Black Business Leaders Series: Putting Diversity to Work

In theory, most companies would love to diversify their workforce. In practice, hiring specifically to increase diversity can cause a variety of cultural problems within an organization. Professor Robin Ely discusses two of her cases that train a critical lens on race-based and race-blind hiring, and some of the best practices firms can employ to achieve a well-balanced staff.

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Brian Kenny: A 2015 Brooking's report on race equality in the workplace cited that the number of blacks working in the tech industry had quintupled in the period between 1966 and 2014. Impressive, right? Well, not really when you take into account that quintupling moved the needle from 3.2 percent of the overall tech workforce to 6.4 percent. The tech industry is often singled out for its diversity gap but in June 2014, the Atlantic revealed similar gaps in sector after sector after sector. Business leaders often cite diversity as a priority but what does that mean exactly and how do you make it happen? Today we'll hear from Professor Robin Ely about her companion cases entitled “Managing Diversity at City Side Financial Services” and “Spencer Owens and Company.” I'm your host Brian Kenny and you're listening to Cold Call.

Professor Ely conducts research on race and gender relations in organizations. As senior associate dean for the School’s Community and Cultural Initiative, she led a culture change initiative right here at Harvard Business School and she currently leads the School’s Gender Initiative. Robin, thanks for joining us today.

Robin Ely: Thanks for having me.

Kenny: I think these cases are very relatable. This is new for us at Cold Call to do two cases in one conversation, but they're obviously written to be discussed together and that's how you do it in the classroom, so it made sense to do it that way. Can you set up the cases for us? How do they begin?

Ely: Yeah. Sure. These are actually cases that come from my research with David Thomas, so we have done a lot of field research in organizations looking at race and gender relations over the years. These are two examples where these organizations actually were quite successful in hiring a very diverse workforce. We focus on race, in particular, in these two organizations. They're racially diverse in quite similar ways—in fact, across levels of the hierarchy, which is rather unusual, but neither one is really able to leverage the benefits from that diversity for their performance.

Kenny: You've got two firms here that you're discussing. The names have been changed but these are real firms. So let's start with City Side. They, actually both of them I think had impressive-looking results from their diversity hiring initiative, so they achieved some level of success. Then what happens?

Ely: Right. Then that's what's interesting about studying these cases because so often companies are—they're just struggling to create diversity, to hire diversity. These are organizations that have actually managed to do that and then that's when they encounter problems.

Kenny: City Side Financial Services is a retail bank. Two sides of their business, describe that to us a little bit.

Ely: They're located in an inner city and they were founded specifically with the mission to revitalize businesses and residential areas within the inner city where it's situated. They have a part of the organization which they called the sales division. The sales division developed two kind of parallel functions: one was to serve the clientele in the local community which was a poor, relatively poor, African-American community, and the other was to serve this broader clientele that was wealthier and largely white. What's interesting about the division is the way that they staffed the two. The part that is serving the local community is, I think, entirely actually African American. The part that serves the broader, wealthier white clientele is white. Essentially, they are matching the market that they're serving, which you could think is a great idea. This is part of the business case for diversity is you've got a diverse market, so you hire a diverse workforce in order to be able to relate to those market segments.

Kenny: It also makes it appear as though…they've got the numbers that they want, but what they've largely done is segregated themselves within the organization. So the diversity is really superficial.

Ely: Right, right. It's diverse if you look at the sales division but if you look at each component of the sales division, they're not diverse. I think what's actually, and this is part of the problem with that approach, is that what inevitably happens is what happened here and that is that the white division ends up being higher status. The black division ends up being lower status.

Kenny: That's what you refer to as market-driven diversity.

Ely: Right. They had an access in legitimacy perspective on their diversity so they were very successful in becoming diverse and the reason they were doing it was in order to gain access to and legitimacy with their diverse market.

Kenny: Okay, so an understandable business rationale. Talk about Spencer and Owen because they had a different motivation that was driving them. What's the story there?

