Confessions of a white male CEO – Part 2

Fostering diversity, equity and inclusion in an era of racial tension

Two years ago, I wrote an article with the same title as this one, but with an emphasis on my missed opportunities related to gender diversity and inclusion. In that article, I confessed my missed opportunities to mentor women throughout my leadership career. In full disclosure, I’m proud of the good things that I have done in this area, I just recognize that I could have done more. And, I wrote with the purpose of re-committing myself to better mentoring and diversity efforts within my sphere of influence.

And so it is, as I write this second article related to the same broad topic, but this time, more specific to racial and ethnic diversity.

On almost any societal topic, it’s easy to see the world through a negative lens without properly accounting for the steps toward progress that have been made. This is true with regard to quality of life, health issues, economics, war and peace, poverty and certainly issues pertaining to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Every credit union and credit union organization should be struggling to find the words and the actions to address DEI broadly, but especially now, in this time of intense racial tension, we need to acknowledge that much more progress is needed. And yes, all lives matter and police lives matter, but let’s not use those words to diminish the call for the eradication of systemic or non-systemic, racially-motivated police brutality.

We’ve come a very long way toward liberty and justice for all, regardless of gender, skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, financial status, or physical ability. I’m proud that we have indeed become, as President George H.W. Bush famously called for in 1988, “a kinder, gentler nation.” In his inauguration speech, he said, “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”

Every U.S. President, every corporate and religious leader, and indeed every personal leader should strive for that credo, now more than ever. But to say it is never enough. What is needed today is the actions along with the words. It starts with the individual, but it also needs to be a part of every company culture, fostered by a leader who believes in the high moral principles that drive a quest for diversity, equity and inclusion.

In the spirit of creating a shortlist of suggestions for addressing both diversity, equality, and inclusion broadly as well as racial injustice specifically, here are five thoughts for creating a culture that commits to change both internally and externally.

1. It doesn’t have to start with the CEO, but it requires the CEO’s engagement.

I’m not usually one who is at a loss for words, nor do I typically feel slow to act. But in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder on May 25th, 2020 and the ensuing public outcry, I didn’t feel ready to issue a CEO statement. So, in some respects, I was slow to lead out.

Instead, I did what many companies did with their teams. I set up a virtual Teams meeting with our 140 employees. On that first call, I saw our employees’ anger, sadness, and frustration with what they perceived as an inadequate response to the racial tension all around us. I was encouraged to listen, especially to our black associates and staff of color.

That first meeting moved me in so many ways, but most importantly, I was moved to join this movement within our organization and in the broader communities that we’re a part of.

We formed a DEI Impact Team and I selected a leader who established himself as a passionate champion for this team. We had numerous volunteers from which we formed a diverse team. I worked with the team to create a charge and priorities for our company, but importantly, I deferred to them to engage all of our staff and me with both financial and non-financial efforts toward the broader DEI charge. More specifically, we prioritized causes that foster racial justice.

The CEO’s involvement can bring unity to the individual efforts of staff. One organization, one voice, one industry in a stand against racism.

2. Create a team-driven process for introspection and engagement. This diversity, equity, and inclusion team will be staff-driven. However, it will also include regular forums for our team members and me to be introspective and engaged.

And, this is part of my confession as a 62-year old white man, and yes, one who has lived a life of privilege. I can honestly say that I have never felt discrimination in my heart or in my actions. But I realize that because of many lifelong factors that contributed to who I am, I have lacked the passion for using my influence to support and impact the many causes that bring about change.

Passion for DEI change should not be impacted by political, religious or geographic factors. But I fear that in my case, all three may have made me less sensitive or less aware of the need for aggressive societal change. I was raised in a small, predominantly white town, heavily influenced by conservative Christian values. In many ways, those values made me a better person, but in other ways, these same forces limited my thinking.

However, as I have lived and worked in more diverse and metropolitan cities of Seattle and Detroit for the past 29 years, I have come to realize that some religious beliefs and political policies have been too slow to foster fairness and equality for women, for people of color, and for the LGBTQ+ community. I have come to realize that whether this bias comes from a church, a political leader, or friends having a private conversation, I have an obligation to challenge those views and encourage complete equality and inclusion for all.

I also realize that my responsibility is to mentor and coach my senior leaders to drive their journey of introspection and engagement. This can create a cascading effect through the organization that helps galvanize a true team commitment.

As a compelling example of this team effort, our DEI Impact Team and entire staff wrote and embraced this statement of commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: The MCUL & Affiliates’ Statement of Commitment for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

3. Create a plan for both internal and external change.  While initially our DEI efforts will focus on rallying staff support for funding and participating in movements that foster DEI change, in tandem with these efforts we will obviously look at our internal policies and practices. We will strive for diversity, equity, and inclusion in our hiring, pay equity, and advancement opportunities as well as in our board composition.

Additionally, both the Michigan Credit Union League and CU Solutions Group plan to create and participate in forums for learning and engagement around DEI priorities. Trade associations have a particularly important role to continue conversations and the sharing of DEI best practices. We also hope to inform our employees regarding legislative, regulatory and judicial opportunities or fostering equality for all. While organizationally, we may be limited in taking formal positions on some issues, as employees we can and should engage in these efforts.

4. This is a process, not an event. While tremendous progress has been made toward equality for women, on racial/ethnic justice, and on fairness and equality for the LBGTQ+ community, so much more progress is needed on all fronts. And, since we will always have a society that fails to be “kinder and gentler”, change will be slower and less perfect than what we would like.

Because of this, we can’t expect real change to occur without a lifelong commitment by individuals and organizations to put processes in place that go beyond a simple policy or statement of support. Change will require individual and collective introspection and commitment to making an impact.

5. Shun all rationalization, regardless of what drives it. As part of my confession to being less committed in my past, I referenced being influenced by political views, religious beliefs, and rural vs. metropolitan biases. These are the elephants in the room when we work toward the policies and organizational commitments that will drive change.

The reason that politics and religion are such taboo topics, is that it can be very difficult to disagree respectfully and with tolerance. When working toward a complete commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we need to check all biases at the door, regardless of where they come from.

Words do matter but at the end of the day, actions matter far more. Nobody should rationalize that supporting the concept of “Black Lives Matter” runs counter to also supporting the amazing sacrifices of men and women in law enforcement.

I believe that tremendous opportunity lies ahead for leaders of credit unions and credit union organizations to lead by example on diversity, equity, and inclusion and specifically on support efforts for racial justice.

Martin Luther King Jr. said it so beautifully with these words: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality … I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Dave Adams

Dave Adams

Dave Adams is  President / Chief Executive Officer of CU Solutions Group. The  CUSG office is located in Livonia, Michigan. Mr. Adams joined the Michigan Credit Union League in August of ... Web: Details

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