MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Empovia, formally Change Catalyst. I’m also the author of How to Be an Ally, and your host for this show.
What is allyship? Allyship is empathy in action. We learn what people are uniquely experiencing, we show empathy for their experience, and we take action. As a part of that process, we learn and unlearn and relearn. We work to avoid unintentionally harming people with our words and actions. We advocate for people, and we lead the change on our teams, in our organizations, and across our communities.
In this episode, you’ll learn tangible actionable steps that you can take to lead the change to be a more inclusive leader, no matter what your role is. Want to learn more? Visit Empovia.co to check out more of my work.
All right, let’s get started.
Our guest today is Cari Guittard, who is the Chief Strategy Officer and Partner at ChangeX and purposewerx, and she’s also leadership professor at Hult International Business School. I’m excited for this conversation we’re going to have today about political intelligence at work; how we effectively discuss politics at work, how anti-wokeness is changing DEI and other ESG programs, ESG is Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance, and also how we can affect change in light of those changes happening. So welcome, Cari.
CARI: Thank you for having me, Melinda.
MELINDA: Yeah. Cari, would you start by telling us a bit about your story, where you grew up and how you ended up doing the work that you do today?
CARI: Sure. So I grew up in North Dallas, born and raised in Texas, and come from a family where my father was in the military and a fighter pilot. So service was always a core value that I was raised in. As well as, we traveled a lot as a family, and diversity was always a part of my upbringing. Even though I didn’t live in a very diverse environment, because I was in the suburbs of Texas, that was another value that my parents really instilled in us. So the minute that I could, I went to undergrad and graduate school at the University of Texas at Dallas, which at the time was actually a research institute started by Texas Instruments, and I had the best time. I really, really enjoyed working with so many talented faculties who cared about their students and had relationships with their students. I mean, they wanted us to succeed.
So it was during that time that I was exposed to computer science and hacking. It was really just a hobby; it wasn’t actually something I ever thought I would have a job in. I applied for a Presidential Management fellowship, because I was finishing up my grad degree, in Washington, and flew to Washington; they have a big job fair for everyone there. The State Department at the time was ramping up their cybersecurity program; Dick Clark was heading the National Security Agency at the tail-end of the Clinton administration. So I took a job working in diplomatic security and cybersecurity. That was a formative time in my career, because I got to travel all over the world, as well as work within intelligence and law enforcement and technology. So it was a very unusual blend of a number of different forces, and it was a fascinating time.
Then right before 9/11 happened, I had just come back from Egypt actually the night before, and everything changed for so many of us. It was really a seminal moment for me, because even though I didn’t plan it, I ended up really getting sort of shifted into public diplomacy. Secretary Powell had come in. George Bush was President. It was a whole new slate of appointees, and it was one of those all hands on deck. Who knows anything about the Middle East, really? Because it was something that caught everyone off-guard, and we didn’t have a lot of experts at that time. So it was my first example of empathy in action, and really humility from leadership. Because they were like, who knows anything about this? I was 21 when I went to the Department first, so I was a baby. It wasn’t about that. I mean, when you’re in a moment of crisis, and we’ll go deeper on this in our talk, but it’s a fascinating window into power and real leadership. I think that’s when the veneer gets pulled, and a lot of different forces are unmasked. I was fortunate enough to be able to work with and witness some extraordinary leaders.
No matter what you think politically, working with Secretary Powell, he is an extraordinary leader, and someone who really leads with integrity. So I had briefed him on what we had gathered, the intelligence that we had gathered when we were last in the Middle East, right before the events of 9/11. Then he said, well, you’re going to work with this woman, Charlotte Beers, who’s from Madison Avenue, and I brought her in to help us win the hearts and minds of the Arab world. I’ll never forget that first meeting with Charlotte. She was the first woman ever to be on the cover of Fortune and Forbes, three-time global CEO of three of the largest top 10 advertising agencies, a force of nature, stunningly beautiful and couture clothing. I mean, when I watched the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, it was like I was living in that. Because I was the lowly unstylish staffer, I was wearing my black and pinstripe suits, and she spoke a different language.
This was my second experience with real empathy and allyship in action. Because she called a branding meeting of all the Chief Marketing Officers and CEOs of the largest, most iconic global brands, to come together to go, how do we really leverage business to find a way to reengage with the region? Because quickly, we could see how we were pulling away, and that just did not make sense from a business perspective. It didn’t make sense from a national security perspective. People and branding and marketing, they’re all about empathy and connection and trying to understand people. So if we’re going to build influence and build understanding, we have to think of different ways to engage.
So talk about funny. I mean, these amazing people, creative leaders from all across the spectrum of business came together for three days at the State Department. They did not eat, these people, as I recall; they just drank a lot of caffeine. Once again, it was, who has been in the region, who has been on the ground? There were only a handful of us who had just recently been there. It was just this sort of egos put aside, how do we come together and solve these challenges, and really, how do we think thoughtfully about this? So it wasn’t about posturing and what the political messages were. It was, how do we find a way to solve this and work together? That was the first time I ever saw the power of business, coming together with government. Then we also brought in NGO leaders who were the most trusted in the region, to go: Okay, we all have different strengths, so how can we leverage that complementarity to really do this right, and do it in a thoughtful way?
