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“If you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what to say”, With Clarke Murphy and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Hire, retain and develop diverse talent: Make a visible commitment to DE&I and create authentic partnerships with diversity-focused organizations. This will unlock the broadest pools of talent. Once diverse talent is through your door, actively sponsor them and ensure they get visibility and stretch opportunities to advance within your organization. As part of our series […]

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Hire, retain and develop diverse talent: Make a visible commitment to DE&I and create authentic partnerships with diversity-focused organizations. This will unlock the broadest pools of talent. Once diverse talent is through your door, actively sponsor them and ensure they get visibility and stretch opportunities to advance within your organization.


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 Clarke Murphy.

Clarke is the chief executive officer of Russell Reynolds Associates and serves on the firm’s board of directors. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations as well as a member of the board of directors of Carnegie Hall and the New York City Ballet. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia.


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 grew up the youngest of five in a big Irish Catholic family in Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. With that many siblings, I learned quickly that competition and collaboration existed right next to each other.

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?

Inside Change: Transforming Your Organization with Emotional Intelligence by Josh Freedman. The book is a highly practical guide to organizational transformation based on human emotions and neuroscience. Adaptability and reinvention are crucial in business today, but change is never easy. This book shows that if leaders adopt pragmatic approaches that are backed up by science, it is entirely possible to pivot their organizations toward a new future. It is incredibly helpful in the world we live in today and for the challenges we face. Little did the author know when he wrote it how necessary it would be today!

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

There are two that come to mind, both of which I apply every single day:

My father said, “If you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what to say.”

Russ Reynolds, the founder of our firm, said that if you “make every business decision as though you own 100% of the company’s equity,” you will always do the right thing.

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

Leadership is the act of bringing people together to achieve things they would not have done on their own or without intervention. We see examples of it every day all around us — in the workplace, in politics, in sports, in social movements.

However, I like to go one step further and think about what defines great leadership. I firmly believe that the best leaders are those who help to build a better world. I am talking about the courageous leaders who are willing to pivot their organizations toward a more sustainable future and deliver lasting value for all stakeholders, not just stockholders.

Sustainability is now a critical imperative, and leaders’ legacies will depend on their willingness to act. We recently partnered with the United Nations Global Compact to develop a model for sustainable leadership, revealing the specific traits CEOs and board leaders will need to effect change on the ground.

Great leaders are typically great listeners. Today, that includes listening to the damage being done to the environment, listening to the changes taking place around how and where we work, listening to the calls for change in the way the world treats minorities. Leaders who listen the best, and who can communicate the most effectively, can quickly change the world.

The way I see it, leaders face a once-in-a-generation opportunity to step up and help solve some of the world’s most pressing economic, societal and environmental challenges. They should grasp this with both hands.

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?

I believe stress is driven by two things: not getting enough sleep and not getting enough exercise. Leaders need both.

Sleep is a weapon. It can be used to your advantage and a lack of it can be used against you! Exercise is the same.

In my job, high-stakes meetings are constant. I find it helpful to prep in uninterrupted blocks of time, up to 60 minutes at once, usually early in the morning. I have the most energy then; it is my best thinking time.

Usually I create a script with phrases as prompts, so when it comes time to speak, I am not trying to present something word for word, but am more focused on the phrases and key ideas I want to get across. This allows me to speak more authentically and be far more relaxed and, ultimately, to be less stressed in the moment.

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?

Recent, prominent examples of racial injustice in the United States — namely the killings of George Floyd, Tamir Rice and Breonna Taylor, to name but a few — have resulted in an increased acknowledgement of racial inequality in our society. They have also shone a spotlight on how much more leaders and organizations could be doing to address discrimination in all its forms. The truth is that too little has been done for too long.

Those of us in business have to acknowledge that issues exist. Some organizations are diverse but lack inclusion. Some are inclusive but lack diversity. Despite 13% of the US population being Black, less than 10% of managers are. Those numbers get worse the higher you go in the organization. When you look at the Fortune 500, there are only five Black CEOs — and there have been only 18 in the last two decades.

Leaders need to step up and start making changes in their organizations. There is a growing body of evidence that provides a useful roadmap for the journey ahead — what steps to take, what data to focus on, what results to aim for. There is no justification for leaders not to act.

