack our unconscious bias and bring them to our consciousness so that we can affect and make progress in our words and actions.
PORTER BRASWELL: One of the things though that I always find to be interesting around this topic is that when we think about unconscious bias traditionally, and within corporate settings, it’s always kind of dedicated towards the majority community. So how have you seen unconscious bias show up in the workplace for communities of color or employees of color?
ANNE CHOW: Yeah. Yeah. So look, so, I don’t know if you’re asking me the question of: do we, as people of color of communities of color also have our own biases? The answer is of course, yes. And what I would say too is, we wrote the book without necessarily a racial lens to it. There are absolutely racial biases, which exist, but as I just used in my egg example, right, we have biases about everything, both conscious and unconscious.
So in a corporate environment, as example, we have talked a lot about and taken action around gender bias. In addition to racial bias. There is functional bias. When I first started approaching this topic as a leader, knowing that it was a topic that had to be unpacked, understood, embraced, made very uncomfortable in conversations, I actually started discussion with many of my teams around functional bias.
What are the perceptions you have of a sales person? What are the perspectives you have of an engineer? What are your biases around lawyers, or human resource professionals? When you approach it that way, it becomes perhaps even a little more relatable because I do think that the topic traditionally of gender bias or racial bias, it puts us in an area of discomfort. Doesn’t it?
Each of us has a unique identity. Each of us has a perspective around what we think is good, what we think is not good, what we find more comforting versus what we don’t find more comforting. As a second generation Chinese American, I would tell you, I was raised to respect authority almost to the detriment. Inherent in our culture was don’t rock the boat.
If you think about this whole notion, which is yet another sort of construct of Eastern leadership styles and Western based leadership styles – in many Western environments and leadership cultures, it’s Hey, the squeakiest wheel gets the oil. If you don’t speak up, you won’t be heard. These are things that I am open to sharing that I have struggled with throughout my career, in my life around trying to find my place right.
And trying to establish my voice in a way that is authentic to who I am, which includes my racial profile, my gender, my socioeconomic background, my educational perspectives as each of us, no doubt have an opportunity to do. Bias exists in all of us. It is an incredibly individual and personal thing, which is why in order for us to move forward together, we have to start with ourselves.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. I think you hit on so many interesting points there, especially around the intersectionality of who we are as people. And in different seasons that might change. Like for instance, I was born a Black man, I’m going to die a Black man. But last year I became a dad and now that’s an important part of my identity in how I perceive the world.
Three years ago, I became a husband and that has also influenced my perspective and how I interact with people in the world. And so I definitely appreciate that you bring all that to the workplace and how you engage with your clients or with the culture that is made up within the workplace can be affected by your experiences based on your identities.
And so that makes a lot of sense. One thing I would love to. Is that if we revisit the spring of 2014, all of the tech companies were coming out with their lack of diversity stats. And everybody said that there’s a lack of diversity because it’s a pipeline challenge. The talent doesn’t exist. And obviously that’s not the case.
That’s why I built my business, to knock down that myth. And now, if you were to say that out loud, you’ll get criticized for it as a leader within corporate America. But then the ping pong ball kind of bounced to, oh, there’s a lack of diversity because there’s unconscious bias. And it feels like every two or three years, there’s like another reason as to why there’s a lack of diversity in corporate America and the topic of unconscious bias not too long ago became mainstream.
So what would you say to like the naysayers that say, oh, that’s just another excuse as to why there is a lack of diversity in corporate America.
ANNE CHOW: So I’m — Porter. I know our audience can only hear us. Right. If they could see us, they would see me grinning a little bit. Because, the answer is yes, it is all of the above.
These are all inter-linked together. It’s not a pipeline problem, right? It’s a people and process problem. I do believe that for us to say, whether it’s the tech industry or anyone else, to say that it’s a pipeline problem really only starts to scratch the surface. Right? As in any topic associated with diversity, equity and inclusion, there are many, many layers to it.
So if you’re having a problem with your pipeline, meaning your belief is you can’t find the talent. Right. I can’t find the talent because it’s not there and I can’t get the talent. Well, you’ve got to ask yourself the question, why? Are there issues in your recruiting process?
