I had the pleasure of interviewing Howard Ross, a lifelong social justice advocate and the founding partner of Cook Ross. He’s considered one of the world’s seminal thought leaders on identifying and addressing Unconscious Bias. Howard has delivered programs in 47 states and over 40 other countries to audiences including Fortune 500 companies and major institutions within healthcare, government, and non-profit sectors. He authored the Washington Post bestseller, Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives, and Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance. His new book, Our Search for Belonging: How the Need for Connection Is Tearing Our Culture Apart (Berrett-Koehler, May 8, 2018) describes how to bridge the divide in our increasingly polarized society. Learn more at cookross.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was born just 5 years after the end of the second World War into a family in which my grandparents were all Jewish immigrants. My family had significant losses during the Holocaust (at least 43 members of my maternal Grandfather’s family were murdered on August 2–3, 1942 when the Nazis killed all but 100 of the 5000 Jews in the Ukrainian village he grew up in). As a teenager I got involved in the Civil Rights movement. After beginning my career as an educator, I became an organizational development consultant and the two came together in the 80’s when diversity work in organizations started to emerge. After doing the work for more than a decade I began to explore the contradiction between what seemed to be people’s genuine desire to “do the right thing” and their actual behavior. That led me to the exploration of unconscious bias, which became a dedicated field of study for the past two decades. More recently I have gotten increasingly concerned about the intensification of polarization in our society, which triggered the exploration that led to “Our Search for Belong: How Our Need to Connect is Tearing Us Apart.”
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the most significant was this story that I wrote about in my first book, Reinventing Diversity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011):
I was leading a diversity training for a newspaper in a small town in Louisiana. It was an old style southern town with old style southern attitudes. David Duke had carried the parish during his run for governor, a campaign considered by most to be a throwback to the old “segregation today, segregation forever” southern attitude.
The first day we got into the normal kinds of dialogues that I had become accustom to. People shared their experiences, argued points with each other. People of color, mostly African American at this particular training, talked about the pain of racism, how it had impacted them in their lives. Whites in the group were all over the place…some understanding, some resisting. One man sat virtually silent the whole day, clearly listening, clearly engaged, but not speaking except in minimal comments in small groups. He was a pressman, dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans. White, probably in his thirties, he could have fit the stereotyped picture of a local Southern boy. His demeanor was pleasant, even friendly. He smiled a lot and seemed to interact easily with people at the breaks.
During the morning discussion on Day Two, a couple of the African American participants shared much more openly then they had about their life experiences, the challenges they had faced, and their fears for their children. It was deep and emotionally moving. Finally, out of nowhere the man who had been silent said, “I have something to share.”
“I’ve been sitting here listening to what folks have to say and I feel a little confused and pulled in two directions. I can understand the kind of upset that people are talking about. I haven’t really heard Black folks talk about it in quite this way ever before. I guess I haven’t wanted to. But I know some of these folks and they seem like nice folks. I also know that the kinds of things that they are talking about that have happened in these parts, particularly when I was a kid, were pretty scary for them. But I grew up right around here, on a farm not far outside of town. I’ve lived here my whole life. I know folks in this town, white and Black. I grew up with them. There are good people in this town. It is hard for me to believe that those people did some of the things that you folks are talking about…but I believe you when you say they happened.”
He paused for a few minutes and looked down at the ground. He stayed that way for what seemed like a long time, long enough so that the rest of us wondered whether he was finished. I remember that just as I was about to check with him whether he was finished, he looked up and he had tears in his eyes. I think everybody in the room was surprised.
“Here’s my problem,” he said. “My Father and Grandfather were the most important people in my life. They’re both gone now, but they taught me everything I know. They took me hunting and fishing from the time I was this high.” He motioned with his hand. “They were leaders in our community, helped people. They taught me to be a good father…”
And then he dropped the bomb.
“But they were both members of the Klan. It wasn’t talked about that much, but it wasn’t hidden that much either. I don’t know what they did, and I don’t want to know, but I as I sit here I feel the conflict inside of me. I know that what you have all been saying makes sense. Nobody should have to feel the way you’re saying you feel. But I feel like when I say that I reject the two people who were the most important people in my life.”
The room was dead silent. After a few minutes we decided to break for lunch. As the group dispersed I sat in my chair, processing what had happened. I noticed one of the most outspoken African American men in the group approaching the man, and they pulled up chairs and ate with each other engrossed in conversation.
