How to Crash Outdated, Nondiverse and Non-inclusive Corporate Operating Systems with Susan Freeman, CEO and founder of Conscious Inclusion Company
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Susan Freeman, the CEO and founder of Conscious Inclusion Company and its subsidiaries, Executive Institute on Inclusion (for large companies) and Diversity University (for small to midsize companies and firms). Her mission (and passion) is to help people achieve workplace equity in professional environments.
Conscious Inclusion Company, is a woman-owned and minority-owned business dedicated to helping companies succeed from a business perspective while doing the right thing, creating equity in the workplace, and equality in the world. The advisors work collaboratively with organizations to meet them where they are in their DEI journey. In conjunction with their partners, RSquared and Storybolt, they deliver a full service, complete immersion, beginning-to-end package to institute immediate, impactful, and still sustainable change.
Having known Susan for quite some time, Gina said, “She does all of it well, with passion and with her heart.”
Susan: I can’t tell you how excited I am to finally be here. You’ve been a longtime friend, soul sister, and supporter. I have called you and emailed you and gotten great words of advice from you on how to grow and protect my business. You’ve helped me get to where I am today. I’m very grateful to you and for this opportunity.
What is the Conscious Inclusion Company and how did it get started?
I have studied for years with a focus on gender equity and comms theory. That’s my masters, my background. The work that I was passionate about for a very long time is gender equity and gender-based communications, and how to understand those communications to combat bias. I know that you and I are both communication professionals, but what we do in our focus has been very different minus communication theory, which is totally different than PR and crisis comms and media. I’ve taken my passion of fighting for women in the workplace and equity and equality in the world and turned it into something more.
This is about equity and equality for all. When I’m talking about equity in the workplace, inequality in the world, I’m talking about women and other minorities. I expanded the work that I do beyond just lifting women and amplifying the voices of women. We now do work for people of color. We do work for the LGBTQ community. We have pan gender, non-gendered folks that we represent. We try to educate the world, not about how to behave and speak as white males, the majority, because that’s what’s been done for years and that’s not what needs to be done. Instead, we try to crash the current operating systems. And we try to get the world to understand that it’s not that we need to mimic the behavior of men to succeed. It’s that we need to open the world and the workplace to be a safe space. And to be curious about the way others .
We believe that it’s time to change the operating system. It’s time to use curiosity and make room for another (i.e., any other,) whatever or whomever the “other” might be.
Gina: I just noted crashed the current operating system and my show notes, because I’ve not heard it positioned that way. And yet it was so clear as soon as you said that you’re changing what the norm looked like, so that it’s more inclusive.
How did you come up with the name, Conscious Inclusion Company?
I love that you asked that question. It was with purpose, on purpose, and purpose driven that I actually use that phrase to name the company. Your logo and your name of your company, the way you behave, if you’re a purpose-driven person and a purpose-driven business, that should all be evident in the name of your company. I said the Conscious Inclusion Company because for so many years, people talked about unconscious bias and in the work that I’ve done with hundreds of people that I’ve worked with and thousands of people that I’ve interviewed, I’ve come to see that they think of unconscious bias in some way, even if it’s unconscious as a permission slip to continue what I consider bad behavior, being blinded to their biases by saying, “Well, everyone does it.”
It’s unconscious. It’s not on purpose. I said, it’s time that we become consciously inclusive and try to open our eyes and be wise about what comes out of our mouths and what is even swirling around in our heads and hearts, and how that manifests itself in our real lives and our behaviors.
The work that I do in comms theory involves attitudes and thoughts and beliefs, but no matter how good I am at working with people on their attitudes and thoughts and beliefs, I cannot change someone’s behaviors. When you think about the difference between unconscious bias, attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs, and you think about conscious inclusion behaviors, then you recognize the difference between what is tangible and what is intangible, what is a thought or a concept. Then what is taking action and owning your behaviors and really making change and being the difference? If you want change, be the change that you want.
What trends are you seeing around workplace equity and what opportunities are these trends creating for businesses?
One trend that may not be as hot as it should be, but I hope it becomes a hot trend, is curiosity. When we talk about crashing the operating systems, instead of having people come in and train or teach or drone on about what best practices might be, understand, there’s no such thing as best practices. It all depends on where you work, what industry you’re in, what day of the week it is where this person you’re talking to has come from — their story, their history, what they bring along. Every time you talk to someone, it’s a different story. A trend might be asking questions rather than talking. When you talk, you don’t have the opportunity to learn something new. When you listen, you have that opportunity. And it’s only then when you gain that new information that you can then frame a narrative around or give some meaningful feedback to the person who has shared with you their experience.
