The Leader As Ally: How to Make It Work
When discrimination happens, people look to CEOs and leaders of familiar brands like Starbucks, SalesForce, YouTube and beyond to help chart the course to an environment in which employees do not exhibit behavior that hurts others. It’s part of what keeps us, as a public collective, in order: good leaders stand up for the right thing, even when it is hard. When leaders amplify our concerns, it means that we don’t have to yell quite so loud when we perceive injustice.
Fulfilling this expectation doesn’t come easily for all leaders. The values aligned with the act of standing up for someone else might fall outside of a leader’s traditional comfort zone. Kindness? Fairness? These aren’t typically seen as key drivers of a cutting-edge, competitive, high-achieving organization—or leader.
But when leaders stand up as adversaries of discrimination, they have an outsize impact on diversity, equity and inclusion—and that impact can have significant upside, apart from being a helping hand. Reams of data support the business case for diversity as an increase in innovative practices; taking action on this issue is about more than being fair, it’s being smart.
With this slate of opportunities and challenges, how can organizational leaders assume the role of ally for the more marginalized voices among us?
At IBIS, we’ve seen a wide range of leadership styles adapt to becoming more of an ally through a few tested strategies. While best practices will evolve, here’s what we’ve seen work:
- Assume that people need to hear from you. Just because you maintain a tight focus on an area of the organization, such as sales, operations, investment, or growth doesn’t mean that you can’t also serve as an ally. Use your voice to speak up against discrimination.
- Recognize that there is risk—for example, risk of alienating those who don’t agree with disrupting bias, or risk of getting a message across which doesn’t express exactly what was intended—but those risks are worth creating an environment in which people feel safe, accepted and secure.
- Educate yourself. Read books, articles and blogs by authors who don’t represent your demographic perspective; watch videos and movies on topics such as racism and sexism; consume media that teaches you something you didn’t already know. Come out of your comfort zone and absorb diverse perspectives.
- Find a coach. Engage a Chief Diversity Officer or diversity coach to help you practice difficult conversations, to answer your questions and to support your growth.
- Understand the difference between equity and equality. Recognize that in order to succeed, different people need different things – this is equity. Equality refers to everyone getting the same tools and resources, and that is not always enough. You may need to stand up for one person when another wouldn’t need it, which is a key component of successful diversity and inclusion.
- Join organizations that can support your work. Standing against bias can feel isolating at times, so don’t hesitate to seek support and guidance from others, both individuals and organizations, who can offer guidance.
The leaders who stand as allies with victims of discrimination have an impact that is twofold: not only do they serve as a catalyst for positive change, but by standing with those who need it most, they also model the way for the rest of us to stand up against bias.
3 Actions You Can Take To Be a More Effective Ally
Writer Cedar Pruitt is a senior diversity consultant at IBIS, specializing in inclusive leadership and culture at organizations ranging from start-up companies to competitive universities.