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A Change Will Do You Good

The guardians of big business are defending their fortress against an army of interlopers whose needs and opinions clash with tradition. Two new books examine what this intrusion means to corporate insiders — and outsiders.

Book: Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work
Author: Debra L. Meyerson
Publisher: Harvard Business School Press
Price: $24.95

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Book: Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity
Author: by Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell and Stella M. Nkomo
Publisher: Harvard Business School Press
Price: $29.95

In the old days, balding white guys ruled the earth. Big business was their business: In most companies, even if you had the rare temerity not to be white, male, conservative, straight, and of a certain age, you still danced, more or less unquestioningly, to the tune they fiddled.

Today — well, okay — today, the balding white guys still hold sway. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them — except for the baldness and the sway.) More and more, though, an insidious hodgepodge has infiltrated corporate America. There are women, of course. And blacks, Asians, gays, and lesbians. Baptists and Muslims. Even parents with young kids.

These people are different. They are outsiders. They surely don’t rule the earth — but they most assuredly threaten the existing BWG order. They threaten in seemingly small ways, in conversational snippets, in the nuances of daily decisions. Make no mistake, though: These outsiders are playing a different tune.

Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell, who teaches at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, recalls meeting with an East Coast bank’s top executives who were trying to improve their record in hiring and retaining black women managers. “Who are they?” asked the CEO, sincerely perplexed by these people of difference. “Where do they fit?” This is what the BWGs wonder as they survey the changing human maps of their companies. Who are these people? Where do they fit? How do I understand them?

Here is help — two books that, in very different ways, explore the motivations and methods of corporate outsiders. Debra L. Meyerson, a professor at Stanford University and Simmons College, brings us Tempered Radicals, a reckoning with people who work to make change against the prevailing organizational flow. Bell and Stella Nkomo of the UNISA Graduate School of Business Leadership in South Africa, present Our Separate Ways, exploring the differences between black and white women executives.

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These books sprout from the same tree: Meyerson, Bell, and Nkomo have collaborated in the past, and they acknowledge each other’s work. They cite many of the same sources from feminist and diversity literature. They even share the same editors at Harvard Business School Press, which is publishing the works within two months of each other.

More telling, both books are strikingly nontraditional by academic standards. They are very personal journeys rooted in their authors’ experiences as outsiders in predominantly white male institutions. While both rely on reasonably scientific interviewing and surveying techniques, their telling comes as much from the heart as from the data.

Of the two, Tempered Radicals is the more surprising — and really, the more subversive. Meyerson lays out the analysis that she and Maureen Scully first tested in a 1995 paper (and that was described in the September 2000 issue of Fast Company). Tempered radicals, she writes, “are people who want to succeed in their organizations, yet want to live by their values or identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organizations.”

The genius of this definition, of course, is that it appeals to so many of us. One tempered radical is Martha Wiley, who grants her employees flexible work schedules despite the absence of any corporate policy condoning such a practice. John Ziwak, a white manager at a high-tech company, turns down a business trip that conflicts with his parenting obligations. Alan Levy takes time off to observe Jewish holidays. Peter Grant uses his executive perch to quietly hire other minority managers.

Well, that doesn’t sound so hard; we can be tempered radicals too! Ultimately, most of us want to stay true to our personal values — and most of us work for organizations whose values aren’t fully aligned with our own. To a greater or lesser extent, we suffer ambivalence as we attempt to navigate the gap. Our reactions may be very modest — simply attempting to fit in while retaining bits of our identity. Or they may be quite strident, challenging the dominant culture in ways that demand deliberate change.

Here’s the subversive part: Whether your strategy for tempered radicalism is quiet or clamorous, Meyerson tells you how to pull it off. Get past the pro forma sociological study, and this is a handbook for revolutionaries — The Prince for conflicted middle managers! Check out the lessons: “Designing Behind-the-Scenes Actions to Make a Difference,” “Turning Personal Threats into Opportunities,” or “Approaching Situations as Negotiations.” BWGs, don’t read this book!

