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by Stephan Maldonado | August 18, 2020

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Kristin Harper is the CEO of Driven to Succeed, LLC—a leadership development company that provides brand strategy consulting, market research, and keynote speaking on leadership and emotional intelligence—and author of The Heart of a Leader: 52 Emotional Intelligence Insights to Advance Your Career. Amidst a resurgent focus on racial injustice, Kristin set out to discover what perspectives Black professionals and White professionals would share on race in Corporate America if asked to do so candidly.

Earlier this spring, Kristin and the market research team at Driven to Succeed held two closed-door, tell-all community dialogues to talk about race—one with Black professionals and the other with White professionals. This focus group of 16 professionals ranged from Directors to C-Suite executives, plus a few entrepreneurs. Vault recently spoke with Kristin about these dialogues—the goals, the questions that were asked, and the key takeaways—and how the insights she and the participants uncovered can be applied in the workplace, thus leading to greater empathy, understanding, and healing.

Vault: Can you please tell our readers a little bit about yourself—your background, your work with Driven to Succeed, and your book, The Heart of a Leader?

Kristin Harper: For as far back as I can remember, I’ve had two areas of passion: 1) growing businesses and brands, and 2) developing people.

After a 20-year corporate career successfully leading some of the world’s most iconic global brands like Crest®, Oral-B®, and Hershey’s KISSES®, I felt restless. I knew I could use my gifts and experiences to make a bigger impact on businesses, brands, and people. With the support of my husband, family, and unwavering faith, I took the leap into full-time entrepreneurship and haven't looked back.

Driven to Succeed provides market research, brand strategy consulting, and keynote speaking on leadership and emotional intelligence for Fortune 500 companies, organizations, and rising leaders. Our team combines head and heart to help build brands and advance careers. Recently, I released my second book, The Heart of a Leader: 52 Emotional Intelligence Insights to Advance Your Career. Five-star rated on Amazon, it’s packed with practical tips and insights for people who aren’t satisfied with status quo careers.

Vault: You recently wrote an article, “What Black Professionals and White Professionals Really Think About Race in the Workplace”, based on your findings from two closed-door community dialogues you held, one with Black professionals and one with White professionals.

Tell us more about how this study came to be—the inspiration, what you set out to accomplish with these conversations, and your approach to eliciting candid responses from participants. Can you explain the key findings and how they compared to your expectations?

KH: The murder of George Floyd pricked the consciousness of people in the U.S. and around the world. As I was going through my grieving process, I thought long and hard about what I could do that would make a lasting impact on people’s hearts and minds. That’s when the idea of these Community Dialogues was born.

As a Black woman who’s risen through the ranks from college intern to Global VP in my 30s, I am most familiar with Corporate America. We invited 16 friends and former colleagues who are senior leaders or entrepreneurs, and their comments were honest, candid, and insightful.

In summary, the key findings are that Black professionals have a similar negative experience with race. White professionals have a wider variety of experiences and most are quite uncomfortable talking about race. Both groups have their foot firmly on the gas pedal moving ahead in their careers; however, the dilemma is that Black professionals also have their other foot on the brake, so their White coworkers don’t feel uncomfortable or afraid.

The list of what both groups want in their careers is similar; but Whites don’t understand the barriers and unspoken rules that affect Black people in the corporate world, which are captured below.

I walked into the research with a blank slate and few expectations. That said, I identified wholeheartedly with the Black professionals’ comments and was most surprised by the depth of what we’ve had to suppress in our communication, tone of voice, and behaviors to survive and thrive not just in life, but in Corporate America. I also learned that they are spending untold hours explaining what it’s like to be Black to their coworkers. I admire their courage to share their pain publicly in meetings and town halls to increase empathy and understanding.

With the White group, there was a visible shift in energy when as we transitioned from uncomfortable, emotionally difficult subjects like George Floyd’s murder, and what Black professionals want White professionals to know, to tangible actions Blacks want from Corporate America. The more Whites learned the more they wanted to take action and resolve the inner tension and conflict.

Vault: You speak about the “gas pedal dilemma”, wherein Black professionals feel the need to mitigate their own ambition for the "comfort" of their White colleagues. What are the major factors—the structures and attitudes, especially in Corporate America—that have fostered the development of this mindset? How is it perpetuated, and what needs to happen to move past it?

KH: We did not explore this specifically in our research, and I am not a Diversity & Inclusion practitioner. That said, in my opinion as a Black woman, HBCU alumna, and former Corporate executive, major factors that have contributed to the “gas pedal dilemma” mindset in Corporate America begin with the origins of Africans in America. As our respondents shared, “we’ve been traumatized and terrorized for 400 years.” The Transatlantic slave trade, widespread enslavement of African people, Jim Crow era of segregation, and a multitude of discriminatory policies have dehumanized people of African descent in the hearts and minds of many people, including those in Corporate America.

It’s been perpetuated by a lack of representation across all levels of leadership, a lack of advocacy, education, and empathy, and unconscious bias. Based on our research, I firmly believe that many White professionals simply don’t know what they don’t know. The video of George Floyd’s murder was a wakeup call and a call for justice. White coworkers of our Black respondents have learned that discrimination happens to Black people they know, even executives. To move past these structures and attitudes requires acknowledgment and education, advocacy, action, and accountability.