So that was, for me, it was such an incredible foundation to work in and to be in. Charlotte as a leader, incredibly tough on me, and she would always say that she was tough on me to make me better. But I share this background because that really framed how I then charted my path from there on out. Both Charlotte and Secretary Powell resigned within a year of one another, they were both ready to leave. Because we were quickly going into Iraq and Afghanistan, it was a very different political environment. I knew that it was time for me to leave before my idealism was completely crushed.
So as I’ve always done in my life, my parents have always encouraged this, but anytime I’m uncertain about the next move, I become the student again; I go back to school. So I was applying to PhD programs. I was looking at, well, I’m going to be really methodical in how I make my next step. It was really sort of a confluence of events once again. But one of the CEOs that had been at that branding event that we had at the State Department, Keith Reinhardt, he was hosting a day behind the scenes at DDB Worldwide. He was the chairman at DDB, one of the largest global advertising networks. A mutual friend said, “Well, before you leave the State Department, I want you to go to New York for a weekend. If anything, it’ll be a fun weekend in New York, and you can just hang out with some senior Hill staffers. It’s a way of just learning more about advertising.” I said, look, I’m not going into advertising. But I’ll go anyway, free trip to New York. So I get there, and of course, it’s amazing, because DDB is a very special place. I mean, as a global company, they just attract and retain some of the sharpest, coolest people ever. We had a number of their CEOs come and present different elements of DDB’s work, and of course, it was awesome and super-stimulating.
But then they asked us, “Well, do you mind? Our chairman Keith would like to come in, he’s got this new project, he wants to share it with everyone. It’s called Brand America.” And it was over lunch. Keith came in, and this is where my view of empathy and allyship, and really, leadership, dramatically shifted. Because Keith is known as a quiet visionary; he’s never the one that’s in the front of the room. One of the top 100 creative minds of the last century, just widely recognized, award-winning, all of this. But that’s not what he leads with. He comes in, and he says, “Well, I’m working on this project. I’m getting ready to go to University of Texas at Austin to give this talk. What do you think?” He proceeds to lay out this idea for how business and really even competitors within the advertising space, but also, the client, companies that they had, how they could come together to work separately from politics, separately from government, to engage with the world, as sort of a rethinking, if you will, of how companies engage, and form policy and just all of that? He called it Brand America. It was so inspiring, I broke out in hives. I mean, I was like, that is the best idea I’ve ever heard, and the Hill staffers are looking at me like I’m crazy. Because when I get passionate about something, my students know, I turn red.
But it just made so much sense, and it was really the first time. When you think about public-private partnerships, we talk about it all the time today. But this was a way of business taking the lead and business going, “Look, we have serious security concerns for our companies around the world.” Anti-American sentiment was the highest it had ever been. So that groundswell of support that we had had post-9/11, it completely eroded. So there were security concerns, there were business concerns, and it was like, how do we come together to try and find a way forward? Not just for these companies, but for the United States. And do it separate from the political environment, which was increasingly toxic.
So I learned, again, navigating even political leadership, both within companies and their competitive interests, as well as within governments, from a very different vantage point. So he invited me up to his office, and he said, you seemed very excited about this idea! I said, yeah, I think it’s an amazing idea, you’ve got to do it. I said in awe, “I’d work for you for free if you want me to do this, I want to help you with this.” He said, well, why don’t you go home tonight and write a proposal for it, instead of going to this really fancy dinner in New York or whatever? I wrote him a five-page letter, which I’m embarrassed to admit today, because I don’t write any five-page memos about anything; everything is super-short. Even my students, I’m like, you have to condense it down. But I still have that letter, and it was the first time I experienced real flow. People talk about flow, where the energy just comes, and your passion, your strengths, all of it is aligning, your values. I mean, I just put it all out there. He said, “Okay, I want you to come work for me. I’ll give you three months, and you can work out of the DDB offices in San Francisco.”
Because at the same time all this was happening, I was set up on a blind date with a fifth-generation chocolate maker here in San Francisco. I’m allergic to chocolate, so I was not seduced by the chocolate one bit. But he was pretty cute, and we’ve been married for 20 years. So it was like, my life was changing, everything was changing.
So Keith hired me, he took a big risk on me. He hired me for three months and said, I want you to build a global board, I want you to see what you can do with this. We ended up having it for almost 10 years, and worked with companies all over the world, really unusual partnerships. It was the first time I had ever worked in what we now call social impact, and what I also call corporate diplomacy. Because it allowed companies to exert influence, political influence, not only in thought leadership, not only within their industry, but also within governments. Because as companies know now and deeply appreciate now, back then they did not, you have to get ahead of the regulatory cycle; you have to be able to engage and build social capital deep within governments. Otherwise, it’s going to come back and bite you in the ass. So it was a fascinating time to work with companies in this very new, nascent space. Because a lot of companies had their government offices in DC that they never touched or paid attention to unless a crisis hit, and we weathered a lot of crises with these companies. It was just so, so fun and extraordinary.
