In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Jennifer Brown, an award-winning thought leader globally renowned for her diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Jennifer Brown is also the author of How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive. In the conversation, In the conversation, Jennifer Brown discusses how her experience as an opera singer has helped her become a successful keynote speaker. She talks about how her background in a conservative, white majority area has shaped her views on feminism and LGBTQ rights. She also discusses how her work as an organizational change agent is a perfect fit for her skills and interests. Jennifer Brown goes on to talk about privilege's role in allowing people to awaken and follow their true identities. Jennifer Brown also shares her experiences of being exposed to new ideas in college and coming out as LGBTQ. She discusses how these experiences led her to commit to a life of purpose and mission focused on bringing greater workplace equity. Finally, Jennifer Brown talks about how everyone can play a role in creating cultures of belonging.
-Jennifer Brown discusses her upbringing, her work in the world, and how her experience as an opera singer has informed her work.
-The importance of equity in the workplace and how to become a more inclusive leader
-Jennifer Brown on the need for us to be willing to change
-How to lead in a shifting environment
-The role that storytelling plays in inclusive leadership
-How to use privilege to advocate for change
-The role that the five stages of grief play in the conversations on DEI
Connect with Jennifer Brown:
How to Be an Inclusive Leader, Second Edition: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive on Amazon
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of How to Be an Inclusive Leader, your role in creating Cultures of Belonging where everyone can thrive. And as Jennifer says, instead of us ignoring or denying our differences, we need to acknowledge that we all have identities that impact our experience in the world and in the workplace.
And it's through. That acknowledgement and connection where we can work to build cultures of belonging. I really enjoy this conversation because I believe that belonging is one of the superpowers of the most effective teams and the healthiest organizational cultures. I'm sure you will enjoy the conversation too.
I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. Mahan mahan.com. There's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast Tuesday. Conversations with Magnificent Change Makers from the Greater Washington, DC, DMV region, and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders like Jennifer.
Now here's my conversation with Jennifer.
Jennifer Brown, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
Jennifer Brown: I am so happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Mahan Tavakoli: Really looking forward to talking about how to be an inclusive leader, your role in creating cultures of belonging where everyone thrives.
Before we get to your book though, would love to know a little bit about your upbringing, Jennifer, and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person and leader you've become.
Jennifer Brown: Oh, thank you for that question. I know my parents would say we had everything to do with it. Honestly, they really did in some ways. I was raised very fortunately. I was born into and had the accident of birth into a situation where I was shown so much of the world.
I got to avail myself of all the educational opportunities, travel, lessons, and various things. I was a performing artist, so I was constantly performing and rehearsing and studying whether it was dance and piano and choir and just so many different pieces of the performing arts. And I would ultimately, in my twenties, really pursue a life as a performing artist and specifically as an opera singer.
Looking back, the discipline of it, the show must go on, mentality gave me a ton of resilience and I think consistency because that is the nature, right? Rehearsal performance, rehearsal, performance and at the same time real creativity in the moment.
The ability to just be on stage and make it work. Which is interesting in light of the fact that I've become a keynote and a speaker for a living, because I get all kinds of unexpected moments and being able to really handle them with grace. Turning them into teachable moments and not getting flustered and seeing it through is something I really give credit to the way I was raised.I give the credit absolutely to that.
But I would also say I grew up in a place that was extremely pretty conservative. And a very white majority. And I think I had my awakenings in college around my own feminism and my own coming out as lgbtq. All of that happened in my early twenties and began to look more critically at what had been missing from my life and what I hadn't been exposed to and how I deeply wanted equality and change for myself as I began to understand my own story, but then also taking that on in general for what would become my work in the world.
So when I transitioned out of singing, because I got vocal surgery, I had to reinvent, and what I reinvented into was this study of organizations and how to be a change agent for systems. And that would just become this perfect fit because I could perform, I can, bring my passion for change and equity, and I could also explore my own origin, story of privilege, but also the other pieces of me that didn't feel heard, there was no place for when I was growing up and in the world, and there was no safety for. It all has come together beautifully, but of course, hindsight is 2020. I did not feel like that at many points.
Mahan Tavakoli: Jennifer what a beautiful example of anti fragility in that you were an aspiring opera singer who had the most devastating thing that could happen to someone, happen to you with respect to the vocal surgery and the impact that had on changing the trajectory of your life. But you became better as a result of that, being able to give back to the world in a beautiful way and you are right when we look at it in past tense, it feels good. I'm sure at that moment it didn't feel that great.
