We Can’t Look Away–Our Interwoven Reality

By Jeff Stoner, Senior Vice President, Leadership Development and Coaching Services, and Natalie Grund, Senior Consultant, MDA Leadership

This article is the first in a series that chronicles MDA’s ongoing journey into our own individual and collective cultural awakening and deep dive into issues of institutional racism, equity, inclusion, diversity, and justice.

Maybe one of the most luxurious aspects of white privilege is the opportunity to define how and when we choose to engage. As a white-led, white-majority firm clearly reflective of the dominant demographic of Minnesota and the United States, we have extraordinary freedom of choice. We can choose when, how, and to what degree we engage with issues of race, gender, social, and economic justice. We can choose how loud or soft to make our voice.

For MDA, this freedom of choice was never more blatant than in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Prior to May 25, 2020, the reflection in our mirror painted a picture of a pretty enlightened, female-founded and majority-owned firm. We could strategically draw a clear line between the work of the firm and work in the diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) realm. We were doing our best by not doing overt harm and by “letting the experts” own the DEIJ work.

Like many other firms, the turbulent confluence of COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd set the stage for a radical awakening. MDA is situated less than four miles from the location of George Floyd’s murder, the flash point for the largest global human rights movement in modern times. The world suddenly knew about 38th and Chicago Avenue South in Minneapolis. The world ruptured in response to another senseless death of a black man. The legacy of systemic, cultural, and economic violence and injustice against BIPOC communities was revealed yet again. This time, however, it was on a global stage and in our own backyard. It became morally and ethically untenable to look away. We still intend to have the experts lead DEIJ work as we are not DEIJ experts, yet this event caused us to realize that we have a responsibility and opportunity to leverage our leadership expertise to make a positive societal impact. We plan to support the minority-owned businesses that have deep expertise in DEIJ.

Our Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Leadership matters. No other factor has a greater impact on an organization than its leadership. MDA Leadership promotes the importance of leading with humanity and with an informed perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The leaders of today and tomorrow are called to do better in breaking down systemic bias and ridding their organizations of discriminatory practices. The leaders for tomorrow will be continually learning and creating expansive environments for belonging.

We believe that only such leaders and their organizations will be capable of sustainable and true excellence. We are committed to taking the personal and collective journeys that challenge our assumptions, our minds, and our hearts to build our leadership character, to continuously educate ourselves on DEI, and to apply that knowledge to our practices and in our work with leaders.

NOTE: Diversity exists whenever there are differences between people, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, tenure, geographical location, physical ability, education, religion, and thought.

This first article chronicles MDA’s ongoing journey into our own individual and collective cultural awakening and deep dive into issues of institutional racism, equity, inclusion, diversity, and justice. How is it we are going about learning to see what needs to be seen and acknowledging what needs to be acknowledged? How might we leverage what we learn to increase our individual wisdom? Then how might we apply our learnings to engage the leaders and organizations we work with to strengthen talent systems and culture? Most of us want to build cultures that embrace the diversity of others and enable all to bring their truest and most inspired selves to work. How might we become co-creators of communities that solve for the inequities and injustices that hold us all back by holding some back? How might we fulfill our mission of fueling the growth and development of future-fit leaders capable of reaching their full potential? We know that leadership matters and this series will speak to how we are striving to do the work necessary to ensure that we equip ourselves and those we work with to lead from the seat they are in within their context.

So how have we been learning and increasing our individual and collective wisdom? Well, we started by taking some of our own medicine. At MDA we center our development and growth solutions around our Awaken, Align, Accelerate framework, so we decided to turn this on ourselves and ask the questions we encourage our clients to ask. We asked ourselves what is the “awakening” work we need to do? How do we help ourselves individually and collectively see the blind spots? It was clear we needed to lean in with courage and gracefully hold up a mirror to one another. We knew we had to bring in and truly engage with people different from ourselves. We had to start reading and studying the writers, academics, and influencers who provoke, disrupt, and challenge. We needed to create a psychologically safe space to explore this terrain together, make mistakes, and learn. We needed to give permission to call each other out when we are acting and speaking in ways inconsistent with what we were learning. To create accountability and shared ownership for the work of awakening, we formed a DEIJ task force that made short- and long-term recommendations to the senior leadership team that we are now in the process of implementing. We were not the fastest to respond and take action, but we are persistent in our efforts to make a positive impact. We launched a Feed Your Mind Series in the middle of 2020 where each month we worked (and continue to work) to educate ourselves around DEIJ topics. Over the past year, we have facilitated discussion groups and sessions on:

  • Being Anti-Racist
  • Just Mercy and Mass Incarceration
  • Racial Bias and Stereotyping
  • Intersectionality
  • Transgender Identity
  • Inclusion and Belonging in the Workplace
  • Gender Pronouns

Through this work, we are collectively increasing our awareness of the interconnectedness and multi-dimensionality of race, diversity, and justice. We also know that awareness is not enough. We need to make sure the work becomes more than an intellectual exercise. Awakening must transition to Aligned action that Accelerates change, positive disruption, and impact.

To this end, we advanced MDA’s diversity mission and statement as reflected in the side panel. We have challenged each line of business to review their practices and build a roadmap that Aligns how we do business with our learnings and best practices in the DEIJ space. This work ranges from ensuring inclusive language and imagery to challenging our coaches and facilitators to prepare and press into the uncomfortable conversations about systemic racism, gender, bias, and privilege. We are encouraging every member of the team to stay curious, engage, challenge, and connect.

One of the many shared realizations we have had is that this work never ends. Unfortunately, systemic racism is a pollutant we breathe every day. Our work at MDA is nested in the classic both/and context. MDA is blessed to work with many of the finest people on the planet. We work with people every day who want to make the world a better place by making their workplace great. We work with leaders who make special things happen, leaders who are striving to make the communities around them stronger, more equitable, and more just. And our work takes place in a macro context that is polluted by systemic racism. We know that our work must become part of the solution that filters the pollutant of racism from the air we breathe.

For this series, our intention is to illuminate MDA’s journey. We want to humbly share what we are learning and doing in hopes of building a community of inspired individuals and organizations who have the courage to acknowledge our contextual reality, while at the same time enthusiastically embrace the diversity work that needs to be done. We believe—and research supports this—that more diverse workplaces produce more capable organizations with better outcomes.

In closing, the video of George Floyd’s murder that was seen worldwide is a window. At MDA we are choosing to use this window to see and acknowledge what we were not seeing or acknowledging before. We have become more willing to acknowledge that we have a systemic problem. What is your window? How do we keep each other from looking away? Please let us know what you think and let us know what you are doing to build and sustain community destined to create more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just workplaces, organizations, schools, cities, and towns. We look forward to sharing our continued learnings with you and invite you to do the same with us. Learn more about our journey here.

About The Author

Jeff Stoner serves as Senior Vice President of Leadership Development and Coaching Services for MDA Leadership. For more than 20 years, Jeff has designed and implemented learning and leadership development systems for companies worldwide. He is also a sought-after executive coach and expert in executive team development. Connect with Jeff at jstoner@mdaleadership.com or LinkedIn.

About The Author

Natalie Grund is a Senior Consultant at MDA Leadership. She is passionate about partnering with clients to make smart hiring decisions informed by fit and culture, as well as working with leaders to develop talent and enable them to realize their full leadership potential. Connect with Natalie at ngrund@mdaleadership.com or LinkedIn.