In the past three weeks corporate America has promised more money and resources to combat racism than it has in the last, well, ever. Apple’s CEO said, “Things must change and Apple’s committed to being a force for that change.” Bank of America pledged $1 billion to fight racial inequities across the country. Countless executives have said they’re determined to create more inclusive companies where Black employees are appreciated, respected and have an equal chance of success.
All of this is progress. These companies—and the mostly White executives who lead them—are recognizing that just talking about racism isn’t enough. They have to devote resources to make positive changes.
What worries me, however, is that those executives may underestimate how much they will have to do to combat inequalities even within their own organizations. I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be really, really hard. Worse, there will be a lot of times—and opportunities—for leaders to get distracted or just burn out. The only way leaders are going to combat racism in their organizations is if they literally make combatting racism a lifestyle —as habitual as a morning cup of coffee.
Think of it this way; racism in the United States has a really big head start on any corporate leader. Whether it has been actual slavery, Jim Crow laws, discriminatory business practices, consistently overlooking talented minority employees, or a myriad of other practices, systemic inequality has been around in the US for 400 years.
I don’t care how good a leader is, that’s not something that can be fixed in a fiscal year or a business cycle. And tempting as it is to throw existing practices out the window and start over, doing things in a rush is usually too confusing to the company’s employees, customers, investors or all three. Redesigning the organization in an inclusive and fully eradicating racism will take years.
Along the way, there will be going to be a lot of situations big and small that will demand a leader’s attention: another wave of COVID-19, climate change, major technology disruptions, a hostile takeover offer. And, of course, company leaders could just get frustrated by the seemingly slow pace of change.
But when leaders make combatting racism part of their lifestyle, they’ll never lose focus on creating an inclusive organization. It will define their philosophy on how to approach revenues, innovation, marketing, finance, developing talent, and everything else. It will shape the way they lead.
So how do leaders do this? The good news is that many leaders have already started with some essential immediate actions. They’re signaling to their stakeholders, including the board of directors, that combatting racism needs to be a major corporate priority. They’re learning more about systemic racism themselves and helping their employees do the same.
Next, leaders should become true allies to employees of color. They will have to commit to leading with transparency and humility, if they aren’t already, and recognize that they’re going to make mistakes along the way. Being an ally doesn’t demand perfection, but it demands dependability and consistency. Then leaders need to make some plans. What can they change in the short term? What about the long term? They need to communicate those goals to their stakeholders and constantly communicate where progress is being made and where it isn’t. They can’t be afraid to ask for help, either.
Meanwhile, outside the office, they need to bring people of color into their lives. Spend time and get to know people who aren’t exactly like them. Sure they should read about the experiences of other cultures, but they need to be serious about spending time and building relationships with Blacks and others on their turf and their terms. Sponsor and mentor people of different races and backgrounds.
And when the time comes, “open the aperture.” The focus is—justifiably—on the problems Black employees face. But leaders who have embraced this lifestyle will be able to broaden the focus to all of employees of all colors and genders.
Making these “lifestyle” changes will give leaders the strength and stamina to plow through the upcoming multiple tough tasks ahead.
Korn Ferry’s global diversity and inclusion strategist.