Perfect example of this that is not race related or gender related: if you and I found out in this conversation that we went to the same college we would have an immediate affinity to each other. And we would have a bias, a conscious bias, we would say, oh man, yeah, Porter went to the same college as me.
I know what that was like. And if I were interviewing you, I might consciously or unconsciously give you a leg up on somebody else who went to a different college. Maybe somebody who went to a rival college, even though your skill sets might be on par. Or maybe they’re actually not as strong, but I have this affinity to you because we went to the same Alma mater.
Go back to the pipeline assertion. Do you have a comprehensive approach to attracting your talent to building that pipeline? Do you have relationships with HBCUs, with communities out there far earlier than the moment of decision of wanting to recruit someone?
If I knew you grew up in the same home state as me – I’m a Jersey girl. If you’re a Jersey guy, that would be another affiliation that we would share that we would have a natural affinity for each other. That would feed our respective biases. So unconscious bias then sits embedded in each individual that’s involved in a process.
When we say systemic issues exist, systemic racism systemic injustices, it is about the embedded processes. And those back in the day who created those processes with their lens on that. Whether it’s the recruiting, the advancement, the development, the hiring, the firing, all of those things, which exist in any organization, right through the talent life cycle.
The pipeline is not just a “enter into your organization” thing. It’s a pipeline through next generation leaderships, next generation executives, next generation functional leaderships and expertise, next generation engineering and innovation. And all of the above. All of these topics are connected, and until each of us as leaders really is thoughtful about connecting these thoughts together, we won’t actually be getting at the root cause of some of these issues to then systemically improve them and make them better.
PORTER BRASWELL: Hmm. And in that answer, when you said I’m from Jersey, I happened to be from New Jersey and I got excited. So I felt that right there. So how do you then hold people accountable for their unconscious bias? Because if they’re not trying to necessarily say, oh, because you’re from Jersey, I’m from Jersey, there’s that connection right there – that’s not inherently a bad thing, but how do you then hold them accountable for bad outcomes?
ANNE CHOW: Yeah. Yeah. So this is where, I mean, you and I are together here in this conversation, making the case for diverse teams, because if you’re a single threaded through any critical decision that involves people you will get to the opening discussion on to be human is to have bias. It is natural part of the human condition. Why have diverse teams? Because if you have any diverse panel interview process that involves people from different functional areas and different geographies, of different demographics, you will get a different outcome, a better outcome I would assert, than if you just completely had the decision process through one individual. And there is so much science and data out there now that affirms diverse teams are more productive. They’re more innovative. They deliver better financial and operational results. Companies with diverse boards and diverse C-suites perform better.
And this is why. It’s because you converge on multiple people’s lenses on any given issue, decision or topic. And by definition, the cream rises to the top right you get the best of everybody’s thinking and this push and pull. Presuming you have, by the way, and open honest, strong culture that embraces this kind of dialogue.
PORTER BRASWELL: That allows diversity to thrive.
ANNE CHOW: Exactly. You know, and Porter I love how you said, even in the last couple of years for you, you have developed new facets of who you are, which is normal for every single one of us, that have now shaped who you are as a leader, as a contributor. I would say now that you’ve become a dad, you now have developed inherent, conscious, and unconscious biases about being a dad you didn’t have before.
And those biases impact your behavior in good neutral and negative ways, just like anything else. And I think our obligation as leaders is to know this about ourselves and be on this continuous journey of awareness of reframing as well as reframing it for and with our teams. The strongest leaders tend to surround themselves with people that are quite different than they are.
Diversity of thought of gender, of sexual orientation, religion, generational, race, functional. All of the above. Diverse teams are just simply better.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. Let’s move on to what we all just experienced in 2020, the social and political unrest. And it’s still continuing. What’s the responsibility of the employer in creating safe spaces to discuss what’s happening in society within the workplace?
And how do you advise companies go about creating those spaces?