A trend that I hope becomes a bigger trend is curiosity, especially with supporting gender identity and expression with multi-generational workforces. With even diversifying the C-suite. When I ask white males in the C-suite, “Have you created a succession plan and who do you see taking your place?” they tell me, “I’ve been grooming Bob for years.” And of course, Bob looks and acts and sounds a lot like a younger version of the person I ask the question of. I ask, “Can you tell me why you chose Bob, and can you imagine a black woman taking your place?” I then look at how we can rewrite the succession plan. I also ask if that would make the individual uncomfortable and if so, why, or when did he first think about race? And we know that race is made up. It’s an oppression tool.
For readers who want to learn more about race and its origins, read How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi.
We’re 99.9% the same. But when I ask them, when did your parents first teach you about racism? Or how did you feel when your father taught you what to do when you’re pulled over by the police? Or how did that make you feel when, and they say, “What are you talking about?” We’ve never had this conversation, or I’ve never been aware of my race. It’s their answer right there. That’s so telling. It’s very eye-opening. They’re more rhetorical than anything, but it’s not accusatory. And it’s not blaming – you learn that when you learn about Muted Group Theory. When you understand what that is, you see that white males don’t often have those same considerations as others, because they are the standard by which everything else was created, the operating systems within which you and I operate were created by white males. So, they don’t have to take time to think about those things.
What is Muted Group Theory?
The premise of Muted Group Theory state that the operating system is easy for those whose language created that operating system. So, let’s say white males and think back in time you know, this whole country was established by white males. People in power are white males. Institutions, universities, and churches. Their culture and norms are written in the language of the white male. And when I say “language” or I say, “written in,” or I say “communications,” I’m talking verbal and non-verbal — every type of communication.
If you are a female or another minority, you don’t speak “white male,” you struggle to navigate within that operating systems. It’s not as easy for you to make it up the ladder.
Example: You’re sitting around the conference room table with your team because you care about other people’s input and you want to respect them and give them safe space to give you feedback. You might say, “I have the solution for our client. I think it’s great, but I want you to look it over and give me your feedback. Did I miss anything? Are there any gaps? Let me know what you think of it.” And it might be that you’re asking this of people at all levels, regardless of title or pay grade. Let’s say you had a boss, and you didn’t own and operate your own successful company as you do. Let’s say your boss is Bob and he’s in the room and he hears Gina solicit feedback from everyone on the team. In his head, he registers that, “Gina is insecure. She’s unable to decide on her own. She needs validation. She’s seeking input from others. I don’t think she’s ready for that raise or promotion.” When it comes time to interview Gina or have her evaluation, he remembers that moment and says she doesn’t know how to play hard ball. She’s not aggressive enough. She’s not ready. And so, we fail to lead as he, Bob would lead, but it’s called transformational leadership. We get input from all, and we care about collaboration. Whereas Bob might be a hierarchical dictatorial leader. So, there’s one place where we don’t communicate the same, but he never tells you, he just registered that. And since he’s in the position of power to determine whether you get the raise or not, you don’t move up the ladder. And that happens often.
What are some key components of a company’s diversity, equity and inclusion strategy?
When you work with my company, a key component would be starting with measurement. A lot of companies will take best practices from magazine articles or research from other companies, or maybe best practices from McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group, or even the wonderful group called Catalyst or even Pew Research, all very fine organizations. And that’s great. It’s like you’re reading Women’s Health and you come across this great article that says a woman, your age and stage in life should do ABC to live a long and happy healthy life. That registers in your brain, so you say, “I’m going to try that.”
What if instead, you were to go to a doctor who then drew blood, took vitals, did tests, did an entire workup, and then gave you a patient-centered care plan that is all about you based on your DNA and test results. That’s the difference. When you do work with Conscious Inclusion Company, we use natural language processing and other data analytics through our partnership with RSquared to do that workup. The findings are specific to your firm or a company such that when you get the results back from us and the reporting, and we give you a path forward, it is a patient-centered care plan, not just best practices across the industry or in the country.
No two clients are the same. No two solutions are the same and literally no two client problems are the same. When you look at the quantitative data, when you look at the qualitative data, we use our partnership with Storybolt, to measure by EEG, the brainwave activity which shows how the person feels about, for example, transgender individuals by showing a documentary about transgender and we introduced a transgender individual to that C-suite individual.
We measure his brainwave activity. Has he opened to this? Is he willing to discuss this? Do we ask hardball questions after this documentary and this conversation with the filmmaker? At that point, is this person willing to make changes at the four-Ps level? And we call them the four Ps because we’re talking practices, policies, pay and pipeline, and it’s the senior people in a company or firm that have the power to make those changes and eradicate racism and eliminate institutional biases. It must be the buy-in at the top so that we can make real change.
What are some typical short-term and long-term goals of a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy?
