From One White Male Leader to Another, Anti-Racism is a Core Leadership Competency
With my heart pounding out of my chest and feeling an urge to vomit, I raised my hand and then watched as the microphone was tossed across the cavernous room towards me. There I was, shakily holding one of those foam box microphones and standing in a room of some of the most recognized CEOs and companies in the U.S. I then opened my mouth hoping audible words would form as I nervously said that I didn’t think the Conscious Capitalism movement would be sustainable if it didn’t confront capitalism’s role in perpetuating racism and oppression.
Last October, I had the privilege of attending the Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit. And I do mean privilege, as I was in a room with the leaders of well-known organizations that I had studied, visited, and admired for years; that I looked up to in the way that they approached building workplaces where people could thrive. As I sat there, I was struck with a stark realization that has been nearly impossible for me to shake even a year on.
I was surrounded by the leaders of companies and industries; leaders who thousands of others look to for guidance on building organizational culture “the right way.” And yet there was a lack of demonstrated understanding around the privilege we all carried with us simply by being in that space and, by extension, the impact of decisions made in service of building that organizational culture. There was a patriarchal and white savior sentiment that imbued many of the discussions, probably not surprising given there were so many all-male panels and all-white panels throughout the convening.
In the well-meaning leaders I was surrounded by in that room, I recognized a belief that a space can be apolitical and that their companies or organizations can be apolitical. In truth, nothing is apolitical. When we white people try to make spaces feel apolitical to us, they’re more likely to be unwelcoming at best and probably are racist and oppressive.
Having been raised and surrounded by deeply caring and well-meaning white people, I recognized these leaders’ behavior and views in myself. My loving Lutheran pastor dad and dental office administrator mom raised me to do unto others as I would have them do unto me. By the Protestant work ethic. And that we’re all created equal in God’s eyes. Later in life, I would use those as guides — along with doing good by being good and all boats rise together — on a quest to create great places to work. But despite the best efforts of the kind and generous people who raised me, and the moral compass they instilled in me, this ethic isn’t enough.
This isn’t meant to be an indictment of the Conscious Capitalism gathering or organization. Or, maybe it is, but the criticism is truly coming from a friendly and caring place. For the record, I don’t believe *all* white male panels are necessarily a bad thing in rare cases. For example, I would’ve loved an all-white-male panel, in front of this predominantly white male audience, discussing the very subject of discovering one’s privilege and what their journey in anti-racism has looked like for them and their organizations.
When I left that convening I carried with me a question: Given what I had seen and heard, what was I going to do about it?
I had plenty of notes to write a scathing critique of the gathering. But even if my writing chops could support it, that wouldn’t be useful and didn’t sit quite right with me as a response to the experience. A critique might've been cathartic for a brief moment but certainly not helpful. Nor would it reflect that I, too, unconsciously replicated patriarchy, racism, and white saviorism. It also wouldn’t have addressed the fact that I met a handful of people at the convening who also saw it as a genuine problem that needed to be addressed if the larger movement were to be successful.
I could’ve kept my mouth shut and just walked away. I have enough to fill my day without adding more to it. But to remain silent and not own up the opportunity I was given by being in that room for a conversation with sincerely committed leaders would have been to perpetuate those very systems of power and oppression. So, I conveyed my concerns to Alexander McCobin—the CEO of Conscious Capitalist—and his team, as well as the others I met who shared similar concerns.
Those conversations lead to other connections and deeper conversations about what might be a way forward. And this is why I’m so heartened to have an opportunity to engage with my community around racism, leadership, and whiteness. On September 29, I’m honored to be a white male voice sharing about my journey as part of an all-white male panel. I’m heartened to have this opportunity to exchange experiences with fellow white colleagues so we can understand more about this work and how our individual and collective journeys unfold.
One Journey Towards Anti-Racism & The Benefit of Hindsight
White male leaders need to develop a true understanding of how racism and oppression function in their work and build anti-racism into the DNA of our work and our workplaces.
