Cheryl Stokes of CNEXT On 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and…

Posted on

Cheryl Stokes of CNEXT On 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

I think the first is developing empathy in proximity. Brian Stevenson, the gentleman who is the subject of the movie Just Mercy, founded the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s a very passionate advocate of DEI, and I heard him speak during a graduation. He said proximity breeds empathy, and I think that links back to the murder of George Floyd. There was a proximity and empathy that people felt because they witnessed the murder. To the extent that we can stop “othering” people and get to know individuals and people for who they are, for their story, their experience, and not the label of what we see, this is the first step.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Cheryl Stokes.

Cheryl Stokes is one of the world’s most experienced leaders in corporate education and diversity, belonging, inclusion, and culture.

Cheryl joined CNEXT after more than three years as a partner at Heidrick & Struggles, where she focused on leadership development, culture, diversity, and inclusion to help organizations, teams, and individuals accelerate performance — all of which align closely with the CNEXT vision.

She helped launch and then worked at Duke Corporate Education for 18 years, holding numerous senior leadership positions, including Regional Managing Director for Europe and Vice President of Global Learning Methods and Innovations. She also served as Director of Organizational Capability at Coca-Cola.

Cheryl is a graduate of MIT with two Masters of Science degrees, one in Management and the other in Materials Science & Engineering. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute).

Cheryl is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, the first intercollegiate historically African American sorority. She is a member of the Go Red for Women Executive Leadership Team with the American Heart Association. She serves as a trustee with the UK social mobility charity Leadership Through Sport and Business (LTSB) and assists in its efforts to prepare and support bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into meaningful roles in major firms.

In the summer of 2020. The United States based a very important self, reckoning about race diversity, equality, and inclusion. This, of course, is a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on what made the events of 2020 different from racial reckonings in the past?

We were facing an unprecedented global pandemic, and when George Floyd was killed on May 24, we didn’t even have vaccine doses ready. We didn’t get our first vaccine doses until December 2020. Because of that, we were all still, mostly, at home. We were sheltering in place, and we were consuming more media because it was in front of us as we were at home. That allowed the world really to witness a heinous act at a time when everybody was feeling vulnerable, and I think that lent itself to society being more empathetic. And, if I double click on that, if you couple the heightened anxiety of that year and with a mounting frustration from people of color, particularly Black people, from the stories and videos of excessive force and the killings of unarmed Black people by the police for what seemed like minor offenses…

A CBS news report from September 2020 showed there were 164 Black Americans killed by police in the first eight months of 2020. That amounted to at least one Black person killed every week. This is a very disproportionate rate, considering the demographics, crime rates, and circumstances around those killings. To highlight just a few examples, there was the killing of a Black gentleman in Georgia by police for trespassing in a restaurant. An officer shot and killed an individual while being handcuffed for falling asleep in his car and hitting some other vehicles. People have been shot while running when the police were attempting to serve them a warrant, and then, of course, Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home in March during a no-knock warrant in the middle of the night. We know the story around that. If you go back to 2016, Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop, which his girlfriend was live streaming on Facebook.

A large part of the population started to see this excessive use of force against Black people resulting in death. When the video emerged of George Floyd being killed as he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe and cried for his mother, with the crowd also pleading for the policeman to take his knee off of Mr. Floyd’s neck… The fact that this policeman had his knee on George’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, it struck a raw and vulnerable nerve for the world. And not just Black people. It substantiated what so many Black people unfortunately know, have seen, or experienced in terms of over-policing and excessive use of force that’s often deadly.

George Floyd’s murder was a tipping point. It resulted in a global cry of outrage and mobilized alliances across all aspects of society. This outrage may have existed in some form or another but had not existed so uniformly, and it amplified those calls for change.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives, to promote diversity and inclusion? And can you share a story with us?

I’ve worked in the DEI space since my days as a young engineer. At the time, the company I worked for had difficulty recruiting and retaining STEM talent from underrepresented backgrounds. I started training as an internal consultant on DEI in the late eighties.

The story I will share is from my previous life as a consultant, and it’s a story of two companies, both with good intent but with very different outcomes related to gender parity.

Company A is a global pharmaceutical company. Company B is a global technology company.

Both wanted to increase the number of women leaders and senior leadership roles, and I was part of an effort to create a leadership development experience to address those needs and to equip these women to take the next step in their careers.

Both organizations ended up with outstanding, well-designed programming. They had assessments, coaching, great subject matter experts and content. The programs had executive speakers and high-visibility project work.

The difference is that Company A, the global Pharma, viewed talent and DEI as strategic business initiatives. They had an entire c-suite and executive leadership team who owned the experience. The program had related accountability and metrics. Leaders not only contributed as speakers, but they also got to know the talent in the program. They had robust talent development processes for everyone. Company A did the other work in their business to ensure an inclusive culture and environment. They took a long view, and the programming was part of a multi-year initiative that won awards for the outcomes. They’ve since expanded that programming to include high-potential men and other demographics. Company A continues to really have a truly diverse, inclusive and equitable workforce, and it’s just part of who they are.

