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From Pet to Threat: Tokenism vs. Inclusive Leadership

Updated: Jan 31

I started this post a few different times. Each time I started, I scrapped everything I'd written, knowing that I still hadn't captured what I truly wanted to say. Each draft ranged from far too provocative (for even me) to dangerously too close to not saying much of anything at all...with a few punchlines sprinkled throughout. I realized that I'd found myself reliving the emotional spectrum of my work experiences: on one extreme, being the bull in the antique shop and destroying everything in my wake, or the other, playing along in a role or environment that was no longer serving me driven by the basic need to survive...with punchlines sprinkled throughout.

So, in this final attempt, I'm leaning on what has always served me best: my authenticity, my wit, and my expertise. These three things are, in many ways, the only reason I can write this piece in the first person - an interesting dichotomy that comforts in an unexpected way.

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 elicited a universal response to injustices that have plagued ethnically minoritized communities since the beginning of time - most specifically, the black community, American descendants of slaves. Companies and organizations were proactively seeking ways to action their commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism. This heavy lift came just as businesses were beginning to imagine recovery from the COVID-19 quarantine, many having to make massive layoffs, others going out of business altogether. Those who remained had a mandate to be the change they wanted to see, and the world demanded that they start with leadership. Leadership at the board and chief level is still so male and so pale in the world, but in 2020, everyone set out to make their position known - we want to see more women and people of color in leadership positions.

We tried to fix a problem that is woven into the fabric of our society. The problem was so massive, though, that we opted for the "build the ship on the way out of the dock" approach, and not everyone was able to keep up. The happenings of 2020 did many different things for many different people, but it did one thing for everyone - it amplified your reality. So many companies were already beginning and living their DEI journeys and the climate solidified their commitment, and also unified teams around those goals. Others were quick to realize their late entry to the cause, but were determined to catch up and make impactful change.

A heightened focus on the quality of leadership, team engagement, retention and culture set the internet ablaze with phrases like "The Great Resignation" and "The War on Talent". Another (not so new) phenomenon was recognized during this time - "Pet to Threat". Dr. Kecia Thomas, a professor at The University of Georgia, coined the phrase in 2013 to describe "black women, seen initially as likable, moldable novices, who become more suspect as they grow in their jobs and exert the influence and authority they have earned." Up until recently, this concept was so wild to me - I'd never before been berated for the very things I was once lauded. I'd previously benefited from such empowering leadership that, in many ways, gave me the confidence to explore something new. Like many others in my position, I was distracted by an attractive mission, charismatic leadership and the idea that I'd be making an even broader impact than my previous role, while exponentially increasing my earning potential - completely falling for the bait and switch. I missed all of the flags...

Inclusive leaders are individuals who are aware of their own biases and actively seek out and consider different perspectives to inform their decision-making and collaborate more effectively with others. ~ Center for Creative Leadership

The first indicators of an organization that is committed to inclusive leadership are honesty about where they are on the journey, and transparency about mistakes they've made along the way. The key is preparation, authenticity and commitment to doing the work. When an organization strives solely for the image of inclusion, the true definition of inclusive leadership is reduced to tokenism. Instead of making efforts to build an ecosystem of support for every group represented on the team, decision makers go on a shopping spree to attract (read: deceive) the talent that looks the part. They will spare no expense to attain the asset - make no mistake that each person is seen as such - but will do nothing to support success or development. In many cases these newly hired leaders are thrown into highly visible spaces with mounting pressure to fix problems in the business that their presence alone was expected to erase. When the problems do not magically disappear, the tide shifts. Or if someone starts asking questions that are "above their pay grade" these leaders might experience defamation of character or claims of incompetence to proactively discredit any claims they might make of impropriety within the business - Pet to Threat. Ultimately, further perpetuating the greatest myth about women leaders and leaders from BIPOC communities - we aren't smart or competent enough to ask the hard questions or notice the deficiencies. The "sit there and be pretty" approach.

It's easy to mistake an organization who has committed to the journey of inclusion with one who would rather collect tokens. They both approach the relationship with similar enthusiasm and make similar claims of authenticity and accountability. However, only the inclusive leader will have evidence to prove it. Companies will write articles about inclusion, intersectionality and support for women of color in the workplace, while committing the very offenses they warn about with their written words. Education without application is a waste of time. What value is there in preaching that intersectionality and inclusion are the bedrocks of this journey without applying the principles of each to your talent strategy and the way you build and support teams? The statistics are clear, we are making strides and achieving successes in increasing representation of people from minoritized communities in leadership and positions of influence. But, what greater problems are we causing by bringing them into situations that will double down on the trauma they've experienced their entire careers?

History shows us that whenever a movement for positive change emerges, the population to exploit it is soon to follow. Misuses of influence have plagued the workplace for ages and the battle between inclusive leadership, intersectionality and tokenism are no different. Some of the worst offenders hide in plain sight, positioning themselves as experts and trusted resources, when the entirety of their lived experience with true inclusive leadership, lies within the paragraphs of their blog posts. Too many organizations are truly holding themselves accountable to the mandate for change, for those who only wish to monetarily capitalize on the climate of the day, to still have a voice.

I've had the honor and privilege to serve alongside some of the most impactful, compassionate, competent and truly engaged leaders. I spent a large portion of my formative professional years under the leadership of a black woman CEO who created the safe space for me to explore my true value from a place of authenticity, innovation, and excellence. The time I spent with this firm was the capstone to everything I'd previously learned about leadership and afforded me the confidence to not only become the same type of leader, but to avoid the pitfalls of becoming "the other" kind. I saw a leader who never asked anything of her team that she wouldn't do herself. I saw a leader who looked outside her own personal identity to define what inclusion looks like for her firm. I saw a leader who was never afraid to admit when she failed and encouraged thoughtful risk taking with her team and encouraged us to "fail fast" and move forward quickly to victory. A leader who values transparency, the contribution of every member of her team, and one who doesn't take shortcuts, no matter how tempting. In short, I saw a leader who became the benchmark by which I would measure every other leader I'd encounter and a standard to which I'd hold myself.

I want to encourage every leader from a minoritized community to understand the responsibility we have to ourselves to make good decisions. Don't let Imposter's Syndrome keep you from asking the hard questions and using your intuition to highlight potential roadblocks. When exploring any new opportunity, ask about where the organization is on their journey of inclusive leadership. Ask about the place for intersectionality in the approach for developing and leading teams. Be open about your concerns around support and set expectations for how it should show up for YOU. Don't ignore red flags and by all means, make sure the elevator shaft isn't empty before you step through the doors. In other words, open your eyes, trust but validate, and walk away from any situation that aims to exploit you or your value. And never forget, when you achieve the role of leadership, be the leader that you need(ed) and you'll never miss a beat.

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