Leadership is about creating healthy, open environments for our teams to thrive personally and professionally. It is about holding complicated, conflicting truths at the same time and finding a way forward. OSHA has a stipulation where employers are required to create workplaces free from recognized hazards. What if we treated the hazard and harm of racism and oppression with the same level of care and scrutiny that we treat live wires, corrosive chemicals, and heavy machinery? Beyond that, what if we considered that racism might not just be a live wire but might be an entire factory constructed of asbestos? How can we move ahead knowing that racism is not just a bug, but a feature?
My personal journey in anti-racism began relatively recently in life. And it is intertwined with my professional journey and that of Fractured Atlas, the organization that I currently help lead. For years, Fractured Atlas put forward a commitment to diversify our staff, yet year after year we failed to make any progress towards achieving that goal. We set this initial goal to diversify staff — in every sense of the word — so that we would reflect the customer base we hoped to serve. Over the years as we delved into research on high-performing teams, we recognized that a truly diverse team had a higher ceiling for performance. A diverse team wasn’t just about attracting more customers, it was about changing how we approached our work and operations. This realization, in turn, led to a deeper exploration of what diversity actually means, and how we’d need to change more than just where we posted jobs if we were truly committed to this goal.
With the benefit of hindsight it’s easier to see some of the likely reasons as to why we weren’t initially successful at the goal of diversifying our staff. We were focused on where to post the job listings to attract more diverse candidates and not initially on examining the components of our hiring process and how they might hinder those efforts. We were excited about emulating some of the then-attractive components of a Google or Zappos or Netflix workplace – drinking together in the office, book clubs and co-learning, 5K fun runs – without first asking ourselves if these cultural elements were inclusive of everyone who wanted to work with us and the unique culture we ultimately wished to create for Fractured Atlas. We weren’t making the right kinds of efforts and as a result, our organization remained very white for a long period of time.
In 2013, what ultimately helped jumpstart our organizational efforts towards becoming an anti-racist organization was when two mid-level staff members used their annual professional development stipend to attend an Undoing Racism workshop by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. After the workshop, they returned with an idea about how that experience might help Fractured Atlas finally make meaningful progress towards our perennially-stated diversity goal. Their experience coincided with even more staff members regularly asking our CEO questions during staff meetings about why he felt like we weren’t making progress on our diversity commitment. This in turn prompted real-time, challenging conversations in a way that everyone could see, on a regular basis, how our early efforts were unfolding. Plenty of companies talk about how “good ideas can come from anywhere in the organization.” Few have leaders and founders who listen deeply to those ideas — especially when they challenge the status quo and could fundamentally alter the institution — and stay engaged and supportive of those efforts. (To be clear, I’m not the founder of Fractured Atlas, nor was I a co-CEO at that time.)
That moment after the Undoing Racism workshop introduced us — and me — to frameworks like the Continuum on Becoming an Anti-Racist Multicultural Organization. For the first time I saw how our organizational traits aligned with others on the continuum, and that prompted a challenging and uncomfortable realization. When you map your organization along the continuum, and hear from people around the organization about where they think it lands, it can be sobering to all of the great work you think you’ve been doing. But, when you sit with how your organization is structured and operates, you start to realize where and how it can and needs to change.
Knowing what I now knew about the machinations of racism both structurally and personally, what was I going to do about it? How was I going to approach my life and work differently? In this early exploration, a switch flipped for me. And once that switch flipped for me, there was no going back. I realized the way that I had been approaching my work of helping create great places to work, was fraught if it didn’t include an anti-racism lens through which to evaluate it. In all of this, I had unknowingly begun the lifelong work towards anti-racism.
Anti-Racism is a Necessary Component of Leadership
We are at a moment where many white leaders are starting to see for the first time in their lives how racism and systems of oppression have been built into the very organizations we lead, often at the DNA level. For leaders, understanding racism and oppression and its impacts on our work has now moved to the top of the list as a core leadership competency. Why?
