“Through my lived experiences as a Black man in the highest levels of corporate America, and from listening to my two outspoken millennial daughters, I have learned that the time is past due to take more direct action in the fight for social justice,” writes James White in “Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World,” coauthored by his daughter, Krista White.
The Whites’ book is a resounding call to action to intentional business leaders everywhere, coupled with clear instructions on how to enact and enable transformative cultural change so all employees are valued, celebrated for their differences, and empowered to bring their full selves to the workplace.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the social mission of this book strikes as newly prescient, harkening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” However, the publication of “Anti-Racist Leadership” is timely for more reasons than this recent one.
As the authors astutely point out, the global pandemic threw deep-rooted social inequities into sharper focus. Dissociation became impossible when graphic footage of blatant, racially motivated murders was relayed into the palm of one’s hand. Denial was indefensible when Black and brown frontline workers of essential businesses, such as grocery stores and delivery services, succumbed to the virus at far higher proportions than their white, higher-ranking counterparts.
As the authors state, “Our response to Covid-19 was unacceptable. We must do better by our fellow humans. And it starts at the top.”
This is a book for those at the top—leaders in a position to drive and nurture systemic change—but it’s also a book for anyone in tune to the moment.
There are many reasons why diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts fall flat. The Whites explain them in detail: It’s messy, uncomfortable, time-intensive, and hard. Yet, all are required components of the work, and the work is worth it. Companies that sit in discomfort and open themselves up to this level of deep change are rewarded with innovation; unlocked talent; problem-solving; and in the long run, good financial health.
James White is the former chair, president, and chief executive of Jamba Juice (now Jamba). Within three years of his tenure, he altered the demographics of management from 80 percent white men to 50 percent women and people of color. The company’s market cap soared by 500 percent.
In addition to sharing practical advice from White’s own professional experiences, the book highlights a wide variety of companies—from Target to Tyson Foods—that embraced, fumbled, or eschewed DEI work. In each case, the authors identify with surgical precision why each company arrived at the outcome it did—some fortunate, others not.
“What we hope we’ve done with the book is provide a catalyst to have the right kind of discussions. We share a set of examples that might give you an idea of where to start the approach in a very practical, systemic fashion. We hope there are rich enough examples of big, small, and medium-sized companies that every leader and every company can find ways to really get started on this work in a meaningful way,” White told Compliance Week.
Studied comprehensively, the case studies peppered throughout this guidebook, along with the analyses provided by the authors, amount to an invaluable playbook for transforming corporate culture.
The authors expressly teach how to integrate DEI into the DNA of a company, incrementally and practically. For checklist lovers, there are key takeaways and action steps following each chapter and other blueprints distributed throughout: the top 10 qualities of an intentional leader, what DEI goals for Year 1 should look like, benchmarks to measure quarterly and annually, and more.
The nonnegotiables are stated unequivocally, as well. Change must start at the top, with the chief executive. Biased systems and deeply ingrained practices and habits that undermine DEI must be rooted out. Catalysts for change must be appointed up, down, and across the organization.
The authors cite mid-level managers and human resource leaders as linchpins of catalyzation. The former is vital for its many touchpoints, having large numbers of employees under his/her direct influence. The latter is critical in interrupting biases in the areas of hiring, performance reviews, advancement, and succession planning.
Another nonnegotiable: building empathy into the organization. The book posits empathy is learnable, but empathy building must be a structured and strategic initiative, like any other product or system launch. For leaders, the authors suggest pragmatic methods of honing the skill: listening sessions, total-immersion experiences, and even bringing empathy into performance reviews.
To be clear: That last item is the true differentiator.
“[There are] people who pay lip service and know the right things to say, who are very well-spoken, charismatic, etc. The folks we [interviewed] for the book made DEI goals their business goals, like they would set any other benchmarks, and tied people’s performance reviews and equity to these goals,” said Krista White in an interview with Compliance Week. “People may even mean well—-they might not be nefarious—but if you want them to really take this seriously and understand this is a priority for the organization, you have to create these incentives and make it very clear this is part of our business imperative.”
“I think what we always hope will happen is that empathy translates to compassion and then to some action,” James White added. “The point Krista makes is this work really matters, and it needs to be integrated into the strategic fabric of the company, measured, and ultimately incentivized in some way.”