ANNE CHOW: We are changed forever as a society. What occurred in 2020, all around the world, a racial awakening, a reckoning, right, helped us see things differently and with more open eyes, right? I use the word awakening and reckoning very purposefully. Because for those of us who have been subject to injustices, personal or professional injustices, or otherwise, 2020 was no different than any other year.
It just became an enlightenment that hit the forefront. You know, when I think about Black Lives Matter, stop AAPI hate, inflection points in our respective communities, I spent a lot of time after George Floyd was murdered with Black employees, really trying to improve my empathy and understanding about the issues about the impact so that I could be a better leader.
Leadership is not about a title. Leadership has no gender, no religion, no race. It is who I feel that each of us should strive to be in whatever context we live in. In whatever aspects of our lives we want to make positive change.
PORTER BRASWELL: So Anne, I’m curious, have there been times in your career where people have made – let’s call it racially insensitive remarks – based on the fact that you’re from the AAPI community.
ANNE CHOW: So, so, when I moved from the east coast to Texas six years ago, I was riding along with a colleague of mine and he said to me, he’s like, oh, you know, there’s a bunch of Oriental restaurants that I want to take you to. Right. And I said oh, that’s great. But did you know that the word Oriental went out in the nineties and that it is actually viewed and is a racist kind of word?
And he had no idea. Look, I would never have classified this colleague of mine as a racist. So is what he said, racially insensitive? Yes. Did I take that opportunity to stew about it and say, oh my gosh, he’s using this word with me? No, I took it at face value and use that opportunity to help educate. I am pretty sure I’ve not actually asked him, but I can be pretty sure he probably never used the word again in that context, but that’s progress, right?
That’s progress. The second example that I’ll give you is what’s the one of the top five things you never ask an Asian person or a Hispanic person? And it’s where are you from. This happens – and it happens a lot when I was traveling all around the country, all around the world, much more frequently before the pandemic.
Here’s how it goes. Anne where are you from? I live in Dallas. No. Where are you really from? Oh no. I’m from Jersey. I’m a total Jersey girl. No. Where are you really really from? Well, you mean where I was born? I was born in the Midwest. And after the first “really from,” I know that what they’re asking is what is my ethnicity, right?
What is my racial background? I look different than they might expect. Therefore, what am I? When we see differences, our curiosity is peaked. That’s not bad. But if you really want to know my ethnicity, why don’t you just ask me what my ethnicity is? Don’t ask me where I’m really from or what am I, because when you ask it that way, you’re telling me that I don’t belong.
You’re telling me that I’m different and that I’m lesser than. You’re not respectful for who I am. And the fact that my difference is what makes me me and what makes you, you.
PORTER BRASWELL: I’m curious to know if you’ve noticed at all, how has the response of hate crimes against the AAPI community been similar or different from corporations and leaders when being compared to responses when other communities of color are being attacked? Do you find that the excitement around we have to do something was matched when what we saw with the AAPI community compared to other communities?
ANNE CHOW: Yeah. Gosh, I think this is a — Porter this is such a slippery slope, right?
This is such a slippery slope. We as humans, we have this desire to compare. Which is more? Which is less? Which is better? Which is worse? Are we equally as committed or less committed? Look I’m – I resemble this remark too, because my parents came to this country with almost nothing. They wanted us to be our best.
And I often struggle at times, especially early on in my career with delineating being my best from being the best. I should only be competing against my own version of myself yesterday. I should not be competing with you. I should not be competing with my team or my peer or my colleague. I, as a Chinese American should not be competing against a Mexican American.
I mean, I just it’s, it shouldn’t be that way. Okay. So this is why I say it’s a slippery slope. In the Asian community – and this is something that I think was new to many people. Not new to us in the Asian community, but new to others, right, to the point of awakening and reckoning.
2020 for many of us was not necessarily different it was what moved to the forefront of the conversation, right? What moved to the forefront of people’s awareness. The AAPI community has long been called the model minority. And we have this model minority myth. And if you dissect the roots of this whole thing, it actually has its roots in divisiveness.
Well, if they AAPI community is the model minority, apparently there are not model minorities, i.e. the Black community or the LatinX, Hispanic community. Right. And so the whole even idea of a model minority creates divisiveness between communities that should be uniting together in the advancement of progress.