The changes they make must be real change, and not just at the surface level. This is a monumental moment in our history. We need action, not platitudes.

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?

At Russell Reynolds Associates, we concentrate on three focus areas — what I call the “three Cs”:

  • Communities: We are leveraging our institutional knowledge to coach, mentor and prepare tomorrow’s Black executives in America and minority colleagues across the globe. At the office level, we collaborate with and support local organizations that seek to end racial injustices.
  • Company: We are implementing changes across our global network to ensure minority colleagues have career support, growth opportunities, an amplified voice and an enabling environment.
  • Clients: We are using our convening authority to bring together CEOs from across industries to increase representation of Black professionals and other minorities in the leadership ranks of corporations worldwide. Part of this is training leaders and organizations globally to overcome biases and create inclusive cultures.

To that last point, this summer I hosted a conversation with eight CEOs who head other top global search firms to talk about what we could do as an industry to address some of these challenges. These leaders agreed to participate in a diversity working group to develop a set of guiding principles for change and a commitment to action. The goal is that by working together we can truly move the needle on racial inequalities. This partnership is unprecedented for our industry. It will be absolutely essential as we seek to shift the balance at companies around the world toward equity.

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?

In short, diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is good for business. The bottom-line benefits are extensive and well documented.

For example, our research has shown that the right DE&I efforts can lead to increased employee retention, engagement and creativity, as well as a greater sense of employee belonging. Benefits like these not only reduce operating expenses, they can also lead to increased revenue from thinking more broadly about current and potential customers.

Beyond this, there are countless examples of how firms with diverse boards and leadership teams are more likely to deliver above-average financial returns. When people bring different worldviews and life experiences to the table, it creates the perfect environment for innovation and value creation. It is somewhat unbelievable that so many organizations are not making the most of this important growth lever.

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.

I am a passionate believer that business leaders have a role to play in creating a better world and that there is a lot of opportunity for improvement.

Based on our research, we know that companies with advanced DE&I practices do five things differently. If leaders want to make their organizations welcoming to diverse talent, they can follow this roadmap:

  1. Hire, retain and develop diverse talent: Make a visible commitment to DE&I and create authentic partnerships with diversity-focused organizations. This will unlock the broadest pools of talent. Once diverse talent is through your door, actively sponsor them and ensure they get visibility and stretch opportunities to advance within your organization.
  2. Build inclusive cultures: Ensure you are taking the pulse of the culture of your organization. This means taking steps to understand which populations feel less included and looking beyond the symptoms (e.g., women are leaving the organization) to truly understand the root causes. Address any aspects of your culture that are resistant to change — and actively build a more inclusive culture by holding people accountable to changing organizational norms and values. Understand the data behind your workforce sentiment and seek clarity on what needs to be fixed in the short term and in the long term.
  3. Develop inclusive leaders: A lack of leadership accountability and commitment to DE&I is one of the top barriers to an effective DE&I strategy. Set an example by leading inclusively yourself. Create opportunities for collaboration, leverage diverse perspectives and ensure an environment where employees can safely voice their opinions. Importantly, hold others accountable for leading in an inclusive manner too.
  4. Create unbiased talent management processes: Take a rigorous, data-driven approach to your talent management processes and understand the specific DE&I pain points in your recruiting, promotion, compensation and retention processes. Have a plan to reduce or eliminate bias and make other necessary changes.
  5. Create a sustainable DE&I operating model: An inclusive organization needs the right DE&I operating model in the form of governance, structure, accountability and resourcing to achieve and sustain its DE&I objectives. Recognize the importance of taking a long-term holistic approach while simultaneously focusing on short-term metrics and incentives to ensure leaders are meeting key milestones along the way.

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

We have made tremendous progress in the last century and I believe we will continue to do so despite the seemingly never-ending list of challenges we face. As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

As upsetting as current events may be, there are a growing number of people who want to be part of the solution, and to bring about change — not surface-level change, but deep, lasting change. That gives me hope.

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. 🙂

Madeleine Albright. She is an emigre who became one of the most powerful and insightful diplomats in US history. Her belief in America coupled with her perspective as a global citizen gave her a unique understanding of nations and cultures. People can learn so much from her. Her personal story is as equally compelling as her career. She is an amazing role model.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn.

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

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