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I came across a Harvard Business Review article highlighting the top 10 commitments companies must make to advance racial justice. The article speaks to the ineffectiveness of corporations tweeting out statements of concern, and enlisted a set of company commitments that must be supported with action. Whilst I agree action is part of the answer, what the article seemed to infer is that there is a “one size fits all” set of commitments.  

Having worked with CEOs and their teams around the world, I have seen all too often where company commitments become just another strategic head exercise, overseen by executives and outsourced to H.R. and other departments. While there will be some quick company decisions that need to be made in response to racial injustice, the inherent danger is that companies move forward strategically, without first establishing a base reality of the culture. 

If companies are looking to commit to real change, and want to tackle the issues of racial justice head on, then it has to start with the CEO. His/her mandate will be to understand the unique set of root cause issues that exist within the culture before they can move forward.  Here are some critical steps the CEO may need to consider prior to taking action:

Communicate inauthentic leadership

There is so much out there about authentic leadership. But what does that even really mean? It always helps to look at what it doesn’t mean, and in this case it is turning up with a set of strategic company commitments to change without deeper reflection, purpose, and personal accountability. CEOs must face into the truth of their own complacency and own up to where they have not shown up to the issue of racism. True authenticity is deep rooted in vulnerability, and CEOs must be willing to show their cards and take ownership of their inaction, and have the courage to communicate this throughout the organisation.

Encourage employees to share their stories and listen to them wholeheartedly

Storytelling and language is what connects, creates community and can facilitate the healing journey. Before a CEO and leadership team can create any strategic change, they must encourage and listen to the stories of people within the organisation. And even before they can attempt to listen, they must first provide a safe opportunity for those stories to be shared. Stories of injustice and racism will be deeply rooted in personal history and life stories. There must be a genuine and heartfelt willingness to want to listen to people’s pain, anger, and suffering. There will be stories that will be courageously told and difficult to hear, but without the truth being exposed, there cannot be an opportunity for transformation and true strategic alignment.  

Establish a shared reality of the existing culture and have real and difficult conversations

Racism is systemic, so it is vital for CEOs to understand exactly where racism has shown up in the culture and ask the question of leadership: What has the company done to date to create a culture of justice? In truthful and courageous conversations, the answers will be very different. 

A CEO must be prepared to have the real and difficult conversations, and be able to hold a safe space with the leadership team for expression, and encourage constructive debate. The current situation has created an unprecedented level of distress and tension in people. A lot of people are carrying these emotions which may be in the form of blame towards the company. All views are important, and must be surfaced to establish a shared reality of where the company is in terms of its culture. Only then can a new set of behaviours be set that are in support of strategic commitments.

Arthur Chan says it here beautifully in his LinkedIn post:

Make a set of real and tangible leadership commitments that are supported by personal values and stories

CEOs and their leadership teams must humanise every aspect of the challenge being faced, and ensure a real, emotional connection is established to the commitments being made around racial justice. Company commitments that are merely a set of strong and positive statements will seem disingenuous, and will go down in the organisation like a lead balloon if the real issues haven’t been surfaced and acknowledged. On the other hand, personal leadership commitments that are aligned to values and life stories and communicated authentically will show truth and diversity, and will allow employees to align where there is resonance.  

A set of strategic company commitments without listening to an organisation can have a detrimental impact in what is very sensitive and precarious terrain. Employees are becoming more observant and challenging of leadership, and are using their voices to speak up more widely in support of social change. If they are to buy into company commitments, they will want to be heard, and they will want to believe in the company’s change in course. They will also want to know that commitments are substantive, real and come with a quality that has been unearthed through genuine truth and reflection, and are in support of real and bold action.

Originally published on

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