At Company B, the technology company, the Chief Human Resources Officer pushed for this programming. While she had the blessing of the CEO, she didn’t have the buy-in and engagement of her peers and the executive leadership team. There wasn’t any real ownership or accountability beyond HR, and there wasn’t work done to create a more inclusive culture.

As you might expect, Company A consistently rates as a great workplace for women, people of color, and other DEI initiatives. They’re part of the Bloomberg Gender Equity Index, and the company is very well known for being a leader in the space.

At Company B, of all the women that went through that programming, they have only retained about 15. Those women didn’t have the opportunities. They were disillusioned. They didn’t find the support that they wanted and needed.

Can you articulate to your readers, to our readers, a few reasons why it’s important for a business to have a diverse executive team?

Diversity and inclusion contribute to better financial results, higher quality decision-making, innovation and better financial performance. You can look at the decades of work that McKinsey and other organizations have done for proof.

We had an executive speak recently at one of our CNEXT forums, and he said there’s no counter-case. I was struck by that because he’s a white male CEO. He said, “Listen, there’s no counter-case when you tell me that I’m going to get better results. My people will be more engaged. There’s no reason not to have a diverse executive team.”

A diverse and inclusive leadership team and organization helps businesses create value for stakeholders, which should be one of its primary objectives.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.

I think the first is developing empathy in proximity. Brian Stevenson, the gentleman who is the subject of the movie Just Mercy, founded the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s a very passionate advocate of DEI, and I heard him speak during a graduation. He said proximity breeds empathy, and I think that links back to the murder of George Floyd. There was a proximity and empathy that people felt because they witnessed the murder. To the extent that we can stop “othering” people and get to know individuals and people for who they are, for their story, their experience, and not the label of what we see, this is the first step.

The second is self-education. Often, when there’s a curiosity about some other group, there is an expectation that the group will educate you about themselves. That ends up being an unwarranted weird sort of burden on those groups. I often get asked questions about Black people, and my response is that I can’t speak for all Black people, but I can speak from my own experience. I can tell you what I know.

Go back to 2020. My goodness, how many people called and said, “Oh, tell me about your experience.” And while I appreciate that people were trying to express empathy and support, when they asked me, “What should I be reading? And where should I take classes?” it was like another job for me. So that’s why I say education has to come from our own self-awareness and our own sort of intellectual curiosity to really understand and appreciate the culture, experience and value of others.

Next, I think we have to leverage data. And what I mean by that, in a business context is, if you want to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, then you should be looking at the data about the markets you serve, the customer population, the available talent for the communities where you operate. And that data should influence the representation that you choose to have in your organization.

I’m in an office in downtown Raleigh right now. Looking out my window, I can see a neighborhood where my husband was raised. It was predominantly Black. Over time it became lower income, and now there’s been gentrification in this area. The people who originally lived and had homes there now can’t afford to be there.

So, if we look at the data, there’s nothing wrong with improvement. I love the fact that it’s beautiful when I look out the window. But I hope that we will be considerate of the demographics of the population in this area and think about ways to make it truly affordable and livable for a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. We don’t want to end up resegregating. Today, segregation is based on wealth.

That’s one example of societal data that I would equate to the way businesses can use data.

We also must be willing as individuals to take a stand for what we care about and what is important to our own values. There is an author at NYU, Kinji Yoshino, who I’ve gotten to know.

He just wrote a fantastic book, Say The Right Thing, about how to talk about identity, social justice, and other uncomfortable issues. It’s an excellent book, and it has seven straightforward steps. I highly recommend it to people who want to improve their comfort and ability to have conversations that may seem uncomfortable. In the book, he defines an ally as being willing to support others without the same advantages you have.

When you think about an ally broadly like that, we’re all allies in some respect. I may be an ally to someone who has a physical disability because I don’t have a physical disability. I may be an ally if a man wants to understand more about women. This definition broadens the thinking that we are all allies and can all be allies to someone for some purpose. My encouragement is that we would be willing to use our platform to be allies for other human beings in a way that promotes a better society for everyone.

I think the fifth thing I would add is respect and resilience. We must value diversity and respect the identity, experience, culture and wishes of those around us — we are one human community on one shared planet. Being human means we will make mistakes, and others will misunderstand us. So, we must build resilience to recover from challenging times and keep our humanity as we engage with others. This relates to the principle of showing grace or, as Kenji Yoshino puts it, “being generous to the source.”

We are going through a rough period now. What makes you optimistic about the future of the US? Can you please explain?

Our country has a history of innovating and moving forward when things seem dark. If we return to our roots of being a country that welcomes different experiences, different thoughts, different skills and abilities, I think that equips us to succeed in our own country and the world.