So I try not to compare those kinds of things, because I actually think it again is a slippery slope and it leads us to something that focuses intrinsically on pitting one against the other one. This should really be about fairness. It should be about equity. This is something that I’ve said to my children since they were little. And Porter, you’ll love this as a new dad. And I hope that you will remember this, this “Chowism” if you will. Okay. And that is “fair is not equal.” If you are struggling to get to a place and I’m struggling to get to a place, the way that we help you and me get to a place it’s not the same way. And it shouldn’t be the same way.
We have to meet, each individual, each community, each team, each organization, each unique situation in its own way. This is why success for us as a community, as a society will be about individuals connecting with each other. It will happen one conversation, one person, one connection, one relationship at a time, I am a person who believes that one person can in fact change the world. We have so many examples of that.
And my hope is that this conversation that you and I are having may trigger or catalyze that in someone else, right. In a leader out there that you and I may never actually personally meet.
PORTER BRASWELL: Absolutely. And as I was thinking through – living through these experiences and in particular, when the hate crimes against the AAPI community were occurring and those within communities of color — this dialogue around “support us now. Now support us”, especially on social media, where it was like, well, where’s the, where’s the outcry. It’s unbelievable that communities of color feel like it’s a zero-sum game. Where it’s like, if one community’s doing well, then that means the other community can’t do well. And that we’ve been led to believe that there’s only one seat at the table.
So who’s going to get that seat? And we need to come together to fight against the systems that even make us believe that there’s only one seat. And I think that’s a part of it.
ANNE CHOW: It is the struggle, right? Is this the respect of struggle of our respective communities that has us thinking that way? Right.
And it is the systems and the narratives, which have been told through media and otherwise, That have shaped again, these unconscious biases that we have. Right? And so it is about making that pie bigger. And the words that I use, and I think many others have used these words about Black Lives Matter or stop AAPI hate is we need to ensure that this moment or these moments are not just simply episodic moments, but that we have created a new movement.
If we can join forces in our movements, we will no question deliver a better future. As we learn from each other and align with each other, we, we can get to a much better place. Right. And in fact, in the United States, by the year 2060 women of color will represent the majority of women in the United States.
So your point of there’s only one seat. Oh my goodness. There should not just be one seat. There should be numerous seats. Right. And it should be based on the talent and the best fit for whatever that seat requires. And ideally biases don’t stand in the way conscious or unconscious. Systems and processes are improved to enable the cream to rise to the top.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah, absolutely. And on the optimistic note of, we’re not going back to where we came from and we’re progressing and companies that aren’t keeping up with that wave, they’re going to be left behind. I think one of the things that I’ve particularly enjoyed. In this new kind of wave is that companies have to stand for things. You can’t not have perspective anymore.
Now how you share your perspective needs to resonate with what you do. And you need to stay in your lane, but you need to have a perspective and a point of view on topics now. And I’ve personally really enjoyed seeing brands and understanding where the brands that I buy from – what their position is on certain topics.
With your role being the CEO of AT&T business, how has that evolved for you? As you think about the branding and how you’re connecting with consumers, do you feel more enabled to take stances in a way that maybe in the past some people wouldn’t have deemed appropriate?
ANNE CHOW: Yeah. Yeah. So AT&T has long been a leader in diversity equity inclusion. We have always felt it to be our responsibility and obligation to serve our clients, right? Our clients are whether they’re business customers or consumer customers, are an evolving demographic. We are in the business of connections. You know, we are a networking company. And so when we say we create connection, we mean that in every facet of the word. We mean that in adding value for every one of our customers, every one of our communities, because our customers and our employees live in those communities. I believe that companies need to stand for something, and that something needs to align with their words and their actions.
But even just impact. The question of what impact is it that you are looking to have, you know, even the discussion around shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism, right? Being very much oriented around ESG imperatives, very holistically, right? These are all trends that I believe – they’re here to stay. And so for me, it’s been a wonderful, unique experience to be part of it, to help shape it.
