Creating a Collective Recovery

We are grappling with two pandemics—one hopefully short-lived and another whose awful roots date back 400 years.

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The weeks have passed, but the feelings for many are still raw, both from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others as well as from the protests that followed. Without a doubt, those events did spark a good share of companies to send out messages of support to African Americans and other people of color. Many started dialogues internally about race relations, conceding that along with the police and other public institutions, the corporate world too has long been tilted, consciously or otherwise, against people of color. I suspect there are many Black executives who now have been made their firms’ chief diversity officers, with or without the formal title.

As time passes, however, I worry that this key moment may fade from the spotlight. After all, we are grappling with two pandemics—one that is hopefully short-lived and another whose awful roots date back 400 years. These two pandemics—COVID-19 and systemic racism—have taken the lives of so many and thrown millions out of work. I know there are CEOs and board directors out there who feel they have to focus on getting their businesses back to normal. The problem is that, historically, “normal” has meant relying on a system that limits opportunities for Black people in all facets of life.

But that’s the thing about these unprecedented times we’re in. There is no going back to normal, and definitely not what normal looked like in 2019. For starters, there will be far more people working remotely and far fewer people traveling. Those two factors alone will impact revenues and costs for nearly every industry. How could any CEO justify to stakeholders that her organization doesn’t have to make any changes to its supply chain? What board director would consider it OK for his organization’s senior leadership to say revenues will resume to 2019 levels—and call 2020 “an outlier”?

I’d argue that there is no better time than now to do the heavy lifting on making an organization more diverse and inclusive. Organizations are going to need their top teams to do some of their best work as they reimagine business models, create new products, and establish connections with new groups of customers. They’re going to be more effective at all of that if their top teams don’t all look, sound, and think alike. Data shows that companies with ethnically diverse executive teams are 70 percent more likely to capture new markets than their less-diverse peers and generate 38 percent more in revenue from innovative products and services.

In fact, one of the biggest positive changes a company can make after COVID-19 is becoming more diverse and inclusive. Inclusive leaders give their employees permission to challenge the status quo because those are the types of employees who can inspire innovation. And a major part of being an inclusive leader is being an effective advocate for diversity, championing efforts to add more people of color, women, and other underrepresented groups into the organization—and not just at entry levels.

For this change to happen, it has to be driven by the power source: that’s CEOs, board directors, investment banks, family offices, private equity, and venture capital. Those are seats that Black people, for the most part, don’t hold. In 2020, there are only four Black CEOs leading Fortune 500 firms. Minorities make up less than 20 percent of board directors at large US firms. Committing resources to diversity training isn’t enough, either. Companies have spent billions on that over the last two decades, and the leadership needle hasn’t moved much.

As awful as COVID-19 and systemic racism are, they both can be catalysts for positive change in the corporate world. Call it a “collective recovery.” Employees of all ages, colors, and backgrounds are asking to make things better. Leaders are already demanding accountability of themselves to remodel their organizations after the pandemic for the better. Making those organizations more diverse and inclusive should be part of the playbook. And if it is not, I would challenge any leader to show me the business case for the continued, systemic lack of diversity.