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As President of the Americas, Tony Ward leads Xero’s businesses in the United States and Canada.
I think it’s a good bet that two things dawned on thousands of business leaders in the days following the killing of George Floyd. First, sitting still wasn’t an option. Second, knowing what to do wasn’t entirely obvious — because they understood they were operating with blind spots on issues of racial bias.
If that’s right, I’m one of them. For me, the realizations went like this: I had an immediate desire to respond and do that genuinely and appropriately on behalf of our employees. They look to me to understand what we (and I) stand for; for a demonstration of our core beliefs; and for evidence of what we value and what we will never tolerate.
And then, in the next nanosecond, came uncertainty. I wondered whether my instincts would produce something that might come across as incomplete or tone deaf, because by virtue of the color of my skin, I was immunized at birth against the grinding consequences of systemic racial discrimination.
So how can leaders, whether in financial services or not, find the right approach? Below I’ll share what our accounting software company did, in the hopes this can give you some ideas as you chart the path forward for your own business.
In the days following the death of Mr. Floyd, we joined with scores of American businesses making public statements. We then opened a relationship with one of America’s foremost authorities on diversity and inclusion, Dr. Tony Byers, who facilitated a listening session attended by the vast majority of our workforce in the Americas. I can tell you that it was raw and revealing and a seminal moment in my own understanding and personal development.
That exchange led to what feels like a framework for the path forward:
• Acknowledge and genuinely understand the issue. Conversations precede solutions.
• Affirm the issue, openly, nondefensively, without limits or qualifications.
• Act. Decisions on how to set and sustain build the right kind of culture. For me personally, the process includes using this point in time to effect something permanent — the no-turning-back moment on the issue of racial bias, overt or unconscious.
And a fourth “A” — Awareness about the reality of privilege. White and male are the leading traits of privilege in our society. People benefit from the privilege of education, family wealth, having a stable upbringing, their sexual orientation or being born neurotypical. We must continuously “check our own privilege,” use it for good and advocate for those not afforded the same advantages.
What’s a target to aim for? Below is what we use, an approach shaped by a set of diversity and inclusion principles we formalized several years ago. These need to be continuously inspected, practiced, enforced and made the living reality of every person in your business:
• A place where every individual is free, and expected, to max out their individual potential and receive the attendant rewards, recognition and responsibilities.
• A culture that is diverse, fair, safe, open and inclusive; that seeks, respects and protects diversity in all its forms, those that are visible and invisible, including diversity of background, culture and thought.
• And at the most elemental level, businesses are in relentless pursuit of market leadership and the delivery of distinct value to their customers. Being human and being a champion for diversity and inclusion in the broader community is fundamental to those objectives.
Being that kind of company means diversity is required, but not sufficient. Actual inclusion is the point. And the power of inclusion is unlocked when everyone in your company intentionally harnesses and applies their differences to drive progress. A focus on the importance of inclusion—as distinct from diversity—is at the heart of this approach.
As a global company, we also know that progress relies on inclusive leaders stepping up and responding to the diversity priorities of their specific regions and teams. Inclusive leadership also involves examining our own weaknesses and areas for learning.
I won’t wear anyone out with studies and statistics. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re already well-versed in the data that affirms that more diverse organizations are higher performing. But for the record, and perhaps for those whose decision-making process is more data-intensive than values-based:
• Research by Boston Consulting Group found companies with more diverse management teams generate 19% higher revenue than their competitors.
• According to McKinsey, racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to see returns above their industry’s median.
• And Glassdoor reported that 67% of job seekers identify workforce diversity as an important factor in their evaluation of competing job offers.
I appreciate, respect and agree with the data findings. I also believe that being a good human becomes its own source of competitive advantage. Dealing with people openly, honestly and fairly creates its own kind of value, in life and in business.
The unmissable conclusion is that there are documented business reasons to foster a diverse, inclusive workforce and culture, and there are obvious human reasons to be that kind of business. And I’m not sure there’s any point in differentiating or prioritizing them.
Being human is inherently good for business. On the specific issue of racial bias, business leaders are expected to lead. We are being called by these times, by the people we employ, the markets we serve and the communities that support our operations to recognize this moment, understand the issues and create a permanent change.
Forbes Finance Council is an invitation-only organization for executives in successful accounting, financial planning and wealth management firms. Do I qualify?