Jennifer Brown: Definitely not .
Mahan Tavakoli: Jennifer, before we can have an impact on other people, we have to have that awakening ourselves. You talked about some of that awakening you had in college.
What was that experience like for you?
Jennifer Brown: I don't get to talk about it that much. And so, I appreciate the question. When I took a women's studies class in I think sophomore year and just felt like my world had been turned upside down. It was one of those 180 degree turns because I'd been shown a different way of looking at the way I had been raised.
The way we as women are socialized and I should say my pronouns are she, her, so I'm a cisgender woman, but still, wrestling with that identity, coming to understand the power structure and the power dynamics and gender issues and the role that had been laid out for me.
And choosing then to go another direction was a very clear call to action for me. I felt it strongly and I never went back. I never looked back and I began to question all the things that had been laid out for me and choices and expectations and assumptions, and began to find my agency and my voice at that point to say if I could architect my life, what would it look like?
What will be important to me? How will I not rely on these norms, but also on other people of various genders, to be a part of that, and then I think about coming out as lgbtq, which I did in my senior year of college, so shortly thereafter, also felt like to me, an honoring of my authenticity, a commitment to my path and my choice to walk through that door and follow through that follow my heart and what it wanted.
And then seeking in my twenties, certainly music, but also I had a series of roles in non-profits. I was all about mission and purpose and making the world a better place because I had been awakened. I think it took many years to go back and understand the role that privilege played throughout all that. The fact that I was in college, the fact that I could be exposed to these things and have my awakening, the fact that I could come out and because of my other identities that protect me, not be in danger in the same way and not be even discriminated against in the same way.
But that would take the maturity that would happen in the subsequent years. I did not have any clue about that at the time and this was a really long time ago. Nobody was talking, not a lot of people were talking about this. Maybe they were, but I wasn't exposed to that. We just didn't have the language back then to have all of this context, and I'm so grateful that now we do. I think that just reset my direction in life following my true identities.
Then over the years I would become more bold with those identities. But initially, I was certainly very afraid. Like all of us are, and many of us still are, who are closeted in our lives, in our workplaces, with our employers, with our colleagues, with our clients, it's a long process and I think it's honestly why I started my own company, because the freedom you need to really bring all of who you are so that you could do what you need to do in the world, I felt it very confining to be an employee and be able to do that, and that felt extremely important to me.
It would turn out, as we've seen it, would be very important, because I had so much bigger things to say than I was afforded in these rigid structures. My performance career, very rigid structure. so rigid that I was typecast all the time as the 18 year old sister. I was typecast based on my physical appearance and it was certainly not fulfilling roles, I'll just say that. Not the meaty ones that you hope to get, but I also was terrified that if I were out and I tried to have a career as a singer, I would be not cast.
There was a lot of fear around all of us at the time around what if they know it's just the hiding is intense. The hiding continued through my corporate roles and into owning my own business. But casting all that off and finding my community of LGBTQ people. People who are trying to better the workplace, better employers, better their environments, always gravitating to people who are standing up and pushing on the systems taught me so much and I still carry all of that with me. I still know a lot of those folks from 20 years ago who are early in the movement for workplace equality.
And I never feel alone because I know that there's an even bigger group of people pushing to create change. So yeah, it was a lot, but it started in college and isn't it amazing how we can just have these moments of truth and never be the same again?
Mahan Tavakoli: You used your. Of truth, Jennifer, to make a difference through the company, you started through much of the contents that you have been writing and sharing on your own podcast. So you are a leader in this space. One of the things I appreciate in your book is that you mentioned.
Your role in creating cultures of belonging, meaning every one of us can play a role and you open a book with James Baldwin, quote, not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it's faced.
Jennifer Brown: It's good, right?
Mahan Tavakoli: I love it because we need to face up to some of the equity issues we have that need to be addressed on an ongoing basis. So, with respect to that Jennifer, there has been more of an awakening over the past couple of years around these issues. At the same time, there are people who are building antibodies to any conversation around equity. They say, we go to the talks, don't say anything and just not, because if we say anything, We are going to be the ones that are ostracized.
So my question to you is, how can we bring more people along, not just the people who have already bought into the importance and the need for greater equity in our society?
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. That is where the work is, not the choir, as we say. But it's the others who do remain quiet these days more than ever or I might argue the opposite. I think sometimes people are more emboldened now to say what they've been thinking, and it hasn't been acceptable to say.