Ely: So, that's a consulting firm. They realized that they really needed to be more diverse in order to live out and be a representative of the justice interest that they were serving in the work that they were doing. They became diverse largely as a way of advancing fairness and equality.

Kenny: That's the sort of justice-driven viewpoint. Different perspectives, both understandable rationales behind this. What happened? What went wrong?

Ely: I gave some hints in the City Side case already. When you have this kind of internal segregation, where people are essentially being hired for one specific thing, the dynamic that tends to happen is the broader cultural power differential gets imported into the organization and that's essentially what happened here. You have one group of employees, and these are black employees from the very lowest part of that function in the organization all the way to the senior management positions with African American, and then the other side was white all the way through, but the white side had more status, and it was difficult for African Americans to actually rise within the white side of the function. Then because they were in some ways doing the same kind of work (that is they were developing financial products for clientele), as their clientele started to expand into the city, and wealthier city local clients really needed to be serviced with products that were being produced by the white group, but actually because they were within the city they fell within the purview of the black group and so there became some confusion around whose clients these really were. As they grew, it became problematic to keep these things separate the way they were.

Kenny: I really found the commentary by the different protagonists in the case and the people that you interviewed—you could read so much between the lines of what people were saying. Tell me about what those conversations were like. What was the sense there?

Ely: Well, it's kind of interesting because while on the one hand I'm describing some of the problems associated with this kind of internal segregation aligned with the markets, that arose in a sense for good reason. Some of those reasons were actually described in positive ways. For example, in retail operations, that was the black, essentially black side, they actually prided themselves on knowing their clientele so when local people came in, they were much better able to relate to them and to assess their risk in terms of loans and things like that. They felt actually quite proud of that but also kind of in a way held it over the white group like, "You guys wouldn't know what to do with our clientele. We're much cooler than you are. We really know what's going on around here in the neighborhood that we're actually operating in." Then there were some cultural issues that grew up literally in the cultures of these groups in the way they operated, which became a source of antagonism because the white group was younger actually and much more professional and much higher educated, like the clientele. The black group was less so.

Kenny: That translates, as you read some of those comments that came out, in ways like, "We work really hard here” and "This isn't the place to be if you want a 9 to 5 job."

Ely: Right, so it's much more that kind of, we used to call it “yuppie,” but the kind of young professional, right out of college. This was like a really cool job to have out of graduate school, out of an MBA program, top MBA programs were the people who were populating some of those jobs on the white side. That's just a very different kind of demographic than the other, so when they did end up interacting with each other, it was tense. Both I think because they did take some pride in the fact that they were distinct and they were distinct for some good reasons but then that did create this tension.

Kenny: Yeah, and so let's jump over to Spencer and Owens for a second. They had similar common threads here in the sort of attitudes and the feelings of the people involved, but the reasons that those things, that those feelings surfaced were different in Spencer and Owens. What were some of the causes there?

Ely: Spencer and Owens, as I said, took this kind of justice focus and their philosophy about their diversity is that you really shouldn't see differences. So this is very much a race-blind approach in that when the whole purpose of diversifying is to advance equality and there's no discussion about how that diversity, once it’s hired, once it’s been incorporated into the organization, is going to actually influence the way they do the work, there's really no capacity to deal with those differences. On top of that, there's a kind of strong moral belief that differences shouldn't matter. When in fact they do start to matter because people do come into the organization with points of view that have been shaped by their cultural background and wanting to actually apply those insights to the work. That's when there becomes some conflict because there was a kind of standard way of doing things but was really actually the predominantly white traditional way of doing things before they brought the diversity in. They're bringing diversity in but not actually diversifying the work.

Kenny: Yeah, so "We're color blind as long as you do things the way that we would like to have them done."

Ely: Right, exactly.

Kenny: To me, that was a tremendous insight because I've always assumed that you should not look, you shouldn't consider somebody's color or race or background. I think most come at it that way but here in this particular instance, it was part of the problem that they were facing.

