Urban League Symposium

Nov. 1, 2012
Henrico Training Center, Henrico, Virginia

I want to start by thanking Chrystal Edwards for her hospitality this morning, and Thomas Victory for his leadership of the Urban League.

I’m proud to be here representing the most diverse university in the commonwealth, and I’m so proud of all of the ways in which we are diverse.

Virginia Commonwealth University is one of the nation’s top institutions for boosting graduation rates and closing the graduation gap for African-American and Latino students, the Education Trust just told us. We were the winner of the inaugural Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award from Insight Into Diversity magazine. We were a recipient of the 2012 Minority Access Role Models Award for our commitment to recruiting, retaining and advancing students and employees from a diverse applicant pool — one of only 27 institutions nationally. And we earned 3.5 stars, out of 5, from Campus Climate as an LGBTQ-friendly institution.

This is great. But it’s only the beginning. We will continue to seek every opportunity to become one of the nation’s most diverse universities.

Diversity is a core value at VCU — and that’s because it adds immeasurably to the educational experience. As a research university, we take the lead by being a microcosm of the world, not just the nation. So it’s important that we learn from one another, not just accept one another.

We are committed to graduating students who are capable of being leaders wherever they go in the world, so we bring as much of the world to them and their educational experience as possible. Because the fact is, being a leader in your field means being a leader among people.

Our mission is educating the next generation of leaders, and so our students absolutely must be ready to lead in a diverse world. They have to understand and embrace every form of diversity.

I worry that too often our leaders are paying attention to demographics and trying to market to and engage with emerging populations, but they’re not sincere. They’re doing so with tokenism, and giving people titles that don’t matter. If it’s not sincere, then any gains we make are ephemeral. If it’s not sincere, our leaders do not model the true richness of society. And if it’s not sincere, then we do not get to enjoy the richness of real diversity.

Every leader in every sector has to establish a firm platform for his or her own leadership style — and trust and respect must be central to it. Thinking about this reminds me of a great book called “The Five Temptations of a CEO” by Patrick Lencioni. Permit me a few minutes to tell you about that.

Temptation No. 1 is the desire to protect the status of your own career. What’s more important is to make results the most important measure of success.

Temptation No. 2 is the desire to be popular. Work for the long-term respect of your direct reports, not for their affection.

Temptation No. 3 is the need to make correct decisions, to achieve certainty. Make clarity more important than accuracy. If you turn out to be wrong, change plans and explain why. It is your job to take risks, or face paralysis of your company.

Temptation No. 4 is the desire for harmony. That doesn’t work. Tolerate discord. Encourage your direct reports to air their differences. Guard against personal attacks, but not to the point of stifling the important interchange of ideas.

And Temptation No. 5 is the desire for invulnerability. Instead, actively encourage your colleagues to challenge your ideas. They trust you when you are vulnerable because that is when your ideas and ego are checked. They will return with respect and honesty and a desire to be vulnerable with their peers.

Why did I mention these? Well, if you think about it, the key to all five is mutual trust and respect. Trust — getting close enough to people that there are no barriers, including people’s differences. Respect — similarly, respecting people’s differences and ensuring that you have real civil discourse around those differences.

Every leader must be authentic about their commitment to diversity. An authentic, inclusive culture can produce a range of original, engaging ideas that simply is not possible among homogenous populations. And the result is more apt, and potentially financially rewarding, decision-making.

Let me give you an example. We are familiar with Kingsford charcoal. At one time, this brand accounted for 10 percent of revenue for the Clorox Company, but the rising popularity of gas grills made it a dying brand. But then, Latino employees who worked at Clorox pointed out a better way to market Kingsford to other Latino customers. They noted that Latinos comprise a family-oriented culture and often cook together outdoors. They could become an ideal target customer group.

The marketing took this and connected Latino customers to the Kingsford brand. And you know what happened? They transformed what had been a dying brand: Kingsford has since resurged to 4-6 percent growth.

How do we do this in our organizations? Diversity needs to be ingrained in your organization’s values so that it becomes a branded component of how you do business. This may mean revisiting your core values and being adaptive to the changing demographics of our nation.

Remember that the U.S. is far more diverse than it was even 10 years ago. Who has spending power has also changed: Increasingly, it’s racial minorities and women of all races. So in business, it’s clear that diversity absolutely matters.

When you think about this, it’s clear that leadership is really how effectively you connect with other people. And people always change. So understanding diversity helps you keep your finger on the pulse of change. Or, as Gen. Eric Shinseki said: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

The ability to blend a variety of cultures and backgrounds in a work environment is now an essential leadership skill. The national workplace is becoming more diverse in every way. The Commerce Department notes that 85 percent of U.S. population growth over the next two generations will be from nonwhite ethnic groups. Half of Americans will be nonwhite by 2050; it’s one in three today. In Richmond, the population overall has grown 14 percent since 2000, and that’s fueled by citizens who identify as Asian, Latino and multiracial.

We had better pay attention to this. Here’s an example of why: Many studies show us that marketers often miss on their appeals to black women, even though there are 22 million black women in the U.S. with nearly $600 billion — billion with a “b” — in buying power. About half of black women are the head of their households, either making or influencing purchasing decisions. But nearly 90 percent of black women believe companies need to do a better job of understanding and reaching them — and if businesses are engaging them simply for economic reasons, they won’t buy it.

One African-American woman, cited in a study I saw, said that no matter how much Pantene shampoo she uses, she will never be able to fling her hair around like the white women in those TV commercials.

Some key industries rate especially poorly in marketing to black women, including automotive, financial services, health care and travel. Why is this big market overlooked or misunderstood? Well, part of the reason is that only 3 percent of creative directors at ad agencies are women; even fewer are black women. Lack of diversity in marketing is hurting companies in the marketplace.

The key is that you need a true appreciation for a diverse community of people, not just a superficial tolerance for them as customers, patients, clients or students. The relationships must be truly sincere.

A commitment to diversity and understanding diverse audiences can also build long-term brand loyalty. Consider your LGBTQ customers. Consumer data shows that LGBTQ consumers are typically loyal to LGBTQ-friendly brands, and 78 percent of LGBTQ shoppers are more likely to buy from companies that specifically advertise to them.

So I’d like to challenge you to think about how to build sincere support for embracing diversity that is not solely economic, although I recognize that it may have to begin that way. Build into your values and your brand a sense of mutual trust and respect for all people. Appeal to them on the inside; your business will be successful, but more importantly your life will also be enriched.

I appreciate your being here today and discussing with me a critically important topic for all of us. Thank you for your commitment to diversity in all its forms and for being tremendous leaders in our community.

We have time for a few questions.