There’s so much emphasis on polarization and our reasons to divide us. But I believe there are still many things that unite us as a country and as a people. When we can remember that we share a love of country, we share an experience of being fiercely independent and valuing independent thought, the things that make us uniquely American, I think that bonds us. I’m very fortunate to travel and live globally. There’s definitely an affinity you find for other Americans when you’re in different parts of the world. I’m optimistic that a spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity and perseverance has helped us succeed as a people and that we will continue to flourish.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’ve already mentioned Say The Right Thing and its seven principles. The author lays out conversational traps you could fall into and talks about building resilience, cultivating curiosity, disagreeing respectfully, being generous to the source, and apologizing authentically. He also talks about applying the Platinum Rule (do unto others, wherever possible, as they would want to be done to them) versus the Golden Rule. Those principles resonate with me because they give you authentic and practical ways you can be an effective ally. It also shows what you can do to recover when you mess up because, inevitably, we all mess up.

The thought of apologizing authentically is interesting. The author tells the story of someone who realized he couldn’t apologize because he didn’t mean it. What he needed to be able to do was to disagree respectfully. And I think that’s powerful and important. Sometimes you just have to agree to disagree and do it respectfully because everybody is entitled to their opinion and experience.

I think being generous to the source is a very gracious thing. Looking back at my point about optimism for America, what I hope is that we will all be more gracious to each other and recognize that we all have our foibles. Nobody is perfect. Sometimes we’re all just having a horrible day or terrible time, and giving people the benefit of the doubt, so to speak, is something that I think we absolutely practice more often.

He even gives a framework for how to disagree. He has a controversy scale, from the least controversial things to the most controversial. That scale gives you a clue for how to disagree without making it about the person — their identity or their values — but about the topic or the content.

It’s one of those books I will keep and refer back to. You can jump to any section and get something from it. I have recommended it to several executives and executive populations because I think it’s something very practical that we could all use.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote, and a story that shows how it was relevant in your life for your work.

I’m very spiritual, raised in the church, and active in my faith. There’s a passage in Ecclesiastes that says, “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” I believe there is a season for all things in your life and that everything happens for a reason.

If I look back at my career and my journey, while it may not have been obvious why certain things happened at the time they did, I can look back and say, “Wow! If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.” I wouldn’t have had this rich experience. Things that at the time didn’t feel good or felt negative were learning experiences.

I believe in learning. When we just classify something as wrong, we want to forget it and don’t learn from it. Then, of course, you’re going to repeat it.

I think back to being trained as an internal consultant around the start of my career. I left General Motors and moved to southern Indiana. I was working for a new company and found the culture very different during my second work week. I was accustomed to being the only woman or one of a few people of color in engineering groups.

Moving to this male-dominated industry environment was very different, and I stood out. I was the only person of color in engineering and the only woman of color as a salaried professional in my department.

After a few weeks, I attended a mandatory Managing Personal Diversity class. I got there, and the person who was technically my client and boss, the plant superintendent, said, “I haven’t discriminated against Cheryl because she’s Black. I haven’t discriminated against Cheryl because she’s a woman, and I don’t want sexual harassment.”

And I thought, okay, a little bit of a challenge here. But those first weeks and months of trying to understand this environment, struggling because I was different and felt isolated, led me and some colleagues having similar experiences in other parts of the plant to form what we now call an employee resource group. At the time, we called it the “Support and Development Association,” and we supported and helped develop each other. We were doing it because we needed to learn about the different aspects of the business, and we didn’t have the natural mentorship that others did. We figured we could mentor each other.

That experience led to the creation of a program to develop internal consultants, which truly changed my career trajectory. I studied engineering because I was good at math and science, and people said, “If you’re good at math and science, you should be an engineer,” but it wasn’t my passion.

I discovered that I was more interested in people and the challenges behind technology. So, the experiences and training I had access to prompted me to shift. And in my graduate work, I focused on learning culture and change, which led me to the career I’m in today.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

First of all, I believe everyone can be a leader. I don’t think it is trait-based. I believe that we all have the capacity to lead in some way. Leadership is when you are willing to step up and help deliver an outcome for a population other than yourself.

I’m a proponent of servant leadership, where the leader’s role is to serve the greater good. I think it ties to my faith, but it also connects to what I’ve seen be effective in corporate environments. If I’m honest, if I think about the most impactful leaders that I have benefited from being around. They’ve prioritized talent, people and culture. Not that business, numbers, and results weren’t a priority, but they recognized that the talent, people, and culture equipped the company to get the results. A leader’s responsibility is to develop the organization’s capability, including building people up and fostering an inclusive culture where everybody can thrive and showcase their gifts.

Is there a person in the world whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch? And why?

As I read Mrs. Obama’s book “Becoming,” she talks about the weight of understanding that one wrong move would be a major issue for President Obama as the first Black president.

I would love to learn from him, to ask questions about how he navigated this groundbreaking election and all that comes with being the first. I observed the way he organized, leveraged social media and technology, and the way he inspired all generations to build coalitions across different ages and different socioeconomic classes.

I think they’re an incredibly inspiring couple, so maybe I could have lunch with both of them. I would like to sign up for the Obama lunch.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Cheryl Stokes of CNEXT On 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.