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“Fake it ’til you make it” With Larry Dunivan and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Empathy rules the day. Before you can possibly appreciate what’s happening, you have to have truly acknowledged the feelings of others, and only through those expressions of empathy can the kinds of open conversations happen that will ultimately drive change. As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, […]

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Empathy rules the day. Before you can possibly appreciate what’s happening, you have to have truly acknowledged the feelings of others, and only through those expressions of empathy can the kinds of open conversations happen that will ultimately drive change.


As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Larry Dunivan.

Larry is the CEO of Namely, a provider of human resources, benefits and payroll technology that helps mid-sized companies build a better workplace. He has spent his entire 30-year career helping companies advance HCM (human capital management) technology strategies.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was born in Worcester, MA, and grew up in upstate New York. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, and my father was in computer sales at Burroughs (later Unisys). We moved every 2 to 3 years growing up, so I learned to move regularly. As an adult, I lived in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul for nearly 30 years raising my children. I always swore I’d stay in one place forever after having moved so much, but since my kids left home in 2010, I’ve lived in 5 places. What goes around (apparently) comes around.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Early in my career, I’d have to say it was “Who Moved My Cheese?” This book helped formulate my perceptions about how markets change and how organizations have to respond to those events. I remember in the early 90s, an upstart competitor came out of nowhere and materially impacted our business — and we’d ignored it for way too long. I was still very early in my career, so I was helping formulate the response, but it honed my sensitivity to watching for such trends and how they can materially damage businesses when you aren’t paying attention.

I also learned early that the way people feel and react impacts leadership greatly and found often that people’s viewpoints change, but leaders aren’t always sensitive to observing those changes; another example of the ‘cheese getting moved’ when you’re ignoring the need to acknowledge changes in a person’s behavior and more importantly how it’s usually because you aren’t paying attention to how people feel..

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Fake it ’til you make it.” I’ve never been afraid to try something, whether I felt fully prepared or not. In 1985, I started working for a software company and had attended 5 days of training. I remember clear as day: the Monday after Thanksgiving, I was sitting at my desk with a phone and the software manuals, and I was told to ‘start answering the phones.’ I was far from ready, so I always look back at that experience with humor and disbelief; I had no business doing it.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

For me, leadership is helping people make things happen. People often ask me what defines me as a leader, and I always say the same thing: “I help people sell.” On the surface, you can apply that to traditional sales activities, but the reality is that, in business, we are always ‘selling’ something — whether it be leading with influence or demonstrating that something has been completed with high quality. It’s all about convincing people that you ‘got it done.’

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Oddly enough, I always want to be (just) slightly unprepared for such meetings. By feeling just short of ready, my instincts are on high alert, and my listening skills are ready to go. That said, my preparation is comprehensive, but I rarely think through the meeting or rehearse ahead of time. That’s when I’m generally at my best.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

It would seem like our culture, environment, and politics have all met to produce the perfect storm — and I say that in a good way. The cultural issues have been around for decades, and I think we’ll look back and realize that only when you combine all of these factors (and mix in a pandemic) were the conditions right for what I believe will be permanent change. Also, as the parent of twin daughters in their late 20s, it’s plainly obvious to me that their generation is demanding this change while many people in my generation (and I say this with self-criticism) still don’t fully ‘get it.’

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

This one is easy. About five years ago, I was in a meeting with my peers talking about the issue as it related to diversity of our workforce. I lifted the point that unless we had a diverse candidate pool, we had no hope of creating a diverse workforce. At that time, I indicated that unless we did ‘whatever it takes’ to produce a diverse candidate pool, diversity wouldn’t happen. The discussion then centered around how we had ‘plenty’ of candidates from one race so we were good. The reality was that in the community at large, for that role, candidates from a single race were plentiful — but no others. By suggesting we had to proactively pursue diversity in the candidate pool and that we just weren’t doing it, I was accused of making a claim of racism against one of my peers. I’m embarrassed to say I gave up because literally no one in the room seemed to understand what I was saying — and five years later, things aren’t much better.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

It goes beyond this — it’s important to have diversity across the entire organization! It’s especially difficult at the executive level but it’s critical for several reasons: (1) it provides the right diversity of viewpoint that helps the organization thrive; (2) it demonstrates to employees that there are opportunities for all people regardless of race, gender, etc; (3) it’s our obligation to work actively (especially now) to make sure that those senior opportunities are accessible to all qualified people and (4) it’s our obligation to commit to developing skills across those groups (especially people of color).

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Educate yourself. I may not be a racist, but I have most definitely done (or not done) things that perpetuate policies and frameworks that have helped racism thrive. I recently finished reading “White Fragility” and “How to be an Antiracist.” I was dumbfounded by little I understood on the issue.
  2. Open your mind. As a 60 year old white man of privilege, I can’t possibly understand or appreciate what means to experience racism. I am a gay man, so I have some secondary appreciation of some of the issues, but I’d still have to characterize myself as naive, to be sure.
  3. Listen and ask for help. I am deeply grateful to our employee resource groups for their advice and counsel on what to do and how to do it.
  4. Empathy rules the day. Before you can possibly appreciate what’s happening, you have to have truly acknowledged the feelings of others, and only through those expressions of empathy can the kinds of open conversations happen that will ultimately drive change. This was especially true the day after Rayshard Brooks’ death in Atlanta. We have a large facility in the city, and many of the employees there are Black. They needed to hear that we cared, that what happened was utterly unacceptable.
  5. Commit to change with accountability. We published equality.namely.com as our commitment and we intend to revise it over time in partnership with our employees to drive long-term, systemic change.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

It will only be resolved if the (white) people of my generation recognize the world has changed. Forever. I fear for the impact on our society if my generation continues to fight the change that clearly our children have already embraced. The cheese has been moved, and I continue to be distressed by how many of my peers still refuse to recognize it. I’m committed to helping up bring that awareness.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Michelle Obama — I would like to encourage her to play a role in bridging the divide in our country and I think she is both uniquely positioned and qualified to be a change agent to help us move forward.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: @larrydunivan

Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/larrydunivan

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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