Then our last effort, we actually launched with the Obama administration on entrepreneurship, which once again, and it was a partnership with EO (The Entrepreneurs Organization). That was really focused on, how do we really see the best parts of business around the world and share our best practices from an innovation and entrepreneurship standpoint? So finding ways for business to lead that wasn’t politically toxic, but it was just extraordinary.
So when we retired the effort, because we thought companies were doing this on their own, I started my own consultancy to continue that work, which I did for a period of time. All of which leads me to where I’m at now. John McNeil was one of the original CEOs of that founding effort with Keith, and he was CEO of TBWA, Chiat/Day back then. He reached out during the pandemic, and he said, “Look, Carrie, I’m starting this new effort, it’s called ChangeX, and we’re all about scaling, social impact for the brands that we work with.” John is one of those people that’s just so much fun to work with. He always asked me at the end of every call, are you having fun? Because he’s like, the minute you’re not having fun. I mean, had he told me you’re selling haircare products, I would have found a way to sell those haircare products. He’s such a brilliant branding and strategic mind, and he had joined the Next Practices Group and launched ChangeX out of that. So that’s really where ChangeX was born, and how we could really empower and equip, not just brands who were trying to elevate and expand their social impact, but also purpose-driven founders. So purposewerx came out of that, where it was a collection of purpose-driven founders who were like, “Look, we really want to drive and embed meaning in everything that we do for our clients, and to do it in a very thoughtful way that’s measurable, that’s actionable.” Being a purpose-driven leader can be a very lonely space.
So that’s kind of the arc of how I ended up here, which is a very unusual, nonlinear way. But purpose and social impact have been a common thread all the way through, and strategy, big picture. Like, how can we really leverage the resources and skill sets of partners that are all around us? That I think too often, we have blinders on too.
MELINDA: Awesome! I think a lot of what you’re saying can also be translated into the work that we do internally in companies, too, is how do we influence those changes, and how do we collaborate on those changes? We want to talk specifically about political intelligence within the workplace, and how we discuss politics at work. So maybe we could talk, can you just define political intelligence, what does it mean?
CARI: Political intelligence at work really is about how we navigate and neutralize the informal and formal power structures within any organization. Organizations are living entities, they’re organic. I think increasingly, the nature of work has made it harder to see those invisible forces of power, and who has resources and what they do with those. Then to be able to not only navigate that, but navigate it in a way that best positions you to step into power. So political intelligence is really our, and I say our because I’ve been plotting and conspiring on this for some time with a colleague of mine, Dr. Ali Fenwick, who is an Organizational Psychologist based out of Dubai. He also teaches at Hult, and is just a thought leader on a number of levels within this space. But we built this course together, because we recognize that there is a skill set within political intelligence that everyone needs within business, and yet, we don’t talk about it in business, ever. It’s such a taboo. Yet, we know that we need to have these skill sets to ascend to leadership and to ascend to power.
Women in particular, I hear this common sort of excuse, I’m sure you’ve heard this many times. But I get it. Women will say, “Well, I’m just not going to continue at this company or want to pursue those leadership positions, because I’m just tired of the bullshit.” And I get it. But Ali and I were like, look, we need more principal, purposeful leaders in leadership, period; we don’t have enough of them. So we have to help reframe the bullshit and go, this is the reality of work, this is a reality of any human system; we’re social creatures. How can we break this down in a way that anybody can strengthen their political intelligence, and reframe that deep aversion that we all have for politics, the external politics that we see on the news every day, to a place of curiosity? Because once you get into it, it’s really about understanding behavior. But then also, deeply looking within ourselves, and our own ability to be aware of what triggers us, how we manage our emotions, our situational awareness and how we adapt in those moments. So our goal with the graduate course that we developed, and just literally taught this past weekend in San Francisco, was how many tools and how many practical skill sets can we literally give to people, so they can then continue to practice this going forward?
The other strange thing about me is that when I was in grad school, I had the opportunity to work for Senator Phil Gramm, who in Texas was a senior senator at the time, one of the few to switch from Democrat to Republican. There, again, was another example of formal political leadership, where I remember one summer, he sent me to every Democrat rally in the state. He said, “I just want you to go and listen. I want you to just listen to people, and then let me know what you hear back.” It was a watershed moment for me. Because, first of all, I recognized, you could just see how powerful the media was, and how people thought the senator could do certain things or not. But really, listening to people and just trying to understand where they were coming from, it was such an exercise for me. Again, better understanding how we can connect with people and help solve problems. The fact that he wouldn’t make up his mind. He was like, “Look, I want to do what’s best for my constituents, Republican, Democrat, Independent.” I share this because we don’t have enough leaders like that today. Colin Powell was the same way, he would take issues on face value and try and make the best decision with the information at hand. It takes courage to step into those moments, and be willing to weigh and take all of those points of view.
