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‘Change Comes from the Top’ – James D. White, Krista White, and Doug Conant on Building a Diverse & Inclusive Culture

by | Dec 8, 2022

This fall, ConantLeadership hosted its 4th bi-annual BLUEPRINT Leadership summit, a meeting of the top leadership minds and luminaries in the business space.

The third session of the summit was headlined by a father-daughter duo, James D. White and Krista White, the co-authors of the book, Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World. James D. White, the former chairman, President, and CEO of Jamba Juice and the current Board Chair of the Honest Company, and Krista White, writer and founder of Culture Design Lab, and Co-Founder of Kiki For The Future™ joined host Doug Conant, Founder and CEO of ConantLeadership, to discuss key principles from Anti-Racist Leadership.

Throughout their discussion, the panelists highlight the importance of intentionality and vulnerability in helping advance the work of anti-racist leadership. Enjoy the following tips from their session for creating a sustainable culture that honors people and celebrates and supports diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

James D. White and Krista White on Zoom at the BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit

James D. White and Krista White, featured keynote panelists on Day 3 of the BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit

The World Has Moved

The last few years have altered societal attitudes and transformed the way organizations and people operate. James says that even though he has experienced racism throughout his formidable career, it was the pandemic, and the “global racial reckoning” of 2020 in response to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, an Breonna Taylor, which pushed him to accelerate his anti-racism advocacy and to write Anti-Racist Leadership. Doug agrees that, “the world has moved,” and people are challenging organizations to “not just have a business purpose but a higher purpose.”

Combined, Doug and James have over 70 years of corporate experience; they observe that today’s workforce is more diverse and represents the widest range of generations than at any other time in their careers. Serving and inspiring the changing workforce requires more enlightened leadership than ever before. Doug says the days of focusing solely on shareholder returns are over, as all stakeholders—employees included—are asking, “what returns are we getting, and are we managing this in a responsible and honorable way?”

The panelists are unanimous: New generations are hungry for ethical and inclusive environments, and organization success is contingent on building these cultures. As the authors write in their book, “inclusiveness isn’t simply nice to have; not being inclusive will lead to failure.” As the world and its workforce continue to evolve, leaders must evolve too.

Words Matter: Operating with Intentionality & Vulnerability

As people search for higher purpose and meaning, organizations and leaders must be clear, direct, and intentional with their agenda. Krista explains that they were intentional with the title and opening paragraph of their book because they wanted readers to know exactly where they stood. The first few sentences of Anti-Racist Leadership read:

This book is not apolitical. This book is explicitly anti-racist, pro-Black, pro-LGBTQIA+, and feminist. This book takes the stance that Black Lives Matter, that LGBTQIA+ rights are human rights, that people of all abilities deserve respect and access, and that people of all genders have the right to sovereignty over their bodies and identities.”

The authors chose these words to make it clear they are not advancing a tepid approach, but they acknowledge there will always be skeptics. Although corporate culture has begun to respond to calls for a more equitable world, many are resistant. James shares the story of a woman, who after reading the opening paragraph of the book, asked him if he cared if he ever worked in mainstream business again—implying that the corporate world might balk at their stance. But James stood his ground, explaining: “We sit at a place in time where we really have to call things what they are.” And, as the authors write in their book, “Often, doing the right thing is not the easy thing.”

Doug agrees you must stand up and be counted on issues of importance, and points out that, “words matter.” When leaders are precise with their message and open with employees, they can build trust. Krista shares that leaders may be frightened or unsure how to approach these sensitive topics, but this is exactly why vulnerability matters. Being open about your own journey, and showing empathy and a willingness to listen, is a great way to begin tackling tough issues.

In addition to explicitly declaring your intention to engage in the work of anti-racism, there are other key, practical steps that leaders can take to begin improving their organization’s support of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The panelists shared the following five steps for leaders that are essential to creating change.

1. Be the Model—’Change Comes from the Top’

The authors emphasize that senior leaders are the most crucial component to building anti-racist cultures. James explains that CEOs “can’t delegate culture,” and that “this work must be owned by them.” Leaders must go first in this effort and champion it from the top. Krista backs this up, saying that leaders must do the work if they want to see a sustainable shift in their companies. As the authors write in their book, “the underpinning of all this is a CEO who sets the tone and requires that all senior managers and middle managers make DEI one of their business priorities.”

Doug agrees that senior leaders must “model the behavior,” be “one with the message,” and most importantly, “they have to feel accountable.” Then, they must practice listening and empathy to lead with a people-first orientation: “It’s hard to ask people to value your agenda as a leader of an enterprise if it’s not crystal clear to them that you value their agenda as an individual.” As the authors write in their book, “The first step, always, is to have a CEO who is wholly invested in building a corporate culture in which people are the most valued assets.” Krista explains that this requires leaders to “know who they are,” and to be vulnerable—willing to share their stories and listen carefully to others.

Fundamentally, the leader must know and believe that a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion is important, they must loudly champion its power, and they must strive to include everyone.

2. Look at the Data

In order to improve something, one must first have a clear picture of its current state. Just like a builder wouldn’t start knocking down beams in a house without looking at a floor plan, the panelists say leaders should understand the facts first before implementing new policies.