If you’re not actively engaged in anti-racist work personally and internally, how can you and your organization understand the nuances of racial and social justice issues that are needed today? At its core, this probably boils down to leading by example. How are we supposed to engage in challenging conversations around racism in our organizations if we don’t understand the nuances of how and why racism shows up in our workplaces? If we don’t understand it first, how can we help set strategy and direction for the organization in a way that won’t inadvertently undermine the work? If we, particularly we white men, are not on this journey and doing the challenging work of understanding how things like white privilege, white fragility, and the characteristics of white supremacy culture show up in our lives and workplaces, we are shirking a core responsibility and should rightfully be left behind as the world moves on beyond us. It’s impossible to have an organization or an institution oriented towards social justice and equity without an internal dedication to those same values for its workers.
When leaders of organizations published Black Lives Matter statements of solidarity, I don’t think they realized that they had just embarked on a very long journey that will never fully be completed. I certainly didn’t fully understand that when I attended my first Undoing Racism workshop.
The work isn't going to fit neatly into Q3 OKRs. It isn't going to be solved simply by hiring a Chief Diversity Officer or outsourced to a task force if leaders are sincere in their commitment. (In fact, when considering these as stand-alone initiatives and the concept of moral self-licensing, it makes it even less like that organizations will realize true change.) Of course, if these organizations just published solidarity statements to keep up with the cultural moment rather than to commit to real change, they will face a reckoning from employees and customers and community. Sadly, one need only search the news for “racism in companies” to find countless examples of this in real life.
Building a Better Wheel
There’s a lot of talk about fostering innovation in the workplace, whether that be to create solid bike tires or adaptable operational models in the COVID era. What many people don’t realize is that the journey to become an anti-racist organization is itself an exercise in innovation. You’re creating something new — and in most cases unique — from systems and structures that were built for a few to succeed into ones where everyone can thrive.
Much like other innovation examples, anti-racist work isn’t linear. It is less like climbing a ladder and more like climbing, slipping, and finding new routes. I feel this oftentimes in my own work as I meditate on the policies, procedures, and work culture that I helped create and nurture. In many cases, I actually wrote those policies and procedures and felt excited about how they helped craft a work environment where I thought everyone could thrive. When it’s pointed out that this thing or that thing might only truly work for a certain group while excluding others — think the myriad issues surrounding virtual work arrangements that are coming up right now due to COVID — an inner struggle erupts as I sit with the feelings of discomfort to understand “the why” of that feeling. It’s only after doing that work that I’m able to iterate towards collective action.
When looking to craft new ways of working and operating, one of my defaults is to look to companies who are already doing something similar to what I’m interested in developing. Then, I leverage those learnings to inform the approaches we’re using in my own organization, iterating towards a future that fits *us,* what we want to be, and how we want to work. This is what initially led me to so many of the companies in the Conscious Capitalism movement. These are companies who are pushing the edge of what workplaces can look and feel like in service of a purpose higher than the bottom line.
In a similar vein, when I began my journey in anti-racism, I asked a facilitator if they could point me towards examples of companies who were similar to us and doing the work at an organizational level. Their brief reply has stayed with me to this day: “There aren’t any, but people certainly will be watching what Fractured Atlas does.” This is why I’ve felt that part of my own journey required me to document and share back — imperfect though it is — what that journey, and that of our organization, has looked like.
In the past, as I’ve shared parts of our journey towards becoming an anti-racist organization, I’ve been met with “why” questions. Why would you focus on that, it seems out of scope for the work you do? Amidst COVID and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of color, and the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent social revolution, those questions have interestingly more often changed to “how?” People are asking me fewer "why is this work important" and more "how do we actually do this in our organizations?"
Advice for Leaders Beginning Anti-Racist Work?
I’ve learned a few things from colleagues and friends while on this journey that might be helpful to others. I humbly offer some thoughts here.
The first is to be kind to yourself. Especially now while we’re living in uncertain times amidst a global pandemic and social revolution. You didn’t create racism and neither did I. “Being kind to yourself" doesn’t mean letting ourselves off the hook for working to right wrongs. We white people, and in particular white male leaders, have benefitted from these systems and structures so much that we don’t even realize they exist in most cases. And when we do see them, we often reflexively rationalize and reason our way back to comfort. We have an obligation to engage deeply and meaningfully in the work to undo systems of racism and oppression starting inside of our own organizations.
