How to Lead Inclusively Through Times of Crisis with Jennifer Brown and Chelsea C. Williams

Mursion recently hosted “How to Lead Inclusively Through Times of Crisis,” a Future of Work Virtual Roundtable discussion featuring Jennifer Brown, an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, and diversity and inclusion expert. She is the founder, president, and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting (JBC). She envisions an inclusive organization where all of us can thrive. Her consulting firm guides some of the world’s largest companies in their diversity efforts.

She is also an acclaimed keynote speaker and podcast host of The Will to Change. Her latest award-winning book How to Be an Inclusive Leader calls on allies and advocates everywhere to activate their voice. 

We were also joined by Chelsea C. Williams, the founder of College Code, a leadership consultancy based in New York City that supports the next generation of career-ready students and early career professionals through coaching, training, and development. She’s a national speaker and respected bridge-builder on a mission to help people reach their personal best through transformative experiences.

Williams has supported mission-driven organizations as far as Australia that advance education, workforce development, and inclusive leadership. She’s also a senior consultant with JBC. There she advises global organizations on building and implementing inclusion and diversity strategies and has advised global companies across financial services, sports, entertainment, beauty, and retail industries.

Jennifer Brown (JB): The difference right now in this moment is that everyone is having this collective wake up and we’re subsequently inundated with requests for assistance, but the assistance has been needed for a very long time. I’ll tell you a little bit about my diversity story. We believe that everyone has a diversity story. Sometimes these are invisible aspects of our diversity. For me, I came to New York to be an opera singer and I had big dreams but unfortunately, I injured my voice in the course of operatic training and had to get several vocal surgeries. It was painful and heartbreaking. I thought I would never really be able to make the difference I wanted to make and connect to audiences.

Luckily I found my way through some mentoring from ex-performers into the world of training and development. You will all appreciate the linkage between being a stage performer and being a trainer. I just slid right into that and felt so comfortable and loved the stimulation of our conversation about leadership and soft skills and taught presentation skills and business writing and conflict resolution and all kinds of things.

I just loved facilitating. It really spoke to me. I would subsequently hold some HR jobs. I got a second master’s degree in organizational change in HR and then I pivoted into owning my own business when I discovered really I wanted to be in the classroom primarily. That was my best and highest use in how I could be of service. I would subsequently build my company.

There was another way I was very much not bringing my full self to my world as a performer and then as a business owner which is that I’m a member of the LGBTQ+ community and I have been out since I was 22, which was quite a while ago, different times. I was closeted as a performer for sure because I didn’t see anyone that looked like me or shared my story visibly.

Then as a business owner I was very worried about the way I would be judged or my credibility would be minimized if I were out. It’s this dynamic I would describe as covering and it’s not a term I’ve made up, but Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith did a report on this with Deloitte. When I walk into rooms I still wrestle with how much of my full self is welcome and what impact it will have if I make a big deal about it. I’m clearly female. At least you would be right in saying that I’m female although sometimes our true gender identity is not visible.

I want to always say that I’m a cisgender female. My pronouns are she or hers. What you might assume is my correct gender is correct in my case, but even walking in with that and then having LGBT under the surface and other dimensions under the surface are things where I’m constantly thinking about how will this impact my ability to be heard and to be given an assigned credibility and to get my job done?

It’s downplaying a known stigmatized identity. What’s interesting about it is we do this in anticipation of bias. We do it in anticipation of stereotype. There’s something called stereotype threat which all of you should understand and it’s based in a lot of research. It’s important to know we navigate our world based on many of us not wanting to make waves. Do we want to live in this constant state of struggle and battle and disclosure and reaction and all of that? Some of us just avoid it entirely and so we downplay what we know or what we suspect is stigmatized.

What’s fascinating about it is the COVID pandemic environment of work from home was a shift away from the physical workplace where there were certain covering behaviors that some of us were doing.

Then in the virtual world, I’ve been very curious how have we been modifying that? Do we feel we need to cover less, for example? Maybe because I’m a face on a screen and a voice on the line. Perhaps I cover less and I can just be viewed for my work product and that we can get to know each other ironically even though we’re at a distance in a deeper more truthful way. It’s been fascinating to talk about that over the last couple of months. Appearance could be if I’m a woman of color, I have some decisions to make about my hairstyle for example. How do people comment on it, notice it? How do other women wear their hair? Is that okay in my workplace, etcetera.