Even at the moment I realized that something profound had happened within myself. In all the years I had dealt with the issue of race, worked on social change, conducted trainings, my perspective had been clear: There were good people in the world who were open, accepting, non-biased, inclusive; and then there were bad people, who were biased, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic. The lines, in my mind, were pretty clearly drawn. And yet, as I looked at the two men talked and as I thought about what had transpired I realized that this was a good and decent man. An honest man. Even a courageous man. And I couldn’t help but think to myself, “there is something else here to look at.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think if there is one thing that is distinctive about Cook Ross it is that we try our best to “walk our talk.” The people in our company are, to a person, passionately committed to our mission, to transform the world to be more inclusive, one organization at a time. Does that mean we’re perfect? Of course not, we struggle just like everybody does. But with a full-time staff of almost 50 people, more than half of whom are women, more than half people of color, more than 10 who self-identify as LGBTQ, we have created a laboratory that allows us to explore the issues we are dealing with on a daily basis and learned from our successes AND from our frustrations.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
I think the most important work that I’m focused on right now is the theme of “Our Search for Belonging”: finding a way to bridge the gap between the heavily polarized elements of our society today. I deeply believe that this polarization has become so entrenched that it is more threatening than any single issue today.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I think the most important thing is to never waiver on having your mission be your True North. It is, of course, important to pay attention to the financial aspects of the business, organizational dynamics, structures and systems, etc., but is too easy for all of that to take over people’s focus and for the mission to be a lot of words on a piece of paper. I firmly believe that if you have a bold mission and it is a mission of service, you will do well by doing good.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
The most important, by far, are my two current partners: my wife, Leslie Traub and our current Managing Partner, Michael Leslie Amilcar. There are so many others over 30 years that it feels unfair to leave any out. I wish I could list all of the people who have contributed to my personal growth and that of the company, but it would be too long. Some of the most important were Nancy Neall and Bob Allen, two of my early mentors; Dottie (Cook) Gandy, my first partner, Amri Johnson, who was with us for only a few years but had a huge impact on the company’s growth; Howie Schaffer, who was instrumental in getting my first book published; Robby Gregg, whose love and support have given me more opportunities than I can name; and Laura Malinowski, who has been with us every day for the past 16 years of this journey. I also have been blessed to have friends and colleagues like Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole and Dr. Julianne Malveaux, who have contributed to me along the way, as well as people in organizations I have worked with, and hundreds of clients I have worked with.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try every day to live in accordance with my values and some important teachings: Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and the Dalai Lama, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” I also am deeply committed to giving back to the community. We have had an opportunity to do pro-bono work for some of the most incredible charitable organizations in the world, and I am deeply grateful for those opportunities.
Can you share the top five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. By creating products and services that meet new marketplaces: One of the most recent examples of that is The Black Panther movie. Most people didn’t think of a film made with an almost exclusively Black cast as a potential blockbuster, yet here we are…over a billion dollars in earnings later
2. Creativity and Innovation: We have some solid research now (Check out “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Princeton Press, 2007) that shows that greater diversity leads to greater problem solving and innovation. I’m a musician, and the influence of other cultural rhythms and sounds has created great music for generations. Just check out John Coltrane’sMeditations album, or the music George Harrison made with Ravi Shankar, or Paul Simon’s classic Rhythm of the Saints.
3. Getting the best talent: As the workforce becomes increasingly more diverse in every way, organizations that do not organize themselves to maximize the value of their diversity will find that more and more of that talent will go elsewhere. For example, more than half of the graduates of law schools are now women. Any law firm that is seen as not practicing gender equity will see those talent students going to their competitors.
4. Great understanding and collaboration: Our ability to understand each other, and potentially the customers we are serving is enhanced by having a culture of inclusion and cooperation
5. Diversity encourages organizations and teams to continue to evolve and grow: The constant shifting of diversity requires us to have new perspectives and find new ways of operating, countering organizational complacency. More women in the workforce, for example, encouraged many companies to challenge their fundamental ways of operating and create new ways of being that not only benefit women, but men as well. The Women’s Initiative that Deloitte began in the 90’s is a classic example.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
About 25 years ago I was having lunch with a board member for one of my client organizations. He was a very successful entrepreneur and gave me the most important advice anybody has before or since. He said, “If you want to be successful in business, focus on three things: Be smarter than anyone else (in other words, never stop learning); Work harder than anyone else; and Be nicer than anyone else (In other words, always keep the needs of others in the forefront and try as best you can to treat them with love and kindness.” I have tried to live by those words every day.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
There are so many heroes and sheroes out there who I would love to meet one-on-one. President and Michelle Obama, Bruce Springsteen, Emma Gonzalez, Daniel Kahneman, Howard Schultz, and Malala.
Originally published at medium.com