Confronting Systemic Racism Starts from the Top

Seven ways to combat racism, from Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO Korn Ferry.

"I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."

Over the last few days, I have reflected on this quotation by Edward Everett Hale, a 19th century social reformer and minister. It was sent to me several weeks ago by an executive, but it has taken on new meaning for me over the last two weeks. I’ve taped it to my computer screen and look at it multiple times a day. And I’ve been asking myself: What is the something I can do? What is the something all CEOs can do? What actions can we take?

Confronting systemic racism across America and in other parts of the world requires far more than a pledge, writing a check, or issuing a statement. That’s a start, but it really takes understanding, empathy, honesty, love—and then action.

Like all of you, I am deeply saddened by the senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others before them. Inexcusable and painful. My heart goes out to everyone during these times, particularly those who have personally experienced racial inequality in their own lives and in the lives of their family and friends. 

We have been hosting video townhalls and webinars on race, one of which was an external webinar last Thursday entitled, “Hear Me.” I joined four Black professionals from three generations from our Diversity and Inclusion business who consult with companies on driving positive change. They shared personal stories of confronting racism in their lives. 

Pain, anger, rage, frustration, exhaustion…

These words were voiced repeatedly by my colleagues. I found it heartbreaking to listen to these stories of the Black experience, knowing that colleagues I work with closely and their families continue to encounter racism, prejudice, fear, and injustice.

I had to ask myself: What can I as a leader do about it?

Leadership is inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become reality. Leadership is never about you, but it starts with you—you can never improve a team or an organization unless you first improve yourself. When I think of “Leadership,” I’ve always thought empower, not power. Except on this. 

Confronting systemic racism can’t be outsourced or delegated. This change must start from the top, with commitment and intentionality. Once leaders make it safe for others to speak, the ideas of how to affect change will bubble up from within. But then change and action must be driven top-down.

No one, I believe, is born to hate. Rather, I think it’s quite the opposite: we’re born to love. But over time, biases can form, even unconsciously. No one wants to admit this, but everyone has biases to some degree. Unless we become aware and have the courage to confront our biases, we will be at risk of staying silent and perpetuating the problem. This is a time for honesty and action. Here are some imperfect thoughts from an imperfect CEO:

  1. It starts with you. My thinking continues to evolve, even from what I thought three weeks ago. Unless business leaders make this personal, change will not happen. Leaders have the voice, platform, and influence to ignite the kind of dialogue that leads to meaningful change. Systemic racism is one of the most complicated and complex problems imaginable, but it still requires an action plan—that starts with commitment and action from the top.
  2. Revisit purpose. Purpose comes next. For each of us, this goes to the quote, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” For organizations, it is, “Why do we exist? Why are we in business?”
  3. Put values into action. Values need to guide every decision and our behavior—especially when no one is looking. The problem, however, is people are often unclear about the values—are they the same as the mission, the purpose, the culture? I can remember attending a board meeting where a senior executive was asked to explain his company’s values, and he couldn’t do it. Values aren’t just words; they’re the underpinning of an organization. Today presents a perfect opportunity to reassess how values and purpose come alive in an organization.
  4. Step on the glass. The difference between hearing and listening is comprehension. We need to be vulnerable and empathetic. Don’t just react to the emotionality of the words—focus instead on understanding and owning the context and intent behind them. The fact is, when it comes to conversations about race, people feel like they’re walking on glass. My view is that the glass has already been broken—so step on it and have direct conversations. If your intentions are good and you want to make a positive impact, even if you don’t use the right word, trust that others will correct you—and embrace that feedback when they do. Better to say something and risk making a mistake than stay silent, which implies complicity.
  5. Hear with empathy. Action starts with empathy for each other and our experiences. “He’s a six-foot-eleven basketball player, baby of the family. Every time he goes out, we worry.” Mike Hyter, a Black leader in our firm, told this story about his youngest son. When Ace was 13, and Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, “that was the first time we actually had to sit down and speak to our son about the relationship between how some people will define you by your color.” Since then, it’s a conversation Mike and his wife have two or three times a year with Ace, now a rising senior who has been home since his college campus closed. Mike continued: “My wife sent an email to the neighborhood watch, basically letting people know that our son is a college student. He is at home. He’s an athlete. He tends to jog and work out. She attached a picture so that people in the neighborhood would know who he was. Because she was afraid.” As a parent of five children, I have my own concerns for their safety and well-being. Yet, I do not know what it’s like to have that worry. When I listen to Mike and other colleagues, though, I can only try to imagine what it would feel like.
  6. Connect. It starts with our networks and personal lives—who are our friends? Who are the people in our circle of interaction and support?
  7. Hire. Develop. Promote. Sponsor. It’s no secret what will help improve both gender equality and racial equality in the workforce, as our Women CEOs Speak research and our Black P&L Leader research suggest. For leaders of color in particular, what’s needed are more P&L operating roles. No one knows their true potential, however, unless they’re given opportunities. We have control over who we hire, who we develop, and who we promote. To provide equality of opportunity, leaders must activate real and tangible sponsorship. Sponsors are different from mentors, who are best thought of as someone who takes others under their wings and helps them learn. Sponsors are someone higher up in the organization who can champion others to make the case for why this person should be the one who gets the assignment or promotion. In our Black P&L Leader study, 86% said sponsors were essential to their professional growth, which is very similar to the results of our female leader study.

Everywhere we look, there are questions, but few answers. Yet we know that talk won’t solve anything without action. This brings us back to the closing line of Hale’s quotation: 

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

What is the something we can do?

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