So I think there’s just so many aspects to political intelligence where there’s a lot of blind spots and barriers that we have that we broke down in the course, that we have to be really honest with ourselves. Because anytime we have a deep aversion to something, and we’ve called it the Political Intelligence Detox Project, we’ve got to figure out a better name. But we’ve asked people to share with us, just share with us your stories in this space. The stories we’ve already heard, I feel like we’ve opened Pandora’s box. But that aversion comes from a real place, and it’s rooted in fear. That fear is different for each of us, how that manifests. So we even went deep on that level, too. Because we have to be able to do that work to then go, that’s no longer a blind spot for me, and now, how do I actively then work on the external? So it’s both internal and external skill sets.
MELINDA: Yeah. It sounds like there’s emotional intelligence, and building empathy and compassion for one another, listening, all of those things as well. So let’s apply it to discussing politics at work. We’re in a time, and we have been for some time, and it’s continuously evolving, where corporations, a lot of corporations are saying, we’re not discussing politics at work. Then obviously, that impacts people in lots of different ways, especially as you define politics. As we increasingly out in the world are seeing anti-critical race theory and education, we’re seeing anti-trans, anti-drag, anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation, suddenly those pieces of identity become politics, and you can’t talk about those at work as well, which is very problematic in my mind. So maybe we could talk first about what is the importance of doing that, of talking about politics, what’s the purpose of doing that?
CARI: Well, I think one of the ways that we approach this too, is we wanted people to be curious about motivations behind certain decisions or statements that are made, really being curious at a deeper level about what we observe just across the board. I do a fair amount of geopolitical risk work. So within that work, I’m constantly having to absorb a lot of different points of view, and it’s essential that you absorb every point of view, not just one. I think too often, because we’re all exhausted, we don’t have enough time or energy, we don’t do that extra step of being a journalist in many ways about the information that we take in. So one of them is really actively taking a look at our informational capital, and what we’re putting in, what we’re reviewing, just at a very basic level, and to see multiple points of view. So part of this is really, at Hult, what I love is that, in any given cohort, we’ll have 60 or 70 nationalities, who have very different views about the world around us, and even different ethical perspectives, and moral perspectives, and all of that. There’s nothing I enjoy more than engaging in conversations of politics, and cross-cultural concerns, and religion. I get into all of it, because I want people to be curious, and to develop their own points of view, and also to be willing to think again. Because when someone is willing to engage with us and disagree with us, that means they respect us enough to engage. So even how we engage with others, that’s a bit of a reframing.
I was just with a client recently, a head of HR, and she said, “Well, we’re in HR, we don’t talk about religion and politics.” I said, but that’s ignoring the fact that people are curious. These are aspects of our life that we don’t just detach when we go into the office. By the way, these external forces also affect the business. So don’t we want people curious, gathering points of view? There’s a way to do it. This is why you need people, Ali and I, we facilitate contentious discussions all the time, so that’s our happy place. But you really need a skillful facilitator, I wouldn’t just throw somebody into that environment. Because people can get triggered, and you have to be able to actively manage it so it stays productive.
So I teach a graduate elective in gender intelligence. It’s funny because the reason I was even asked to teach this course and develop this course to begin with, which I first taught on the Dubai Campus, that whole path, is because I’m a woman. Not because I was doing anything in the gender space, or because I was in women’s leadership. I actually said that, and I was like, I don’t know anything about this space. So I called the chairwoman, and that was 10 years ago. So once I start getting into this, I said, I’ll do this, but I have two conditions. One, men, and everybody in between, have to be invited into this room. Two, we have to focus on very practical ways that we can assess blind spots that we have and biases, and find practical ways of more effectively engaging at work every day going forward. This is what I appreciate so much about Hult. Because they said, yes, let’s do it. I’ll never forget that first class, because we had, I think, 75 women, and five men, who were very quiet the first two days. But by day three, they just came alive; they had a moment. The last time I taught it, we had more men in the room, as well as many individuals who identify as non-binary. That for me was like, wow!
But even within San Francisco, when you’re dealing with a global audience, we’ve all been raised and socialized with different gender norm expectations, with different understandings of what the roles are, what’s expected of us; there’s a lot of myths and misperceptions. So I bring in a lot of guest lecturers, different perspectives, and I’m constantly navigating that conversation so that people can leave, not that it’s with my point of view, or with one of my guest lecturer’s point of views. But they have more knowledge now to pull from to develop their own point of view. More than anything, they come away from any masterclass they have, with me for sure, curious. That’s all I want, is I want people to go from having locked in and trenched points of view, which gets us nowhere, to “I’m willing to be open to this, I’m willing to be curious and to engage in different points of view.”