Ely: Right. Exactly. That's what makes it an interesting case because you can have students really grappling with this idea. Well, what difference should diversity actually make? If you can see here the problems with undertaking this kind of race-blind ideology, which by the way the research shows whites are much more likely to want to take on that ideology because it feels like a nonracist approach to race relations and white people don't like to be seen as racist, obviously, and are often anxious that they're going to do something that's perceived as racist. It's just much better not to talk about race, not to see race, and just to deny that it's there.

Kenny: I think one of the people in the case even said, and this was a black woman who said, “What the white workers are so concerned about is that they're going to offend somebody.” We've all felt that sort of tension of walking on eggshells. You've discussed this with MBA students and with Executive Education students, too?

Ely: Yes, some executives.

Kenny: I'm really curious. We have a very diverse student population here in both of those programs. What happens when the discussion unfolds? You don't need to give everything away but I'm just curious.

Ely: I guess I would say some of the differences are when these ideas are part of the discussion with executives, they can relate very often to one or another of these perspectives so it's really interesting to have them. I like to move off the case when I can and really have them reflect on the parts of these, and that's why it's nice to have the two because you can sort of get an array of different experiences. Usually people can, they say, "My division, this is what we've been doing and we've been seeing some of these same problems," whereas the MBA students, they don't have as much experience running things but they're much more likely to be on the receiving end of some of these different approaches to managing diversity and to have their own experience in that respect. They tend to talk about that. I also like to, especially with the MBAs, to really bring it home right into our classroom, certainly within the School but then also within the classroom and to say, "What do you think is the perspective that Harvard Business School has on diversity? What's been your experience here and what's your experience in the classroom right here?"

Kenny: And your work and the role that I mentioned in the introduction certainly surfaced some of those feelings too. It's been documented that HBS deals with this issue like every other organization does. One of the questions that I had in mind was, is it worth it? It seems like it's a really almost intractable situation that these two organizations are facing, but there's no choice. We live in a diverse world. We have to figure out how to do this.

Ely: And I think increasingly this is pretty widely known that if you really want to hire the best talent, you are going to end up hiring a race and gender and in other respects, diverse group of people so it's not really a choice. It's not really sort of…is it worth it? Well, what's worth it is to figure out how to actually do it effectively.

Kenny: Do you know of any firms that are having good success in this area?

Ely: People always ask me that.

Kenny: They want a model to copy.

Ely: I know. Well, I often get asked, "What are the best practices?" These cases came out of research that David Thomas and I were doing and there was a third organization that was really part of the research and part of what we wrote about in various places. That was an example actually where again, similarly, racially diverse across levels of the hierarchy but they were really able to leverage their diversity. What made the difference is that they used their diversity as a resource for learning how to do the core work of the organization. If you think about City Side, that's an example of an organization that was trying to use its diversity to enhance its effectiveness but it wasn't really allowing that diversity to inform anything other than a very sort of narrowly prescribed part of the work.

In this other organization, its perspective was an integration and learning perspective. It was an organization that was really equipped, really interested and equipped to learn from the racial differences that it hired. In fact, it started as an organization with an access and legitimacy perspective. It was a law firm, a public interest law firm, that the mission was to serve the rights and interests of low income women and it was an entirely white organization. In some ways, just like the bank, they were like, "Hey, here we are in the middle of a black community that we're actually trying to revitalize with this bank and we need to start reflecting the community," so….

Kenny: Kudos to all of them for recognizing that.

Ely: Exactly. It's a sophisticated and important recognition. What this organization was able to do though that City Side wasn't is that when it hired its first woman of color, it was actually called the Woman of Color Project so it was really off to the side and very much, "We need somebody to give us access to and legitimacy with the people that we're trying, whose interest we're trying to serve." They quickly learned that, "No, this was not a ‘woman of color’ project." She was going to enter the organization and she was going to really change the definition of the central work that we do. We just can't, we're not even approaching the work right. Our mission is great but the way we've defined what it means to serve that mission is not really serving maximally the interest that we want to serve. She was able to come in and work with them. It was a lot of conflict. Even when I was there collecting data, they were anticipating my coming and they said, when I got there they said, "Oh, we had this ‘Robin Ely event’ last week." I was like, "Oh my God. What's that?" They'd never even met me, just knew my name. They'd had a racial conflict. They knew I was coming to study something about their race relations.

