During my 35-year career at large organizations, the description of the goal of providing equal opportunities for women, people of color, and other disadvantaged groups changed from “equal opportunity” to “diversity.” Today, that word would be “inclusion.”
What is inclusion?
“Inclusion” means three things:
Excelling at inclusion requires qualities Jim Collins describes in a Level 5 leader in Good to Great, particularly, the combination of modesty and strong will, and the ability to seek out market feedback, which he calls “confronting the brutal facts.” Inclusion requires more listening than talking, and more consultative and less traditional “selling.”
“Inclusion” eliminates traditional silos based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, wealth, income, education, credentials, job status, and even expertise and track record. As Shafik Asante, the late head of the New African Voices Alliance, wrote, inclusion is a “responsibility as a society to remove all barriers which uphold exclusion.” He described it as a “commitment not to behave in ways that demean others and an openness to notice and change.” Inclusion works because the group’s collective wisdom surpasses the sum of the expertise of its members.
My parents: role models for inclusion
My parents practiced inclusion. My mother was a public health nurse’s aide at a run-down inner city school. She was comfortable working with poor black and Puerto Rican parents and children (her dialect Italian was close to Puerto Rican Spanish), to understand their daily challenges and to help them solve their own problems.
My dad was an inclusive listener. One cousin once marveled at how my dad, a high school dropout, could smile, smoke his pipe, and making every person with whom he was talking feel like the world’s most important person.
My Pitney Bowes experience: empowering customers by empowering them in inclusive decision processes
As Pitney Bowes’ CEO, I sought to empower those for whom postal and communications systems were designed, those who sent and received mail. Many postal services and their worldwide non-postal competitors fought to keep customers less than fully informed. UPS and FedEx would give away free computers to customers with only their rates and products to make sure customers never found out what the competitors were charging.
The U.S. Postal Service was much more customer-focused than many of its foreign counterparts. I proposed a customer advisory board to one foreign postal CEO, who said that he wanted no customers telling him how to run his business.
Inclusion also influenced how we created new products and services. We watched customers operate in their mail centers, got their immediate feedback, and gave them crude prototypes to try out before we finalized designs. Our award-winning Universal Access Copier, which enabled people with disabilities to access vital office equipment, required significant design input from people with disabilities. Its voice recognition software and assistive processes were years ahead of the market.
Empowering employees individually and in teams
Pitney Bowes attracted me because of its decades-long leadership in welcoming diverse peoples to its workforce and actively seeking their insights. It hired and promoted women and people of color back in the 1940’s. The company had employee meetings modeled on major stockholder meetings, and actually cared what employees thought, even when employees were vocally critical of company actions. I did 150 one-hour meetings a year with lower-level managers to get more unfiltered feedback, so that I could “confront the brutal facts,” meetings they never would have had with another CEO.
We created an innovative workforce transition program to get first-generation immigrants to enhance their ability to work collaboratively with people from other cultures and countries of origin. We invested significantly in getting people to change from working alone (with Walkman headphones on to avoid talking with co-workers), to working together in ethnically and racially diverse self-directed work teams. We also helped them become more employable and integrate into the broader community. I remember the Italian retiree who thanked me for forcing him to learn enough English and communications skills that he could start a successful landscaping business.
I fought many battles around the world to improve access for employees excluded from access to power in their home countries. In France, two Presidents with great educations and business and interpersonal skills who could never get traction with the French Post Office, because they were born in Russia and Algeria (the inspiration for a character I included in From the Rough).
The Urban League: a governance model based on inclusion
I chose the National Urban League as the social services and civil rights organization in which I volunteered for 13 years, including five years as Board Chair, because of its inclusive bi-racial, nonpartisan, and multi-generational governance structure. Black and white, young and old, and male and female executives worked side by side on service delivery programs and policies, as well as civil rights advocacy. I loved working along side under-35 visionary black entrepreneurs and professionals like Melinda Emerson (now known as the “SmallBizLady”) to solve big problems.
My healthcare initiatives: empowering patients and consumers
Inclusion and empowerment also has driven my 22-year journey to transform health and healthcare. When I became Pitney Bowes’ head of human resources in 1990, the medical plan was the same for all employees, regardless of their diverse needs, and we did not include employees as partners in managing their health. I changed that.
We gave employees money for successfully managing their health. Employees had access to walk-in, onsite clinic appointments with no waiting time, and we actually spent time in conversations with them to find out how we could make the work environment healthier. In my retirement tribute video, I was deeply touched when one woman credited my work with saving her life, since she received a timely breast cancer screening at one of our clinics. We introduced flexible benefits to give employees more choices on how to spend their dollars. We created more information sharing about best practices in health, health care, and health spending. The result was an innovative, highly acclaimed corporate health care program built on patient empowerment.
