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Thought Leadership

Ruth Simmons, Ron Williams, Lisa Osborne Ross, Sharon Crane, Roy Weathers

Having the Hard Conversations: Reflections for Juneteenth, Freedom Day

June 20, 2023

By Adam Bryant

In the fall of 2020, Rhonda Morris, the CHRO of Chevron, and I launched our interview series with prominent Black Leaders, “Leading in the B-Suite.” More than 50 interviews later, we remain committed to our goals for the series: to share the life stories and lessons of successful leaders, including the headwinds they’ve faced in their careers and the tailwinds that helped them navigate those challenges.

Conversations about race and racism can be uncomfortable. After the horrific murder of George Floyd in 2020, many organizations committed to having more discussions about race among their employees, and we hope those will continue. Through those conversations – with people allowing for grace on all sides – we will build empathy and compassion, which will, in turn, lead to action.

Below, we share a few excerpts from our interviews that are important reminders to keep the conversation going. We will certainly do our part, as we have a long list of people to be included in the series in the coming years.

Ruth Simmons

First, you have to be willing to listen. You have to engage and not preach. When they engage in a conversation, many people want to say, “Here’s what I think,” and that’s the end. That’s not a conversation. You have to be willing to hear difficult things if you’re going to break through a very difficult barrier between races. Listening is important, no matter what people say. And if you’re going to pick up your marbles and leave because somebody has said something offensive, it never works.

Saying something personal about somebody else is not constructive. It’s okay to express how you feel; others are not entitled to sanction you because you’re expressing how you feel. It’s not a bad idea to have people in a small group sign an agreement regarding the rules everyone will follow in the conversation. Any conversation about race has to begin with a common goal and try to establish a middle ground. What’s the point if you’re not doing that?

Ron Williams

I’ve found that it helps to move the conversation away from racism to actions that have racial consequences. No one thinks of themselves as racist, and yet people engage in actions every day that have adverse consequences on one group or another. For example, when you describe a job with a stereotypical definition of who will be successful in a role, you are creating a barrier to others because, most likely, the job will be filled by a White male. It’s really important to look at the consequences of actions.

It’s also important to give people the experience of what it’s like to be in a different culture. At Aetna, I would take members of my executive committee to a golf and tennis outing sponsored by Black Enterprise magazine. There were 300 Black corporate executives and a few non-Black executives. It was often their first time in an environment where the culture differed. The music was different. The humor was different. They were a fish out of water, and they didn’t understand that other people regularly went through that.

And there has to be a real demonstration of a belief in equality and equal opportunity. I’ve had some tough conversations with CEOs this year, and I sometimes tell them, “If you performed on revenue and earnings the same way you are performing on achieving a company that is reflective of the customers you serve, would you still have a job? Your results are miserable on this front, so if you, the board, and the company believe it’s important, why is this level of performance tolerated? It either says it’s unimportant or that you’re incompetent. You pick the answer.”

Lisa Osborne Ross

You can have that conversation when willing to give and receive grace. Part of the reason people are afraid to have that conversation is that they are inevitably going to say the wrong thing, something offensive. I have. I do. Sometimes, people are afraid to open their mouths because they worry they’ll get canceled for saying the wrong thing.

There are situations when I’m in a room afraid I will say the wrong thing. If I feel like that, I have to also give some grace to others who might be in the room and are afraid to say the wrong thing. What I mean by grace is allowing people to come to a place where they are, and if I say something if I use the wrong word, don’t cancel me. Call me out and tell me to address it.  And if you use the wrong word, I will do the same and show you grace.

I think that’s a large part of what’s happening in our country on this issue. The single most powerful thing that we can do to address racism in this country is to tell history in a truthful, unvarnished, objective manner. Part of the reason we are in such a bad place is that we don’t know our history, which has been so corrupted.

If we knew the true experience of people of color in this country and had honest discussions based on reality, we could get to a better place. But we’re taught things that are not true, and so now we’re spending all this time trying to undo that. Honest conversation and dialogue can get us to where we’re supposed to be. But it is a journey, and the strides need to be bigger.

Sharon Crane

Racism is a horrible conversation to have for both sides. People don’t want to deal with things that don’t have easy solutions. And everybody’s busy. Everyone is focused on themselves, and they don’t want to deal with it if it’s not related to and impacting them.

I also think it’s harder now because many people want to shorthand complex ideas to just a word or phrase. You can’t talk about race and solve race problems by talking about who’s woke and who’s not, critical race theory, and canceling people. People immediately shut down because they don’t want to hear it anymore. You lose an opportunity to have a conversation.

I don’t think you can solve things with just one word. People are so much more complex than that. Giving it time is the only way you’ll solve any complicated problem. You must work on it, have conversations and disagreements, and stay at the table, even when disagreeing.

I also think people have to be vulnerable, share their own experiences, and be honest, even if it’s uncomfortable. I don’t have the energy to do that all the time. But in the wake of George Floyd and other incidents, I shared what had happened to me recently in a meeting. I was driving in my town, and I accidentally cut someone off. I just didn’t see the person. They started honking at me, which was understandable.

Then he started following me close and kept honking. I thought, “This guy is crazy.” He kept honking and riding up behind me. He wouldn’t stop, and I finally pulled over, and he started running toward my car, screaming racial epithets. Luckily, he turned around, got back into his car, and sped off, still honking and yelling. My son was in the back seat, and I just tried to keep my composure because I didn’t want him to be scared.

I didn’t expect to tell this story at the meeting, but I wanted people to understand what can happen because the only reason that people are going to grapple with racism is if they hear about some of the horrible things that happen to people they know. Racism is not something that only happens to poor Black people in the South. It happens to all of us, including a Columbia law graduate like me. A lot of people told me it hit home for them. If people are willing to share vulnerable stories, that makes people want to help more than just batting around words.

Roy Weathers

It’s about being human. There are components of being human that make it challenging to talk about race, and there are components of being human that I believe can make it more comfortable to talk about race. It’s about finding the human moments and caring.

And you have to avoid becoming paralyzed by the goal of being perfect. It doesn’t matter which side of the conversation you’re on. After the killing of George Floyd, I got calls from people I hadn’t talked to in a long time. My White friends were calling to check-in. And with each one, I encouraged them not to just check in with me because they knew me. Make sure you take that caring nature to other folks of color who you may not know as well and don’t worry about being perfect.

We should be thoughtful and attentive to our words and how we engage people. We shouldn’t be careless or reckless, but this notion of being perfect stops us from talking. We’re in a once-in-a-generation moment of caring, awareness, interest, and curiosity. I often ask people to engage and to be curious. Ask questions. Share your perspective. We’re all human, so be human, and humans react to humanity from each other.

Work on increasing your personal culture dexterity—your ability to relate, connect, and be relatable to other people. Make it a thing worth perfecting, just like other parts of your life, because the ROI of learning more about individuals and increasing your comfort level is indescribable.

I spent two years as our Chief Diversity Officer and learned that most people rally around diversity from three perspectives: head, heart, and wallet. It’s either the head, as in, “What are the numbers? What are the metrics? What are we trying to do?” Or it’s heart: “It’s the right thing to do. Why do we need goals?” Or it’s about the wallet: “It’s important to my business and my brand.”

And what I say to people is, just pick one. If you pick two or all three, that would be great. But start with one. There’s work to do, so pick one, and then let’s get on with it.