So we can extrapolate that across a number of different veins. Politics, same to same. It’s not about the personalities, when I bring together groups and I’m facilitating, or even if I’m there and we’re talking about a strategy session with a board, inevitably politics will bubble up. Instead of shutting it down, like that HR professional, she was like, “Well, we just shut it down, we just don’t talk about it.” I’m like, well, that’s interesting, how might this affect our business, and let’s impact that further. So it really takes a willingness too, to go deeper into what’s the root issue that you’re actually talking about? Are we just wanting to talk about these personalities, or do we really want to talk about policy? Because if we want to talk about policy, we’re going to find a way to find common ground. So that’s where, at least the way I like to facilitate, and Ali is the same way, I like to bring in design thinking in everything that I do. It’s like, how can I bring more humanity into that moment? Adam Grant’s book, Think Again, is one of my favorites of all the books that I’ve read recently. Because it really pushes us to consider, we need to think again about a lot of these different things, and then go, well, why do I think that way, and what informational inputs could be biasing and skewing that, especially when you look at the dearth of disinformation?
So I even have an information hygiene sort of checklist that I share with my grad students in any session that I facilitate. Because on the geopolitical risk side, I’m absorbing a tonne of content every day anyway, because I’m just nerdy that way. But I give them my cheat sheet of, these are the three things that I track and follow every single day, and then weekly. So I’m very methodical about it. But the three T’s are, one is Traction. You have to pay attention to traction, because that’s what’s hitting that day. But you can’t let traction consume you, and I think too often, that’s what we do, like this submarine. We have Russia, we have a serious geopolitical situation happening, and yet I have members of my family that all they want to talk about is the submarine. Yes, that’s a horrible, horrific thing. But it’s like, there are other things that could potentially affect the global supply chain, the global order, nuclear weapons. Because if you look at how the media, even the business of the media, which you know very well, is designed to draw us into those human interest stories, fine. But to be able to detach and go, “Okay, that’s a moment of traction. I’m aware of it, but I don’t need to expend any more energy going down that, not a rabbit hole, but down the submarine hole.”
So the one beyond that, is really Trends. So it’s looking at the sources that we’re pulling so we can identify signals of change, and really pulling together some of the deeper reporting. This is where I’ve collected journalists all over the world over the years that I appreciate for the journalistic integrity. And we were lucky enough, we had Pauline too come and guest lecture at our course this weekend. She’s a media icon, foreign correspondent for CNN for many, many years. She talks about how you always triple-source your information. The great journalists, they not only triple-source their information, but their analysis is so much richer and thoughtful. And we just don’t read anymore. If it’s not in a little snack, we just don’t even bother. So I kind of try and find a way to gently ease people back into, how can we expand our thinking and evolve our thinking, so that it is more thoughtful and intentional about whatever we’re curious and passionate about? Because there’s no way we can cover the whole world and all the issues happening. That really requires us to be focused on what we ultimately want to achieve. So that’s what was fun with the students.
So from a political intelligence perspective, you can’t get sucked into day-to-day political winds, or even one-year to five-year political winds. Political intelligence is looking at minimum of 10 years out, and where do you ideally want to lead and be? That requires a different level of even imaginal intelligence, which we had fun with. Because I was taking them into some visualization exercises and really going, how do we develop clarity? I call it our X. So in ChangeX, we talk about that X. It’s what ultimately gives you deep meaning, and it’s where you bring in your strengths, your values, and your purpose all together, and you’re able to define your acts. So we do it for companies, but we rarely are invited to do it for ourselves. So that, I think for the students, I noticed this weekend, because we had about half alumni, which was super fun. I love when we have alumni, because they’re out in the world working and bringing a different level of just experience and wisdom into the room. But not only are we never taught this, but the other thing is, the further we go along in life, especially 10 years out, which is what most of the alumni that have engaged with this event, we have so many other constraints on our time and energy, and often, our future horizons are defined by the roles that we have today.
So one of the first things I always ask my students, but I did it with this course in particular, is I said, I just invite you to take the mask off. Some of them had to really yank it off, because it’s like on there. It’s like, put it to the side, and with that, put every role that you currently have in life, parent, partner, whatever it is, and go: “Okay, if it were just for me, and I’m able to imagine my future 10 years from now, ascending to my ideal leadership position, what might that look like, what would it be?” So to see people, just their shoulders, their body language, it’s like a weight has been taken off, just taking off the mask. Because we’re never invited to even take off the mask on the daily. But then to revisit, I mean, if I could really impact something. It takes a while to do this work by the way, because I suck at it. The first few times I did these exercises, I did it at the Institute for the Future, and then I’ve subsequently done it in other iterations. Because I also teach with the Unbeatable Mind Academy that Mark Devine, the navy seal, he launched, and he does a number of these practices. I was so frustrated, because I was terrible at it. He’s like, “Carri, this is not about perfection. This is about be willing to revisit the practice over and over and over again, and quieting the mind.” All these things that I wish I had known and practiced long ago. The practices I’m teaching my kids to do now, they’re practices that I really went deep on and refined during the pandemic. Because I was just really trying to collect a number of tools that would support resiliency, and how we rebound. Because I had so many students all over the world, I had 250 at that time, they were isolated in different parts of the world, and there was just so much fear and uncertainty.
