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What happens when you get it, but your Executive Board don’t?

You’re ready to own it.

Yet how far can you go if your Executive Board are not on the same page?

What if they have yet to recognise and challenge their own fear-based beliefs and are therefore reluctant to co-sign your path to becoming an anti-racist organisation?

We assume the CEO is the blocker, but that’s not always the case

You'd be surprised at how common it is that I speak to CEOs who start the conversation with ‘I get it.  I might not understand it, but I want to do something about this.’

I’m not saying they don’t feel uncomfortable, that they aren’t grappling with how to commit to action but also not wanting to do anything too radical.  Yet for whatever reason, whether they disclose that to me or not, they are prepared to acknowledge, lean in and start the process to dismantle racism. 

More often than not, the conversation isn’t always focused on the what and the how.  It’s about the ‘what do you do when…’

What do you do when you’re not convinced the rest of the board feel the same way you do?  And what could happen if you decide to chart a course of action, hoping that your leadership team will catch up?

Fear and hope can co-exist

An exception to when fear and hope can exist in the same space

We’ve talked in a previous blog about challenging fear-based beliefs.  That article outlines what may be driving a reluctance to engage.  And it’s not always about who objects loudly – it’s the leaders who stay quiet.  Have little to say or are non-committal when asked for their opinion.

That is fear.

But that is also hope.

Hope that this movement, this push for advancing racial equity and confronting racism, is a passing fad. 

It’s hope, that if they wait it out for long enough, there will be a new something to deal with and that will unobtrusively push this issue to one side.

“I mean haven’t we got enough to deal with without adding this issue [racism] to our list.  Particularly when I don’t believe we are a racist organisation?”

Now if you’re thinking, well, it doesn’t matter.  I’m the CEO and this is my decision to make. Unfortunately, your commitment on it’s own, isn’t enough.  Yes, I agree, but allow me a moment to outline what could happen if you don’t confront and discuss why your fellow board members or direct reports are resistant to committing to change.

 1. Solo efforts are difficult to sustain

Without alignment with your board, you will become the only person driving the anti-racism agenda. 

You will have limited executive input to challenge thinking, beliefs and value systems. 

You will be the one your extended teams will come to for direction, input, feedback and the like.  And whilst initially, this may not feel like a big deal.  As you begin a more structured approach to become anti-racist, this level of effort and responsibility will be come very difficult to sustain.

And the impact?  You will crash and burn before you’ve had a chance to make a difference.  And therefore you over-promise and under-deliver, with your Black colleagues ultimately having to pay the price.

2. It sends the wrong message to your colleagues

Whether we like it or not, we live in a permission-based society and that is how organisations are run. It is rare that employees have true autonomy to use their initiative and run with ideas and projects without sign-up from above.

If you are the only voice they hear, talking about racism, equity, inclusion etc, they will quickly read between the lines.  And whilst they may support and admire your stance, they will question why the other board members are so quiet and have nothing or very little to say.

And if we’ve learnt anything from the organisations who continue to say silent on this matter, silence is an action in itself, which can lead to a perception that they themselves are racist.

3. Your HR or DEI teams will be unable to do their jobs

For anti-racism to be taken seriously, it needs to be seen as a business driven priority, not a HR agenda item.

Yes you satisfy the requirement of ‘it needs to be driven from the top’ but it needs the entire executive board. 

Not just you.

When there is a need for budget, resources, time and general support, your teams need to be able to call on any board member to provide leadership in this space.  

How can you set them up for success, if they can only talk to one person on the board?


How are they going to speak with the Chief Finance Officer if they can’t even bring themselves to say the word Black?

How can they talk about best way to engage with your wider workforce, channels to use, language etc. if the Chief Marketing/Brand Officer is still in the camp of ‘I don’t see race’?

There are only so many times you can knock on an unanswered door. The drive to be part of the solution will inevitably wane, momentum will be lost and the public commitment you made to anti-racism becomes opportunity to eradicate trust and confidence that as a business, you deliver on what you say you’re going to do.

4. A real yet less obvious reputational risk

There are increasing concerns about the fall-out which comes with saying or doing the wrong thing.

This has allowed leadership teams to retreat into silence thinking this will mitigate risk.

If you are commit to be anti-racist and beginning the journey, if the rest of your board are not engaging in the issue, talking about it and being part of the solution – they become the risk.

Because it means whilst you have increased your knowledge and understanding about what racism is, and isn’t, language, terminology and what you can and can’t say in what context and to whom, you are more confident and able to engage in conversations with a minimised risk of offending or showing casual racism through ignorance. If your board hasn't gone on this same journey, they are now a liability.

And it is now an issue of corporate governance with an expectation to address how you are willing to mitigate that risk.

And it is now an issue of corporate governance with an expectation to address how you are willing to mitigate that risk.

So going back to the original question – is it possible to start the journey and make impactful change, without the support and buy-in of the entire Executive Board?  

Is your commitment to act as a CEO enough?

My answer to this?

No.  It isn’t.

take your best next step

Want to understand how racial discrimination may show up in your organisation?  Take our free Equity and Inclusion Test and receive a personalised report with the results and pointers on where to start.

Would it be helpful to hear from other CEOs who have already begun their journey in leading anti-racism within their organisation? Join over 1,000+ attendees at our Advancing Racial Equity Virtual Conference (23rd September 2021). Tickets are on sale now. 

HR rewired is an advisory firm specialising in anti-racism and racial equity. With a mission to unlock over one million global conversations about race by 2025, we have partnered with organisations such as Vodafone, Totaljobs Group and Duke of Edinburgh Awards to advance anti-racism and racial equity in the workplace. Find out more.

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