Ask the DEI Expert: Speaking Honestly & Leading with Heart
We have the power to drive meaningful conversations and change in the workplace. In this series, we’re connecting with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion leaders to spotlight their brilliance, understand how their work affects all aspects of the employee lifecycle, how we can build better pipelines and systems, and how to do the important work of removing bias and becoming anti-racist.
We connected with Global Communications Leader and Executive Coach, Andrew Blotky, to explore his professional journey dedicated to promoting both strong leadership and equitable workplaces.
COULD YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?
I am the founder of Azure Leadership, a consultancy and coaching practice focused on leadership, culture and communication. We help organizations and leaders be the best versions of themselves they can be, especially in key moments and during periods of growth or change.
I started out working in politics and ran communications teams in in the non-profit world and in elective politics. I am a lawyer by training, and then most recently before I started my own firm, I worked at Facebook, where I worked for about 5 years and led the employee communications team.
I'm also the author of a book called “Honestly Speaking: How the Way We Communicate Transforms Leadership, Love, and Life." It's about helping people communicate in a way that is more authentic and more true to who they are. When you do that, you can be way better at leading the work environment, you can live your life a little bit better, and connect with those who matter most to you.
HOW DID YOU COME INTO CONSULTING AND EXECUTIVE COACHING?
I'd say two threads most consistently run throughout my career. The first is around helping people communicate effectively and with lots of different audiences – so taking lots of complex ideas and translating them into relatively simple language that is useful and lands well with different audiences.
And the second is around leadership, both helping people to be better leaders, and also leading, managing and building teams myself. So, I've had lots of practice building and leading teams. Now I coach people and I have a formal coaching certification.
DURING PRIDE MONTH, WE SAW A LOT OF COMPANIES MAKE STATEMENTS OF ALLY-SHIP on SOCIAL MEDIA AND INCORPORATE PRIDE INTO THEIR MARKETING (ADS, PRIDE, RAINBOW LOGOS, ETC.). WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS?
I've definitely seen that companies and nonprofit organizations, too, are really making much more of a show of allyship. I think it's not only the right thing to do, but it's also good for business. But the visible show matters less than actions, which we really need to focus more on. Visibility matters, actions matter more.
It has been proven that more diverse teams yield better work product, work better together, and get better results. Seeing companies engage in some sort of allyship in a very overt, positive way through marketing materials or others is, I think, really important for them as businesses. It's also really a show of strength for where we are as a society. I think it's been really powerful to see important brands taking an important stance.
It's also not just a marketing show of support, which is important, but it's also become increasingly a political statement. It was really interesting to see – not only as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but also as a voter and as a consumer – a lot of companies taking a stand supporting LGBTQ+ rights, minority rights, and environmental rights in ways that we weren't seeing from our government, especially over the last four years. We're seeing a lot more of it, and I think the impact of it is a lot more than just sort of a nice performative marketing campaign (or at least I hope so).
THAT ACTUALLY BRINGS UP AN IMPORTANT POINT: SOME COMPANIES HAVE BEEN CRITICIZED FOR THEIR SHALLOW AND OUTWARD ATTEMPTS AT ALLYSHIP, WHEN THEY HAVE INTERNAL PRACTICES OR WORK CULTURE THAT ARE HARMFUL OR INDIFFERENT... OR THEY CONTRIBUTE TO ANTI-LGBTQ+ CAUSES OR LAWMAKERS.
That's such a good point and it's true. I wanted to start with the positive because I believe that visibility is really important, and it's how we make social change in a more inclusive way. However, that visibility matters if it's credible and if it's trustworthy.
The quickest way to undermine trust with a consumer or your own employees is if you say one thing and then people’s experience is different. I think it's really easy to throw some money at the problem and create some Pride banners and maybe even show up at a Pride Parade, or run a marketing campaign. That may make you look good.
The harder thing is to actually do the work of listening and to telling the truth. So many companies right now are having a hard time hiring and retaining diverse talent. Well, why is that? Partly because their systems and processes are not as inclusive as they should be. So, the hard work isn't the work that reflects that outward statement.
Increasingly, consumers and employees alike have their BS-meters up. They just don't have much interest in seeing something that feels fake, and companies are getting called out for it.
HOW COULD COMPANIES WALK THE TALK? WHAT ARE SOME ACTIONABLE STEPS TOWARD TRUE ALLYSHIP?
To actually make your organization feel more inclusive, start at recruiting and hiring, and go all the way through the employee experience. How do people leave the organization? What are the ways that you manage and incentivize people? Are they clear around their expectations around career development and around progression or promotion? All of it matters. You have to think at every stage of the employee experience.
Companies can also make sure that they are creating an environment that feels inclusive, where people can be themselves fully. One of the things that I love doing is guiding companies to ask people: “How do you feel?”
Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community isn't usually a visible trait. It's something that goes to a person’s sense of identity. It is what their lived identity is, which is not always visible or known to somebody else, so it is even more important to ask people: “How do you feel? Do you feel like you can be your authentic self at work? What do you need in order to feel that way?”
But all of this takes time. It starts with unconscious bias training and having hard conversations, but this is all the hard, long work that is required to reflect, in an honest way, that outward statement of support.