So it really depends on the environment you find yourself in. I think the challenge comes to us, the teachers, to meet people where they are and invite the evolution that we know is possible but invite it in a way that persuades and coaxes and compels and inspires and shines a light.
One of my friends describes that there's two kinds of change makers. There's those that work with heat and there's those that work with light. I work with light. It's just my modality and it's my energy and it's my belief about how change happens.
It's not the only way, but the light is the invitation to take that hard look at ourselves that you were just asking about. Face that in ourselves, nothing that is not faced can be changed facing how I was raised? What do I believe? Is it true? Is it holding me back? Is it holding others back? Is it preventing me from being more effective, or reaching my own potential as a leader?
So your role in creating cultures of belonging was very intentional because I felt I wanted to write the book for people who were not feeling they understood their role. And we absolutely believe they don't have a role. I wanted to invite that in to say, actually you do, but it doesn't need to be negative, scary, burdensome. Cause fear and trepidation or even necessarily shame which I think is, an important emotion but it has a particular role in change but alongside all these other things, inviting that interaction with folks really listening and really understanding where the source of resistance is really critical information from which we can jump off and provide whatever's needed based on where someone may be stuck.
And it could be stuck because of values, beliefs, religion experience, a lack of exposure. It could be very innocuous things. It doesn't always come from a place of, I, I hate you in everything you're saying at all. It's more that it has never been presented in such a way perhaps that resonates and that really connects the dots or that addresses that person's questions and doubts and skepticism.
I think that is incumbent on us as teachers and facilitators of the learning to really tune into that and you talk about anti fragility. When you have to remove your ego, your triggers as a teacher and just put that to the side and just be, listen and support, that is really, very difficult to do. I think that is what we all have to get good at. I actually think it's beautiful that we get to develop our ability to do that because in my own personal relationship, that's very helpful to do, we get into trouble when our ego and our emotions take over and I think this work calls on us to be the eye of the storm and really hold this peaceful space and this gracious space and invite others into that space and kind of protect it while another human is feeling seen and heard and, acknowledged for where they are.
Because somebody has done that for all of us. I always think about that space has been made for me in the past, and I have been deeply appreciative of it. What a gift. It is incumbent on us to do that. So I always encourage people I mentor, pay attention to the way what you believe about change, like what do you believe?
How do you think people change? What's your philosophy of change and how has that been for you? What has worked for you? We'll each answer that question differently, and I think that's also the beauty of this field is we're the heat and the light. There's so much variety in the messengers here.
Some people may hear from me, some people may hear from you, they might hear it differently. They might believe you and not me. It's fine. Like I don't have to feed a line that cracks the code as long as the code is. It's just a very inclusive way also to approach change as a team effort and knowing, we each kind of unlock things in our own way and with different learners and it's hard to predict, but I think you can plan for it. You can be strategic about it. And why we have a lot of wonderful consultants on my team who identify in so many different ways and who are a combination of the heat and the light. Tackle these things in their way,
Mahan Tavakoli: I love the way you put it, Jennifer. It requires moving beyond our egos and allowing space for these conversations. Now, one of the challenges that I find with many of the people that I interact with is that they don't engage in conversations because they say, I'm willing to engage with conversations with people whose values are similar but their values are different. And you can take them to any side of the conversation so it's not just one side to another.
How can we engage and make space moving beyond that ego showing this sincere curiosity and interest to engage in conversations? We believe that the values are different.
Jennifer Brown: That is a big challenge in workplaces, for example, where the company has made a commitment, which is often the kind of clients I work with. There's a commitment that's been stated that's been publicized, and then what they're trying to do is align everyone. In a certain direction to support that commitment.
Sometimes even to your point, values statements, we believe in this, we believe in that, et cetera. We get into trouble though when we don't differentiate between personal values, company values, and then also behaviors. I think that values can be held. But I do think when we are in, we, when we are enacting leadership in a certain context where we are hired to, support the values of an organization, our personal values are never unimportant, certainly but to me, they can be what they are.
However, when we're leading in a context and in an environment, there's a commitment. We have these goals. Demographically we want our workforce to look like the world that we serve. So companies get it and they're pushing that direction because they see the future and they're trying to line it up and they're, there's a lot of skirmishes going on in that. Sometimes I have to say to leaders, you have a job to do as a leader, and inclusive leadership is part of your responsibility and maybe accountability depending on the company, and you will be measured according to your skill.