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It’s actually very intelligent, engaging stuff. “Opportunities for learning and change,” Meyerson writes, “often lie in the details of organizational life — in everyday practices, mundane interactions, and ‘normal’ ways of understanding. Tempered radicals find opportunities for small wins in these details.”

This is how change really happens in the workplace — via modest increments rather than grand, overnight revolution. Master the small wins, Meyerson observes, and more substantial change will follow. Effective tempered radicals leverage many minor victories over time to effect broad results. Peter Grant hired one minority candidate at a time — but over a 30-year career, he has been responsible for the hiring of more than 3,500 employees. Thus are “everyday leaders” born.

And it is tempered radicalism that provides a fulcrum of sorts for Our Separate Ways. In comparing the professional paths of white and black female executives, Bell and Nkomo observe that white women are mostly tempered; black women swing toward the radical. Black women “express their tempered radicalism via calculated strategies aimed at making a difference by uplifting the black community.” White women evince relatively little anger about sexism in the workplace, wrestling with “how to play along and not rock the boat.”

This is the point of Our Separate Ways: Black and white women professionals share common interests in confronting gender issues — but they “are often trapped in a mutual perceptual illiteracy about one another,” Bell and Nkomo write. “The fragile bond of gender is not enough to overcome the divisiveness of race.” As a result, the two groups isolate each other in the workplace.

The explanation Bell and Nkomo propose certainly is reasonable. White women, they argue, are close enough and sympathetic enough to the dominant culture of business organizations — the BWG thing — to submit to it. Simply put, they fit more easily. That fit is relatively frictionless, allowing white men to retain power while white women achieve some success. Black women, by contrast, are separated from the locus of power by gender, race, and history. If assimilation is the price of organizational acceptability, “this, of course, is a condition impossible for the African-American woman to fulfill.”

Bell and Nkomo walk a fine line here. The bank CEO’s formative question — Who are these people? — is, in a way, an intellectual trap. It is the sort of question that encourages us to think of a group of like people — in this case, black female executives — as alike. Our Separate Ways takes great pains, by telling the life stories of 14 black and white women in almost exhaustive detail, to affirm that individuals are, in fact, individual — their motivations, desires, and actions determined by much more than just gender, race, and class. At the same time, though, the authors steer us toward conclusions that don’t feel completely comfortable.

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One is the notion that white women generally are insensitive to the racism suffered by black women. “Black women feel they are left standing alone [by white women colleagues] on matters that positively impact the work conditions of minorities,” Bell and Nkomo observe. Furthermore, the authors argue, “black women must know that if they are not represented their white sisters will speak for them.”

I wonder: Why should white women be held any more accountable for fighting racism than anyone else? Why should we be surprised that white women would concern themselves with gender issues but not with race? In economic terms, to be blunt, race isn’t their immediate problem. To demand racial sympathy by virtue of sisterhood seems, to me, a stretch.

What bothers me more, however, is the design of the study itself. Bell and Nkomo conducted in-depth interviews with 80 black women and 40 white women, following up with a survey of 825 black and white female managers. My problem: The interview subjects all were experienced managers born between 1945 and 1955 — and the interviews themselves were done 10 years ago.

As a result, we’re treated to a relatively narrow demographic slice and to an experience that may be dated. The authors indicate that “as young women, our subjects [white and black] found their career choices restrained by societal notions of female careers.” Is such an observation really relevant to women entering business today? Probably not.

That said, I agree that, as Bell and Nkomo write, “even in the year 2001, black women remain in the shadows. Whether subsumed by the category of ‘women’ or the category of ‘blacks,’ they are invisible.” Black women can identity completely neither with white women nor with black men. They must feel incredibly isolated.

And that’s important. As both Our Separate Ways and Tempered Radicals make clear, organizations become more effective when they allow their employees to act in ways that are true to their identities — that “make that part of their selves ‘real,’ ” as Meyerson writes. Such employees more likely will think critically and creatively, driving productive change through their BWG organizations.

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Keith H. Hammonds (khammonds@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor.