21 Feb 2020

Leading Race Work at HBS: From the Back Yard to the Front Lawn

(LtoR): Laura Morgan Roberts, Robin Ely, and Anthony Mayo.
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Echoing the call from Ann Fudge, retired chairman and CEO, Young & Rubicam Brands, “Let the much-needed conversations begin!” exclaimed Laura Morgan Roberts, former Harvard Business School professor and current professor at University of Virginia Darden School of Business, as she kicked off “Leading Race Work in Business Schools,” a Gender Initiative Symposium on Friday, February 7.

This convening is the fourth race-centered Gender Initiative event since 2017. It builds on the original research and efforts led by the Leadership Initiative in marking 2018’s 50th anniversary of the founding of the African American Student Union (AASU) and the recent publication of Race Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, co-edited by Roberts, HBS Senior Lecturer Anthony Mayo, and Morehouse College President David Thomas. The volume of essays from top scholars, researchers, and practitioners examines how race affects people’s experiences of work and leadership--what it is like to be black in corporate America, how to build an inclusive workplace, and how racial dynamics in the workplace are changing.

After its release in September of 2019, Roberts, currently a Gender Initiative fellow, paused and asked, “We devoted our intellectual energy and precious data to mapping out a set of recommendations for organizations and institutions to lead race work--shouldn’t we be looking at what it means to lead this work inside our own organizations? What does it look like for us to lead race work not in our back yard, but on our front lawn?” Thus, the symposium. “It’s crucial for HBS to continue the work of examining and improving what happens in our classrooms and on our campus,” agreed Gender Initiative director Colleen Ammerman. “And we have an enormous opportunity to ensure that issues of race and racial equality are at the forefront of business education.”

Calling on attendees to “roll up our sleeves and get to work,” Roberts first emphasized the importance of pushing past the persistent discomfort in talking about race. Despite continued racial disparities, increases in various forms of racism, and a backlash against diversity and inclusion, talking about race in the workplace remains taboo. “It is essential that we develop the cultural competence to directly engage race and its intersections,” said Roberts. “There are myriad ways in which race-related dynamics affect everything we teach in business schools--commercial activities, employee engagement, consumer buying patterns, our assumptions about workforce engagement and the dignity of labor and laborers. When we're not talking about it, we're not equipping our students, our partners, to be able to lead in the 21st century economy.”

Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

The event opened with a look back at some of the School’s key diversity and inclusion efforts. Professor and Gender Initiative chair Robin Ely and Mayo, former director of the Leadership Initiative and a current faculty affiliate of the Gender and Leadership Initiatives, spoke about the 2010 study of the experiences of HBS faculty across gender and race lines, which Ely commissioned during her tenure as Senior Associate Dean for Community and Culture, as well as about the research, exhibitions, documentaries, publications, and summit gatherings that marked 2013’s anniversary of women’s acceptance into the MBA program, W50, and 2018’s AASU50. “There have been notable ripple effects from AASU50--broader alumni engagement, more black and Latinx students in the MBA class as well as a new position within admissions focused on diversity recruitment, and increased efforts to broaden the curriculum around issues of race, inclusion, and diversity,” noted Mayo. “AASU50 sharpened the focus on where we were woefully behind and illuminated the hard work that we still need to do. Conversations like this help to move us forward.”

The day continued with a panel discussion on best practices in teaching diversity, equity, and inclusion with University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business Professor Stephanie Creary, University of Virginia Darden School of Business Postdoctoral Fellow Courtney McCluney, and Morgan State University Professor Karen Proudford. Creary offered up a mnemonic she uses in her classroom, RACE: Reduce anxiety by talking about race anyway. Accept that anything related to race in the classroom, business, and world is either going to be invisible or hypervisible. Call on my tribe for help. Expect that you will need to provide some “answers,” such as practical tools and skill-based frameworks.

Discussing the Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) November 2019 feature series, “Advancing Black Leaders,” Editor Amy Bernstein credited “Beating the Odds,” the 2018 HBR article by Roberts, Mayo, Ely, and Thomas, as breaking the issue “wide open” for the editorial team. “There were lessons that went way beyond the group of women in this article; lessons of resilience and strength,” said Bernstein. “HBR had covered issues of diversity and race, but with a more dispassionate, managerial view. What this article did was take us inside the head and heart of a black woman trying to navigate the workplace.” That led naturally to the five-part “Big Idea” series. “We hear about this package all the time from our readers--we hear gratitude and surprise,” said Bernstein. “This helped us rethink how we approach our mission of improving the practice of management in a changing world.”

Attendees then broke into groups to brainstorm what it would look like if business schools were to commit to being intentional in discovering and addressing racial injustice and inequity. Resulting ideas ranged from requiring a diversity course, to devoting a specific percentage of race and diversity topics in all courses, to requiring training to ensure that faculty and staff have the necessary skills to help alleviate student anxiety and maximize learning.

Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

The symposium closed with a fireside chat with Roberts; McGill University Desautels Faculty of Management Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies Patricia Hewlin; Bentley University Interim Provost Donna Blancero; Berkeley Haas School of Business Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer David Porter; and Wake Forest University Presidential Chair in Principal Leadership Derek Avery. The wide-ranging discussion covered faculty diversity, expanding traditional search tactics to obtain high potential talent, and the importance of asking not only faculty members of color to teach and engage in topics of race. Opening up the conversation, the group dove into the role of leaders and faculty in better understanding the struggles faced by students of color, who often feel isolated and disconnected from their background, experiences, and families of origin. “We have to make sure that we have cultural competency,” said Blancero. “It’s so important that faculty and staff across campus lead through workshops, retreats, and dialogues that promote a deeper appreciation for the many differences which, together, make a community special.”

“If business schools are to adopt racial justice as a core competency, then we must be more strategic and systematic in how we equip our students, faculty, and staff with those skills,” said Roberts. “Then we can fulfill our responsibility to educate and prepare leaders with the most sophisticated understanding of leadership and management practices.” Senior Associate Dean and MBA Faculty Chair Jan Rivkin agrees. “A fundamental skill of good general managers is the ability to make the most out of human differences--to turn differences among people into sources of imagination, creativity, innovation, and economic value.”

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