Vault: What are some of the biggest roadblocks to success that Black professionals experience? How do White professionals contribute to these roadblocks, either unconsciously or intentionally?

KH: Some of the biggest roadblocks for Black professionals include outperforming peers and still being passed up for promotions they deserve; always having to measure themselves and their words; keeping their personal life personal so it won’t be used against them; needing multiple sponsors and sources of validation, unlike their White counterparts. It’s also an unspoken rule not to discuss race or politics at work, which has led to many Black professionals suppressing their feelings and experiences. As a result, many of their White counterparts were unaware of these roadblocks…until the death of George Floyd unleashed widespread conversations on the formerly taboo topic of race.

Vault: As part of the dialogue that Driven to Succeed facilitated, Black professionals were asked, “What do you want your white colleagues to know?” What were those responses like? How do these messages get communicated on a larger scale in a way that leads to real change?

KH: The responses of Black professionals were raw, heartfelt, unfiltered, and almost cathartic, including:

  • “I’m not giving you a script on how to talk to Black people”
  • “Your European ancestors never had what my ancestors and I experienced”
  • “You’ve had an awakening, but how could you be so oblivious?”
  • “Having Black employees doesn’t mean you’re not a racist”
  • “Your tears, guilt, and apologies are irritating. What are you going to do with your sorry?”
  • “Institutional racism is very real for us, and it’s a White problem, so you fix it.”

Communicating this information on a larger scale happens with articles like this, broadcast and videos, town halls, and through trusted influencers. More importantly, I truly believe that real change will happen one person at a time and will be best facilitated first with White people talking to other White people. Confronting unconscious bias and the ugliness of racism in America is a deeply personal journey that requires education, which leads to reflection, contemplation, action, and change. Visit our website – www.DriventoSucceedLLC.com – to download the full research report and listen to the webinar replay at no charge.

Vault: What were some of the biggest revelations for the White professionals who participated in this dialogue? How did they react to what they learned? Was there any indication of how they’d apply these lessons going forward?

KH: White professionals were squeamish and uneasy. We asked White professionals for a one-word reaction to these revelations: breathtaking, overwhelming, uncomfortable, sad, true, revealing. “I couldn’t breathe and felt nauseous when I heard traumatized and terrorized. 400 years is tragic, and it makes me angry because it comes from power and greed.”  “I feel personally attacked because I don’t know if that’s true about me.” “I get it, but it sucks.” “Racism doesn’t reflect everyone’s view.” “We have to work together to make an attitude adjustment.” 

Most White professionals agreed that something has got to give, but how? They knew there’s a lot to do, but what? There are no right words to heal the pain, and many expressed a similar sentiment, “I legit don’t know where to start.” When we concluded the dialogue with what Black people want Corporate America to do, they felt relieved since most of the respondents want to learn and help but are nervous bringing up the subject of race for fear of offending anyone.

Vault: What do you say to White professionals reckoning with the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery—many of whom have been forced to confront their own privilege for the first time, especially as more companies are taking an active stance against racism? In what direction do you point those who are reconciling their own preconceived notions of “being an ally” with the actual work that needs to be done?

KH: The notion of White privilege made one of our respondents “bristle because it sounds derogatory.” They “don’t see color, only character” and don’t understand why Black people want others to see color, which is to see them “as a victim.” Other White respondents are learning about and confronting this concept, many for the first time, which is emotional and disruptive. They realize they’ve been passive and want to be more active. Still others have advocated for diversity for many years and are frustrated with the lack of progress. For those who are reconciling notions of “being an ally,” I recommend several books highly rated by USA Today, including:

  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  • How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • me and white supremacy by Leyla F. Saad
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Vault: What is the difference between an ally and an advocate? What does advocacy look like in a corporate setting?

KH: Quite simply, an ally is passive; an advocate is active. Black professionals told us that they want action, not rhetoric, sympathy, or tears. For those looking for ways to advocate for their Black colleagues, download our whitepaper, 50 Ways to be a More Inclusive Leader, from our website. Advocacy includes taking time to build authentic, trusting relationships with Black professionals; recognizing and speaking up against bias among White counterparts, and creating a safe space for Black employees to be authentic.

Vault: In response to the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests and other anti-racist efforts, many companies have declared their commitment to inclusion and pledged either time or money to the cause. What do we need to see to trust that statements like these are not purely reactionary, but that there is a commitment to lasting, sustainable change?

KH: I’m a firm believer that what gets measured, gets done. To trust the weight behind these statements, I applaud companies like Pepsi whose commitment can be measured by:

  • Percentage of Black managers, executives, and board members
  • Percentage of Black employees who are promoted from within
  • Recruitment of Black college students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities
  • Percentage spend with certified Black-owned suppliers and diverse marketing agencies
  • Investing time, money and resources in their local communities

Vault: Where do we go from here? What actions do we need to take in order to implement the sort of necessary changes indicated by your study?

KH: More than one Black respondent suggested that race be approached like a business case – do research, form hypotheses, build a strategy, test and learn, then measure and refine. Actionable steps include conducting personal research, having conversations, and building authentic relationships with Black colleagues. These are the keys to build understanding and empathy – not sympathy – that leads to advocacy and change.

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