There has been a lot of activity in recent months with companies putting out bold statements about how they’re going to become more equitable, how they’re going to be a stand for anti-racism, and how they’re going to combat white supremacy within their organization. Almost just as quickly, those same companies have sought out consultants to help them navigate this journey, realizing very quickly they have neither the knowledge nor the skills to do this work alone (who does?). I and many of my other colleagues in the space have found ourselves on the receiving end of very many of such requests. And there’s a theme. In a quest to solve the racism problem post haste, many companies make the false assumption that simply by asking a consultant (many of whom identify with one or more marginalized groups) that they can somehow stop the bleed that the current environment has exposed. What results is sometimes an approach to the work that is shortsighted at best and hurtful at worst.
There are people in our country (and the world) who have been in situations and spaces where they do not feel safe, for numerous reasons. This is physical, psychological and emotional. While consultants in this work are aware of the challenges in engaging in this work, there is room for those who are looking to start their journey, to examine how they too can approach with a modicum of care.
Myself and others have been on the receiving end of some requests that even in their very nature of the task have been traumatizing and exist inside the frameworks of power that we are all working to disrupt.
What I offer next are a few baseline questions that both consultants and potential clients of this work may want to consider as a means to prevent partnerships that reinforce lopsided power dynamics.
If you are a consultant or equity coach in the space, consider looking at some of the following as a way for you to better vet which discovery calls and inquiries that you choose to pursue. If you find that the corporation or entity that reaches out to you cannot be honest in these next four areas (which you can ask prior to getting on call), seriously consider whether this is work that you want to engage in further. In addition to the four key areas to explore when conducting a discovery call, I also consider the following for myself:
- Will taking on this client be doing harm (emotional or otherwise) to myself?
- Will the relationship create opportunity to defy traditional “norms” around race, gender, and other dynamics of power, or reinforce them?
- Am I walking into a space where I will be respected as a partner in transformational change, or hired help, who will complete the task at hand, and be grateful for whatever compensation is offered?
- In working with this entity am I allowing myself to be a function of performative tactics or intentional transformation in the fight against racism?
For Consultants and Companies
And now, the four areas that I feel need to be addressed as consultants and companies consider pursuing a long term (or short term) engagement in their anti-racist relationship.
1. What is the problem to be solved? What does the ideal state look like?
This is critical. Please don’t come looking for anti-racist solutions as a reaction to negative press. If you are reaching out because you want people to think that you are inclusive but haven’t truly thought about what it would look like or feel like for your company to be inclusive then you have not spent enough time thinking about the solution or altered state you were trying to create. And the trite “ I want to be on the right side of history” response is problematic. If no one was going to know that you were inclusive, and it wasn’t to be documented by historians, why would you pursue this work? I understand that this is challenging. I understand that it’s hard to explain to a fish what water is. Antiracism work must be more than a reaction to bad press or an avenue to work through your own guilt. If it weren’t about you “feeling better” what would this work be about for you?
2. How much time are you willing to invest in this work?
Be realistic about the time that you want to invest in this cultural shifting work. Transformative work takes time. You will not become an anti-racist organization and create inclusive work culture over the course of three workshops. People are not going to be excited to work in your environment, and feel that you have created psychological safety because everyone took implicit bias training. Please understand this. And in your request for a consultant, understand the time that you are prepared to commit up front. Be specific about where this journey and this work falls in the overall priorities of the organization. And have those conversations with your leadership team before you hop on a call with a professional. If you are only able to commit 3 to 6 hours of time on this, be honest. I’m not saying you won’t find a consultant who’s willing to provide you some of their time but please understand that the time you invest will absolutely impact your outcomes. Professionals in the space recognize this and will need to know what you’re willing to invest in order to provide an appropriate next step.
3. What’s your budget?
Just as you need to understand the amount of time you’re willing to invest please be clear about the financial investment your company is going to make in this work at this time. A 3-hour workshop does not have the same financial value as a six-month or one-year strategic plan. Or a 3 to 5 year strategic plan where you are asking to work closely with your HR department to work on things like changing your hiring practices, your interviewing systems, looking at your Performance Management metrics, internal development strategy, creating employee resource groups within your organization and training managers and c-suite staff to support inclusion by giving them vocabulary to become active allies in the near term and beyond. If you have not considered the financial investment you are willing to make do not approach a consultant to do work. Our time is not free. You assuming that it is or that you can bargain and talk us down is insulting both to the work and to the consultant. Your time is not more valuable than the consultant’s. Your expertise is no more valuable than the consultants. Approaching from a position that assumes otherwise, especially if you are approaching a consultant who identifies with one or more marginalized groups, is problematic. SHRM notes that A substantial number [of diversity consultants] are women and racial minorities. Don’t ask for help without being willing and cognizant of what you are willing to invest to honor that consultant and their work as valuable.
4. What have you done so far to remedy this issue?
And finally do your homework. What do I mean by that? If you say you want to do this work of becoming an inclusive work environment please don’t let your first response be to pay someone outside of the organization to fix this problem. You need to be personally invested in the work too. When I sit in a discovery session with teams looking to engage in conversations about equity and inclusion, I am always quick to ask what work has your team done in this area so far? Are you reading books together, having challenging conversations? How have you explored this independently, and as a team prior to seeking out additional support? To what degree have you engaged with your HR team around these challenges? Now this last one might seem like a catch-all but it is also a way for practitioners to gauge where in the conversation they’re going to find themselves if they choose to work with you. A team without an HR department and zero vocabulary about DEIB, is not in the same place as a thriving leadership team with a robust DEIB committee who is actively engaging conversations and events that support inclusion. This is a good indicator of your level of commitment because the assumption with any consultant is that after we deliver our services we are going to leave. And the sign of a good consultant (just like any good leader) is that in their absence the team is able to thrive and grow beyond where the consultant or leader was able to direct them. Do your homework.
Now I know this is not an exhaustive list, and again, as I continue to speak to other practitioners in the equity and inclusion space I am finding there is still a lot of hurt and harm that is being done in some of these conversations. I don’t point out these things to cast blame on anyone but truly only to engage in a conversation where we all can be better prepared to create dialogue around inclusion that is actually safe on both sides; for those who are seeking to learn, and for those who are seeking to guide and support the journey.
If you are a consultant and there are other areas where you have found prospects or clients are ill prepared even in their quest for support, I encourage you to add your voice to these suggestions. Even in “the ask” we are coming from a particular cultural perspective. And for those of you who are seeking out consultants in this space, what have you found has been supportive as you start to vet and look at consultants? How are you examining who you want to work with and how they will best integrate with what your company is seeking to create?
2020 has been a long year, some would say a four-years-long kind of year. But if we’re going to continue to do the hard work of shifting who we are as individuals, a community, a nation, and a world, we all need to protect our energy both in the conversations we have, and in the questions we ask. I think if we can all learn to honor that, and be more thoughtful in how we engage with each other, there’s hope for us yet.
Marie is an executive leadership coach and a DEIB consultant. She provides corporate and team coaching. Learn more about Marie’s team coaching offers.