How Anti-Bias Leadership Coaching Helps Build High-Performing Organizations with Laura Lomax of Intercultural Works
More About Laura Lomax
Laura Lomax is an intercultural practitioner and certified professional coach. Laura works with individuals and groups to guide the development of their cultural competency with the end goal of building high performing, inclusive organizations.
More about Intercultural Works
Intercultural Works is an African American, woman-owned business. It focuses on developing the idea of cultural agility or cultural competency – working with individuals one-on-one, as well as with organizations, departments or groups.
This episode was recorded on June 24th, 2020. It is nearly one month to the day that George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Sarah Larson: The outrage over Floyd’s death has really sparked both protests across the country and around the world, but it has also renewed our country’s national conversation about race. This time, it feels different. Laura, do you agree?
Laura Lomax: It definitely feels different. I’m hoping that it is actually going to have a different result and not just a moment of outrage. I see leaders struggling to come up with the words to rally their teams around this very divisive and complicated subject of racism.
Most of my work has been about diversity and inclusion with organizations that probably don’t often think about race because their employees or students are mostly white or European American. They’re not mostly students of color. It hasn’t really been a high priority.
I think people are compelled now because they want to do the right thing. They noticed that even though the population of students, for example, is only 6% of the district, they recognized there are some problems with this changing demographic. Our community is not necessarily prepared to serve different people of color and indigenous folks. It’s a learning curve. I think people really do want to learn. It’s just complicated. Right now, people are asking, “What do we say? What do we do?” How do you explain a snowstorm and its impact to someone who lives in a place where there’s never been snow? It’s very difficult. How do we find the right language? How do you talk about it at work, home, and in your community at this moment? That’s the challenge.
Why do you think it’s hard for white people to talk about race?
We, as African Americans, are grappling with this as well. This is not just a white phenomenon, but there’s a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who’s a writer for The Atlantic and an author. He wrote “Between the World and Me,” and there’s a quote early on in that book that says, “Race is the child of racism.” What he’s saying is that this idea of racism is what brings up the issue or the idea of race. There are many definitions, but why is it difficult? I think there is not a shared understanding of history or social experience. We’re almost operating in two different realities or dual reality. I love using a metaphor about an iceberg.
People of color are the iceberg, and you see their ethnicity, physical traits, music, food, and entertainment. Dive beneath that waterline, and you’re going to see history. You’re going to see social experience very differently from mainstream America. That 400-year block from 1619 – and I totally recommend the New York Times publication called 1619 – that’s when slavery started. That history and that exterior fence is unique, and nobody wants to talk about it. I noticed that in school districts, it’s almost been removed – the idea of slavery or enslavement and its whole history. It’s been almost removed from the curriculum.
One of the things you’ve done with Intercultural Works is you’ve introduced an Antibias Leadership Toolkit. Can you tell us about that?
Most of my work was about diversity and inclusion. I created what I called the Antibias Leadership Toolkit for several reasons. First, I really believe leaders of organizations need to embrace this idea of an anti-bias or diversity, and the heart set and mindset of emotional intelligence, skills, and institutional accountability to change an association to embrace all of their people. This mindset is where leaders become comfortable having these conversations. They form a mindset, a heart set, and the skill set of an anti-biased perspective, meaning it’s all anti-biased or anti-racist.
It’s not enough to say, “I’m not prejudiced. I’m not racist. I don’t have biases,” which we know we all do. You have to actively be involved in anti-biased efforts within an individual relationship, in your organization, and in the community. If you see something that is biased or antiracist, you have to call it out.
Right now, my work is focused on leadership. It’s a lot of one-on-one, as well as working with smaller groups because I think it’s more effective. I love the workshops. I love large groups because you get your message out to a broad group of people. You have many different mindsets. I really like to differentiate or customize the material to the individual experience. I think that’s most effective. My work is basically talking about the importance of diversity, innovation, increased client base, etc., for organizations. How do you incorporate the mindset and model it for your employees relative to communication and be vulnerable? My job is to try to keep leaders abreast of where we are in this conversation.
Are you seeing leaders wanting to learn more, discover their own biases, and seek out guidance?
I do. For my process, I usually start with an assessment that serves as an introspection. This whole process of anti-racism building, cultural agility, intelligence, humility, etc., starts with self-awareness. Being honest with yourself, and understanding a person’s narrative starts to play out in your head. What’re the biases? What are your hot buttons?
For example, I know when I see somebody that has gray shoes, I’m going to start feeling my temperature rise. Be mindful. Have self-reflection. Sometimes, people think that means self-critique, but it really is an affirmative introspection. This is all about emotional intelligence. Self-awareness is huge. I find leaders absolutely want to take the lead and understand, and I think that is critical.
I think that when you have the staff and other levels of the organization getting these workshops and are tuned in, but the leadership is off of professional development, not modeling, and not being vulnerable themselves, it doesn’t have the same impact. It’s not sustainable. The organization has to embrace and embody it. Working with a consultant or a coach is effective.
Professional development training is one of the ways organizations can improve, but they’ve got to embody it in the organization like yourself because it’s an ongoing, learning journey. As things change, you can always bring in a consultant. Right now, a lot of CEOs are scrambling to get someone to review their organization’s statement. It’s great to have the leadership and their team leading a mission where they’re constantly learning. They are modeling, and that is sustainable to me.
What are some of the tactics that your most successful clients are using to take the ideas they’re learning from you back to their organization and make change?
