Meeting of a Lifetime (35 years too late)

January 31, 2018Donna Carson

Welcome to 2018 and to all the increased focus and attention in the headlines on topics such as diversity, inclusion and sexual harassment. A few weeks ago, I was watching the Golden Globes and saw Oprah so powerfully declare that, “A NEW DAY IS ON THE HORIZON!” It resounded like a thunderclap in the room…and I felt it too.

I was fortunate in my career. I was fortunate to lead teams for 35+ years, and more fortunate still to work for exceptional senior leaders who saw something in me, and gave me opportunities to grow and thrive as a woman in leadership. Knowing how important this support had been for me, I always made it a rule to recruit, hire, promote, and lead as equitably as possible. For me, that meant treating everyone the same, like their differences didn’t matter. Gender-blind, color-blind, call it what you will. Over the years, I can tell you that we always had the most sincere intentions, we did everything “right,” and we still failed more often than we would have liked.

For example, when it came to hiring, we would do all the proper due diligence. We screened applicants to try and make sure that race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background, etc., were not going to be barriers. We ensured all potential hires matched the right personality profiles. Our applicants had all the required experience, education, references and YES, they would have had to knock it out of the park in the interview process with our interview board. It’s important to understand that the people we hired and promoted were all good people, but sometimes, even though they seemed to fit the bill, they didn’t thrive. More times than I’d like to admit, I felt all the pain and remorse of selecting people who just did not succeed. There were times when I almost felt like I was setting people up to fail, and in hindsight, I can see that the failures weren’t always theirs. So what were we missing in our process? What was it that the resumes, interviews, references and psycho-metric tests didn’t show us?

Well, for starters, looking back today I can see with abject clarity that human differences aren’t something to be ignored or glossed over. They are real, and we can’t pretend they don’t exist. I mean, how often do we see people struggle at work, with colleagues, with mangers…and how often do we tend to simply blame and judge them for those struggles. They must be lazy. They don’t have focus. They’re not dedicated. How many qualified people have you seen promoted that simply ended up not working out as leaders? Then again, just imagine how many qualified people never even apply for leadership positions in the first place? These “losses” are incredibly costly to organizations. Unrealized potential. Lost talent. Everyone suffers, and you can’t really measure their impacts on morale, engagement and productivity.

Maybe the problem is that we don’t create workplace cultures where ALL our people see themselves reflected? Maybe we aren’t driving a sense of belonging and shared ownership. It’s rare that we step back and ask broader questions about how culture can be set up to allow one group to thrive while stunting the access and potential of others. We could never quite put our finger on it back then, and it’s only now that I can look back and understand that we were looking in the wrong place and didn’t even know it. Well, it’s time to see these old problems through new eyes.

I decided I was going to retire last March. My husband and I were ready to begin a new life journey together. All was going according to plan until I was introduced to Mike Wright, the CEO of an amazing company called Enkidu. Almost a year before I heard Oprah’s battle cry, Mike was sharing the same powerful sentiments with me. The refreshing thing is that it was coming from a place of service and passion. He and his partners were on a sincere mission to be agents of change. Everything Mike said spoke to me. It was time to do the right thing for each other, and start living in a world of acceptance, respect and compassion. It was time to create a mandate for real inclusion in businesses across all sectors…to benefit humanity, yes, but also to benefit business, and the people who work within them.

What was supposed to be a quick lunch meeting turned out to be a transformational three hours of insights that I wish I had had 35 years ago…and it only stopped because he had to catch a flight…

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