I might be making decisions about my masculine or femininity of my dress. I might be censoring myself in terms of my interests so that I can fit in with appearance. I might be dressing very formally in a place that’s less formal because I sense that I need to be 150 percent. That’s appearance-based covering of our true selves.

I think before the pandemic interestingly and this might be changing, but men and parenting is an interesting question and men not taking parental leave in the old pre-COVID world because it was stigmatized. It said, “Are you really serious about your job? Are you ambitious about your career?” Men actually don’t take the extent of the lead that’s offered by companies because of that stigma.

I’d say affiliation-based covering is not wanting to be affiliated with that stigma of parenting and we all know that parenting still carries that stigma. Interesting through COVID to see that become I think de-stigmatized in an interesting way but also to see men stepping up or into different roles and the changes that are going to happen I hope that are lasting and permanent as a result of what we’ve been through.

Advocacy-based covering is when I don’t speak up because I fear retribution, about jokes, comments, microaggressions, and after a while the dangerous thing for all of us is to have a culture where people are not saying anything anymore because they have and they haven’t been listened to or they’re so tired and they’re worried that it’s going to impact their own career and their own image.

Right now we are living in a moment, where for certain people it is a struggle to work and be productive and handle everything that’s going on and manage the comments that are still occurring and the level of behavior or lack thereof or silence on the part of our co-workers, that really hurts right now particularly with what’s going on.

Yet, Chelsea, I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on this, but my guess is that in most workplaces, many leaders have been silent because they don’t know what to say or do at this time. Silence can really be very harmful because it’s a denial of an experience that’s very, very real.

Advocacy-based covering is like, “I don’t want to be associated with advocating for my group or this other group as an ally so I’m just going to stay quiet, because I sense that there’s a penalty to that.” Then association based is not wanting to be seen or associated with your own or other marginalized identities. The thing that’s so heartbreaking about this is, is even before COVID and everything we knew that this was prevalent.

Covering behaviors are something that many of us engage in around visible and invisible aspects of our diversity dimensions and yet what were workplaces doing to normalize all of who we are? When we say bring your full self to work, that’s an easy thing to say but for whom is it easier to bring our full selves to work? It’s easier for those of us who see ourselves reflected in the world that we work in.

I often teach about the iceberg as a great model to think about workplaces where our water lines of what we reveal and what we anticipate is going to be acceptable to others. As we show that and then we keep a ton of diversity dimensions buried under the waterline, some of which much deeper than others. Again with COVID and then now with the conversation, this water line is like really, these are some rough waters, right?

This waterline is definitely being challenged and I am here for all of that, I welcome that because every keynote I’ve been giving over the last three years is to say, “Hey, leaders, all eyes are on you.” Where you set your waterline sets a tone for what is not only accepted here but welcomed here and sought here and valued here and if we see a homogeneous leadership we interpret that, and I’m saying we as anyone who’s not say straight, white, male, cisgender, we interpret that as, “well maybe this isn’t the place for me, maybe this is a place where somebody who looks like me can’t succeed.” That’s the tragedy of workplaces where so few identities are celebrated as what leadership looks like. 

I think right now, this work becomes more urgent than ever to mean what people are experiencing, to grant space for that, to be good allies right now and to really we have a big-time opportunity right now to lower this waterline once and for all and not to let it go back to this harmful high point. 

I want to talk about intersectionality quickly. The reason I bring it up is I often walk onstage and people say, “Oh, this is our diversity speaker, what could she possibly know about this topic?”.

Where I’ve come to is that I’ve claimed intersectionality but with a twist, which is to say that my intersecting identities include identities of privilege and identities of advantage, identities that mean that I can walk down the street feeling safer, mean that I can speak the truth in a way that others may not be able to do without a penalty. That comes with its own set of opportunities and responsibilities for me.

While I am female and that carries with it the need for allyship and then male allies mean everything to me in terms of how they back me up, how they’re standing by, they’re asking me what more can I do to support you. Then as an LGBTQ person, my straight allies are everything. Helped our movement get to where it’s gotten because there weren’t enough of us to achieve that.

What are the tough conversations that you can have? What is the accountability that you can introduce? People listen to other people that look like them. I do a lot of men’s work and I’m very conscious that as a woman, there’s only so much I can say, but if a man says exactly the same thing, he will be heard differently. This truth extends across all different diversity dimensions. I want to call all of us to action that if you’re somebody with any level of advantage or ease or comfort or safety or having enough, how are we utilizing that to effect change right now and to respond to the situation?