For all the re-branding and flashy marketing, companies should think about what could be done with that money instead. There are lots of nonprofit organizations that they could partner with who are actively helping people in the LGBTQ+ community facing bullying in schools or overcoming suicide, the rate of which is so much higher in the LGBTQ+ group than it is among other demographics. There are lots of different causes that could be supported instead.
HOW CAN INDIVIDUALS OR EMPLOYEES EXPRESS THEIR NEED FOR CHANGE OR MAKE SUGGESTIONS FOR CHANGE IN THEIR PLACES OF WORK?
It's incumbent on the employee to both speak up and speak out, and do it in a way that feels constructive, collaborative, and not just critical. As an employee, it's a lot easier to criticize, and it's a lot harder to come up with solutions or ideas that will help get toward change. On these issues, it’s often hard to speak up, and even harder to speak up productively – yet that is our necessary challenge.
The things that really matter most in these areas are additive and the power comes in small actions adding together to create an outcome, as opposed to one big sweeping, showy thing that gets a lot of attention. This is about every person taking ownership over their own biases. This is about every person taking ownership over how you show up and support people.
When I was at Facebook, we always brought speakers in to talk about the current environment and the political state and make sure that people knew it wasn't just about a parade. What cases went before the Supreme Court this year? What's the legislative process? LGBTQ+ rights are under attack in all sorts of Republican-led state legislatures this year alone since the last election.
Employees can speak up and speak out and guide others to, on their own time, share resources, take political action, raise money, engage in nonprofits. There's a lot that employees can do that, frankly, don't get in the way of getting work done and also don't harm the company's reputation.
AND WHAT ABOUT COMMUNICATIONS TEAMS? HOW OR WHAT CAN THEY DO TO HELP ELEVATE THE CONVERSATION OR CONNECT THESE TOPICS MORE MEANINGFULLY WITH THEIR AUDIENCES, EMPLOYEES AND LEADERS?
I think you know communications teams have sort of a secret sauce, right? We're really good at talking about our heart issues. Communication at its root, and the actual Latin root of the word, is “finding common ground.” It's to communicate together to find shared understanding. I think that one of the things that communications teams can do is to help people navigate these conversations in a more productive, meaningful way.
Communications teams are also really good at storytelling; it’s one of the main things that we do. So show examples, tell people stories about things that have worked well and things that haven't worked well, what you are seeing, and how does it relates to your brand.
I think the challenge for communications teams is that they are usually stretched so thin and focused solely on the company's product, policies, or their place in the marketplace that it’s not something they're used to handling. They may have to rethink the role of a communications team and how their time is used and on what topics. But it requires leadership to say that this is important and advocate for focusing on telling a more inclusive story for the company.
WHY IS “CHECKING THE BOX” CORPORATE MENTALITY HARMFUL WHEN IT COMES TO DEI AND ALLYSHIP WITH THE LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY AND RECOGNIZING PRIDE? AND HOW CAN LEADERS CHECK THEMSELVES?
This is one of the reasons why I think a workshop, discussion, or training around managing their own unconscious biases is so powerful. It is from living through and understanding it that you see this is a lived process. It's not an achievement.
A lot of companies are used to focusing on output and checking a box, – achievement and moving onward. Achieving milestones and goals is how companies and businesses work, but that same mindset doesn't apply well to something that has been a centuries-long problem in our country and our world. In a lot of ways, it has to do with the deep conditioning that many of us are born with, so it necessarily requires a much different way of rethinking it.
From a tactical perspective, the more that leaders can personally experience and confront their own unconscious biases, the more they can develop a personal connection. I would encourage as many leaders as possible to just be open and honest with yourself themselves about the biases that we all carry around with us. It doesn't mean you're a bad person or a bad leader. Congratulations, we're all human. We all have them.
This is also something that we want to be continue talking to talking about and iterating on because centuries of challenges are not going will not be fixed overnight or flipped like a switch. It is different than the way that businesses operate. You don't set the goal and achieve it and it's over. If we could have waved our magic wand and fixed this already, we would have done it already. Trust me.
This is about empowering people and making them feel like they can be a part of the journey because the journey is going to feel long and hard, and the less personal ownership and connection to it, the less likely they're going to want to be a part of it. This is why I think it is so powerful. I can sit here and tell CEO's that they need to care about this, but there is no connection or authenticity unless they've personally understood it or had some kind of an awakening moment like we had with George Floyd's murder last year. I would rather that moment of awakening come through confronting their own biases and then realizing that this is an ongoing conversation.
IF YOU COULD SAY ONE THING TO LEADERS. WHAT PIECE OF ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE THEM?
Lead more with your heart. We are really good at analyzing and comparing and often lose sight of what really matters – which is how we connect especially at work. Connection – coming together, finding common ground – is the root of communications and leadership.
I want to believe that most leaders want to see more of themselves in other people. We are far more the same than we are different at the end of the day. It's what motivated my whole belief in working in politics for so long. It is one of the reasons why I do this work now. So, the more that we can help people see more of ourselves in others, the more likely it is that we are willing to confront our own biases, be a little more empathetic, be more honest and consistent about our marketing campaigns. Just be the best person that you can be. And where does that start? It starts with your heart.
It's not something that, in most workplaces, we are trained for or comfortable with. We are not used to talking about emotions in the workplace, and so that's why it feels a little uncomfortable. But if you can get some leaders to do that, I promise your people will start to do it, too.
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