In this, and frankly, I almost don't care what somebody's personally held values are because in the workplace, what we need to encourage and exhibit are the inclusive behaviors. So to me, one is about skilled leadership. It's about how do I get the best out of the most diverse group of people so that we can create together and we can innovate and we can an.
And how can I do that well? Like how do I orchestrate that? To me, that's a skill I would, I love to have. You also believe that it's the right answer. Absolutely. But I'm not sure it's required. And if you're on a journey, say you're on a journey with your own religion, say vis-a-vis LGBTQ inclusion. You believe in something and maybe you're questioning what you've always been taught, maybe not, but you work in an organization that values LGBTQ people.
And their inclusion when you step into leadership, you need to see yourself differently in the system and your goal is different. What you need to deliver on is different, and you can opt outta that job if it becomes too uncomfortable and it becomes too much of a clash between the organizations.
Goals, values, targets, mission, vision, how they're holding you accountable and your own personal beliefs then you can make a choice to say, I'm uncomfortable in this system. And that's totally fine, but I hope most folks get that distinction and they're willing to practice inclusive leadership as a practice. Maybe personally they're coming.
I know plenty of people I think that would call themselves inclusive leaders that still struggle with understanding different gender identities. Maybe they have some biases around that. Maybe they don't agree that it's important to share our pronouns, but.
To me, those people often can and will pivot change and grow through exposure, support and encouragement. I've seen that happen. I know that it can happen. I just try to, Parse this out and say, if you work for yourself and you have total autonomy from the world maybe you don't need to pay attention to this, but I might even argue if you're an entrepreneur and you're building a company and you have certain beliefs and values, I don't know if you're going to strike a chord that you wanna strike to attract and retain people, to grow your team, to grow your customers.
If you, at the very least, you may not believe it in your heart, but if you're, in the very least, you have not thought about your business proposition through that lens because it's gonna hurt, it will probably hurt your business given the changes that are going on in the world. If you can run your business without taking that into account, fine.
Go for it, . But normally I'm brought in to say, Hey, the world is changing. Let's get on even the caboose of the train. Let's like, let's just get on, and you may not have an answer and you may disagree with a lot of this stuff, but just start listening and opening up the aperture and saying, what could be possible if I take this on board, whether I agree or disagree with it.
To me, agree, disagree is not terribly helpful. But I think we all get stuck in that piece rather than looking at this as a response to change around us.
Mahan Tavakoli: I appreciate the fact that you mentioned it's a practice and. Practice is exhibited in behaviors. It gets us out of the attempt at reading minds' intentions and values, and looking at the practice. As you said, we are all on a journey of growth in this practice. Allowing the opportunity for others to come along as long as the behaviors align with what the organization and team wants.
We don't necessarily need to be guessing about people's perceptions of their values or intentions.
Jennifer Brown: I know that's a weird way to describe it, but I do think maybe our personal beliefs, because of how we were raised, we know we're lagging behind and we may have been taught certain things that are very sacred to us. But I do believe though, to be relevant, to continue to thrive.
We're all going to be challenged no matter what age we are, generation identity, and some of us actually who maybe are white and male and cisgender and have grown up in a world that has really catered to us. We are being challenged. We are being challenged with change and in many ways, some of us, because of this identity, we are behind in our understanding and have to grapple more.
This change that's upon us. I don't think we all have a choice. We can deny that change is happening. I don't think that's very helpful as a strategy. So I always say, hey, it's changing. And the question to me is whether anybody who's worth it.
Their salt as a leader changes with the times and ideally ahead of the times. Ideally, the best leaders we know are asking What's next? After what's next? Where will we be? Where will I need to be? In 2, 3, 5 years, how will I need to lead? What will I need to know to do that I don't know how to do today?
What will I need to feel comfortable doing and confident doing five years from now? For example, you may have a global team. A global, multiracial, multicultural multi nationality team, multi-generations. And I want each leader I speak to to be successful when that time comes.
And I don't want anyone to be behind. So my encouragement then is to say, let's begin to get prepared. Let's begin to invest in this so that the muscle is ready, we are like right on the starting line when these challenges happen and we don't mess around and dither and waste time because we thought this day would never come.
The day is coming, the day has already come. , and some leaders are like, oh yeah, it's happening. I can tell you, I can see them rolling their eyes. And anytime I bring up younger generation talent, I get all kinds of interesting reactions, to say. This isn't another world like I don't understand how to lead anymore.