Finally, I’d like to show the model in our how to be an inclusive leader book. Chelsea and I geeked out on learning models all the time and so we love this kind of stepped process which is the awakening from unawareness and then it’s in awareness. Listen to different media, read different books. There’s so many good lists right now on anti-racist reading.

There’s book clubs springing up everywhere. There’s a lot of questions about, “How do I learn everything I need to learn right now?” And a lot of listening that’s needed. From awareness, which is Phase Two, then how do we activate? Which is Phase Three.

Often organizations stop at unconscious bias training, but I know Mursion is all about activation, because it literally puts us in a simulation where we’re activating with language, and wording, and responses, and questions, like we’re in it. That activation piece is using your voice. It is experimenting, it is trying on new things, and it’s a little risky, right? The risk goes up. It’s as we move through, we develop the muscle.

You can’t go all the way to Phase Four, Advocate tomorrow, just by snapping your fingers and saying, “Oh, I’m an ally now.” Allyship is earned, and it is a verb, not a noun, and it’s a journey, not a destination. Allyship, you’re only an ally if somebody calls you one, and it is something that we earn, or don’t, every day.

As you activate in Phase Three, you’re exercising your muscles, you’re getting more comfortable, you’re making mistakes and having to apologize. You’re having to come back the next day and do it again. That is the comfort with being uncomfortable. It’s actually a skill that we help learners go through all the time in the business world, but somehow when it comes to DE&I, we somehow assume it should be easy.

Advocate, Level Four, is, of course, the fearless tireless voice, not waiting for permission to speak truth, challenging the systems, not just the individual behaviors, asking why? Why do we do it this way? Why has this happened? Can we get to the root of things, versus treating the symptoms?

I think that’s where we’re sitting with right now in this movement, is what is the root? What is the most important thing so that we can change this not just now, but forever. That to me is what’s much on my heart and mind. I’m sure this is a huge time of change and challenge for some of us. Maybe we thought about a lot of this for months and years in our life, maybe we haven’t. Either way, we’re so happy to have more of us engaging on this and reflecting on where we are. You all will appreciate as learning professionals, we’ve got to meet the learner where they’re at. I can’t give Phase Four information to somebody who’s at Phase One.

Chelsea C. Williams (CW): I think the big thing with this continuum that we’re showing is it really is a powerful time to assess where you currently are in terms of your active alliances. I would say Jen said it perfectly, “We’re not going to assume everyone is at the advocate level,” because it’s just not the reality right now.

There are some people who truly are unaware, and even at their worst stage. What we want to do as DEI leaders, and advocates, and learning specialists, is give people a host of different resources, support them through, check in with them as they set intentional goals to get more aware, and to get more active. 

JB: That’s the work of an inclusive leader to say my experience is not representative of everybody else’s experience. I know it sounds so obvious but we tend to see things through our lens. If I’m comfortable everybody else is comfortable, if I feel like opportunities are equally given in this organization, everybody feels that way. What it sounds like is “Oh there are a lot of women here, we have a lot of people of color here.” Yes, we have no problems with engagement according to different identities.

Then my team comes in, Chelsea and I do the analysis and lo and behold there are some problems. It’s all in the data collection and how you ask the questions, but there is almost no organization I’ve ever encountered where truly everyone is having the same experience and feels equally supported and that opportunities are equally apportioned.

CW: I did a post about a week ago on LinkedIn saying I feel as though acknowledgment is the first step that we need. Acknowledging it is a difficult moment, acknowledging there is a lot of pain, acknowledging for most black folk globally and particularly in the US, this has been a feeling and a frustration for a really long time, particularly in the workplace.

I think I’m very big on saying I never want to make an assumption about the entire black community. I think it’s really important to not make assumptions and generalizations and to make sure in conversations as we’re connecting with people that we allow them to tell us how they want to be supported. With a lot of my clients, a lot of the questions that have been coming up are, “How should I support my black employees in this moment?” If they’re asking the question at all, but if they’re asking, they’re saying, “How should I support?”

I’m very big on saying why don’t you ask your colleague how they want to be supported in the moment. Be mindful that their response may be, “Right now, I don’t want to really talk about it. Right now I don’t want to communicate I’m processing it personally. Thank you for checking in but right now I’m processing it independently.”

Some may say, “I need some time.” Some may say, “Are there resources that the organization has to support me in this moment?” I think it’s really big to ask the question and allow the person to respond in a way that’s authentic to who they are.

