By Ellen McGirt
May 25, 2017

I’m back from the Great Place to Work For All conference in Chicago, where I was treated to a full day of conversation with passionate, inclusive professionals who left with a renewed commitment to their work. They were not there to play. More on that in a moment.

Alan Murray, the president of Fortune and the chief content officer of Time Inc., was also on hand, and lead a series of fascinating interviews with leaders from four companies on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list: Cisco Chairman John Chambers, Genentech founder Herb Boyer and current CEO Bill Anderson, PwC U.S. chairman Tim Ryan, and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.

From Alan’s CEO Daily column:

I was especially moved by the stories both Ryan and Stephenson told about their efforts to address race relations after last year’s shootings and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Both men made the case that the issue was not peripheral, but central to their jobs. Ryan said creating a healthy culture is core to the challenges most PwC clients face, while Stephenson said he believed using his company’s power to address pressing social issues like race was in his shareholders’ long-term interest. (You can read more about Ryan’s conversion here, and Stephenson here.)

Off stage, courage was very much top of mind. People shared tips on how to push past institutional barriers, and speak data-driven, evidenced based truth to power, when necessary. Many expressed shock at having misread the country so badly — specifically the ease with which many people have embraced racist and protectionist rhetoric.

But those concerns were kept in check by an equal and opposite realization: That business has an even more essential role to play in society at large.

Here are three key takeaways that I gleaned from the collective, along with some quick advice I cobbled together on what comes next. I’m going to use these insights to inform my essays in the coming weeks. Let me know what you think, and what else you might need:

  • If inclusion efforts aren’t coming from the top, they’re not coming. That was the clear consensus from my own panel yesterday, and it was echoed by almost everyone I spoke with who was in a position to shape policy at their own firms. If C-Suites and boards are not making diversity a priority by holding executives accountable to measurable goals, the mid-level revolution is going to wither. Your next step: Learn how and when to make your case to the top. And know when you need to start looking for a better culture fit.
  • Senior leaders are finding ways to talk about race, justice, and inclusion in increasingly visible and productive ways. But they can’t do it alone. When high profile leaders speak publicly about race and inequity, it’s a difficult tightrope to walk under the best of circumstances. The new administration, with its heated rhetoric and executive orders, initially shocked many C-Suites into nervous huddles. But that’s starting to change. Your next step: Speak up. Don’t miss opportunities to share your thoughts with senior management in surveys and in direct correspondence, and express appreciation for any statements that support inclusive societies. Saying nothing says something, and that’s true of leaders at every level.
  • Employees are expecting more from their employers than ever before. And it’s not just snacks and foosball. Across the board, employees want their organizations to be stabilizing forces in society, openly tackling social ills like race, poverty, and unequal opportunity. Everyone I talked to found this trend to be a thrilling and terrifying prospect that was going to re-shape business systems and thinking at every level. Your next step: Work on becoming a better ally within your company. Join an employee research group that doesn’t cater to your demographic. Look for opportunities to elevate the voices of “invisible” talent around you. Build the world inside that you want to influence the outside.

My next step: Haiku Friday.

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