Across the United States, a story is being told all too familiar for me: Black people in cities across the country are contracting COVID-19 and dying at rates staggeringly higher than Whites.
The racial/ethnic disparities seen in COVID deaths require an approach, across C-suites and board rooms, tailored to addressing the underlying structural inequities that brought us here.
The virus has hit home for me in a very personal way. My husband was born and raised in two of the hardest-hit cities, New Orleans and Detroit. My mother-in-law, who is from New Orleans, has been with us in Georgia for the past month. Meanwhile, her brother, whom she lives next door to in New Orleans, contracted the virus. He is on the mend but his recovery has been a frightening experience that included multiple hospital stays, blood clotting and near amputation. Like many others, he was initially turned away from the hospital and told he had pneumonia.
My New Orleans relative is not alone. The underlying conditions that put people most at risk for COVID are ones highly common in black communities. And a report released in early April by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation analyzed the underlying health conditions and social and economic factors that contribute to these startling numbers.
Across the country, the statistics are brutal: Black people make up a disproportionate share in 22% of U.S. counties, but comprise more than half of coronavirus cases and nearly 60% of deaths in those counties, according to a national study released in early May.
Van Jones, CNN Host and CEO of the REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice organization, wrote in a recent commentary: “As an African American man in my early 50s who battles high cholesterol, pre-diabetes and hypertension … I am someone whom COVID-19 could easily kill.”
Current corporate DEI efforts are not enough
While the numbers are disturbing, they are a manifestation of much deeper issues around diversity, equity and inclusion. What these stories don’t address is that it is the inequity at the top of our corporate structures that can lead to inequity at the bottom.
Lack of African American leadership in C-suites and boardrooms results in systemic failures. The result: More sickness, more misery, more death for black Americans.
What can corporations do to change this dynamic? Here’s where we start:
- Recognize that diversity without equity and inclusion just doesn’t work. Leadership in the 21st century demands that executives and their organizations move beyond diversity alone to capture the potential that comes from equity and inclusion. If diversity is “the mix,” then equity and inclusion are making the mix work by leveraging the wealth of knowledge, insights, and perspectives in an open, trusting, fair and diverse workplace.
- Challenge existing norms. Today, nearly 95% of CEOs at the world’s largest companies are Caucasian men. If we add a racial and/or ethnic layer on top of this, the numbers are even more staggering. While I’m not suggesting that Caucasian men can’t be excellent CEOs, we need to admit we are far overrepresented with this population of leaders on nationally and globally.
- Embrace the business case for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).Today the research findings make it easer than ever to embrace this reality. In fact, this is why boards and investors are demanding greater diversity at the top because they understand the business case to be made. Companies with ethnically diverse executive teams are 70% more likely to capture new markets than their less-diverse peers. If that isn’t enough, they also generate 38% more in revenue from innovative products and services. (The Black P&L Leader, 2019)
- Actively develop the Black P&L pipeline
Corporations must challenge high potential planning practices to ensure fair representation of diverse populations; to challenge the myth that the talent does not exist; and to support Black P&L leaders for the long haul[HN3] . Once opportunities are created for Black leaders to take on broadening assignments, they must be supported with critical resources to help drive success.
- Hold leaders at every level accountable for demonstrating Inclusive Leadership. What if an inclusive leadership style was a prerequisite for every new board director, every new CEO appointed or every C-suite leader? Imagine what corporate America would be like if every executive was open and aware, actively promoted difference, built a trusting and open culture, influenced effectively, and optimized organizational performance. These are the defining characteristics of inclusive leaders.
- Commit for the long haul. Committing means investment in training and education, and not relenting. In November 2019, Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co., talked at Morehouse University about his company’s Advancing Black Pathways program, with its goal to hire 4,000 Black students over the next five years as interns, apprentices and entry-level analysts. Every other board director, CEO and C-suite leader should be thinking along these same lines.
Yes, the stories continue to fill our news feed, making clear COVID-19’s devastation of Black communities and lives. It’s not just a story of suffering communities, but one of transformational opportunities. Corporate leaders and companies across the country need to heed this wakeup call.
It’s time for them to seize this moment, acknowledge the tragedy of what is playing out in communities nationwide, and focus on organizational change. By using the steps outlined above, corporate leaders are capable to tackling the very structural inequities that have so long existed.
The late Bernard Tyson, who infused inclusion into the culture as CEO of health care giant Kaiser Permanente, would no doubt be leading such efforts were he still alive today.
Tyson once said: “Don’t ask permission to help improve the lives of the people and communities you’ve pledged to serve. Instead, march through the doors of red tape, make bold moves, and usher in access.” Those bold moves need to begin at the top, and they need to happen NOW.