JB: There is anger, and that is justified. You speak to their frustration. Balancing understanding that people are angry with appropriate behaviors in the workplace. I feel like this landscape is shifting. How can we build this into our DNA in organizations where when we say bring your full self to work, it’s a more authentic, more truthful, and yes, we allow a space for real frustration, and that people aren’t penalized for that?

CW: One thing that I have been reflecting a lot on, thinking about some of the organizations that I feel are really taking this head-on. They’re not watering down the conversation. They’re not saying warm, fuzzy, diversity, and inclusion on a beautiful magazine. They’re calling out systemic racism. They’re calling out injustice and bias, and they’re using these terms that I know make people uncomfortable across racial lines, and they’re saying, “We’re going to use this moment. It’s difficult, but we’re going to use this moment to have the conversation.”

I really believe in having this authentic conversation and doing it more frequently. We are going to be able to really advance these goals that we have. This vision that we have in the workplace is going to take transparency and vulnerability. That’s not going to happen if we can’t have authentic conversation.

JB: There is a comment around if your leader is silent, it prevents us from speaking. Then it feels like it’s an unsafe place. It’s always been a painful reality, actually, because leaders haven’t spoken up on a host of things historically. If you work for someone or in an environment where nothing is being said, where do you get that support? How do you shore yourself up? How do you rustle with the expectations of that sort of detached professionalism? Focusing on task and productivity when so much else is going on and nobody’s talking about it.

CW: Let’s be clear, it shouldn’t be that way. Organizations should be responding immediately and sharing those necessary services with their employees. Now, I believe that there are people who this experience is the last straw. Meaning, they might have been feeling as an outsider for some time, and now in this moment, they’ve just realized, “This culture isn’t safe for me.” The moment they’re able to make a change, they’ll make a change.

If we don’t take advantage of this moment to really support people and hear them, you’re going to have people who are going to be leaving the organization because they’re going to say, “This is my last straw, and I have to find someone who actually sees me.” That’s the reality that I could not say it and we could think it, but that will happen if we don’t understand the severity of it.

JB: There’s an accountability right now too that leaders should really be thinking about, I haven’t done enough and acknowledging that is very difficult and feels risky and might even be risky. I don’t want to say that it’s not risky, but I wouldn’t also brag about everything you’ve done and what we call virtue signal. Virtue signaling means “look at us and our brand and we’re so inclusive,” and then meanwhile you hear from all of your employees that actually it’s like a really toxic workplace.

This stuff is now coming out. It’s literally like the sunlight is shining on everything and it’s happening quickly. There were four resignations this week and sort of high-growth, sexy, Instagram-ready kind of brands, and it’s just very interesting to see the truth is coming out. Is it time to say, how do you admit that? How do you talk about that? How do you do your work now because it’s better late than never although it was too late for those CEOs? It was too late, but it doesn’t have to be too late for most of the people I know.

CW: No and that’s the beautiful part about this because it isn’t too late. Now as a black woman I’m like why hasn’t this happened before, but I think when we talk about empowering people, when we talk about being committed to learning and advancement and when we talk about inclusion and equity, we want people to just get on board. We have so many different barriers and inequities that it’s going to take all of us working together in partnership to see progress, so it’s not too late.

I think for the acknowledgment piece, I don’t want anyone to beat themselves up about where they are because I think that sometimes a level of disappointment in yourself can lead to inaction. I think you could be so disappointed in what you haven’t done that you do nothing. We want people to acknowledge it personally, and we want you to take action in a way that is meaningful for you.

This morning I was with a client and we were talking about five things you can do to take action right now and five of the things were, we want you to be an active ally in both what you say and what you do. What you vocalize but also in your practical everyday steps. We want you to understand the issue of the marginalized groups, so in this case, the black experience. We want you to understand and explore racial inequities and systemic issues that have challenged our community. We want you to do that.

We want you to speak up for a colleague who maybe you haven’t spoken up for before but in this moment you realize there’s an opportunity to really help lift them up and really to see them, to value them in the moment. For some people it’s education. Google is such a great resource right now because everybody’s putting things out and so there isn’t an excuse for anyone who truly wants to get involved. Peaceful protests, giving to racial justice organizations, all of that is action. Being on this webinar today, showing up to even engage in this conversation and not shutting down — those are action steps.

JB: A lot of people it seems work in organizations where this just isn’t okay to bring or talk about and that makes me really sad but that would have been my prediction if based on all the organizational work I’ve done.

