By Ellen McGirt
Updated: September 28, 2017 1:40 PM ET

While reporting for The Black Ceiling, my feature article for Fortune that examines why black women aren’t making progress in corporate life, it became evident that proximity really matters.

One of the persistent challenges in creating inclusive workplaces is that people who are “different from each other” don’t typically have a natural way to work together. This is particularly hard on the young up-and-comers who are largely invisible to potential sponsors. Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and other senior leaders say that spontaneous exchanges between potential sponsors and the ambitious young people who need almost never happen. “There’s no natural place for these people to get together,” says Burns. “These places have to be created. There is no natural pathway for connection, it’s not going to happen just walking down the hall.”

Corey Anthony, AT&T’s senior vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer, has taken this insight to heart. Inclusion efforts have to be intentional — but even that isn’t enough, he says. Instead, interactions have to be designed in a way that maximizes good feelings. It’s the only strategy that breaks down barriers, he says. “We have all of this empirical evidence that says every company that’s trying to make money and have awesome customer service should be focused on trying to be as diverse as possible,” he says. “But what I would tell you is that most companies probably spend too much time focusing on the reasoning and rationale for diversity, and not enough time focused on the emotions that are attached to diversity.”

Anthony says that bias against black women as leaders is often hidden and runs deep, based on everything from upbringing, to images in the media, to personal history. As a diversity leader, “I have a better chance of countering that with an equally strong and powerful emotion.”

Anthony is testing his philosophy by orchestrating meaningful opportunities for senior leaders of all backgrounds to get to know black women. His first foray into inclusion by design in his current role was a conference held this September. More than a year in the making, it brought 150 high-potential women, half of whom were black, together for networking and learning. As part of the conference, Anthony invited some of AT&T’s senior leaders — both men and women — and made sure each was paired with small working groups that all included black women. His goal was to orchestrate an experience where people who might not ordinarily interact could work together on a shared project, and while doing so, get to know each other. “The feedback on both sides has been phenomenal,” he says. With good feelings running high, his next goal is to make sure these types of events happen outside of the high potential pool.

“There are thousands of women in the business who need these same developmental opportunities,” he says. “I asked everyone who said they saw the value, to now think of themselves as evangelists,” he says. “You’re equipped now, go replicate it across the business.”


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