Mellody Hobson
James Duncan Davidson — TED

The president of Ariel Investments shares her advice on an issue that most companies struggle with.

By Bob Moritz
July 15, 2015

It’s not easy or comfortable for most of us to talk about race, but it’s something we should not avoid, especially in light of recent events in Charleston, Baltimore, and Ferguson. If we are to make any progress on this national issue, we must talk about it openly.

So earlier this week, I sat down with Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, for a candid conversation about race. It wasn’t a private talk—we were joined both by 200 clients and PwC colleagues live in New York City and thousands around the country through an open webcast.

Before Mellody gave her influential TED Talk, “Be Color Brave, Not Color Blind,” viewed by millions around the world, many colleagues and friends advised her not to do it – it was too risky, too controversial, they said. She did it anyway and helped move the conversation forward. While Mellody has never backed away from honest conversations about race, she understands the challenges. “Bravery is the missing ingredient,” she says. I couldn’t agree more.

Senior business leaders, community leaders, and elected officials have a particular responsibility and a unique opportunity to be courageous in leading the conversation. We’re in a position to put the issues on the table, ask the hard questions, and engage our colleagues and stakeholders in addressing the critical issues surrounding diversity that confront our firms and society.

I am often asked, as I was during my talk with Mellody on Monday, what specific steps CEOs and senior executives can take to create real change in their organizations. During our conversation, Mellody gave three pieces of advice that I know will stay with me:

Be aware

Mellody told us that “step number one is awareness.” When you walk into a meeting, ask yourself if everyone in the room looks or sounds like you. Look around the boardroom table and across your business. Does everyone there look and sound like you? As Mellody urged, for example, we should take as much note when a corporate board is all white, as it is when it is all black. Ask yourself who’s missing. And, when you find out who’s missing, make a plan to include them. It’s better for all involved, and you’ll get a better result. Diversity is a business imperative—it’s no longer just nice to have.

Play in your lane

“Work with the power you have,” Mellody said. She explained that when Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, asked what he could do to be color brave, she told him his power was in the boardroom, and to focus there, because the C-suite is where he could make a difference. For business leaders, we must use our influence to start the conversations and set expectations across our firms and with our stakeholders. We must ask ourselves where can we effect the greatest change, and then leverage that to make change.

Hold yourself—and your business—accountable

Spending time on diversity is as essential a “must have” as developing the business case. It is not enough to talk about diversity; we have to put forth a focused effort and aim for results. These days, many people do a good job talking about diversity, but not as good a job at bringing it about. That needs to change, and all of us can do better.

To be sure, PwC doesn’t have all the answers, and we are clearly not there yet. Minority professionals remain underrepresented in my firm and my profession. But we’re making strides and we can, will, and must do more. Of PwC’s most recent partner class, 22% are partners of color. These new partners achieved what they did because they are among the best and brightest of our young leaders, not because they’re diverse. But it’s undoubtedly the case that their different perspectives helped make them the talented people they are.

For me, “playing in my lane” means using my position as PwC’s chairman and senior partner to drive conversations about race and diversity, to drive change and ask the hard questions within PwC and the profession in which we compete, and to have the discussion with other CEOs and corporate leaders.

First, within PwC, I try to make sure we are having the necessary conversations and making changes to increase our firm’s diversity. It starts with creating a safe environment to have the harder, more uncomfortable conversations that lead to awareness. We must not congratulate ourselves for believing we’re color blind – as Mellody explains, it’s about being color brave. We must be honest about the issues and their challenges, and we must be willing to have potentially hard discussions.

Second, when CEOs ask me questions about diversity, I respond with my own questions:

  • Do your business reviews consider only market share and market growth, or do you consider talent, including racial and gender diversity?
  • When your Board meets to discuss recruitment and hiring, do you send the firm’s diversity officer in your place or do you attend along with the business unit leaders that should be accountable for change?
  • Do you publicly, respectfully challenge decisions around promotions and demand that managers and company leaders create diverse teams?

I explain that their colleagues and partners look to them for leadership and direction. It’s therefore critical that we demonstrate our attention and commitment to these issues each and every day. If leadership does, the organization will too.

Mellody concluded our talk by urging us to move from awareness to action: “We have admired this problem long enough.” It’s time to be color brave. We can’t afford to wait.

Bob Moritz is chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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