Thoughts on Leadership: 8 Ways to Support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me starting Monday at home, completing my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday, I had the Berkshire Hathaway Energy call followed by a day of meetings. My Wildly Important Goal (WIG) this week was to spend 14+ hours on legal matters, so I completed that WIG and today, I’m writing this post to you now.

February is Black History Month and last week, we celebrated the leadership thoughts of Russell Wilson. This week, I’d like to highlight my good friend and former All-Pro defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams who is today president and CEO of World Class Coaches Johnnie Johnson. This spotlight is especially pertinent because Johnnie’s Rams are facing the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl this Sunday. For many years, Johnnie and I do a standing Saturday morning breakfast, where we catch up on life, family, business, books and whatever else happens in between. Currently, we are reviewing Johnnie’s new book, “From Athletics to Engineering: 8 Ways to Support Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” and I’d like to share those 8 ways with you now:

  1. It starts with each of us. As Johnnie writes: “The most important first step in supporting diversity, equity and inclusion for all is deciding to act.” You have to commit to making progress as a precondition for success. The problems of diversity, equity and inclusion will not be solved if you sit around and wait for someone else to do it. It is up to you, to us, to achieve the goal. Johnnie begins the book by talking about his story, how as a young Black athlete he was perceived by coaches, parents and fans alike as “an asset to the sport.” He was stereotyped as an “elite athlete” because he was “tall, athletic, male and Black.” Those stereotypes followed Johnnie throughout his life, and he wrote this book “to help society establish actual liberty and justice for all.” One of the most difficult things for anyone to do is get started and know that in this goal to have greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in the world, we all have a role to play on the team and as Johnnie writes a baton to pass “from one generation to the next.”
  2. Love your neighbor. Johnnie says before you can love your neighbor, you have to recognize who they are. Take time to get to know the people around you, so your love for them comes from a place of deep appreciation. Johnnie grew up in La Grange, Texas in a poor family of 11 children, raised by his single, fiercely loving, influential and intelligent mother Jessie Mae Johnson. He went to an all-Black elementary school and was taught in a two-room schoolhouse used for grades one through six. It was hardly an environment conducive to the very best education, but Johnnie prevailed. The key, writes Johnnie, is “access and opportunity.” Providing a platform for quality education (as one example) removes barriers that inhibit the flow in society. It’s how we can love our neighbors by ensuring they receive the same knowledge and education as everyone else. It’s how we can strengthen our communities and make progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  3. Talk about it. Johnnie cites author Beverly Daniel Tatum who wrote the book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? In it, she says, “Discussions about race make white people very uncomfortable.” But, as the author and Johnnie affirm, “It is rarely the case that people trying to genuinely engage in constructive conversation are punished. And we need to create those opportunities for safe conversation so all participants can share their thoughts or ask questions without the fear of recrimination for their ignorance or clumsiness.” Johnnie says when talking, keep these guidelines in mind: 1. Be fully present. 2. Don’t listen to agree, listen to understand. 3. Don’t speak to convince, speak to share. 4. Be curious. Ask questions that will allow you to learn. We are all perpetual students on the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion. There is always more knowledge to gain.
  4. Check your biases and blind spots. Johnnie says we must identify them and correct them to create long-lasting progress and change. From the words we say to the phrases we use, eliminating and checking bias helps to level the playing field and support the forward movement of diversity, equity, and inclusion for all, whether it be in sports, business, or life.
  5. Expand your comfort zone. Johnnie defines a comfort zone as the place where we can be productive and operate with confidence. When we operate outside of it, our performance suffers. This is why it’s critical to expand your comfort zone, so you can perform comfortably at a high level in more circumstances. It’s just like student athletes in a new situation. They may be comfortable at home but once they get to college, they have to find comfort in a new environment – a new gym, a new set of teammates, a new coach, a new living situation – and the process is not easy. Johnnie writes: “The same is true for building trust and collaborating with your family and colleagues in pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion for all.”
  6. Build diverse teams. Diversity helps companies perform better. A McKinsey & Company study cited in the book found that “the most diverse companies outperform less diverse companies on key indicators, such as profitability.” The study also found that the relationship between diversity and performance has only strengthened over the past few years. Finally, the study revealed that when challenges or crisis occurred at a company, the diverse organizations, with broader and far-ranging perspectives, were more likely to “make bolder, better decisions.” One way to create cohesion among a diverse team is to have a shared goal. For instance, U.S. military recruits come from a diverse range of backgrounds, all with the shared goal of safeguarding our nation. As the late Colin Powell, retired four-star general who was the first Black Secretary of State, once said about entering the Army in 1958, “The only thing they cared about was could I perform: not whether I was Black, white, poor, rich, West Pointer or non-West Pointer.” Cohesion among a diverse team is best achieved through defining and achieving one Wildly Important Goal.
  7. Collaborate. Creating a team with diverse backgrounds is what Johnnie calls “a good start” but next comes the actual collaboration to ensure the team performs. Johnnie references an article by the Harvard Business Review that said when teams are formed from people with different backgrounds and perspectives, “team members might want to pretend those differences do not exist to protect group harmony and cohesiveness.” However, group behavior studies show that “pretending to be colorblind was not as effective as acknowledging racial and ethnic differences.” When you collaborate, you must not only acknowledge the differences among the team but also celebrate them.
  8.  Align actions with goals and values. Johnnie says goals created must be in alignment with personal values. Values, as Johnnie defines them, are “the principles that are important to us regarding our family, society, an entity, a team, or an individual.” They define our character and our personality. They also provide guidelines for our actions because we act in accordance with the values we uphold. He says the process of defining and acting in accordance with our core values does not happen overnight. Instead, it is a slow and steady process, a perpetual journey of improvement as we progress toward our goal. We must, says Johnnie, be consistent in our actions and we should have an “effort mindset.” It is more important to put in the effort than lean on our abilities. As an exercise, Johnnie recommends taking time to define and articulate your core values. Then, ensure that you are following them with everything you say and do

So, what’s the message? For us at HomeServices of America, a core value is to achieve diversity, equity and inclusion for all and every action we take, every initiative we put together has this core value in mind. It’s how we aim to make the world a better place not just this month as we celebrate Black leaders like Johnnie Johnson, who have changed the course of history with their inspiring story and wisdom, but every day, every week, every year and really, forever.

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