I vividly remember being called in to lead a group of leaders and managers through a discussion of diversity and inclusion. They worked for an organization that clearly had made good progress on this front, or at least appeared to be.
This group was itself as diverse as you could assemble, a collage of people from different racial and cultural backgrounds, bringing multiple generations, and including the spectrum of gender and sexual orientation.
To my mind, the perfect group to engage in this discussion.
In challenging them to speak openly about the normally thorny issues involving their experiences and views, conversations flowed freely. Engagement was high. There were jokes, and easy laughter.
As an outsider, I was impressed.
But I couldn’t help but notice that the first time race was brought up, someone else in the group would quickly change the topic.
And then again. And again.
Finally, I called a time out and asked, “Have any of you noticed what’s happening here?”
Later that day, breakout groups presented to the CEO of the organization on their experiences, challenges and successes for issues of diversity and inclusion.
They were phenomenal – candid, emotionally charged, well articulated. They were some of the most incredibly difficult conversations I had ever heard.
They had laid bare organizational gaps and proposed solutions. They presented an incredible opportunity to their leader.
What did he do? Change the topic. It was a most uncomfortable moment, and crushing for all those assembled.
It was a stark illustration for me of how incredibly important it is for top leadership to engage in – and take responsibility for – these issues, as difficult as they are to address.