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How industries can deliver transformational change for Black professionals

As a Black female professional, this VP of strategy explains how she had to fight every day to be seen, heard, taken seriously, and viewed as competent and capable. Here are three things companies can do to change that for others.

How industries can deliver transformational change for Black professionals
[Photo: James Haworth/Unsplash]

There’s nothing like a videoconference grid to remind you that you are the only one. I have spent the majority of my time in corporate America as the only one on a team, in the room, and one of only a few within an organization.

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My career journey in advertising, like that of so many others, speaks of the microaggressions and loneliness that come with being the only or among the few. For example, others confused me with one of the other Black women in the agency, when there were only a few of us and we looked nothing alike. I’ve sat through reviews that told me how “amazing” I was, but that I should tone down the passion when I advocate for ideas in meetings, even as others were prone to getting into screaming matches on a regular basis. I would be asked to join a pitch, not because I was capable, but because the client was “diverse.”

During my time in advertising, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with CEOs and CMOs of big and small brands and travel the world for work. Yet I had to fight every day to be seen, heard, taken seriously, and viewed as competent and capable. Ultimately, when I was unable to land a senior-level role it drove me away and made me swear off this industry for good. During that time spent doubting myself and my capabilities, I reflected on the agencies themselves, where there were few people of color and barely any in leadership positions. I reflected on the executives that I interviewed with—the majority of them white and male.

Like so many Black people who have encountered too many walls blocking their career journeys, I pivoted to consulting. This shift made me ask, “How many talented Black employees have given up on advertising careers because of systemic racism and have moved on to adjacent fields or industries, or started their own businesses?” The lack of sponsorship and accountability across the industry has led to toxic environments and underrepresentation as well as the creation of tone-deaf concepts.

The last few weeks feel like a reckoning has come down upon the world. We are seeing racist brand names being retired and offensive imagery removed from sports venues. Executive teams and corporate boards are scrambling to issue messages of support for Black lives and committing millions in donations for community engagement and outreach. Gone is the opportunity to placate employees with big strategic visions and promises to promote and advance while leadership numbers remain stagnant. These empty actions have no effect on Black employees if this is the first time a company is addressing them, if they do not feel a sense of belonging, and if they do not feel safe bringing their authentic selves to work.

Executive teams need to change the DNA of their infrastructure if they plan to deliver the transformational change that is demanded and required. Here are three steps organizations in any industry should take to become more accountable.

Reflect and amplify internal voices

Companies must reflect on how they have addressed employee concerns on inequality in the past. There are easy steps, such as looking back at exit interviews, complaints on Fishbowl, and reviews on Glassdoor. But digging deeper, leaders need to recognize times when they have slipped complaints under the rug. From there, they must listen to current employees by creating a trusted forum for dialogue and open critique to uncover areas where they are failing. This will help amplify the voices of employees who may have experienced systemic racism.

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Similar to how companies have taken strides to tackle blatant forms of intimidation, sexual harassment, and homophobia, they need to review their system for the handling of macro- and microaggressions of racism across their organization. This will require everyone to learn the skills needed to ultimately mitigate bias. Organizations should be prepared to initiate investigations swiftly, provide transparency throughout the process for all involved parties, and execute decisive action with meaningful consequences.

Embrace transparency

Today’s companies are not meeting racial equality standards in the workforce, nor are they hiring, developing, and promoting Black talent as much as they should. I urge companies to publish ethnicity, gender, and other data now and declare what they are going to do to improve these numbers, including how they will create a culture where diverse talent has the opportunity to thrive. Organizations should prioritize diversity and inclusion metrics in the same way as growth metrics.

These efforts should be intertwined with how companies strategize for, execute with, and report out financial performance. To that end, the CEO is truly the first chief diversity officer of any organization and should be a visible and vocal driver for change. The “head of Diversity” is the second primary individual driving change, and they should report directly to the CEO and have a seat at the table. If diversity functions continue to be considered exclusively as HR or People Operations, we lose the impact and emphasis that diversity and inclusion metrics are important for the business overall.

Additionally, companies should consult third parties to review policies, procedures, and metrics. How can you solve the problem of systemic racism that permeates so many facets of an organization, with the same people who are knowingly and unknowingly perpetuating the same system? You can’t. Don’t expect that transformational change will only come from within.

Leverage metrics and compensation to set teams up for success

Establishing metrics and goals for diversity and inclusion at a corporate level is not enough. Targets need to filter down to individual business units and teams, where accountability from leaders permeates down through every level of an organization. The responsibility of executives should not only be to live and breathe the values of an organization, but also to work toward increased representation and advancement of Black and diverse talent.

Identifying an internal pipeline of high-potential Black employees and assigning them accountable sponsors within leadership is critical to retaining and advancing Black talent within an organization. One of the biggest challenges that Black employees face is lacking the sponsorship and personal relationships with those “in the room” to advocate for their promotions and advancement. This approach should go all the way up to executive leadership teams and into your board of directors.

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The popular belief that what doesn’t get measured is not important, can be most proven by binding metrics to money. This can be accomplished by attaching compensation to the progress toward diversity and inclusion goals. Leaders can either get it together or get gone to perpetuate systemic racism and toxic environments elsewhere. In addition to performance-based goals, companies must equip leaders with the right tools and required training to affect change both on a personal level and also within their business realm of influence and control.

In the last year, I’ve made the leap back into the world of advertising. I am committed to changing the industry that I love. While the agency I’ve joined is not immune to the challenges this historic moment presents, I’m in an executive role, and we are boldly confronting these challenges and laboring to make lasting change for our people and the world. We can’t be nostalgic about the golden era of great advertising campaigns without recognizing that embedded in that foundation are hundreds of years of sexism, racism, ableism, and homophobia. For me, and for so many others, our golden era for advertising is yet to come.


Jessica Hartley is the vice president of strategy at Instrument, a digital product and brand experience innovation agency. 

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