Kenny: So that's what you've become now?

Ely: It’s like, "Oh, wow. This is interesting. Tell me all about it." It'd been this situation where they had an opportunity to do a fundraiser with a Latino theater group. What's interesting is the whole organization was not oriented the way that the program part of the organization was, the delivery of the program, so this opportunity came in and it didn't go to the program people. It went to the fundraising people and they were white. They made the decision without asking anybody else that they weren't going to spend their time doing that. The Latinas in the organization learned about it and they were like, "What? This is an amazing opportunity," so they had this conflict. The Latinas were saying, "You guys made the wrong decision. It's because you don't get it and you should've asked us." I went into a staff meeting where this conflict was still brewing and I was able to witness the turning point in it. The turning point was very instructive because it came when one of the Latinas said, "You don't understand. This is a group where if we are able to fundraise there and with them, we're going to have a connection. We're going to get ourselves in front of the very people that our programs are trying to serve." Then everybody was like, "Oh! I get it. I get it. Okay," but they really weren't able to see it until they moved the problem into the domain of the program. The program staff had been truly diversified in such a way that the central work of the organization of the program was informed by these cultural differences but they really were not at a place where the fundraising function was integrated so they had to move the conversation into the place where they could have the understanding of what it meant to really learn from their diversity in order for it to work.

Kenny: So much of it seems to come back to communication and listening.

Ely: Well, so that's the thing. Everybody's doing implicit bias training, which is fine but it's not a strategy for managing diversity or leveraging benefits from diversity because you can do all the consciousness-raising you want but if people don't learn how to have these conversations then it doesn't really matter. Even implicit bias, the whole point of it is unconscious so how would you know if you were actually engaging in some kind of implicitly biased behavior unless somebody pointed it out to you? Well, that means you’ve got to be able to talk about this stuff and it's tough.

Kenny: Well, these cases are very helpful I think. Robin, thank you for joining me today.

Ely: Oh, you're welcome.

Kenny: You can find this case along with thousands of others in the HBS case collection at HBR.org. I'm your host Brian Kenny and you've been listening to Cold Call.

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Brian Kenny: A 2015 Brooking's report on race equality in the workplace cited that the number of blacks working in the tech industry had quintupled in the period between 1966 and 2014. Impressive, right? Well, not really when you take into account that quintupling moved the needle from 3.2 percent of the overall tech workforce to 6.4 percent. The tech industry is often singled out for its diversity gap but in June 2014, the Atlantic revealed similar gaps in sector after sector after sector. Business leaders often cite diversity as a priority but what does that mean exactly and how do you make it happen? Today we'll hear from Professor Robin Ely about her companion cases entitled “Managing Diversity at City Side Financial Services” and “Spencer Owens and Company.” I'm your host Brian Kenny and you're listening to Cold Call.

Professor Ely conducts research on race and gender relations in organizations. As senior associate dean for the School’s Community and Cultural Initiative, she led a culture change initiative right here at Harvard Business School and she currently leads the School’s Gender Initiative. Robin, thanks for joining us today.

Robin Ely: Thanks for having me.

Kenny: I think these cases are very relatable. This is new for us at Cold Call to do two cases in one conversation, but they're obviously written to be discussed together and that's how you do it in the classroom, so it made sense to do it that way. Can you set up the cases for us? How do they begin?

Ely: Yeah. Sure. These are actually cases that come from my research with David Thomas, so we have done a lot of field research in organizations looking at race and gender relations over the years. These are two examples where these organizations actually were quite successful in hiring a very diverse workforce. We focus on race, in particular, in these two organizations. They're racially diverse in quite similar ways—in fact, across levels of the hierarchy, which is rather unusual, but neither one is really able to leverage the benefits from that diversity for their performance.

Kenny: You've got two firms here that you're discussing. The names have been changed but these are real firms. So let's start with City Side. They, actually both of them I think had impressive-looking results from their diversity hiring initiative, so they achieved some level of success. Then what happens?

Ely: Right. Then that's what's interesting about studying these cases because so often companies are—they're just struggling to create diversity, to hire diversity. These are organizations that have actually managed to do that and then that's when they encounter problems.

Kenny: City Side Financial Services is a retail bank. Two sides of their business, describe that to us a little bit.

Ely: They're located in an inner city and they were founded specifically with the mission to revitalize businesses and residential areas within the inner city where it's situated. They have a part of the organization which they called the sales division. The sales division developed two kind of parallel functions: one was to serve the clientele in the local community which was a poor, relatively poor, African-American community, and the other was to serve this broader clientele that was wealthier and largely white. What's interesting about the division is the way that they staffed the two. The part that is serving the local community is, I think, entirely actually African American. The part that serves the broader, wealthier white clientele is white. Essentially, they are matching the market that they're serving, which you could think is a great idea. This is part of the business case for diversity is you've got a diverse market, so you hire a diverse workforce in order to be able to relate to those market segments.

Kenny: It also makes it appear as though…they've got the numbers that they want, but what they've largely done is segregated themselves within the organization. So the diversity is really superficial.

Ely: Right, right. It's diverse if you look at the sales division but if you look at each component of the sales division, they're not diverse. I think what's actually, and this is part of the problem with that approach, is that what inevitably happens is what happened here and that is that the white division ends up being higher status. The black division ends up being lower status.

Kenny: That's what you refer to as market-driven diversity.

Ely: Right. They had an access in legitimacy perspective on their diversity so they were very successful in becoming diverse and the reason they were doing it was in order to gain access to and legitimacy with their diverse market.

Kenny: Okay, so an understandable business rationale. Talk about Spencer and Owen because they had a different motivation that was driving them. What's the story there?

Ely: So, that's a consulting firm. They realized that they really needed to be more diverse in order to live out and be a representative of the justice interest that they were serving in the work that they were doing. They became diverse largely as a way of advancing fairness and equality.

Kenny: That's the sort of justice-driven viewpoint. Different perspectives, both understandable rationales behind this. What happened? What went wrong?

Ely: I gave some hints in the City Side case already. When you have this kind of internal segregation, where people are essentially being hired for one specific thing, the dynamic that tends to happen is the broader cultural power differential gets imported into the organization and that's essentially what happened here. You have one group of employees, and these are black employees from the very lowest part of that function in the organization all the way to the senior management positions with African American, and then the other side was white all the way through, but the white side had more status, and it was difficult for African Americans to actually rise within the white side of the function. Then because they were in some ways doing the same kind of work (that is they were developing financial products for clientele), as their clientele started to expand into the city, and wealthier city local clients really needed to be serviced with products that were being produced by the white group, but actually because they were within the city they fell within the purview of the black group and so there became some confusion around whose clients these really were. As they grew, it became problematic to keep these things separate the way they were.

Kenny: I really found the commentary by the different protagonists in the case and the people that you interviewed—you could read so much between the lines of what people were saying. Tell me about what those conversations were like. What was the sense there?

Ely: Well, it's kind of interesting because while on the one hand I'm describing some of the problems associated with this kind of internal segregation aligned with the markets, that arose in a sense for good reason. Some of those reasons were actually described in positive ways. For example, in retail operations, that was the black, essentially black side, they actually prided themselves on knowing their clientele so when local people came in, they were much better able to relate to them and to assess their risk in terms of loans and things like that. They felt actually quite proud of that but also kind of in a way held it over the white group like, "You guys wouldn't know what to do with our clientele. We're much cooler than you are. We really know what's going on around here in the neighborhood that we're actually operating in." Then there were some cultural issues that grew up literally in the cultures of these groups in the way they operated, which became a source of antagonism because the white group was younger actually and much more professional and much higher educated, like the clientele. The black group was less so.

Kenny: That translates, as you read some of those comments that came out, in ways like, "We work really hard here” and "This isn't the place to be if you want a 9 to 5 job."

Ely: Right, so it's much more that kind of, we used to call it “yuppie,” but the kind of young professional, right out of college. This was like a really cool job to have out of graduate school, out of an MBA program, top MBA programs were the people who were populating some of those jobs on the white side. That's just a very different kind of demographic than the other, so when they did end up interacting with each other, it was tense. Both I think because they did take some pride in the fact that they were distinct and they were distinct for some good reasons but then that did create this tension.

Kenny: Yeah, and so let's jump over to Spencer and Owens for a second. They had similar common threads here in the sort of attitudes and the feelings of the people involved, but the reasons that those things, that those feelings surfaced were different in Spencer and Owens. What were some of the causes there?

Ely: Spencer and Owens, as I said, took this kind of justice focus and their philosophy about their diversity is that you really shouldn't see differences. So this is very much a race-blind approach in that when the whole purpose of diversifying is to advance equality and there's no discussion about how that diversity, once it’s hired, once it’s been incorporated into the organization, is going to actually influence the way they do the work, there's really no capacity to deal with those differences. On top of that, there's a kind of strong moral belief that differences shouldn't matter. When in fact they do start to matter because people do come into the organization with points of view that have been shaped by their cultural background and wanting to actually apply those insights to the work. That's when there becomes some conflict because there was a kind of standard way of doing things but was really actually the predominantly white traditional way of doing things before they brought the diversity in. They're bringing diversity in but not actually diversifying the work.

Kenny: Yeah, so "We're color blind as long as you do things the way that we would like to have them done."

Ely: Right, exactly.

Kenny: To me, that was a tremendous insight because I've always assumed that you should not look, you shouldn't consider somebody's color or race or background. I think most come at it that way but here in this particular instance, it was part of the problem that they were facing.

Ely: Right. Exactly. That's what makes it an interesting case because you can have students really grappling with this idea. Well, what difference should diversity actually make? If you can see here the problems with undertaking this kind of race-blind ideology, which by the way the research shows whites are much more likely to want to take on that ideology because it feels like a nonracist approach to race relations and white people don't like to be seen as racist, obviously, and are often anxious that they're going to do something that's perceived as racist. It's just much better not to talk about race, not to see race, and just to deny that it's there.

Kenny: I think one of the people in the case even said, and this was a black woman who said, “What the white workers are so concerned about is that they're going to offend somebody.” We've all felt that sort of tension of walking on eggshells. You've discussed this with MBA students and with Executive Education students, too?

Ely: Yes, some executives.

Kenny: I'm really curious. We have a very diverse student population here in both of those programs. What happens when the discussion unfolds? You don't need to give everything away but I'm just curious.

Ely: I guess I would say some of the differences are when these ideas are part of the discussion with executives, they can relate very often to one or another of these perspectives so it's really interesting to have them. I like to move off the case when I can and really have them reflect on the parts of these, and that's why it's nice to have the two because you can sort of get an array of different experiences. Usually people can, they say, "My division, this is what we've been doing and we've been seeing some of these same problems," whereas the MBA students, they don't have as much experience running things but they're much more likely to be on the receiving end of some of these different approaches to managing diversity and to have their own experience in that respect. They tend to talk about that. I also like to, especially with the MBAs, to really bring it home right into our classroom, certainly within the School but then also within the classroom and to say, "What do you think is the perspective that Harvard Business School has on diversity? What's been your experience here and what's your experience in the classroom right here?"

Kenny: And your work and the role that I mentioned in the introduction certainly surfaced some of those feelings too. It's been documented that HBS deals with this issue like every other organization does. One of the questions that I had in mind was, is it worth it? It seems like it's a really almost intractable situation that these two organizations are facing, but there's no choice. We live in a diverse world. We have to figure out how to do this.

Ely: And I think increasingly this is pretty widely known that if you really want to hire the best talent, you are going to end up hiring a race and gender and in other respects, diverse group of people so it's not really a choice. It's not really sort of…is it worth it? Well, what's worth it is to figure out how to actually do it effectively.

Kenny: Do you know of any firms that are having good success in this area?

Ely: People always ask me that.

Kenny: They want a model to copy.