I highly recommend some type of accountability group. It can be a committee or a diversity inclusion committee. Some people have all different kinds of names like Jedi or Idea. You make it your own. You have a group that is really championing the idea, and that group should have senior leadership involved. The CEO should be involved. Someone who is in charge of best practices should have access to the senior leadership. They should have a committee and should be relegated to reporting to HR or another department. The committee is a huge thing with professional development and ongoing training. Webinars also work very well.
There’s a lot of material out there. Choose a research frame and try sticking to it. I think it’s important to have someone to help guide that process. Lunch and learns and book clubs are a great way to get people involved. You can also talk to your friends or associates of color, even though they might not be your friends at work. Find out and be curious. Empathy and ongoing learning are simplistic, but they’re really important practices. One thing I like to recommend to large organizations or schools is to identify someone of color and come up with a story about who they are. I’ve done this myself, and it’s very interesting because you find that as human beings, we are story creators.
If we don’t know who is in the room, we are going to create stories about them. Unfortunately, in our world, the stories that we’re coming up with about people of color are not the greatest. Identify someone, come up with their story, and then go over to talk to them and find out their actual story. It’s a real eye-opener how we have these implicit associations with different types of people.
I use the metaphor of driving around and seeing a New Jersey license plate. Growing up, my parents made comments about Jersey drivers. When I see a license plate, my children even say I did the same thing by acting biased toward “Jersey drivers.” Sometimes it’s harmless, but what if I’m the head of a transportation company, and I’m doing hiring? That simple, seemingly innocent bias could have a negative impact down the road.
I call this work evolutionary, not revolutionary. Take it easy on yourself. Be self-compassionate and self-forgiving. I find that most of the teachers, doctors, law enforcement, and bankers want to do the right thing. Do they want to put in the self-work and go through some discomfort? I’m not so sure. But that’s what it takes: A lot of self-work.
Can you share some snippets of success stories from your clients that you’ve seen transformed?
The things that I enjoy the most are those “aha” moments when someone says, “Oh my gosh, this happened to me in the past. I had no idea what that was about until now. I get it.” One example was at one of our workshops. A woman talked about people of color navigating the world as a person of color. There’s some amazing material out there, but people don’t understand how different this is just going to the store, or how it can take on a whole different dimension. This executive said, “Wow, I get it now. I was at a conference, and it was late at night. I was going to my car in a dark parking lot. I hear footsteps behind me, and then a man says, “Excuse me, Miss. I just want you to know I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just here to go to my car. It was a black man.” She continued and said, “It never occurred to me why he would feel the need to say that, but now I totally get it.”
There are also other “aha” moments. There was a gentleman at a school district who was blown away that people of color, Black people, often keep their receipt when they go to the store. That way, if they leave, they’re not questioned. “Did you buy it? Did you want it?” He kept referring back to that one simple thing because it just blew him away.
When I worked at Pearl S. Buck International, I had a one-on-one conversation with another gentleman from an area that’s not really diverse. He said, “I work with people that are just like me. I live in a community. Everybody looks like me. Where can I go to meet different people?” That really touched me. He wanted to know what he could do and where he could go. That was another type of “aha” moment.
You’re going to have a lot of insights and a lot of these “aha” moments, but how do you take it back to your business, your school, etc., and change something active? How do you examine your curriculum? It’s a huge issue to change a curriculum or to change certain processes. It’s a big change, but there are incremental steps to show intentionality and that’s what people are looking for. This is not just a one-time workshop or an hour webinar. We’ve done our diversity work. It really has to be intentional, sustainable, and be included top to bottom of the organization.
You mentioned Pearl S. Buck. Can you tell us about the work that you did there?
I created a program called the Welcome Workplace. One of the things that I really enjoy doing is program design for organizations. Pearl Buck was a writer, and she also was an amazing ally and activist in the ‘40s. She created Welcome House, which is the first biracial adoption agency in the U.S. The idea of Welcome Workplace was to embody those principles that she held dear and take them into the workplaces. That’s what I did. We actually did very minimal marketing, but it was effective because people were interested, and the approach was easily absorbed by the clientele in this area. I was not talking about anti-racism or bias. It was more about getting a foundational understanding.
I still do that today with Intercultural Works. It was a great experience for me. I grew up right next door to Pearl Buck. I went to her 80th birthday. I had no idea she had that passion about ending racism. In the ‘40s, she said you’ve got to call it out.
At one point, she had a black driver that was taking her somewhere, and he needed a place to stay. She sent him to a hotel in Doylestown, and he was refused. He wasn’t allowed to stay there. She wrote a letter to the owner of that hotel and said, “I get it. You don’t want to lose money. We should treat everybody the same, but you don’t want to be the only ones. What you should do is get all of your fellow business people together and agree that you’re going to put signs in your window saying, ‘As long as you’re respectable, and you can pay, you’re a good person. You’re welcome here.’” The point is that even in the ‘40s, she knew you had to speak out.
There’s another thing people can do. If you see inappropriate jokes that are sexist, racist, homophobic, or whatever, you’ve got to find the courage and the resilience to say something. To be effective, it cannot be said in a negative. Try to say something in the most positive way that you can. You have to call these things out.
Welcome Workplace with Pearl Buck was a great joy. We did some really good work there with the local area, and we also went as far as New York City.
Laura, I’m thrilled that you could join me today. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, and I’m sure our listeners have too. We’re looking forward to touching base again in six months or a year and see how far we’ve come at that point. If people are interested in a workshop, service or consultation from you, how can people reach you?
I’ll give you my phone number, which is (215) 933-2194. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’ve been talking with Laura Lomax, president of Intercultural Works.
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