DEI Isn’t Enough; Companies Need Anti-Racist Leadership
Over the past few years in the United States, we’ve seen some horrific examples of racism seize the public consciousness. Amid all these tragedies – and the protests that followed – U.S. business leaders promised they would do their part to fight the problem, making workplaces more diverse, equitable and inclusive. But now it’s time to go a step further, say James White and Krista White, father-and-daughter authors of the new book, Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious Worlds. They share their own experiences as Black Americans in the workplace and lessons from James’ time as CEO of Jamba Juice. And they offer advice on how corporate leaders can promote lasting change in their own organizations and society at large.
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
Over the past few years in the US, we’ve seen some horrific examples of racism directed at Black Americans, Latinos, Asians, Jewish people, and those of Arab descent. We’ve heard anti-immigrant slurs, seen people of color attacked, and if we could stomach it, actually watched to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others.
Amid all these tragedies and the public protests that have followed, many U.S business leaders promised that they would do their part to fight the problem. They committed to making their workplaces more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. They came out strong, but for the past year and a half, they’ve been struggling with the hard part, putting their words into action, actually seizing this small window of opportunity to make lasting change.
Our guests today are here to help. James White is the former Chair, President, and CEO of Jamba Juice. Drawing on his experiences turning that company into one that delivered on DEI, and conversations and work with other executives doing the same, he and his daughter, Krista White wrote the book, Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World. They also wrote the related HBR article, “How to Build an Anti-racist Company”. James and Krista, I’m so happy to have you here.
JAMES WHITE: We are thrilled to be on with you today.
KRISTA WHITE: Thank you for having us.
ALISON BEARD: As black Americans yourselves, this is obviously a pretty personal issue for you. I know this might be opening a huge can of worms right at the start, but could you first tell me a little bit about your own lives and career experiences and how they’ve shaped your thing on these issues? James, let’s start with you.
JAMES WHITE: I’d make a couple comments as a black executive, the first member of my family to graduate from college, the events of 2020 and the global racial reckoning really brought to the fore the need for the book that we wrote together and the significant work that is yet to be done.
I’ve been blessed and very successful throughout my career, but my first assignment in sales with the Coca-Cola Company, we had to remove from my selling territory, the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas. So there are not white colleagues that have that challenge as a first generation graduate from college first professional job, so that’s just a challenge. And I think this is where we would love for all leaders that have much greater empathy.
KRISTA WHITE: I also feel that the 2020 situation was a huge moment of a lot of things coming to ahead for me between the racial reckoning that dad mentioned and the pandemic that we’ve seen have a disproportionate effect on people of color has really brought things to light for me after just my own experiences living as a black woman facing microaggressions, having people ask if they could touch my hair, and it really brought it to a greater scale for me.
There’s certain challenges that you experience. I spend a lot of time in predominantly white spaces so you feel othered. Those microaggressions they add up and some of them are microaggressions. And also there have been times in my work experience where I’ve observed and you question whether this is racial or not, you second guess yourself, but I’ve seen white colleagues be promoted with less experience than me and things like that.
JAMES WHITE: And one of the other things we talk about in the book is the requirement for black executives to need to prove it again and prove it again. One of the stories that we really talk about is the fact that I’ve never, across really a long and successful career, been promoted on the basis of potential and I shared this story with 1,000 people at a company town hall, Medallia.
The CEO had me to address the group and this was post the murder of George Floyd. And I made the comment around never being promoted on potential and I could see the CEO rock back in his chair and he said, you know what? We’ve got black Medallians sitting in this audience. They don’t even realize the potential that they have and we probably should be thinking about opportunities for them to play different roles inside the company.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And so that’s a perfect transition, this problem plays out at the personal individual level, but the solutions don’t happen there. They happen at the organization level. So I’d love to talk about your time at Jamba Juice, James. In broad strokes, what was the company like when you arrived and how did you change it to make it a more welcoming place for people of color, LGBTQ employees, a more inclusive organization?
JAMES WHITE: I think the foundational strength of Jamba is that it would’ve been more inclusive from the start than most other companies. The founder of the company, Kirk Perron, was a gay man. The foundation to be a really inclusive company was always there. The values and purpose of the company were very consistent with my own, but the focus that we brought over the course of the time that I was at the helm of Jamba was to add significantly more diversity of all kinds into the leadership level.