And when I think through the tragedies and the inflection points that 2020 brought, it has been even moreso a humbling privilege to be part of helping my people, supporting my people, helping my customers, working with my partners to navigate through that so that we can be better.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. Well, we’ve touched upon this in different ways throughout this conversation, but I’ll ask you directly.
How do you advise people to talk about the topic of race?
ANNE CHOW: Porter I’m happy to share how I’ve done it. Right. Just as one practical use case, if you will. When George Floyd was murdered and you know, the awakening and arising of, of Black Lives Matter occurred, I spent time talking with a group of my Black leaders to talk about what is it that I can do as a CEO, right?
How do I advance the discussion in a way that will engage more people in the dialogue? That will increase the probability of more people understanding, right? More people engaging in these topics that are almost always uncomfortable. Let’s face it. One thing was clear was, you got to have the conversation and then you got to have the conversation in public, right?
Not only do you have to have the closed-door discussions and the closed-door sessions, but to the obligation of any leader, you have to create that culture and that environment of that safe space to have the dialogue. What I created for my organization in partnership with my human resources team is something we call candid conversations.
And the first candid conversation that I hosted, and I do them personally. Okay. This is not something that I delegate. I do them. They’re open to the whole organization. They are not mandatory. The first one we did was with a group of my Black leaders talking about their experiences, what it meant, what it means to be Black in corporate America, what it means to be Black at, AT&T, what it means to be Black period.
Right. And how the series of crimes and injustices affect them on a day-to-day basis. The next one that I did involve a group of non-Black leaders, if you will talking about their awakening, their understanding. Just recently I did my eighth one, by the way, speaking with a group of my employees from the LGBTQ plus community, veterans, and disabled communities.
Right. And sort of unpacking the set of experiences, a lot of which are bias stereotypes. A lot of which are wonderful stories of commitment, which are reflective of our brand, quite frankly, as a, as a DEI leader. And I’m not suggesting that my way is the right way. It is a way that I felt for me and my organization could start something and could start a dialogue.
And it is not the only initiative that I have by the way. Right. I have several different initiatives that we’ve launched, but I hope that it’s creating a safer space. I hope that it is bringing to surface some of the systemic issues. Things that people say, and this is something that I’ve learned over my tenure in corporate America, is that the majority at the time, when somebody says something that may be off, it’s not malintent 95% of the time.
But unless you tell that person what they said is offensive and here’s why, and here’s a better way to do it, they will never know and they’ll keep doing it. And so I think we have to actually unpack the difference between being a racist, demonstrating racist behaviors, versus being racially insensitive in our words, or our actions. And there is a spectrum. And we confuse the, “oh, well, I’m not a racist. I don’t want to have this conversation” right? From, Hey, maybe some of us have racial insensitivities that show up in our words and our actions. Maybe some of us actually even have racist behaviors that we don’t even know. But unless we bring them to the forefront, make the unconscious conscious, make the implicit explicit, we’ll never make progress because it’ll always sit beneath the surface.
We’ve got to give everyone an opportunity to learn about it and not immediately assume that racial insensitivity or racial behavioral racial word means the person is in fact a racist. Yes, there are racists out there, but they are the vast minority of people that I’ve encountered throughout my personal life and my professional life.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. So much of what you said is about engaging in the dialogue. Being willing to jump in and acknowledge and accept differences and differences aren’t a bad thing. Race isn’t a bad thing. Racism is a bad thing. So how do we draw lines in between and welcome people into the conversation? I am fired up. I appreciate you joining us on this episode.
I am so encouraged that there are leaders like you in corporate America that are willing to, again, engage in these dialogues and have a really strong perspective. It’s so important. And so thank you for being a part of this.
ANNE CHOW: Thank you. And thank you again for having me and I hope your audience enjoyed our conversation.
I know I certainly did.
PORTER BRASWELL: Absolutely.
That’s Anne Chow, CEO of AT&T Business.
This episode was produced by Liz Sanchez. Special thanks to Anne Sani and Nick Hendra. Next week, we’ll talk to Michael Lastoria, the CEO of &pizza. about the fundamental ways organizations can go about building diverse, equitable, and inclusive cultures from the ground up.