I don't even know how to be because how I was trained to do this that I do is no longer working. And that's a wonderful opportunity and invitation to say what's missing from your toolkit and how can we invest in that?
Mahan Tavakoli: That's a wonderful place for people to be in, in your inclusive leader continuum. That's the awareness space, which is outstanding. But before that, it's the. Unaware in the continuum. We start out with the unaware, and there's a 13th century Persian poet Jennifer, who talks about those who are unaware and unaware of being unaware or don't know that they don't know how their ignorance will last until oblivion.
The main point being a lot of us are. We are unaware. So what are ways for us to at least move out of that unaware and recognize the need of becoming an inclusive leader?
Jennifer Brown: It's so good. It reminds me, this model probably too. It's the unconscious incompetence model. So unaware is unconscious incompetence. I don't know what I don't know. And then I'm aware, the next phase is now I know what I don't know. So that's called conscious incompetence, which is maybe even more uncomfortable. Right?
Mahan Tavakoli: More scary when you know you don't know it. A lot of times. I wish I could go back to being unaware.
Jennifer Brown: Totally. Totally. I can relate. I can relate. I know. I feel you so much. I wanna go back to sleep, right? Don't we all? . Coddled in a way, by our own kind of comfort, and understanding of the world. So how do we see ourselves in the unaware, I try to make the point in aware.
There's certain areas to investigate as we come out of ignorance, like assuming we all have bias, if you're human, you're biased. That's a fact. And I'm not pointing a finger and saying You're a bad person because you're biased, but just. The framing of that to say it's quite unquote normal.
Don't love that word. But if uninvestigated it is normal, it is something we all have. It is something we are often unconscious too. Although sometimes it is conscious bias, of course. But often it's unconscious, meaning it's unintended, but it's not examined. So I think that the examined life, the examined self, the examined environment around us like often I'll say, If you stepped outside of the world that you function in, do you look at it and say, wow, there are certain things that work for me.
There are certain things that keep me safe in this system. There are certain rules that I understand, like unwritten rules. And maybe I also let myself off the hook and say why do I need to change this world? It works for me. . And that is a choice. This kind of comes down to an existential question of, do you believe we're going forward together, or are we going forward alone? That beautiful African proverb, you wanna go further, go together. If you wanna go fast, go alone. It's tempting, I think, to be extremely individualistic. And that's our culture, isn't it? We're such an individualistic sort of cowboy cow, personal society where we are rugged individualists.
That was the founding of this country in the US at least. Having that collective. Responsibility, that consciousness, that awareness of what somebody else may be experiencing in the exact same system. Sometimes that awakens empathy. Sometimes it awakens action. Sometimes it falls on ears that don't hear it.
Again, it comes back to how you want to change, how you want to evolve, what you want your legacy to be. Sometimes it's helpful to speak to people. Whether they care about and think about how they're leaving things better than they found it. Sometimes the pushback and unawareness is I didn't get this.
That wasn't what it was like for me, and why do I need to change? Or you're asking me to change too fast. I get that a lot. A lot. Just the other week, a senior. Said Jennifer, where does it end? First I have to do this? Then I have to do this. Then I have to understand all of these experiences and use different language, and I'm like, and you've done hard things,
You're clearly a senior leader and you're telling me this is too much for you. Like you really can't take it on. Sounds more like you won. . Really. Okay, so that's, that might be where you are today. I would invite you to reflect on that and as a leader, it's really very harmful to have that attitude because everybody is watching others to see, is this possible?
What does it look like in practice? Is there a role model I can follow who looks like I do who is on their journey and making that journey visible? This is why I invest so much in leaders because I know so many eyes are on them. So many people are looking to see, is somebody willing to talk about their journey out of unaware to aware?
And how brave are they? Sharing how the sausage is made, where they're coming from, what do they disagree with, what they do not understand? What are they wrestling and grappling with, if we could create enough space to hear, see and witness people in their evolution, it would make it okay for a lot of us to talk about our evolution and.
We would all need to band together to not shame and blame for having the questions we have not been criticized for. Asking these questions and wondering or having doubts but instead being met with listening, kindness, space holding and partnership, doing this learning and relationship to others.
So all that I've just outlined is my vision for how we awaken leaders, but it's hard. You wanna give up so many times. You wanna go back to safety, you wanna get out of the heat, you also want assurances somehow that everything I do is going to go well.