The one place the Jamba was not diverse was in the boardroom and we added more diversity into the boardroom. And then at all levels inside the company from a leadership perspective. One of the things that you’ll find in corporations is some companies, especially in an industry like the restaurant industry are incredibly diverse on the frontline, but as people migrate across their careers you’ll see little or no diversity in the leadership ranks.
ALISON BEARD: And Krista, after your dad stepped down, why did you two want to come together to write this playbook for other companies? In particular, what perspective did you want to bring to the table?
KRISTA WHITE: Yeah, so we had started working together on some consulting projects. And the more we were learning, the more we realized how much there was to share in that dad had this extremely unique perspective as someone who had been a black operating executive versus the usual perspective from DEI leaders and HR folks. And my perspective in the book is one that is very… It’s informed by my experiences as a millennial I’d say, and someone who’s not necessarily in the corporate world, but someone who is very passionate about social justice and in naming the things that we really have to reckon with of white supremacy, of the systemic nature of racism in this country and within a lot of corporations. So pushing the book forward in that way and naming anti-racism was really important to me.
ALISON BEARD: So this term anti-racist has really come to the fore over the past couple years, Krista, how do you define anti-racist leadership?
KRISTA WHITE: Yeah. I’d say that anti-racist leaders are really committed to looking at these systemic things within their company, looking at the processes and looking at their rituals. They move beyond lip service. A lot of people have put out Black Lives Matter statements and anti-racist statements for their companies, but who is actually taking action? Who is holding their top leaders accountable? Who is being really honest about where they stand currently because everyone has somewhere to go in terms of anti-racism.
They understand that it is an ongoing journey. It’s a moving target. We are constantly evolving and learning. And an anti-racist leader is open to learning and acknowledging what they don’t know. They recognize the implicit humanity in people and lead with empathy. And they’re also surrounding themselves with great people who they can learn from and learn with and collaborate with. And they are also open to listening to their team from the top down, everyone within the company has the ability to have a voice. There’s formalized opportunities to speak to the top such as town halls and one-on-ones with leaders. And they’re just really committed to this multi-year journey.
ALISON BEARD: And James, why is it so important for all leaders from the top to the team manager, not just the HR department to lead this charge?
JAMES WHITE: I think the critical thing that we wanted to bring is really not the micro, but we wanted to step back and think about the systems and institutions and how we make sustainable change and sustainable progress around this work in to the point that Krista mentioned the systems and processes that are biased need to be retooled, reworked, and from a leadership perspective, we’ve got a number of beliefs. One, the CEO has to lead this work. She can’t delegate it because this work is inextricably linked to culture and values of the company and that you never delegate.
It’s important that the HR and the chief diversity officers are connected to the work where there’s a chief diversity officer present, but the most important segment of the organization and population that we focus on in the book is the middle management. Most of us experience our own… All of our work experience is with the middle managers which is the place where most of the people report. So your experience with an organization is at that middle management level and we believe you need to bring process and tools and policies and incentives that enable that middle management group to really change the organization to create more inclusive workspaces that allow us all to bring our full selves to work.
ALISON BEARD: And so you have seven steps for making this happen. We just talked about enlisting the support of senior executives then it’s… I’m going to go through them quickly for our audience. It’s audit the culture, document what’s already happening with DEI, find ways to measure progress, form action learning teams, and develop and communicate a plan. So let’s dig into some of those in more detail. Krista, what do you mean by audit the culture?
KRISTA WHITE: Yeah. When you are auditing the culture, you want to really dig into all the different processes that touch culture. So it’s important to look at the HR systems and see where there are gaps, see where there’s bias. It also means digging into your data and looking at, say, what are the real numbers of diversity within your company? What’s the representation of different people and also disaggregating that data so you know for example, how many women of color you might have at different levels and just really having an in depth look at those numbers as well as looking at employee survey data by different populations to see what experiences your employees are having. And if it changes based on race or gender or other identity categories.
ALISON BEARD: Because it seems so easy to fall back on things like the number of people of color hired at a certain level of management, but to not think about how things actually feel on the ground at the organization. How do you figure out which metrics are the most important? What are the areas in which you think it’s most important to document where you are now and ensure that you’re making progress?
JAMES WHITE: It is going to be situational. Every organization is going to be different. And one of the ways that I talk about it is, I think, organizations need to start where they are. You do it in the context with the filter of what are the company’s values and mission. This is going to be, as Krista mentioned, a multi-year journey. And the most important thing is that we start.
