Change Starts With Us

How listening galvanized our organization into allyship and action

The recent consecration of Juneteenth as a national holiday is an important acknowledgement of the past and a reminder of its implications. Though there is much more to be done to dismantle systemic racism and create a more just society, it is a hopeful sign of change after a pivotal year of growth that, for us, stemmed from the act of listening.

Looking Back

In the days and weeks after the murder of George Floyd, our organization struggled to process the weight of what we had witnessed. His death was not only a watershed moment for our country, but an intensely personal experience that shredded the carefully stitched fabric of our established work norms.

Like many companies, we collectively felt compelled to act but were unsure of where or how to begin. We wanted to show up for our Black friends and colleagues, but we didn’t want to intrude on their grief or presume we fully understood its depth. We wanted to be part of the solution, but didn’t want to assume we had the right answers.

Only two certainties emerged at that moment: We knew we were hurting and we knew we needed to learn – from history and from each other. We also recognized that regardless of what actions we ultimately took, our workplace needed to become more inclusive and welcoming because of them.

And so, we started down the path to change in much the same way we advise our clients to start – by simply listening and by trying to understand how our colleagues felt, what they needed, and what they thought was important.

Looking inward takes time and isn’t comfortable. A year into this work, we still don’t have it all figured out. But the process of connecting with our colleagues to understand their perceptions of equality is bringing us closer together. The feedback from our ongoing conversations is shaping the direction and structure of our effort, which we call Change Starts with Us.

Since launching Change Starts with Us in June 2020, we are now: 

Evaluating and beginning to balance our internal systems and processes

  • Asking our network about their perception of diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Assessing the demographic balance of our organization
  • More intentionally pursuing the broad spectrum of diversity demographics for employment and internships including race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and disability

Growing our diversity, equity, and inclusion best practices and education

  • Working with and contributing to organizations focused on driving social progress:
    • The Berkeley Haas Culture Conference to better understand the nuances of systemic racism and how to foster inclusion through organizational culture
    • The University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship 4 Day Founder Hackathon aimed at increasing levels of BIPOC entrepreneurship
    • Pro-bono organizational change management support to non-profit partners
    • Blocking time during companywide meetings for individuals to share how their identity impacts their personal and professional lives

When we reflect on where we started twelve months ago and the progress we’ve made so far, two important lessons come to mind:

1. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Holding Space

As consultants, we get pulled in a thousand different directions a day. We have a natural inclination to fix, but first, we needed to feel. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, we came together as a company to process. That led to a second conversation, many one on ones, several small group discussions, a companywide assessment of identity, and numerous town halls on the subject.

When our organization held space – and was fully present for – this one topic and those who needed to share, we reinforced the solemnity of the subject for ourselves which in turn inspired trust that led to more sharing, and rendered these conversations cathartic, deeply moving experiences.

2. To Be Heard Is to Be Seen

We often tell clients that change happens at the individual level and that executive directives or new roles are poor substitutes for personal motivation. This truth was reinforced when our colleagues bravely shared their personal, often raw, experiences with racism, identity, and belonging. Sharing and processing pain together created a collective awareness and compassion. It has changed the way we engage, what we give time to, and how we think about what a more just future looks like.

Since we’ve started focusing more meaningfully on diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’ve seen a notable shift in how much more our colleagues want to share the experience of their identities.

The Journey Ahead   

Long term, our goal is that the intentionality with which we’ve addressed diversity, equity, and inclusion this past year grows into company norms that are baked into everything we do. In the short term, we will continue to focus on ways to ensure the people who already live and work here feel welcome and included. Along the way we expect to refine our understanding of what great looks like, and will continue to work at demonstrating accountability to each other and to cultivating a workplace and society that best represents all of us.