As a leader, you have a responsibility to create bridges. And, as a leader, building that bridge is my responsibility – because it should not be the responsibility of outsiders to build bridges to your organisation.
As organisations look to increase diversity, their leadership teams have to do more than set targets − they have to build bridges, which they cross to put themselves in a different, often uncomfortable environment. This will lead to an understanding of how difficult and lonely the journey can be for women and people of colour.
Building bridges has never been more important. To truly benefit and deliver a meaningful change, organisations will need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The reason is that for women and people of colour, you are often the one in discomfort, and that discomfort is what creates barriers.
It is harder to raise a counter-perspective if you are the only one in the room who is different. You have to draw on reserves of courage to assert that perspective and constantly quell the feeling of discomfort. None of this is visible, and your peers may not realise it, but they will interact with you differently when you are the only woman or person of colour in the room.
The reason for this is that a set cultural behaviour exists, usually in the form of a similar set of interests or a common lifestyle.
When a common culture exists, it leaves no inroads for interaction, no natural way to be part of that group, which means women and people of colour are always outsiders, and a continuous level of discomfort exists. Therefore, if organisations want to succeed at diversity, they need to create environments where women and people of colour feel familiar.
Developing this culture will benefit everyone. There is an African parable that says: “If you want to run fast, run alone; if you want to run far, run together.” This has taught me the importance of doing something really meaningful that has longevity. It’s the work you do in partnership.
Working in partnership does mean that sometimes you have to slow down to go further. Indeed, probably the most meaningful and contributory thing I have ever done was to be part of a team that enabled additional space exploration and experimentation. I had the opportunity, over three summer internships, to participate in writing the code responsible for the power distribution on the International Space Station, when I was a Nasa computer scientist.
If organisations are to tackle diversity effectively, it will require a team effort.
How to build bridges
The first thing organisations must do is understand the discomfort that women and people of colour deal with. I have personally experienced discomfort during my time in education. I earned dual engineering degrees from Spelman College (an historically black women’s college) and the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia.
At Georgia Tech, in the electrical engineering department, I was one of very few people of colour and very few women. There was a stark difference in the environments between my matriculation through Spelman and at Georgia Tech. At Spelman, I was in a community of people just like me.
People don’t understand that until they find themselves in a place where they are uncomfortable. Interestingly, my husband is white and when I took him to a Spelman College reunion, it was the first time in his life that he’d been in a community that was almost exclusively black. Having to navigate an environment where there was so much that was unfamiliar to him helped him appreciate what my everyday life is like.
In my current role, as CIO at Tibco, I have seen how it is possible to build bridges. Even when Tibco struggled to hit its goal of making sure that 40% of hires were female, we didn’t reduce or relax that goal – we have doubled down on it and invited other elements of diversity to be part of this challenge.
An example of this is Jeff Hess, chief customer excellence officer at Tibco, who has created a new recruitment infrastructure to ensure real change. It is this type of action that is not just setting a number and hoping to attract diverse talent; Tibco is inspecting and reflecting on its own actions.
Once a diverse pool of talent has joined an organisation, it is vital to make sure they feel like they have the foundations to be successful and continue to grow their careers. Diversity doesn’t just happen because a black woman shows up at the conference table. She won’t stay long if she doesn’t feel welcome or if she feels she is doing all the work to create that bridge.
Part of building those foundations is mentoring. My friend and mentor, Robert Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners, introduced me to Tibco, and is a role model for his championing of diversity, equity and inclusion. It is remarkable to see someone lead a topic before it was as popular as it is today.
The bridges I crossed
My early mentors and the people who built the first bridge for me were my parents. They truly understood the value of education. As black Americans with Master’s degrees, which was very rare, they were among the first generation to go to non-segregated colleges. Their focus on education gave me access to opportunities (bridges) that many of my peers did not have.
That instilled in me an ethos to honour my opportunities with courage, extraordinary preparation, and to reciprocate by creating more bridges for others. I feel very fortunate to have had access to opportunities that have paved the road toward my career. It’s why I feel a sense of responsibility to be a thoughtful leader.
Rani Johnson, CIO, Tibco
As a wider business community realises it needs to become more thoughtful and less target-oriented in its quest to be more diverse, then business leaders are going to have to put themselves in uncomfortable positions. The Black Lives Matter movement inspired me to a higher level of courage – to take bigger risks in advocating for what is right.
I don’t recall in my lifetime a protest so audacious. I was initially frightened for the protesters, worried about the harm that might come to them personally and professionally. But the confluence of the pandemic, social media, the growing conscience of America and the entitlement of young black Americans converged to restore my sense of entitlement and raised my lowered, conditioned expectations around justice and civil rights for my community – lessons all leaders must go through if we are to make a difference.
How do they do this? Using existing channels will not build bridges to greater diversity. If we are to have more women and people of colour in leadership, then go to the colleges and universities that historically have strong black attendance; the same is true of Latino cultures.
Going to institutions that have less than 5% diversity will not build a strong bridge. And, just as I have experienced, organisations must also incubate and nurture a diverse culture that makes women and people of colour feel comfortable.