So that’s a piece of political intelligence, because it’s like, what are you using this for? And when you start doing some of these practices of visualization, and you’re able to crystallize that X, that then builds the neural pathways and the plasticity to support those decisions that are going to get you to that point. That’s a very different way of looking at political intelligence than the way it’s always been framed in the media, about poll numbers and election cycles, or even leadership cycles within companies. Then some of the skill sets too we explore are like, when there’s moments of transition or crisis, that’s when we dial up our political intelligence and our situational awareness and go, “I’m going to start paying attention more, I’m going to tune in more and engage at a deeper level.” Because as we started this session, I was like, those are the moments in my career where I’ve been able to clearly see the forcefield. I’ve been able to go: Oh wow, okay, this is the person in power! Oftentimes, I’ve been surprised by who that person was. Sometimes, I kind of could have assumed that that would have been the person, but oftentimes, it’ll come out of left field, because they just happen to be the one that’s willing to step into that moment and lead. So it’s how do we navigate that force field, which I think, for just a lot of people, it’s super intimidating. Especially as you’re remote working, it’s hard to just even connect with people on a genuine way over Zoom. So I understand that anxiety. But I will say, I knew we were onto something when we first did it for alumni; Ali did it in Dubai, I did it in New York, and then we had the course this weekend. Because at the end of it, they wanted to keep learning, and that’s where I’m like, okay.
MELINDA: Yeah. I’m thinking about how this applies to the importance of talking in our workplaces about politics, and really deeply opening ourselves up, taking off the mask, opening ourselves up. I think letting go of what’s happening in this one crucial moment to look at a bigger picture of how can I create impact over time, allows you the space to really see, well, who are all the players, what is that power, what are the power dynamics, and who has the power, how can I start to create influence? But you have to create that psychologically safe space to do that as well.
CARI: So I’m thinking also about, well, recently, the Supreme Court ruled against Harvard and UNC for their affirmative action admissions, and some say that corporate DEI programs will follow. We’ve seen already in the past big changes happening when Trump first became President; he rolled back programs, he issued an executive order, and now we’re seeing it in the Supreme Court as well. At the same time, we’re also seeing a rise in the amplification of voices that are opposed to these programs; DEI programs, ESG program. And as a result, the contraction of those programs. Add to that the economic situation that’s currently happening, we have a severe contraction to these programs right now. So people can become a little bit defeated, deflated right now. What would you say to folks who are feeling a little deflated and defeated? Maybe it is to take that wider picture, the 10-year picture. But what would you say?
Whenever I see forces like this compound, and I’m certainly seeing it as well in the conversations that I’m having with senior executives. I mean, for sure, they’re saying that the toxicity around this woke/anti-woke, and DEI, and even ESG to a certain extent, the thought leadership behind it, when you have strong thought leadership and you start to see winds and traction, you’re going to have that pendulum swing back the other way. Same with LGBTQIA+ initiatives, trans rights. When you have a more coordinated, effective thought leadership movement happening, you’re going to see that coming the other way at it. So this anti-woke sort of approach, well, first of all, it’s a deliberate political tactic for the next presidential cycle. So that’s partly why we’re hearing more of them, and we’re just going to hear more of it going forward. But the thing that concerns me is how well-funded it is and how well-organized it is. So this is not just a one-off. This is a very serious, coordinated approach to reduce ESG and DEI. So here is a perfect example of why I feel so moved to develop these political intelligence tools. Because most of the people that I work with within ESG and DEI, they are purpose-driven leaders; they care, they volunteer with NGOs. It’s always been somewhere a part of their story and their narrative and their experience, and they think that that should be enough, that the work should speak for itself. It doesn’t. They have to be equipped to be able to navigate this toxicity that’s coming at this full force.
So from a company perspective, I understand why companies are wanting to just lay low on a number of fronts. Yet, whenever I see forces like this, I immediately think, well, where’s the opportunity? How can we shift that lens and reframe it for opportunity? So because DEI and ESG have become the targets, and because to a certain extent, they’ve been commoditized, and also, there’s been a lot of DEI and ESG purpose-washing, and things that companies would say they were doing it but not really doing it. So then there needs to be a correction even within companies, and a recognition from senior leadership: “No, these are our values, and this is where we want to drive impact. We’re not going to call it DEI, and we’re not going to call it ESG. But we’re going to continue to live our values.” I think that’s important for a number of reasons. But it’s going to require some brave corporate leadership, to be willing to step into that. But I think they’re going to learn very quickly that if they don’t do that, they’re not going to be able to recruit and retain the best talent, certainly not from Gen Z, and certainly not from Gen Alpha.
