How I Keep Stumbling in Private Conversations on Diversity in Leadership

Ryan Buchanan
Diverse Youth

I’m strongly considering changing my title from “CEO” to the newly minted “CAO” — Chief Apology Officer.

At the very beginning of the year, I launched a blog post called “Portland Business Community — Too White, Too Male,” which started my journey as a white guy CEO speaking publicly about the importance for all of us (not just people of color and women) to engage in a healthy conversation about racial and gender diversity in leadership across all organizations in Portland.
At the beginning of my whirlwind journey just 9 months ago, I feared and anticipated that I would screw up in talking about racial equity on the public stage. I feared I would use the wrong words or that my good intentions would be misconstrued entirely. I’m sure some of that has happened, but what really surprised me is that I’ve stumbled the most often in my overly-passionate, un-nuanced approach in private conversations about equity among CEO peers / good friends. In my learning process, I’ve come incredibly close to losing several important, long-time friendships when I could have just changed a few key aspects of my approach.
Approach. Approach. Approach. When you are playing the long game of systemic change, approach matters as much (or more) than the end result. Both are incredibly important and it’s possible to do both well, but it’s really hard. Here’s what I’ve learned (and maybe you can avoid these big mistakes professionally or personally):

1. Don’t make wrong assumptions.

As Mom always said, “when you assume, you make an ass out of ‘u’ and me.” With one of my white male CEO friends, I assumed that he wasn’t interested in doing anything about the topic of diversity in leadership in the business community in Portland. With my puppy-dog excitement to help, I offered to make whatever connections I could to nearly all of the same people he was already collaborating with. It would have been a much better approach to not make any assumptions, ask insightful questions, and listen before projecting my own views immediately on the situation.

2. Meet people where they are in their journey.

I’m passionate and super impatient — the definition of an entrepreneur. These two qualities mashed together can be a disaster. Here’s what I’m incredibly passionate and impatient about: I love Portland. I love the people here. I love access to transformational, awe-inspiring outdoor adventures with family and friends. I love the collaborative nature of business here. I feel fully alive and free in Portland.

Growing up in the Washington DC area near a whole lot of cultural diversity, I recently realized how much I missed the richness of being surrounded by people from all over the world with totally different perspectives. I realized that in my 20 years in Portland, I have been a huge part of the problem for not being intentional about building relationships with people who don’t look like me — the definition of unconscious bias. With that ‘aha moment’ 9 months ago, my good friend Ben Sand and I co-founded an initiative called Emerging Leaders Internship (ELI) which places amazingly talented, diverse college students + recent college-grads into paid internships at Portland’s top companies like Wieden+Kennedy, Elemental Technologies, barre3, Salt + Straw, Portland Leadership Foundation, and eROI.
My impatience comes from the fact that it is the year 2016 — over 50 years after the beginning of the civil rights movement — and the data + my life experience shows such a massive disparity between the percentage of business leadership comprised of white men vs. the percentage of leadership of women and people of color. Business leadership does NOT reflect our consumer base. If we in leadership are passively patient, where will be in another 50 years? I can’t wait that long. We need tangible programs this year and next year to move the needle on developing diversity in leadership and creating a culture of inclusivity in all of our organizations.
However, impatience is bad when it isn’t rooted in listening and understanding. That was my Mistake #2 with another friend of mine — I projected my own urgency on her based on where I was in my journey. She wasn’t mentally there yet, and it almost cost another friendship. Many months later, I was blown away by how much progress she made on changing her hiring practices while being intentional about making other positive culture changes throughout her company.

3. People + issues are not black and white. Nuance is critical.

In my exuberance of wanting change now, it’s very easy for me to see things through a binary lens. As an entrepreneur, I prefer forward motion and action over nearly any other option. However, I have learned valuable lessons from other leaders that it can dramatically build the foundation of a movement to slow down, build authentic relationships, and listen. There are many times in the past where communities of color have been burned by one or more excited white guys with good intentions and no staying power. There are so many more sides to the equation in equity work than just “go” or “no go.” I’d like to believe that the work we are doing with community business leaders on the Greater Portland 2020 Council is building that collaborative alignment towards building a movement across the region in galvanizing a commitment to invest in diversity in leadership.

In nearly every CEO conversation about diversity in leadership and the greater hope we have for equity in the private sector, my peers invariably ask me: “Where do I start? I’m in. I want to improve our diversity. But, where do I start?”
Here are a few tangible Portland programs + people resources to begin your journey:
Serilda Summers-McGee: Serilda just launched her new book “Change the Workgame: Building + Sustaining a Diverse Workforce.It’s a quick but powerful read. She has also become a trusted advisor and mentor to me and consults as an HR / Diversity + Inclusion Director with many small-mid-size businesses in Portland. She has transformed our culture at eROI.
Center for Equity + Inclusion: I first met Executive Director, Hanif Fazal, at a Friends of the Children Board retreat. He spoke to us about equity in a way that was strong—real, raw, and eye-opening. At the end of this month, our entire Board of 30+ people is going through an all-day equity training + immersion. My next step is to take eROI and other Boards I’m on through this same training to create a more inclusive culture.
Emerging Leaders Internship (ELI): I anticipated that our first cohort of 35 ELI interns across Portland’s top companies would be a success, but I didn’t expect that they would transform my life and the lives of my CEO + Exec friends at the companies they worked at. Not only were these college students brilliant designers, coders, marketers, business analysts, legal assistants, social media coordinators, and social justice advocates, but their life experiences shifted the perspectives and thinking of the Execs and other employees they worked with. If you want smart, highly driven, good-hearted, young leaders as interns for the summer of 2017, sign up on our website.
Ryan Buchanan
Ryan Buchanan, CEO at eROI.