ALISON BEARD: And Krista, what are action learning teams and how do they inform the plan?
KRISTA WHITE: Sure. Action learning teams are team cross-functional teams that bring together folks that may or may not have worked together before to tackle business issues and solve problems. It’s a way that people can be brought together that aren’t usually in the groups of folks who get to do these more high-profile assignments. And it’s one way that you can identify these high potential people who might be in marginalized groups or might not just be the traditional cookie cutter fit of what your company been promoting. One example we use in the book is using action learning teams to bring more Jamba Juices into airports. They brought together people from different departments and you give them a timeframe. And it’s these small groups of that really are able to ideate and innovate together.
JAMES WHITE: We view action learning as really a tool or a technology, but I’ve seen used effectively cross my own career. And the suggestion that we make is, as you bring people from inside the company that typically don’t get to work on the organization level problems like culture, like diversity, equity and inclusion, like building an approach for anti-racist leadership inside the company and the formation or composition of that team should be cross-functional and should be representative of the diversity in the company. And you start to bring different voices into the company and have them focus on solving the critical challenges of the organization.
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ALISON BEARD: And so we’ve all seen this happen, you have a task force like that, an action learning team, they come up with a plan, they make recommendations and then nothing happens. So how do you make sure that all of this work amounts to something. It’s one of these moments when people really are mobilizing around this issue of anti-racism, so how do we keep the momentum?
JAMES WHITE: Well, this work is not delegated, this work would be elevated to the C-suite. I have several examples in the book. Schnucks Supermarkets would be one of the fantastic examples. The CEO, Todd Schnuck, there over the last two years has been personally involved on a weekly basis with his chief people officer, head of diversity and aligned leader. And then on a monthly basis, I actually join the discussion with that group and we’ve been doing that for almost two years. And that’s the leadership in this moment that I think we need to see and you see really real progress everywhere in an organization like that one where the CEO is committed. And we talk about one of the things that the team at Schnucks did last year to really bring their learning and work together. In their supermarkets had their employees to wear these t-shirts that says, unity is power, we stand against racism. And that was really a bold move. Schnuck Supermarkets is in St. Louis, Missouri. And if you just think about the makeup and composition of where their stores exist, this is the value purpose driven leadership that we’re advocating for in the book. And I couldn’t be more proud to have had a small part and work with that team.
ALISON BEARD: That’s a great story. Krista, how do you see the younger generation in particular, making sure that there is real permanent change on these issues and holding senior leaders into account.
KRISTA WHITE: Sure. I think we’re seeing it. This is one of the reasons behind this great resignation that we’re seeing is people are no longer accepting companies that don’t align with their values. I think that’s one way we’re holding senior leadership accountable for their actions is by just we’re not going to work here anymore. And being very intentional about… These days people are very intentional around keeping receipts, so keeping the screenshots of the email exchanges you might have with people or the Slacks and people are… I think one tool that have its problems, but has been very useful for people in my generation is social media and the ability to really be transparent. Whereas other people in previous generations A, didn’t have those tools, but I think were just more likely to keep things close to the vest, but I think the social aspect of being able to band together and get support that way is something that has been really powerful.
JAMES WHITE: And it’s really changed the nature of the job of the chief executive that have commented recently to groups. Social issues a decade ago even six years ago were ones that CEOs could opt in or out of. With the big push around ESG, Environmental Social Governance, related issues especially the S, you’ve got major investors that want to have the company’s report and talk about those issues, but critically important is our consumers are holding companies to account is never before. And it’s just a critical, critical issue that can’t be avoided for this generation of executives.
And as we think about the future of work, we think this whole idea around any racist leadership and more inclusive leadership is going to be a core capability. My generation of leaders wouldn’t have studied this in business school, but there’s starting to emerge more work where this next generation of leaders are going to be exposed to these kinds of concepts. And I think the leaders that are going to be the most effective are going to be the most proficient at this skillset.
ALISON BEARD: We’ve talked about some success stories, but as you see people working on this, what are some of the biggest challenges that they’re running up against? Where are the DEI efforts going wrong or falling flat or seeing growing pains?
JAMES WHITE: I think the challenges sit in places where there is really not the leadership at the top of the organization. Again, if you look at 2020 as a moment in time, there were hundreds of statements from companies. And I think as I go back and look at the statements versus the real work, there’s a lot of distance between the commitments and what really has happened on the ground. I think the places where there is more progress in significant momentum forward are the places where there is solid leadership from the CEO and significant work around process and systems and there’s action plans, and there’s reporting, and there’s transparency.
