The start of the year is a natural time to reflect and reset diversity and inclusion strategies, and we’ve found plenty of inspiration from Michelle Obama’s recently published memoir, Becoming.
While it might not make traditional c-suite reading lists, we think there’s many important personal insights and practical strategies to help make workplaces – and societies – fairer and inclusive.
Here’s four that particularly resonated for us.
The surprise people registered to her life story ‘that an urban black girl had vaulted through Ivy League schools and executive jobs and landed in the White House’ made Michelle Obama mindful of a larger obligation, as First Lady, to children in general and girls in particular.
‘There had been so many times in my life when I’d found myself the only woman of colour – or even the only woman, period – sitting at a conference table or attending a board meeting or mingling at one VIP gathering or another,’ Obama writes. ‘If I was the first at some of these things, I wanted to make sure that in the end I wasn’t the only – that others were coming up behind me.’
It’s an eloquent reminder of the value in paying it forward when we’re the ‘only’ or the ‘first’ or when we notice others who are the ‘only’s’ in our teams, especially in the light of recent McKinsey showing that women who are ‘only’s’ have a significantly worse experience than women who work with other women.
Secondly, Michelle Obama’s gratitude to the people who ‘waved her forward’, who did their best to ‘inoculate me against the slights and indignities I was certain to encounter in the places I was headed – all those environments built primarily for and by people who were neither black nor female’ is testimony to the importance of executive sponsors, allies, and employee networks who support and actively advocate for greater diversity in the firms where we work.
Michelle Obama implemented numerous initiatives in her time at the White House. One less well known was a leadership and mentoring program at the White House for twenty girls from high school around Washington, D.C., pairing each teen with a female mentor. These were girls from a range of backgrounds – girls from military families, a teen mother, a girl who’d lived in a homeless shelter, and girls from immigrant families. It was set up, she says, because she wanted these girls to ‘feel comfortable and confident in any room, sitting at any table, raising their voices inside any group.’ Small program (in political terms at least), big impact.
And this led to our third reflection: what ‘small program, big impact’ can we each lead, or contribute to, in workplaces to make a difference for diversity and inclusion this year?
At the end of the book, Michelle Obama explains the title of the book: ‘…becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self’. Her words have the effect of encouraging us all to do better.
In sharing her story, she wants to create space for other voices ‘to widen the pathway for who belongs and why’. Those particular words hit a deep chord, because we regularly hear stories in workplaces of ways in which people feel a lack of belonging because of micro-aggressions, exclusive language, conscious and unconscious biases. The good news is that we also hear, and share, lots of practical examples of inclusive leaders taking pro-active steps to clear the pathway and challenge long-held biases.
The ending is uplifting. She writes: ‘For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us … There’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.’
So, as we start the year in earnest to guide organisations on their diversity and inclusion journey to create better workplaces, here’s a few questions we’re sharing with clients and among our own team based on these reflections:
· How can we lift others up, particularly those who are the ‘only’s’ in teams and organisations?
· How can we better recognise and support the role of sponsors and employee networks that provide strength to diverse talent?
· What ‘small program, big impact’ can we lead in our workplaces this year to accelerate diversity and inclusion progress?
· How can we widen the pathway for who belongs and why?
We look forward to opportunities with new and established clients to help progress your organisation’s diversity and inclusion objectives in 2019, and we hope this is the year you make great strides on your journey.