A short-term goal would be to educate the public; raise awareness about what we’re doing. We have a challenge. So, some people are challenged by the fact that this company claims to be the only company that measures inclusivity. Diversity is very easy to measure. It’s what we know, but inclusivity takes action. You must be very conscientious about your behaviors. We talked about that earlier– to be inclusive takes making people feel like they belong. It’s not just checking the box. How many women do we have here? How many black people do we have here? Let’s change our brochure. Who’s on the pitch team or a website. How do you make people feel they belong? And the only current way outside of the work that you can measure inclusivity is through attrition, and it’s too late by then.
Think of all the law firms that are in the Mansfield Rule and compliant. They’re scrambling to keep those people. They’ve done what they were told. They’ve hired all these people. They look good, but are all these people feeling as if they really belong there? Are they getting the big cases? Are they doing the work that’s fulfilling? Are they invited to the table or are they just window dressing? Are they just looking good in the brochure or on the pitch team? So, we can measure inclusivity. We’re able to tell if these people feel as if they belong, if they are happy at work, if they feel important and valued. We can measure where there might be a toxic culture where not just at a company or firm level, not just at a departmental level, but down to an individual level, whether there’s someone in a department that may be bad for morale, but people don’t speak up because people are afraid to be that guy or that gal to knock on someone.
Who are the critical stakeholders in a diversity, equity and inclusion and strategy implementation, and what are their roles?
I would start with the C-suite. And not that they will be there long term to change minds or change behaviors, but the fact remains they have the power to then empower others who will be there longer term and see those strategies, plans, and roadmaps play out longer term. Those are some key external and internal change agents.
I’m curious how long it takes to see measurable change. You go in, you’ve identified some real strategies and objectives perhaps deficits as you will, as they relate to diversity equity inclusion. How long does it take for any one goal to be realized?
It varies company to company, department, to department, person to person. I would say that it’s important to go back and check your work and see if progress has been made. You want to see where you are if after you implement some of the suggestions or recommendations that we make — Has progress been made? Where do you need to pivot? Where do you need to do more of something or less of something else? That’s what we do time and time again, it’s not a one and done thing.
Would you agree that a true change in diversity, equity and inclusion at a company takes time?
Absolutely. The bad behaviors didn’t happen overnight. So, changing them won’t happen overnight. We need to take the time it takes to measure, take the time it takes to understand our findings, take the time it takes to create a roadmap for improvement, and then implement that roadmap. This is not a quick fix, but no good work is.
Gina: I would think then a relationship with Conscious Inclusion Company is a long-term relationship. It’s a decision to make change and measure change over time. And that’s an important thing to understand. And one of the things I want our listeners to hear is that having a relationship with a company that is vested and invested in outcomes is much more than reading a magazine article about how you can create more equity in your firm or your organization. This is a long-term commitment to making change, and it’s a real commitment.
What critical steps do you take before creating a diversity, equity and inclusion toolkit for an organization?
If you think about any meaningful relationship, you do your homework, you do the research. You don’t marry someone you’ve known for a day, right? You get to know them; you get to understand them. You want to know, see how compatible you are. You want to see what works and doesn’t work. And even then, things aren’t going to be perfect. You must find out what is. Once we find out what we learned from both our quantitative and qualitative assessments, we then must figure out the forced ranking. According to the powers that be within that firm or company, what is the forced ranking? What is it you want to address first? What if you have 18 things you need to work on? You can’t do it all at once. Time doesn’t allow. Budget doesn’t allow. We would start with the research and ongoing evaluations, and then see how that goes. When you are ready to move to the next problem, then we tackle it.
What traits do leaders. change agents, need to have to commit to creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace where people have a sense of belonging?
That’s a great question. I’ll answer it in a little bit of a conceptual academic way, and then I’ll answer it in a more applicable boots-on-the-ground kind of way. First, any human being must be open if you’re going to influence others. It must be a belief that’s horizontally structured to be influenced and changed by someone else. If it’s vertically structured, I don’t care how high up the ladder you are, that person’s just going to check the box, cut the check, put the statement from the comms department on the website, and think they’re done and can sleep at night. I’ve challenged a lot of prospects with, “I see that you cut this check to the social justice organization and you put the statement on your website. How does that help your employees?”
You must be willing to do the hard work. Some of those people I can persuade or influence and show them the data and make them understand that this is not helpful to your company long-term. That person must be open to changing their minds.
When it comes to doing the hard work, the boots-on-the-ground, heavy-lifting types, are harder to find. That’s where it’s imperative to open your mind and be able to admit that maybe the organization could use some more innovative and progressive thinking from people who don’t look, act, and sound like the old school voices.
Do you have any books that you’d like to share with us today?
Connect & Learn More
Email Susan at Susan@FreemanMeansBusiness.com
Connect on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/susancfreeman/
Follow on Twitter at @susfree
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Gina was a guest on Susan’s podcast in 2019: Wonder Women in Business, Gina Rubel
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