I mean, Gen Alpha is the most idealistic, principled, want to be engaged in social impact, want to solve these problems. The first teenagers are coming out of Gen Alpha right now. So we saw much of this in Gen Z, and you’re going to see even more of that, especially as Gen Alpha comes into their agency; they’re making money, they’re spending money as consumers, and then they’re looking at employment. So for companies, this is something long-term. Yes, it’s a short-term concern, but long-term, really, it’s an inviting back of what are our core values, and what are we actually willing to step up and stand in for? So that’s where I see an opportunity for companies to lead and problem-solve like they never have before, but not trying to boil the ocean. Because no company can do that, that just wouldn’t make sense. I think that’s where a lot of leaders got in trouble, because there was just so much excitement and momentum that there were huge over-commitments. And we saw this during George Floyd, because there was a recognition that something needed to be done. Okay, we can marshal the resources, so a number of companies set up funds. But even several years on, many of those funds have not been put into actionable programs that have shifted behavior one iota. They’re like, well, we just didn’t know what to do from there.
So I think it’s an opportunity to look inward for companies, and to go, how do we really rethink all of this, and what is our defining northstar and purpose strategy for the company, internally first, before they do anything external? The reason why that’s also important, not only from talent recruitment and development, but also for their longer-term strategy and competitiveness and resilience. Because this is the other thing too, we know we’re going to have more moments of crisis where they’re going to be called on the mat for their values. They’re either going to be able to defend those values, or they’re going to shrink away. And we have countless examples just in the last six months of companies who have not backed up their values. It’s affected their revenue substantially, as well as diminished their brand, and the resilience. So people, friends of mine who were working for some of these companies are like, what the hell is going on?
Then on top of it, if you are in a situation where you’re dealing with layoffs and things like that, it’s like: Okay, this is a moment in time, this is a contraction. But then we’re going to be back in a moment of growth again, and it’s all cyclical. So where can you insert humanity? Where can you really, once again, rethink, how are we bringing people in, and then how are we letting people exit in a way that they still have a positive relationship with us? Instead of just these sweeping layoffs, and no real valuing of the individual human. That’s the thing, especially in the context of AI, it’s a reminder that we have to hold on to that core humanity that we have with everything that we got, and not let technology completely subsume that. Because that is the last thing that separates us, our emotions; our ability to feel, our ability to sense, and the complex problem-solving that humans are able to bring into the equation. So it’s like, how do you find that balance between the two?
So there’s just so many different elements that are colliding. But I’m an optimist by nature. So I just am always looking at, well, where’s that opportunity? Even in moments of extreme crisis, where’s that opportunity for us to solve problems, come together in a thoughtful way, and then find a way as business leaders to empower not only our employees, but also the communities that we serve in our customer base? So those leaders still exist, we just don’t hear about a lot of them, because a lot of these issues are only managed internally. I’ve had so many senior managers now share, well, I probably spend about 25 to 30% of my time helping my employees and teams navigate toxic political issues that emerge. I just don’t have time for this. But this is where political intelligence is so important, because it’s also a productivity issue. Because the minute someone, Pauline actually shared Megan Carle’s book, who Megan, I don’t know if you’ve read it.
MELINDA: She was a guest on our show, and we’ll link to that episode in the show notes.
CARI: Oh, I love that, I can’t wait. So the book is fascinating. I mean, I read it in two days. She was at Nike for 30 years. Look, a lot of the examples that she draws out, and I think when we invite people to think back in their careers and stuff, not all of them are obvious. It’s kind of like when MeToo happened. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had extraordinary male bosses and mentors. I love men, I genuinely just adore men. And when I think back of moments of misogyny, or being discounted, or thought less of, they were very subtle. Those subtleties have a cumulative effect on us over time, and they affect each of us differently. But basically, it’s shutting people down. And Megan draws out a number of insights, and this is why Pauline brought it forward in her talk about psychological safety. Because she’s like, this is what bullies do. So how do we reframe that?
One of the things too, is just to be able to talk about it and share that. So I think within companies, we need to, and we’ve been talking about it forever, having psychological safety; companies know this, they have training programs on it. But they don’t actually set up the environment for that. So that’s why I do a number of one-off masterclasses, where I can facilitate it and go: Okay, let’s have the conversation, let’s air those grievances, let’s air the big questions that you’ve always wanted to have. Just invite people to share their stories, but also to actually be heard. Because you feel like you’re losing your mind, and you just are like, am I making too much of this? So we tend to retreat inward, we don’t share it, because we don’t want to be that person who’s drawing attention or being the victim. So it’s like, how do we find a way to surface some of these. Also, sending in an anonymous tip to HR is not going to get you anywhere either; that just goes into a void. I mean, because HR is there to represent the company, so you can’t always feel like HR is your ally. So it’s really looking, too, at our relationship management. One of the things we explore in the course is we’re like, look, you have to have an army of allies and advocates around you that you build, that are trusted relationships that have your back. Do not expect the company to do that for you, it’s not going to happen.
MELINDA: I think about what you said about finding the opportunity, and you also said it in passing, that the DEI and ESG terms, I think that one of the key things that I’m coming away with is, be careful what we hold on to, and really see the bigger picture, what is that X? Is your X, the term Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the term ESG? Or can you find a different approach that doesn’t use those terms, that doesn’t trigger that anti-wokeness movement. When I was an executive in a very non-inclusive environment, they were not ready to talk about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at all. So I looked at what else can we do, how else can we create change? So we created a wellness program, a physical mental wellness program; we created an emotional intelligence program for leaders to develop empathy and understanding and have that psychologically safe space to have inclusive conversations. But we never said Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. There’s lots of different tools that you’ve talked about here, that get to that bigger picture of creating change we want to see. Looking at 10 years down the road, and really thinking about, well, how can I get there if this path is closed? Am I going to keep fighting to go through that path? Or is there one slightly different that’s going to get us to the same place?
