Wharton Dean Erika James and AT&T’s Corey Anthony speak with Wharton’s Stephanie Creary about inclusive leadership during a time of crisis.

The renewed attention on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace has been enough to fill any manager’s agenda this year.

But this is 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has heaped even more pressure on leaders tasked with keeping their employees healthy and safe, while also trying to keep DEI at the top of a growing list of priorities.

“Both of them are exhausting, and we only have so much in our reserves to be able to continue down this path,” Wharton Dean Erika James said.

The collective energy around racial and social justice that was sparked earlier this year by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two Black citizens killed by police, has slowed in the last few months amid competing worries and fatigue. But James hopes it will return stronger once the virus is under control.

“Right now, I think it’s really hard to conjure up the fortitude that’s required around something as hard as race and racial justice while [we are] also dealing with all of the impacts associated with the pandemic,” she said.

James spoke during a livestream of Leading Diversity@Wharton, an ongoing speaker series hosted by Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary, who is a diversity and identity scholar. Corey Anthony, senior vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer at AT&T, also joined the conversation, titled “Inclusive Leadership in a Time of Crisis.” (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page, or watch a video of the discussion below.)

Anthony called out the difference between a moment and a movement. The killings and worldwide protests that followed were incredibly emotional, but emotions subside, he said. Real change comes when organizations commit to building the structures and processes that “operationalize” all those good intentions.

“What’s your sacrifice? That’s the difference between something being a moment versus a movement,” Anthony said. “If you cannot identify as an organization — if you cannot identify as an individual — the sacrifices you have made, then you’re likely to be in a moment, and it’s probably not going to be a movement.”

A Matter of Trust

James, who previously served as dean of Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business, arrived at Wharton in July, after the campus had gone virtual. She was two months into the job before she could tour the campus, and she’s still only met a handful of colleagues in person.

Inclusive leaders must build trust in an organization and value those who have shown trustworthy behavior, James pointed out. But how do you establish those personal relationships when the COVID-19 crisis has moved everything online?

She relied on “swift trust,” which she defines as suspending doubt about the dependability or capability of people you do not know.

Asking a lot of questions and giving feedback can help guide people, but trust is still required. James laid out three components of trust:

  • Competence — Can you be trusted to do the job you were hired to do?
  • Communication — Can you be trusted to be candid, transparent and discreet?
  • Contractual — Can you be trusted to follow through so that people can rely on you?

Anthony agreed that trust in others is part of inclusive leadership, but so is trust in oneself. “Because when you don’t have that, your team will see it,” he said.

Calling himself a Socratic learner, Anthony also noted that inclusive leaders should ask a lot of questions. “It’s a good way for you to get to a place where you are using your personal power, as opposed to your positional power,” he said. “When you ask those questions, it’s a way of pulling the team in, a way of engaging the team.”

The pandemic accelerated the innovation that was already underway at AT&T, Anthony said, and Floyd’s death accelerated the company’s approach to diversity. For the first time in its history, the company made transparent its demographic makeup, from the C-suite to front-line employees. Executives went on a listening tour and also shared their action plan for addressing DEI.

“What’s your sacrifice? That’s the difference between something being a moment versus a movement.” –Corey Anthony

“We want to help everyone understand in this company that we cannot be successful as a business without having a diverse workforce and an inclusive work environment. It has to be a business imperative,” he said.

Creary asked the leaders whether they used a carrot or stick approach to keep others accountable on DEI. Anthony pushed back on the idea, saying he tries to avoid binary thinking. His company has made DEI a part of performance evaluations, so employees are both incentivized to do better and penalized if they don’t. Expectations around DEI are “non-negotiable,” especially for leaders.

“I don’t think of it as a carrot or a stick. I think of it as a carrot I sometimes use as a stick,” he said.

James said she arrived at Wharton to find many professors were already taking the initiative by creating or modifying classes to talk about race. She thinks carrots work best by providing a safe space for the efforts to continue and flourish. “There are ways that we can reward and incentivize our faculty to do more of the work that I am seeing,” she said.

Change Agents

Creary said she’s inspired by her students because they want to talk about the hard topics of diversity, equity and inclusion. They want to help dismantle structural racism and create a more equitable world.

“They are very, very, very eager to be change agents in their internships and their future work roles,” Creary said.

She asked James and Anthony to offer advice to the next generation of business leaders. James encouraged students to choose employers wisely.

“It will be a much easier road if, in fact, you choose companies that are already aligned with the values that you have,” she said. “Choosing where you provide your professional gifts is as important as anything.”

A rookie employee won’t have the power to move mountains alone and will quickly become frustrated. But joining an organization with a demonstrated commitment to diversity allows that rookie to become part of the “critical mass” toward DEI, she said.

“You fill the reserve and you start over. While we have the world’s attention, it’s incumbent upon us.” –Erika James

Anthony cautioned students to avoid becoming the very thing they are fighting against, which is intolerance. It’s a paradox that happens when people insulate themselves and block out others whose beliefs are radically different from their own.

“Step outside of your echo chamber,” he warned students. “Quit consuming information and perspectives from sources that already think, feel and believe how you think, feel and believe. That is toxic.”

Anthony said leaders must have empathy for everyone, even people they disagree with, if they want to be truly inclusive. “You cannot lead effectively in any organization or capacity if you don’t have empathy,” he said. “And you cannot develop the right empathy if you are in an echo chamber.”

He had to follow his own advice in dealing with the aftermath of Floyd’s death. He was initially frustrated by the reactions of people who genuinely didn’t understand the burdens carried by Black Americans. Then he realized that everyone is not in the same place along the learning curve about racial justice. He decided: “We’re going to embrace the fact that everybody is paying attention, and we’re going to use this opportunity to learn from it.”

Anthony leveraged his position as CDO, engaging hundreds of employees in video conversation at once, instead of individually. He also urged people to educate themselves on the issues first, before asking him for the shorthand.

James recalled feeling a similar frustration. But the lifelong educator realized Floyd’s death created a unique, teachable moment to crack open uncomfortable conversations with as many people as possible.

“You fill the reserve and you start over,” James said. “While we have the world’s attention, it’s incumbent upon us.”