Chief Member Heide Gardner, Chief Diversity Officer at Interpublic Group, shares how to lead systemic, sustainable change. Heide has led diversity, equity, and inclusion at Interpublic Group for over 16 years.

Q. As a leader, what first steps can you take to set your organization up for sustainable diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives?

Heide Gardner: There is no short answer. Sustainability starts with putting a DEI lens on all of your business processes — that's the systemic part. You need to reevaluate everything from your business goals to the implications of your strategy on your marketplace, the workplace, the community. This is intersectional work, and you can’t view your company as a social enterprise without interrogating all of the positive and negative impacts of your business processes on your team and customers.

Another essential step is committing to changing yourself. There is a tremendous cultural disconnect between people who want to have this racial conversation, and their beliefs and education about good business. Northern European, Anglo-Saxon, masculine values systems govern how business is done in America. In these paradigms, there’s a tension between the necessary ambiguity and complexity of conversations about race and DEI, and the prevalent notion that time is money, and decisiveness and action should be valued over everything else. That won’t work. Leaders who want to create sustainable change must interrogate their own assumptions about how work gets done, who is the ideal performer, what they trust. I worry that leaders in powerful places aren't sitting with this self-interrogation and ambiguity, they’re just plowing forward. They're going to be the same people in a few months when the headlines may fade. That will set their organization up for failure, not progress.

Third, we’re realizing that most organizational problems are about a breakdown of procedural justice, and how this influences trust in leadership and psychological safety. There's quite a parallel between what’s happening outside with racial justice and what's happening inside with procedural justice. The idea of benefit of the doubt and who gets it. There’s no simple solution to fixing your procedural justice protocols, but sustainable safety cannot exist without this work. A first step is re-evaluating the role of HR, and ensuring you have the right people leading this investigation and change. At the highest level, the goal is to move from aspiring to treat others how you’d like to be treated (the golden rule) toward treating others how they would like to be treated (the platinum rule).

Q. As someone who has been leading DEI initiatives for over 16 years, how has your approach to sustainable activism changed?

HG: Sitting in this for so many years, it has become harder for me to feel compassion for those who don’t experience this discrimination. In turn, I've become much more direct. And I think this directness is essential to sustain this fight. I think that's part of the shock here for allies, is that people are shedding the code switching. The directness is sometimes being interpreted as anger. And the anger is there for many people. It's that same kind of directness that has always been problematic especially for Black and Brown women who are punished for not being "businesslike.” Our directness is experienced by other people as a threat.

I used to cushion things, but I’ve learned that especially in times like this, love means holding the people you care about accountable. I’m not doing anyone any favors if I'm so worried about how I will be received. This pressure for Black and Brown people to cushion themselves is one of the reasons that we're in the mess. In the past, even when we did get DEI learning experiences up and running, the measure was whether White people liked or enjoyed them. That’s not enough, or even relevant. The hard and necessary work is for leaders — especially White leaders — to recognize that there will always be a dissonance between who you thought you were, and who you really are.

Q. Personally, how do you avoid burnout in this work?

HG: Like many people in this space, I’m feeling disappointment. And I'm also dealing with my own experience as a Black woman with sons. I have had my meltdowns with my CEO long before this. I knew where this was going, just with COVID-19 and the setbacks that would inevitably come for women and people of color — many of whom still have not recovered from 2008.

To deal with my own trauma, I've had to step back. I've had to take time. I've had to refuse certain kinds of conversations to preserve my own wellbeing. Because sometimes I'm angry, and I just don’t want to talk to certain people. The one thing that has helped me is going into the solution — being able to wake up every day and know I am doing something that is touching people. However, focusing on the solution is also numbing. After speaking to thousands of employees, our CEOs, and our Black employees, I realized I was becoming numb to my feelings. So it’s important to remember that taking care of yourself does include sitting back, and experiencing all of this.

What's more, to avoid burnout I have let go of burdening myself with questions like am I’m being “appropriate” enough, or am I overstepping in teachable moments. The last thing I need right now is to go to bed feeling like I didn’t do what was right by everybody. I am not holding back.

Originally Published June 15, 2020