A major global corporation lost a 25-year senior executive at the prime of her career. She explained in her exit interview, “The corporate culture here is too parochial and I am tired of fighting it.”
How did the company lose such a gifted executive, at the point it could have most benefited from her contributions?
I will tell you a story that she shared with me, one that will hopefully provide a taste of how she felt during her career with this company. She shared the story with me at the conclusion of a two-day training course I had conducted, in which she had just participated.
“Dianne, I have so very much enjoyed this global management training you have facilitated for us. These are exactly the cross-cultural skills and mindsets needed in our world today! You are providing us tools and processes for acknowledging and using unique contributions, hearing the voice and perspectives of all involved. This type of training is so very different from diversity training,” she told me.
Well, I happen to be a fan of diversity training. I was troubled by her words, and wanted to understand what this obviously intelligent, wise woman did not like about it.
“Well, Dianne, in my experience diversity trainers go through the motions. They do activities and they often don’t know why. I’ll give you just one example. A year or so ago I was in a senior management diversity training. The facilitator asked us to stand in a line, side by side. He instructed us to take one step back if English was not our first language. A step back if our skin color was not white. He said to take another step back if we were not Christian. A step back if we had not attended a first-tier university. On and on he cited the categories, and I took so many steps back that I was the only person at the far side of the room, alone. There were several others in between, but I was visibly alone.”
“I thought to myself, ‘YES! THIS is what I’ve been trying to tell you all these years! This company forces me to do backbends and jump through hoops in order to succeed! I have to lose who I am to influence decision making. I have to communicate in a way I dislike in order to be heard! Let’s change this corporate culture to be more inclusive!’ Oh, Dianne, I was so excited by this powerful exercise!”
“But, do you know what happened? The President of the company looked at me standing there in the back of the room and said, ‘Look how inclusive we are. A dark-skinned woman, an Indian Jain, can become a senior director!’ I thought to myself, do you know how much harder than a man I have had to try to succeed? How much harder than a white skinned person? How much harder than a European or American? He seemed to have no idea of the price I’d had to pay for my promotions. He didn’t acknowledge my accomplishments or the super-human efforts of other minorities in our organization. Rather, he prided the company on its color-blindness! And worse yet, the trainer didn’t say anything! The exercise concluded, and we went on to the next activity! Rather than a learning moment, the activity only reinforced ignorance and legitimized discrimination! I was absolutely crushed and stunned.”
Such a loss for this corporation. Such a difficult decision for this woman to have had to make. It was also a challenging position for the trainer to have been in; hindsight is 20-20 regarding how the trainer could have handled the President’s comments, and debriefed the activity, more effectively.
Let me close by asking you this: Have we all taken the time today to empathize, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes? Have we done our part to change dysfunctional systems? What have each of us learned today?
I look forward to your comments on this post. Thanks!