Interpersonal Tips for Inclusive Leaders
Just over a year ago in September, 2013, I sat with other Marshall Memorial Fellowship alumni in Washington, DC anticipating my new journey as the new lead on Diversity & Inclusion at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The occasion was the German Marshall Fund’s alumni Seminar on “Diversity, Inclusion and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Having worked in leadership development and having served in various capacities in my career, I was particularly excited to share that my next professional focus was in an area to which I had always been committed. It was a capstone job at one of the world’s leading health institutions and I was humbled to be a part of the team. The year has moved quickly. I could write mounds about my experience as a practitioner but what I find most compelling is the journey toward inclusion and some the learning I have gleaned in this year. My knowledge has been honed and my own resolve in doing this work is sharper and clearer.
Here are a few insights: In order to lead, you must follow. Of course, that sounds fairly trite, but I have an appreciation of what I’ve learned that I didn’t know before. One of my first lessons was sobering. Regularly I lead a session on cultural competency for the hospital. It was around a holiday and I wanted to wish my colleague a greeting appropriate for the season. As a leader on inclusion, I constantly try to attune myself to the subtle nuances of a person’s experiences and background, so without missing a beat, I wished her a happy Easter. She smiled and replied that she is Jewish. I was mortified! I thought I heard her talk about her Irish family and their Catholic religious traditions—and so figured she celebrated Easter. I was wrong, not just in the assumption, but also in the absolute facts of her experience. I hadn’t listened closely or paid attention to what had been shared. Once I gathered my thoughts I made this a learning moment for myself, but I also shared the exchange with my colleagues in the orientation. The lesson to impart immediately is that sometimes in doing the work of inclusion, you get it wrong. You mess up and make errors in human relationships. In this case, my colleague was lovely. She knew it was a mistake and corrected me. I learned from it, but I also got a big dose of practical learning about asking and clarifying, even if you think you have all of the information.
I have also learned to recognize that unconscious bias is real and is constantly at work, no matter who you are. We all have our impressions that are shaped unintentionally, but nevertheless play a role in how we interact with others. I have countless stories regarding little flair ups in living in one of the world’s most diverse cities. The shareable lesson, however, isn’t in the awareness. It is in the diligence it takes to ensure that the work of inclusion progresses, even when it is difficult to combat every way we have been taught to make differences and judge others.
Another experience I would share is around time and its attendant cultural values. I was meeting a colleague for lunch recently and our timing was way off. I have read and appreciate the Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. In the book, one of the tenets is to be impeccable with your word. I am usually not late when I’ve committed to a time, but I also don’t like being early and waiting on people, so I often cut closer than I should on time. In this instance, I was aware that we are two men of color, and stereotypes abound regarding our tendencies to be late, so I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t a part of perpetuating a stereotype. As I was waiting on him to meet me, knowing that I was a little annoyed that we were late to leave, I wondered why it was taking him so long to get downstairs. I was also beginning to question if he valued my time and was sincere in getting together. “After all, I was the ‘busier’ of the two of us and was doing him a favor…,” I thought.
Well, as it turns out, he was coming downstairs to another building. I assumed we worked in the same place. He realized my assumption and made the walk to see me so that we could leave and walk closer to where he was. I didn’t figure this out, of course, until we were returning after lunch and he didn’t cross the street. I felt so embarrassed and his gracious manner shamed me a bit more. He didn’t know the narrative I had written, but it wasn’t as kind as it should have been. Again, I learned a lesson. There are all sorts of reasons we make up stories. In most cases we tell them to assuage a concern relative to our failings. This was certainly the case.
Fortunately, I didn’t lose a friend or react offensively. I gained a friend over lunch and was so glad to have a new and valued colleague who believes in teamwork. Finally, one of the best parts of taking my experience as a Marshall Memorial Fellow to my work in diversity and inclusion has been recalling the many discussions we had as a cohort of U.S. fellows engaged in an immersive leadership program in Europe. Like most Fellows we were always thinking about how unique our experiences were and how grateful were to have been chosen, but we also could see the concrete differences culturally that were before us. We noted how our individual American experiences shaped our interactions with our European counterparts. Diversity in action was the order of the day. Even more, paying attention to those distinctions was a part of surviving and having a successful trip. I am grateful to weave that experience into my professional life on a daily basis.
George Walker (MMF '10), Diversity and Inclusion Manager at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York, reflects on leadership lessons learned related to diversity and inclusion.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.