Doug tells leaders to get inquisitive and to look into the corners that are sometimes neglected. Krista adds that it’s not enough to take data on its face, and recommends asking questions that require digging deeper and looking at information differently. A surface-level understanding may not tell the whole story e.g., how are millennials responding to a policy versus Gen Z? Abled versus disabled? As an example, she advises looking more closely at the retention rates for women overall and parsing that info into women of color specifically or LGBTQ women. By breaking things down, the experience of each group becomes clearer and leaders can create better supports and systems tailored to helping people feel included, respected, and valued. Krista notes this benefits the organization as a whole: “Looking at the most marginalized among us is going to make things better for everyone.”

3. Evaluate Processes and Systems

To understand how to improve your company’s culture, James says leaders must “look at every process or system that touches human beings.” This could include, but isn’t limited to, onboarding, hiring, promotion, project assignment protocols, compensation, and more. By doing so, leaders have the opportunity to look for places where bias or exclusion might exist.

James advises that it’s not enough to just look at the formal systems; you also need to look at the informal rituals that might “unknowingly have bias embedded in them.” He and Doug share how they were both affected by being excluded from golfing—something that wasn’t technically required for their jobs but impacted their opportunities to participate in casual discussions, agreements, and deals. This is just one example of many cultural norms or expectations that may unwittingly exclude others, especially marginalized people. James challenges leaders to “think about the processes that we engage in outside of work and make sure they’re the most inclusive” they can possibly be. Leaders have the responsibility to create access for everyone to contribute in meaningful ways, which ultimately benefits the entire enterprise. James says: “The work of anti-racism isn’t a zero-sum game.”

4. Focus on Middle Management

The panelists emphasize that leaders cannot embark on a change process alone—they need to bring others with them. James says the middle management of an organization is the “most critical level to drive sustainable change, to build an anti-racist culture, and to build a more inclusive work environment.” CEOs must reach down “the chain of command,” giving managers tools and incentives “to carry out the changes, because their domain is where most of the people in the organization reside.” Leaders must create systems and processes that demand the participation of these middle managers.

Doug adds that these expectations should influence hiring and promotion as well. When companies have a clear vision around DEI, it makes it easier to select and develop people who will buy in and contribute to the desired culture. He says individuals should “feel accountable for doing their part to lift the load,” and, “you can’t tolerate lack of movement.” But what about the people who will inevitably resist? The authors say you should try to work with them, and provide tools to help, but you should also “stick to your values from a leadership perspective” even if it means parting ways.

James says that the middle managers who do remain and buy in should, “participate in this auditing of the culture and working on a project team to build solutions,” including, “mechanisms and levers to change the company in a sustainable fashion.” When leaders at all levels are provided with tools and systems to help them succeed in this work, this allows for what Doug calls “alignment”—unity in thought and practice between the board, leadership, and management.

5. Create Sustainability through Codification

This might all sound great, but what happens if an organization gets a new CEO or is acquired in a merger? Does the culture, and the years spent building it, fly out the window? No, not when leaders focus on sustainability in their anti-racism work.

Krista explains, “Building within systems, at the board level as well, is key to keeping momentum going, even with a leadership change.” By codifying your systems, processes, and practices into the bones of your organization, you allow them to live on despite any future changes in leadership. James adds, “the change agenda becomes self-sustaining… [because] you’ve put the mechanisms and processes in place to really allow the organization to operationalize the work in a thoughtful way.” This echoes back to the point of intentionality. Doug says, “you can’t do this by the seat of your pants. You’ve got to be highly intentional and disciplined about it, in order to be consistent.”

James saw all five of these steps in action during his work with Todd Schnuck, the CEO of Schnucks Supermarkets in the St. Louis, MO area. Todd decided, with intention, to model change from the top. After meeting with James and looking at his organization’s data, Todd chose to take his organization through an anti-racist journey: He declared his agenda and championed its importance, he evaluated the company’s processes, he brought his managers along, and he codified systems–including meeting with his board and James every month along the way.

Each organization will have its own needs when it comes to creating an inclusive culture. But by operating with intentionality, vulnerability, and following these five steps, leaders can honor all their stakeholders and begin to create sustainable change.

Enjoyed these insights? To learn more, read James D. White and Krista White’s book, Anti-Racist Leadership. You can also watch a full recording of this summit session here: https://conantleadership.com/video/ (Fast forward to minute 8:30 to skip intros and housekeeping.)

About the Author:  McKinlee CoveyMcKinlee Covey is an educator, coach, and co-author with Stephen M.R. Covey of the WSJ bestseller, Trust & Inspire.

For more leadership content from ConantLeadership, enjoy our library of summit sessions here, including conversations with Brené Brown, Indra Nooyi, Hubert Joly, Amy Edmondson, Bill George, and many more. Engage with ConantLeadership’s suite of written leadership resources here, or start your Blueprint journey by getting your signed copy of the book here, or by downloading the first chapter free here.

Ready to step into your full leadership potential?  Apply to our signature leadership development program, The BLUEPRINT Boot Camp by ConantLeadership, a 2-day leadership intensive offering elite level, highly interactive training with Doug Conant and a community of your peers. Learn more about this premium tier of transformational leadership development here or set up a complimentary consultation call here.

Doug Conant is remarkable—and so is this work.
– Stephen M. R. Covey
Author of The Speed of Trust

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