Last week, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson addressed some 1,700 ERG members about race. Not about business and race or the future or new products and services in a racial context – he spoke candidly about race, period.
He began by addressing the latest news from Dallas, Charlotte, police and black men killed – you’ve likely heard all about these major headlines – then he settled in and made things personal. He talked about his close friend Chris, who is black, and who he has known for many years. But it was only recently that Stephenson learned what a fraught history Chris had and realized how much it shaped his world view.
Stephenson spoke of the shame he felt for not knowing surprising and intimate details about his friend’s life, details and history that typically define a friendship, but that were completely omitted from this one. Then, like all great storytellers, he connected this personal nugget from his own life to his theme around racial tension: “If two very close friends of different races don’t talk openly about this issue [race] that’s tearing our communities apart, how do we expect to find common ground and solutions for what’s a really serious, serious problem? … Our communities are being destroyed by racial tension, and we’re too polite to talk about it.”
That’s basically where we are. Despite all of the evidence that screams, “there’s a big, big problem!” People still don’t want to talk about race. People don’t want to talk about gender bias and inequity, racial injustice, the cruelty and humiliation LGBT and disabled people are forced to endure on a daily basis. These topics are almost taboo in a way despite being perennially in the news because in the workplace, and in corner offices, the stigma around them lingers; and when it comes time for actions even the best intentions wither and die from lack of sustainable fuel.
I respect Stephenson so much for addressing racial tension head on. No dissembling, no politically correct waffling, he was thoughtful, but direct. Direct is very, very good.
Don’t get me wrong. Every conversation at work can’t and should not be about race or diversity. And it’s important to be polite, to be considerate. But when polite and considerate lead to a highly inequitable status quo that pats those concerned on their collective heads until occasional tensions dissipate without making change? When incidents are repeated and identified and then neatly swept into a file or brushed aside in favor of business as usual? That’s where direct becomes essential. Business as usual isn’t going to work much longer. I’d be willing to bet Stephenson knows that.
Forget the elephant in the room. He wants his customers, business partners and employees to know exactly where he stands on the racial divide – then they can act accordingly. “It takes work, it takes time, it takes emotion, and you’re gonna have to understand where the other one is coming from,” he said, “but we have to start communicating. And if this is a dialogue that’s going to begin at AT&T, I feel like it probably ought to start with me.”
He spoke again about his friend Chris’ and how his confusion with Chris’ response to certain issues has been replaced by a healthy dose of humility. And the next part in the speech literally made me swoon. I was nodding and clapping at my computer screen like I was seeing the event live. He said, “we should not say all lives matter to justify–” and then the crowd erupted, and I missed the rest, but you get the picture.
For those who still don’t get it, he offered some fabulous examples to illustrate just why the phrase all lives matter in response to black lives matter is ridiculous. And then he moved into my favorite part of any diversity discussion, the action part, the what now/what are we going to do differently?
“When we talk about race let’s begin the discussion with why. Why does my colleague feel this way? If we can understand why, it’s so much more likely that we can begin to agree on what needs to be done. You guys, the AT&T ERGs, you are a model for America. Look around. Look around, folks. It does not get any more diverse than this.
“I’m not asking you to be tolerant of each other. Tolerance is for cowards. Being tolerant requires nothing from you but to be quiet and to not make waves, holding tightly to your views and judgments without being challenged. Do not tolerate each other. Work hard. Move into uncomfortable territory and understand each other…I encourage you, please. Let’s go out and understand each other, okay?”
I legit want to switch to AT&T just because of the brave and sincere stance this leader took on a controversial issue that is close to so many hearts, and I doubt I’m the only one.
If you don’t believe that race, LGBT, gender and all of the different dimensions of diversity and inclusion that I discuss in this blog, and that so many discuss in different media around the world, are important for business, you are deluding yourself.
After that speech makes the rounds do you think AT&T will have recruiting problems? No. Some of the best and brightest will beat down this company’s doors to join up with a leader who shares and is vocal about their views on the importance of racial diversity.
Will AT&T have trouble finding sponsors for its events? No. Will it have difficulty finding business partners? No. Even if it didn’t have these issues before, now that Stephenson has made his views crystal clear people, savvy companies will clamor to align themselves with him.
Some may shy away, of course, but honestly, who cares? The world is diverse, customers are diverse, businesses need to be diverse if they are to thrive and not just survive, and Stephenson knows that. That’s why he went out on the ledge and thumbed his nose at tolerance and the status quo, to let key stakeholders know who he is and what his company stands for.
Leaders, your customers and employees are watching you. They note where you stand, where you fall down, and where you refuse to stand. Randall Stephenson had church the other day. And his pews weren’t filled with church goers but with employees and customers and evangelists for his brand.
His actions were brave, smart, thoughtful and absolutely great for business. We would all do well to follow this leader’s example.