How To Be A Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leader: An Interview with Expert Jennifer Brown
by Kristin Bentley
Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, diversity and inclusion consultant, best-selling author. As the founder, president and CEO of New York City-based Jennifer Brown Consulting, she is responsible for designing workplace strategies that has been implemented by some of the largest companies and nonprofits in the world.
Her bestselling book, Inclusion: Diversity, The New Workplace and The Will to Change, creates the case for leaders to embrace the opportunity that diversity represents, for their own growth and for the success of their organizations. Jennifer is also the host of a popular weekly podcast, The Will to Change, which uncovers true stories of diversity and inclusion.
As a successful LGBT business owner, Jennifer has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, CBS, and many more. She is an expert in her field and some of her clients include Google, Coca-Cola, Aetna, The New York Times, Scholastic, Starbucks, Verizon and Hilton.
To debut the launch of her second book, I had the opportunity to have Jennifer share with us how leaders create an environment based on inclusivity and how to implement an open-door policy that is sure to increase productivity.
KB: Professional training on diversity and inclusion is necessary to bring attention to unconscious biases, but it’s essential to then receive the tools necessary to implement this needed change. Your newly published second book, How To Be An Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive, does just that. Congratulations on its release!
JB: Thank you! And that’s right, my hypothesis is that everyone is overwhelmed. This diversity thing is really hard to understand if you’re not in a diverse community, there is a real lack of familiarity with these issues. We’re sitting here frustrated with the pace of change, but I think the truer statement is that many people don’t even know there’s a problem. I know that may seem insane in the world we live in. I pay attention to it all day long because that’s what I do professionally, but for most people it’s just not on their radar. Often times if you’re not a member of a diverse community, you’re unaware of what's going on and how they’re being affected.
KB: You’ve said our workplaces must evolve with society. For this reason, evolutionary change is absolutely vital to a company’s success and where it is initiated matters too. Could you elaborate a little more on this?
JB: Sometimes change starts and is driven from the top, and this is viewed as the optimal scenario. This accountability, visibility and power really matters in terms of driving change that sticks. The sponsorship and executive support of that initiative is critical, you can’t make a move without it. No one likes change and when there is resistance all eyes need to have someone to look to who is not backing down, which is important when it comes to diversity and embracing inclusion. Sometimes that resistance is subtle and appears in the form of apathy, or it can just not be taken seriously enough. But when the top is driving it, change becomes inevitable.
It seems the most resistance we face is located in the middle of an organization. In consulting we call it the “frozen middle.” Sometimes it’s a matter of it being too conceptual and not concrete enough, or sometimes it’s not taken as a priority when other professional demands receive precedence. The nature of managing in the middle of an organization tends to be short-term and outcome-focused.
Being an inclusive leader is something that is more of a commitment and journey with many forks in the road. There are four phases that I lay out in my new book, which are unaware, aware, active to advocate, which takes the conceptual argument and turns it into an active goal.
KB: One of the key parts of leading, you say, is to lead and ask the tough questions because our actions and inactions are there for all to see. So powerful. What are some examples of this?
JB: I always say that silence speaks volumes, especially when you’re in a position of visibility and influence, and all eyes are looking to you, but you remain silent. It’s read by employees, stakeholders, and even customers that it’s not important, and that can actually hurt the level of relationship and engagement for many. Especially for those who are considered at-risk employees.
Companies often think they can’t talk about things, even when the country is left in shock such as the 2016 Pulse nightclub and recent El Paso shootings. It’s very distracting for employees when you’re dealing with any kind of traumatic news. During these times, many are waiting to see if it’s important enough to be acknowledged by leaders and to see how they deal with it, especially those communities who are directly affected. I think addressing these tragedies as a company is sometimes necessary. It shows that you’re not denying them and are instead using them as an opportunity to show that your business has empathy and acknowledges a world where certain people are still targeted.
Actions like these do make employees feel seen and heard. It also opens the door for conversation about our identities and bringing our full selves to work. The outside world is not something we can keep outside anymore. It’s walking around in our hallways every day.
How do we then make it more comfortable and normalize the discussion about our differences, identities and communities, and how we’re feeling safe in the world. These are deep conversations and every employee to some extent is carrying this around.
KB: So, for leaders to step outside of their comfort zones and ask those clarifying questions may be key. How do you suggest they educate themselves to be better prepared to assist their diverse employees?
JB: There’s so much fear around saying the wrong thing and wondering how to approach something if you do genuinely want to learn more. It’s tricky. I think leaders should be reading and doing some of the work on their own to understand some of these things. There’s a lot of information available to prepare them for the multicultural reality so they’re not leaning on others as much.
It’s great to have a seat at the table as a diverse representative, however, it’s a little unrealistic to expect people to be a spokesperson for an entire diverse community of people. It’s a fine balance, including people with diverse perspectives but also to not tokenize them. It’s recommended to follow the rule of three, so have at least three diverse representatives who can all equally share and represent that community.
KB: One of the things you often talk about is why people don’t speak up in the workplace. As a successful professional, you have also admitted to hiding your true authentic self for years. In your opinion, why do we fall into this state of fear, and how can business leaders help us step out of it?
Many of us are introverted, and aren’t going to show up and be the loudest voice. I think it’s harder for some of us just based on how bold and fearless we are by nature. But I also think that when you are the only one in the room and that’s what you notice, and then you also experience micro-aggressions from others, even as a confident person it does have an impact on you. This makes you begin to internalize things. You question whether you even belong there and wonder how much harder you have to work to feel as though you do.
Leaders often say they manage everyone the same, thinking they’re being equality-minded by saying that they don’t see difference. For a long time, people thought it was the right thing to say that they don’t see color. What we need to do is change our equality lens to an equity lens, which focuses on our individual value and worth. Equality is a great destination, but it isn’t as actionable.