We will all make mistakes. Heck, you're already making those mistakes you fear. You’re making them and just don’t realize it. The difference is as we move along this journey we begin to recognize and understand why and when these “mistakes'' occur. Then we can sincerely apologize when we inflict harm without expecting anything in return.
Relatedly, the fear of not “getting it right,” often leads us to workshop and burnish plans and ideas *far* past the stage when they should have shipped. This work doesn’t require an initial 50-page, 25-point strategic plan that’s been workshopped for 18 months. You just need to commit to the work and start doing it. This journey is more like a cross-country roadtrip where you decide the path en route. You map from one town to the next as the spirit, and detours, move you directionally towards the other coast, rather than taking I-90 the entire way.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Ground your approach in experimentation and iteration rather than in it being perfect. You’re not going to get this “right” from day one, or ever really. Frame the commitment to this work as solid and unwavering while the approaches remain fluid. We’re going to start with this to see what works and what doesn’t. If something isn’t helpful we’ll iterate. If an approach is helpful, we’ll double down.
Don’t get so caught up in planning and organizing that you overlook opportunities for immediate action. While some changes will require organizational backing, a multitude more won’t. Encourage staff to make decisions to show up differently starting today. Do this by focusing people on their agency in four main categories: Language, Policy, Practice, and Program. Some changes start as singular efforts and then expand to the rest of the team. (At Fractured Atlas, including our pronouns in email signatures is an example of this.) Framing it around agency and areas of influence allows people to see how they can connect to the work and include their voice in the direction, and is a much more likely approach to ensure the work becomes a part of your organization’s DNA.
And this last one might sound simplistic, but book clubs can be a great source of the learning that is foundational to being able to do the work. Start a senior leadership team one. Might I recommend Ijeoma Oluo’s powerful So You Want to Talk About Race to get started? Podcasts more your thing? Try the 14-part podcast Seeing White by Scene On Radio with an accompanying study guide. Or check out the list of resources we recommend for white people to learn and talk about race.
Anti-Racism as a Lifelong, Collective Journey
My lifelong journey in anti-racism is closer to its beginning than to its end. (Although having just said that I’m now keeping a keener eye out for live wires, corrosive chemicals, and heavy machinery.) Each day I add more books and articles and podcasts than I’ll ever be able to finish. Each day I encounter new situations that challenge my default way of being. I find more people to admire and learn from who have been doing the work for decades. At this point, if I had to sketch what the journey has felt like thus far, one of those wildly busy stock market graphs feels fairly accurate.
There have been gains and losses, sharp turns, and unexpected “wins.” But I’ve made this commitment to myself and those I serve and am accountable to show up every day, continue my own learning and growth, try to minimize the harm that my actions might inadvertently cause, apologize quickly when I misstep, be kind to myself and others as we’re all struggling and at different places on this journey, and approach it all in a way that reflects my commitment to my colleagues, and my community.
If you want to learn more about our journey in anti-racism at Fractured Atlas and some specific things we’ve done, perhaps join me for the Conscious Capitalism chat, or connect to discuss how we might work together, please ping me.
Special thanks to my Fractured Atlas coworkers, past and present, who I have learned so much from while on this journey. And as it relates to this specific piece: Nina Berman, Nicola Carpenter, Courtney Harge, and Lauren Ruffin helped me make sense of my thoughts in a way that resulted in a far more coherent piece than when I sent them the initial draft. Thank you!
About Tim Cynova
Tim wears a multitude of hats, all in service of creating anti-racist workplaces where people can thrive. He currently is co-CEO of Fractured Atlas (an entirely virtual organization with staff spread across multiple states and countries) and a Principal of the consulting group Work. Shouldn't. Suck. He serves on the faculty of Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and The New School teaching courses in People-Centric Organizational Design; he's a trained mediator, and a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). Earlier in his career, Tim was the Executive Director of The Parsons Dance Company and of High 5 Tickets to the Arts in New York City, had a memorable stint with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was a one-time classical trombonist, musicologist, and for five years in his youth he delivered newspapers for the Evansville, Indiana Courier-Press. Also, during a particularly slow summer, he bicycled 3,902 miles across the United States.