Where people just drop in incremental training on an individual basis, those end up being just events and really very little progress is made. So we’re really focused on the system and process changes, the policy changes, and then there needs to be real change in terms of representation. An example we give in the book is at Medallia, the CEO, Leslie Stretch and his leadership team made a commitment to change the representation of blacks at Medallia, stood at 1% in 2020 and they had a commitment over four years to take that percentage of representation to 13% and they-
ALISON BEARD: That’s a big jump in four years.
JAMES WHITE: And they incentivize themselves, they put 100% of their equity compensation at risk for that leadership team. So over the course of the first two years, they moved from 1% to 7% and this is in the technology space. And I think this really proves a couple points, one, the CEO and the management team were committed. Two, they put their own financial gain at risk around this work. And three that if we focus on this as a priority like we do everything else in business, we can move the needle and I’d love to see more companies take that kind of commitment.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. At a time when the country does seem so politically divided, and I think we see a bit of this play out in Europe as well with anti-immigrant sentiment, for example, how do you square those two countervailing forces? On the one side, what seems like an increase in racist sentiment while at the same time we’re seeing progress in workplaces. Is that what you’re talking about that Corporate America can take the lead?
JAMES WHITE: Absolutely. I just think anytime when you have great potential change there’s always pushback. And I think we’re at that moment in time and what we hope to do with this book is to start the conversation, be a catalyst for change, but if we think about just the US marketplace and just the demographic changes, the new generations that are in the workforce, the change is actually coming and the companies and management teams that get this are going to be advantaged.
The great resignation at the better companies is not the same as the great resignation at companies that have terrible cultures that don’t create environments and spaces for everybody to make their best contribution. And I think you’re going to see the dichotomy, over the next decade, of company’s capacity to access talent. And then I think consumers as well are voting with their feet.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And Krista, we are at a moment when there seem to be many different crises, we’re perhaps emerging from the pandemic, the younger generation cares passionately about fighting climate change and protecting the environment, DEI is a big issue. How do you see younger leaders as well as senior executives balancing all of these priorities? Is there a danger that DEI slips to third or fourth when all of that other stuff is going on too?
KRISTA WHITE: I think that when DEI and anti-racism is built into the fabric of your company, that’s when it permeates through everything. And we’ve seen this time and time again, of the culture and DEI goals sinking from must have to nice to have. But one of the things we talk about in the closing chapter of the book is setting up a new paradigm where when you’re within this paradigm of anti-racism, a lot of things fall within that. So climate change has a huge effect disproportionately on people of color especially indigenous people. So when you’re looking an anti-racist lens, climate change and sustainability is going to naturally follow.
The pandemic and those challenges, again, disproportionately affects communities of color. I’m just saying that all those things come together when you’re looking through a certain paradigm and I won’t say it’s not difficult to manage all the different crises that we’re dealing with, but they are all so connected that I’m seeing folks really take on a multi-pronged approach and everyone has to set their own, what their mission and vision and values are and approach everything from that place and keep going back to that.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And James, what’s your wish for corporate America or global business? What do you want it to look like in five years time, in 20 years time?
JAMES WHITE: I’m actually hopeful that we all embrace this anti-racist approach to Corporate America. I think if we, to the point that Krista made, can enable that we will have a form of capitalism and business that is more thoughtful, that is more conscious, and we create environments and spaces where really everyone can bring their best selves into the workforce. This is a journey around purpose in any companies that proclaim to be purpose and mission driven. This work will be really foundational to the future. And I’m hopeful if we look out 10 or 20 or 30 years, that the conversation that we must have today is unnecessary sometime into the future.
ALISON BEARD: That would be so great. I just got chills. Well, thank you so much. That’s a terrific book. I really enjoyed talking with you about these issues. Appreciate having you on the show.
JAMES WHITE: Alison, we’re grateful. Thanks for having us on.
KRISTA WHITE: Yes. Thanks for having us.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Krista White and James White. Together they wrote the book, Anti-racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World, and the HBR article, How to Build an Anti-racist Company.
For another conversation about how US business culture needs to change, listen to our interview with Chad Sanders, that’s episode 782 titled, What Black Leaders Bring to the Table. This episode was produced by Mary Dew. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.