Meeting the Executive Teams.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend two live keynotes on inclusion and leadership. One was a masterclass for a team of managing directors, all white, senior males, who had flown into London from different parts of the world. The second was a Board Leadership Meeting where the top team of executives met to discuss a newly important topic on their agenda: inclusion and diversity. There were just a handful of women. Though low in numbers, it must be highlighted that these women stood up for their space, they earned it, they demanded attention when they spoke, with cunning authority, and it was the men who were sitting at their table for lunch.
Both teams had two things in common: a very homogenous grouping and a cunning intimidating aura from their vast successes.
The Generational Gap.
As a young optimist, fresh out of university, I was not expecting to learn much from these keynotes. How I was mistaken! In school, I believed that it was impossible to get the older generation on board with progress, change, and inclusion. So much divides our generations between those fighting for change and those who let our ideas go in one ear and out the other. Many of us, in our teens and early twenties, do not bother with the idea of interacting with older folk we deem “problematic”. On one hand, who can blame us? There are too many people in power positions who do not fight for our rights, those of our friends, and family. On the other hand, why are we actively upholding that gap by thinking the worst of people?
Engage, Include, then Advocate.
During both keynotes, I had the privilege to watch something unique happen: Almost every member of both teams began the session disinterested in the topic, untouched, arms folded across their chests. The majority of them finished the day leaning forward, thinking hard, engaged, curious, and smiling. They were enjoying a keynote on D&I for once. Clearly, they had never experienced an exercise like that before. One that focused on pushing blame and guilt out of the window; focusing rather on engaging with people authentically, pushing for empathy and walking in the shoes of others.
We made them feel safe, trusted, and shame-free in a circle to which every single person belonged. They could get things wrong but at least they were not hesitant to try.
By the end of each session, several executives prompted a difficult conversation with me. I coin it “difficult” because it was the first time they wanted to talk about “progressive steps to change” with a younger person — someone who was not one of their kids shouting at them across the dinner table.
We talked about many things: how increasing the diversity of a team can only benefit, the importance of making people feel included so that they do not leave a workplace. On a more personal note, we discussed “coming out,” the journey to being transgender, the autistic community. Finally: How to inspire young kids and better the work/life balance for people of different backgrounds in a company. Most importantly, I reminded them how their positions in their company gave them access to resources and funding which they could allocate to initiatives driving inclusion.
Take Those Who Are Willing With You!
In some aspects, having a conversation with these older business managers reignited my hope in building a more accepting society. They showed me that they are open to helping a cause that leaves nobody excluded. There are people out there who will listen and learn if you approach them in a way that includes them from the beginning. Far too many people feel left out of a world vision when someone advocates for the rights and equality of someone else.
Inclusion is not a zero-sum game, everyone can thrive when everyone feels included and valued.
Inclusion Requires Keeping Friends Close, Not Enemies.
One of the only ways forward to improve the lives of many is to start those difficult conversations with people who have been sitting in the comfortable chair for far too long. Only by feeling the damage of exclusion from listening to a story, walking in the shoes of a colleague, or a friend, can someone make an uncomfortable step to change.
A few of my friends avoid interactions with older white men at all costs, refuse to move out of the way for them in the street, and withhold any empathy or kindness. It is quite a radical age. But it does not help inclusion. I understand the hate and criticism aimed at the patriarchy, but the unconscious bias to dislike older white men, in particular, will hinder any possibility of driving change. Keep the passion, but use it for good.
If someone is given the opportunity to see their value in a fight they did not know was theirs, they will never forget the message.
I believe, after building the most improbable of friendships at the post-keynote dinners, that change is going to require a bridge to be built. A bridge between two generations that have been dragged further and further apart. People are no longer afraid of speaking up and showing others that they earned their position. On the flip side, people who have been profiting off others’ hardships are enforcing barriers to protect themselves. This defensiveness can only last so long. There is a tidal wave of protest and accountability hitting every part of the globe.
There needs to be a new commitment to bringing the younger and older generations closer together before one of them pushes the other one out.