CARI: Yeah, and I love that you did that, because that also required you bringing forward your creative skill sets. So we had two guest lecturers, and the other one was Blaze Bertrand, who’s a dear friend. He’s a creative leader who was a senior partner at IDEO, and then went on to lead innovation at Google and Meta, and he’s an entrepreneur and all of this. He created his own word, he called it creatilitics: politics and creativity. At first, my students were like, well, what? Does this make sense, that you would bring creativity together with politics? Then as he unpacked it, and really, he had never thought about it before in the same way until I approached it. Because I had this sense that that was one of the missing pieces for this broader discussion. So that’s what we were exploring. In his session, he was talking about, people are always trying to figure out how do I create engines of innovation, within my organization, within my teams? To really do that, you have to foster creativity. Yet, creatives, and what I appreciate is, he’s like, we’re all creatives.
In fact, he made everybody, one of the exercises we had to do was we had to draw a neighbor. I’m watching this, and at first, it was just the most awkward thing ever. Then people started having fun with it, and Blaze drew out. He was like, we started hearing you apologize. He said, a lot of you apologized for what you put together. They were like, yes, yes. He goes, at what point did that become a moment of shame? Because when you ask kids to do this, they do it all the time, and there’s no expectation of perfection. But at some point, we were told, you’re not a creative. And within business, the creatives are sequestered. It’s certainly that way, it’s been that way for a long time in advertising. You don’t let the creatives in with the clients. I think the creatives are all the cool people. I’m like, why wouldn’t you bring them in with the clients? But it’s because they don’t think linearly, and that’s the beauty of their thinking. So Blaze sort of invited everybody to reconsider that we are all creatives, we just have to be able to tap back into that. So once you start doing that, your productivity goes up. But also, you start making connections, just like you were talking about. It’s like ways of identifying opportunity and value beyond whatever your job is narrowly defined as.
So for me, one of the things that I love to do is strategic alliances across sectors. That was never in a job title I ever had. I just was like, we need to be doing this, so I just took it upon myself. I’m like, we’re just going to start doing this, and I was super creative about it. Because I noticed that the more unusual these partnerships were, the better you could be inoculated against some of the blunt attacks, like the anti-wokeness, and companies could shield themselves. It’s the same with us as individuals. So from a company perspective, it’s like, how can you equip everybody who works within your organization, to unlock their imaginal intelligence? Because if you did that, the amount of intelligence and value that would be flowing into the organization, from across the generational aspects, to the different cultural perspectives, you name it, but all different layers of organization, that would exponentially raise the value that’s being contributed every day. Because it’s fun to be creative. You have to do it in a way that it’s guided, and not just like, we’re all going to sit in a room and paint. That’s not what I’m talking about. But it’s like, that is something that I find just fascinating that a lot of companies just don’t get that. Of course, IDEO was built on this.
MELINDA: Yeah, I love it. Cari, thank you. Thank you for this impassioned conversation, and giving us a lot of things to think about in terms of what we can do, how we can create spaces for conversation. One quick last question is, where can people learn more about you and your work?
CARI: So everyone can just connect on LinkedIn. and that’s probably the best place to find me. I have one email that everything goes to that email on LinkedIn. But yeah, I look forward to having people reach out. I just want to thank you for having me. It’s a true honor to be with you, because you’re a pioneer on so many levels, and your book is amazing. Look, it takes a lot of courage to lead with empathy and allyship. So the fact that you’ve created this space, this podcast for people to share their point of views in a very authentic way, I just think it’s super powerful and inspiring. So thank you, Melinda, for just what you do. Everybody on your team is super cool and amazing, and I don’t just think that because one of them was one of my top students. They really are just amazing, wonderful professionals to work with. So it’s an honor.
MELINDA: Thank you. I appreciate that, Cari. Okay, everyone, find your X, remove your mask, find that opportunity and really tap into your creativity, and then take action, whatever that is, step by step. If you liked this episode, we discussed Megan Carle’s Episode 215, How to Address Workplace Bullying. I also encourage you to check out Episode 84 with Nisha Anand, The Radical Act of Choosing Common Ground to Create Change, also another good one. It’s right in line with this discussion as well.
Thank you, everybody. Take action, and keep moving forward one step at a time.
Thank you for being part of our community. You’ll find the show notes and a transcript of this episode at ally.cc. There you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter with additional tips. This show is produced by Empovia, a trusted learning and development partner, offering training, coaching, and a new e-learning platform, with on-demand courses focused on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. You can learn more at Empovia.com.
Allyship is empathy in action. So what action will you take today?