I see a growing number of people with VP of Belonging titles. And it gives me pause, because it creates a connection to Executive Springboard that I had not considered before. I want to talk about the process of fitting in.
I’ve lived in Minnesota for 25 years. I’ve never lost my East Coast accent. I never adopted “You betcha” as an expression. I tolerate the cold, but I don’t embrace it. In short, I’ve never fully become what my neighbors would call “one of us.” I’m OK with that and so are my neighbors, because I have reached the point of being accepted, while happily remaining who I am. At some point, though I won’t be mistaken for a native, I became sufficiently adapted to the culture.
It is nearly impossible to achieve your change agenda in a new role, if you don’t gain alignment from your stakeholders. That alignment requires adaptation to their style. Yet, authenticity is at the heart of leadership. You earn acceptance by acting in a way that is consistent with cultural norms while demonstrating that what you do in your own way adds value.
At Executive Springboard, we preach cultural agility and social awareness. We focus on how to create a successful fit, so that an executive in a new role can make a sustained impact. Here are two critical factors we consider:
Now, let’s turn our gaze to organizations’ efforts to enhance diversity and to establish an inclusive culture.
Picture a White man joining a company in a Vice President role. The organization looks at him ambivalently. “Maybe he can bring needed change. Somebody saw enough positive in him to hire him here. But we have our doubts. He doesn’t know how we do things here. He may push for change where it’s not needed or wanted. He may have bullshitted his way in without the necessary competence. He might not even try to fit in.”
We have found that after about 8 months, following the correct strategies, this White male executive will progress to the point when he is no longer an outsider, when he is accepted, recognized as adding value and embraced as “one of us.”
The common language of onboarding is informative and tricky at the same time. We talk about integration and assimilation, the same language we use with immigrants. In a way, for some period of time, everybody in a new role is an immigrant, learning a new language, new relationships and new rules. The newly hired, promoted or reassigned executive starts their journey by being perceived as an outsider, different, threatening, having to prove themselves. Over time, they earn acceptance and recognition for their contributions to their team. All employees go through a similar process of shedding their newness and coming to belong.
Here is the tricky part. The word “assimilation” carries an unfortunate bias. It implies a process of turning the outsider into part of the prevailing culture, like Star Trek’s Capt. Picard becoming assimilated into the Borg, complete with changes to his very being. Inclusion’s end point is not this kind of absolute. Those you seek to attract will rightly reject this. Instead, the immigrant might have a goal of citizenship, holding the status and acceptance of belonging while continuing to embrace what makes them different.
Does the same 8-month journey of belonging hold true for a Latina or for a Black man? Is there an organizational bias that continues well beyond the point when the White man is accepted? Will visible minorities find themselves working harder to prove they belong? Does it ever end?
Suppose your company is like Tesla, recently reporting that Black and LatinX people together comprise less than 10% of its leadership positions. Suppose you’ve made a commitment to a more diverse leadership team, to a more inclusive environment. Suppose you are investing in talent acquisition efforts, to have your executive team better reflect your stakeholders. What are you doing to retain those people whom you’ve recruited?
As Professor Michael Gaffley told me, “Diversity is counting the numbers. Inclusion is making the numbers count.” The road to an inclusive culture goes in two directions. First, the organization has to become more willing to believe that outsiders have something to offer, that diverse backgrounds and opinions add to the richness of an organization and that its sense of corporate identity must move over time. In short, companies need to become humble. Whether you call it education, internal marketing or organizational transformation, this is the heavy lifting of DEI. It addresses a chronic condition.
In the second direction, those in the process of belonging need the tools that allow them to become culturally agile, the resilience to overcome the resistance they will face and the courage to remain who they are in the process. This condition is acute. People cannot wait for the social barriers they face to erode, in order to step over them. They need a pole to vault over the walls. People need support. They need examples, mentors and coaches, internal and external.
What does cultural agility entail? It means understanding the rhythm that the organization dances to. It means picking up nonverbal cues from colleagues and reading the unwritten playbook. The corporation’s values might be framed on a wall. The behaviors that are actually valued are another thing entirely; appropriate behavior can make the difference between success and failure. Cultural agility recognizes that the organization’s mores extend beyond the workplace to holiday parties, golf games or church attendance. Everybody learning their way steps out of rhythm from time to time. Sometimes people will do this intentionally because of who they are. Sometimes they just don’t recognize the rules. Everyone will pay a price for mistakes. Some people pay a steeper price than others. Or they are starting so far behind others that a misstep means they will never catch up.
Let me go out on a limb. If your company confuses onboarding with orientation, if it has a “sink or swim” approach to assimilating new employees, it doesn’t stand a chance at a successful commitment to DEI. If you cannot get a leader who looks like the rest of your executive group to feel part of the team, you are lost with visible minorities. If you don’t have a mechanism for explaining what is or is not appropriate, or for providing equal time in the penalty box, you are digging a moat rather than tearing down a wall. You need to create a path to citizenship for all of your immigrants or outsiders. And, in the long run, you might just find that you’ve redefined what “one of us” means.
I welcome your thoughts. And I offer my thanks to Joseph Grant, Darcie Murray, Gretchen Rawdon, Pamela Moret, Julio Ampuero, Ramon Gonzalez, Carole and Courtney Burton, Tracy Washington, Jote Taddese and Monica Diaz for your insights that have gotten this discussion going.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.