Then there are also people really resonating with what you said about the paralysis of, “Have I done enough? What does enough look like? How do I step into this?” Then to not make perfect the enemy of the good, what is imperfect ally-ship look like? What matters is we’re trying. What matters is that we’re putting ourselves into uncomfortable situations on a regular basis and when we say becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, this is a perfect opportunity to try on that new language to try to reach people, try to say something imperfectly. Get the feedback of whether it was effective or not. This is very uncomfortable stuff and yet it’s the only way we learn.

CW: Allyship transcends identity. Jen was talking about LGBTQ community over pride. We could talk about immigrants. We could talk about socio-economic diversity. Active allyship all of us and I would be sensitive to anyone who identifies as black who’s on now who might be feeling just the weight of this.

JB: I’m thinking of it these days as intersectional allyship. It’s part of my role to get on stage and say actually I feel really motivated by the things that are easier for me to do that are harder for somebody else to do. That’s something I can do and I can do that a lot. I just need to know what are those things that make a difference.

Then I need to know enough to spot things, to see the microaggression, to check-in with what I’ve got. Then you’re always listening and watching and you’re thinking to yourself, “This is the mindset I wish I heard from managers. What are the inclusion dynamics or exclusion dynamics that are happening right now around me? Am I hearing a microaggression I can bring up to somebody later as a piece of feedback?”

Is there a way I can echo somebody’s point in a meeting who’s been talked over? We can always be monitoring and I think these are very small things that a lot of us can do that save somebody else the labor and the risk of having to do them. To me, that is very motivating.

CW: I think that the highlight of the beauty of active allyship when the intention is right on the side of the other person is you’re doing it not to be recognized. You’re doing it because you truly believe in it. It’s not this performative allyship that I know we’ve talked about. It’s truly like I know the opportunities that I’ve been afforded that other people haven’t.

It matters to me that people who are just as qualified and just as able have the opportunity. I think a lot of allyship certainly can be done where others see it. A lot of it happens behind closed doors, which I don’t think we talk about for decision-makers and leaders. 

JB: One thing I’ve been thinking about is the COVID situation has actually sensitized us to each other in a very deep and unprecedented way.

I think the question of systemic racism and inequity or what equity means or the lack thereof hit home for the first time for a lot of people upon understanding who is impacted. Then we were at the same time beaming into each other’s living rooms, seeing each other’s lives, seeing our same-sex partner or seeing a dad holding his kid during the meeting.

All of a sudden there was this collective grasping — an empathy-building exercise that we were all going through as we pulled together to follow the rules to protect each other. When you then see those videos and the readiness in our hearts we were so open and so challenged with uncertainty that this beautiful thing has happened, this beautiful reaction to the point where the protests are more full of white people than people of color. I think we’ve really crossed this threshold of being able to see each other and all of those pieces and be able to grasp intersectionality and systemic racism and how it’s impacted our society.

The big work is ahead of us. The work is to keep the urgency focused on this and not allow us to return to status quo. Not returning to but continuing this work. Can you be an agent for change in a company where nobody’s talking about it, in a company where you’re not receiving any support? Can you still create that psychological safety?

CW: I still think so much goes down to your immediate manager. I really do believe because that’s the person who you’re reporting in to. That’s the person who is evaluating your performance. That’s a person who is setting your pay. For most part, that’s the person who you’re spending so much time with. I really believe if a lot of people would be acknowledged by that first-line manager or their colleagues who they’re engaging with day-to-day, you would at least have the peace of saying the people who are closest to me on a daily basis care.

I think managers, please understand the power you have as an individual to acknowledge, affirm, and support those employees who might be within your sphere of influence. That is a game-changer because quite frankly so many people haven’t even received that. It is a great place to start.

JB: If there’s a black employee network, an affinity network, or multicultural colleagues network going on, this is that time you can show your support by attending everything, all the programming they’re doing, all the education they’re doing. Allies are very welcome in affinity groups but sometimes they hold back because they’re not sure they’re welcome.

The good news about the virtual world is we can join a Zoom call and just listen. We don’t necessarily have to walk into that room and feel, “Oh my goodness, I’m the only one. Should I be here? Am I intruding?” I think a lot of the dynamics around allyship have changed. Maybe we can build some muscle right now with each other in the virtual world to indicate our support.

Then someday we’ll be in a physical workplace again and we could be more overt about our allyship. Believe it or not, I do predict we will become comfortable with this. I think that that day is ahead of us. It’s within our grasp in terms of the black experience in the workplace being able to say the word black, being able to say the word white, being able to say the say the words. We’re close. We’re getting there.