Ely: I know. Well, I often get asked, "What are the best practices?" These cases came out of research that David Thomas and I were doing and there was a third organization that was really part of the research and part of what we wrote about in various places. That was an example actually where again, similarly, racially diverse across levels of the hierarchy but they were really able to leverage their diversity. What made the difference is that they used their diversity as a resource for learning how to do the core work of the organization. If you think about City Side, that's an example of an organization that was trying to use its diversity to enhance its effectiveness but it wasn't really allowing that diversity to inform anything other than a very sort of narrowly prescribed part of the work.

In this other organization, its perspective was an integration and learning perspective. It was an organization that was really equipped, really interested and equipped to learn from the racial differences that it hired. In fact, it started as an organization with an access and legitimacy perspective. It was a law firm, a public interest law firm, that the mission was to serve the rights and interests of low income women and it was an entirely white organization. In some ways, just like the bank, they were like, "Hey, here we are in the middle of a black community that we're actually trying to revitalize with this bank and we need to start reflecting the community," so….

Kenny: Kudos to all of them for recognizing that.

Ely: Exactly. It's a sophisticated and important recognition. What this organization was able to do though that City Side wasn't is that when it hired its first woman of color, it was actually called the Woman of Color Project so it was really off to the side and very much, "We need somebody to give us access to and legitimacy with the people that we're trying, whose interest we're trying to serve." They quickly learned that, "No, this was not a ‘woman of color’ project." She was going to enter the organization and she was going to really change the definition of the central work that we do. We just can't, we're not even approaching the work right. Our mission is great but the way we've defined what it means to serve that mission is not really serving maximally the interest that we want to serve. She was able to come in and work with them. It was a lot of conflict. Even when I was there collecting data, they were anticipating my coming and they said, when I got there they said, "Oh, we had this ‘Robin Ely event’ last week." I was like, "Oh my God. What's that?" They'd never even met me, just knew my name. They'd had a racial conflict. They knew I was coming to study something about their race relations.

Kenny: So that's what you've become now?

Ely: It’s like, "Oh, wow. This is interesting. Tell me all about it." It'd been this situation where they had an opportunity to do a fundraiser with a Latino theater group. What's interesting is the whole organization was not oriented the way that the program part of the organization was, the delivery of the program, so this opportunity came in and it didn't go to the program people. It went to the fundraising people and they were white. They made the decision without asking anybody else that they weren't going to spend their time doing that. The Latinas in the organization learned about it and they were like, "What? This is an amazing opportunity," so they had this conflict. The Latinas were saying, "You guys made the wrong decision. It's because you don't get it and you should've asked us." I went into a staff meeting where this conflict was still brewing and I was able to witness the turning point in it. The turning point was very instructive because it came when one of the Latinas said, "You don't understand. This is a group where if we are able to fundraise there and with them, we're going to have a connection. We're going to get ourselves in front of the very people that our programs are trying to serve." Then everybody was like, "Oh! I get it. I get it. Okay," but they really weren't able to see it until they moved the problem into the domain of the program. The program staff had been truly diversified in such a way that the central work of the organization of the program was informed by these cultural differences but they really were not at a place where the fundraising function was integrated so they had to move the conversation into the place where they could have the understanding of what it meant to really learn from their diversity in order for it to work.

Kenny: So much of it seems to come back to communication and listening.

Ely: Well, so that's the thing. Everybody's doing implicit bias training, which is fine but it's not a strategy for managing diversity or leveraging benefits from diversity because you can do all the consciousness-raising you want but if people don't learn how to have these conversations then it doesn't really matter. Even implicit bias, the whole point of it is unconscious so how would you know if you were actually engaging in some kind of implicitly biased behavior unless somebody pointed it out to you? Well, that means you’ve got to be able to talk about this stuff and it's tough.

Kenny: Well, these cases are very helpful I think. Robin, thank you for joining me today.

Ely: Oh, you're welcome.

Kenny: You can find this case along with thousands of others in the HBS case collection at HBR.org. I'm your host Brian Kenny and you've been listening to Cold Call.

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