Dossia: a personal health management system to empower consumers
In 2010, I was asked to lead Dossia, a consumer-controlled personal health management system that draws on both clinical and non-clinical insights to enable consumers to manage health, health care and health spending. Today, a consumer on our system can shop for the lowest cost MRI, find out about medication interaction problems, and get online access to a physician in the middle of the night to avoid an emergency room visit. We also are unique in recognizing that mothers need to be included in the healthcare decision processes for their families and have convenient access to their family’s health records.
Similar to the battle I fought with foreign postal services, I see healthcare providers, insurers, and other vendors resistant to empowering patients with information that give them the ability to make vendor choices. Inclusion and empowerment require vendors to risk losing customers in the short term, because vendors will ultimately benefit from better informed customers in the longer term.
Empowering students and parents in the educational system
My wife and I have strongly supported charter schools and other educational reforms built on achievement, parent and student empowerment, and the elimination of access barriers for highly qualified teachers. The goal of our philanthropy is not to promote charter schools ahead of public schools, but to demonstrate that success in education and learning wil only be sustained if school systems include teachers, parents, and students as partners and collaborators in designing and implementing great education. In a perfect world, what charter schools are doing would be done inside public schools, and I would welcome the opportunity, were it to arise, to be a partner in helping change what happens inside public schools.
From the Rough: Celebrating a role model for inclusion
The story of Dr. Catana Starks, the Tennessee State men’s golf coach, which I found and developed, attracted me, because she embodied my inclusion and empowerment values. In fact, Coach Starks and my mother were very similar in being role models for inclusion and empowerment by being humble, soft spoken, tenacious, and deeply religious, while remaining highly confident.
Including and empowering young people and entrepreneurs
In my life endeavors, I have always drawn upon the disruptive insights of younger people. Parents and senior leaders often are directive, even dictatorial, with younger people, especially their children, because they believe their success is transferable to their children, and especially in a town like Darien, Connecticut, in which many parents have been extremely successful in their chosen professions. While I have freely shared my insights with young people, especially as a town baseball coach of 14 and 15 year olds, I have always assumed that they had unique insights to share with me.
I have also enjoyed leading Dossia, because the younger people who work for me are less encumbered by the “truisms” that get in the way of fresh thinking. They “just do it.”
Obstacles to inclusion and empowerment
At first glance, practicing inclusion and empowerment should be as noncontroversial as “motherhood and apple pie.” Why is it so hard to practice and sustain?
Inclusion requires the inner confidence to be continually insecure
Inclusion is uncomfortable to many people, because it requires people to be comfortable with committing themselves to continually reinventing and changing, and to accepting constructive feedback from less knowledgeable people. Inclusion also scares people because it means continually challenging a person’s beliefs about the world. Empowering others means placing control in the hands of others, which makes many people uncomfortable. Inclusion also means that people will receive uncomfortable criticism from time to time.
People engage in exclusionary practices that disempower others in many ways.
Exclusionary credentials and vocabularies
Today, America is obsessed with regulatory credentials and licenses as job prerequisites, even when those entry barriers are arguably excessive. Doctors and lawyers have lengthy post-undergraduate educational, testing, and apprenticeship requirements to practice their profession. The security of a credential is very powerful, and those with that credential often fight every effort to eliminate it or even to weaken it.
People who grow up in exclusive professions develop vocabularies and jargon, which help them communicate more effectively with members of the profession, but exclude members. Think of this vocabulary as the “secret handshake.” However, they trap themselves in inflexible ways of thinking, and miss disruptive challenges.
As Thomas Kuhn persuasively argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, most transformational innovation comes from people outside a profession, because those within the profession experience what an old boss of mine called “hardening of the categories” to describe inflexible thinkers.
The security of experience, seniority and job tenure
Older, more successful people are also threatened by disruptive thinking, because it diminishes the value of their experience and knowledge. This is not easy to solve, because it is not usually obvious when experience is useful, and when it is not.
The desire to create new centers of power that end up being exclusionary
Throughout history, people and societies have challenged institutional power concentrations, whether in government, business, or the educational establishment, and racial, gender and ethnic exclusion.
However, the greatest risk of challenge to old exclusionary systems is the substitution of new ones. People who militantly challenge racial or ethnic exclusion have to avoid gravitating to redistributing power to new racial and ethnic groupings. People who challenge particular credentialing systems have to guard against establishing new systems that benefit them, but exclude others.
Strong cultures and subcultures are double-edged swords. They give individuals a sense of belonging and being welcomed. However, they often create barriers around productive interactions with other groups and cultures. The United States has continually reinvented itself because it has provided many legal, regulatory, economic, political, and cultural mechanisms for breaking down exclusionary barriers. Countries like Russia that destroy one exclusionary order and replace it with another lose out over the long run.
Inclusion and empowerment liberate us, because they internalize the perspective that something new and better can always be just around the corner. Empowering others draws on collective power and wisdom, as opposed to forcing us to depend only on what we, or a small group like us, can make happen.
That is my creed and code for living, and I have become much more successful for aspiring to practice it.