And one of the most important messages in my to perfectionism is not even within the realm of the possible , I hate to tell you, I know we wanna pat ourselves in the back. We wanna be recognized. We wanna say, oh, I checked that off my night in the box. I've achieved this.
Look at me. None of this work works that way. And it also makes it really counterintuitive, given the way we've been rewarded in the past and incentivized throughout our careers, to be able to. Complete the task, to move on, to get the recognition. And this is more of a journey.
You have to settle into and develop the resilience to bounce back the flexibility and the agility, the lack of fragility, the anti fragility to receive learning and come back to experiment. Try , not succeed and look at that as bread crumbs along our journey so that we can make ourselves better.
Unconscious incompetence can feel like it's safe, but honestly it's actually risky to stay there. I also love to be able to make the point when leaders push back and say, this is too much risk for me. I can't take the risk of being wrong or having it not go well or being in such a visible position that I don't have the answers.
And I say, but what is the risk of not doing this? What is the risk of staying in this place and leading in the exact same way you've always led, but in a completely shifted environment. Let's talk about that risk. And as a practitioner you've now heard them so many times that you're ready and you can almost read people's minds and understand where they're stuck. But at the end of the day, I hope empathy is awakened. How can you learn about how certain people are not seen and heard and don't have equity in our system?
And that real question should be, now what can I do about it? If I can get folks to go there, then we're having much more. Interesting conversation to me, which is, okay, so now that we know that's true, we're in conscious incompetence, and then we wanna move to conscious competence, which is the third stage, which is active of the continuum.
And that conscious competence is, I'm gonna try, I'm gonna learn, I'm gonna jump in, I'm going to begin to get involved. I'm gonna use my voice, but it's super awkward. I don't know how it's gonna go and I have to just be in it anyway. To me that's bravery, that's courage, that's heart centered leadership.
That's all the things we think of. When we think of good leaders in our lives, those are the people that we cherish. So inclusive leadership is good leadership. This is not something that's separate and apart from some of the core tenets of the leaders we always all wanted to work with and.
Mahan Tavakoli: It is a big part of that great leadership. You talk about Jennifer, as you mentioned, it's the. Of that empathy in us, that also helps increase some of that awareness. One of the points that you mentioned is that this is not necessarily for one subgroup or another. It is for. All of us to increase our awareness.
None of us have mastered it. So having that understanding by itself, makes the conversation more accessible to more people when one group or another feels that it is for them. To become more aware, that's when they put up their guards and defend the unaware even more. So it is for all of us, it is for Jennifer, it's for Mahan, for every one of us.
To have the humility you talk about, to have that awareness. As that first part. Now the other point you mentioned, which is really important, you say, the ability and choice to remain on the sidelines is a privilege available to some, not to all. So we also need to recognize that yes, we could remain silent.
On the sidelines, but that is a privilege. We should be aware of that fact. So in order to be more active, you mentioned leaning into vulnerability.
You also talk about the power of storytelling. Would love to get your thoughts on the role storytelling can play in us taking a more active role in becoming inclusive leaders.
Jennifer Brown: That is often the most uncomfortable part. Many leaders say, Jennifer, I don't have a story. They'll say I'm not diverse. And I'll say, hold on let's define that word. And there's not diverse people. And not diverse people. We have been talking about it this way for a long time, people can be forgiven, for not seeing themselves in this.
And that's one of the things that needs to change.
Mahan Tavakoli: That's exactly the point, Jennifer. That's why some of those previous conversations had alienated some people to say, this is not for me.
Jennifer Brown: Exactly. So storytelling to your question. Some leaders will say I talk about this all the time. I do that, and I say where do you get those talking points from somebody else? Are you just regurgitating what you're supposed to say?
The storytelling makes it real, personal, and vulnerable. It requires us to look into how we were raised, our biases, but also. Our own, perhaps even invisible diversity story, even invisible to ourselves, it's incredible to me the number of people who over the last couple of years have come to terms with their mental health.
They've come to terms with their own neurodiversity, not having even been diagnosed or had a word or a term for that. Let alone, their children, their family members. I think we've all been diving into our own stories. Of adversity and understanding those more and more in the context of things that have been overcome, ways that we haven't been insiders in the system but a lot of that isn't apparent from our skin color or our gender presentation.
A lot of that we've kept away in the background but leaders struggle with storytelling because they say, okay, Jennifer, that's fine. So we all have a diversity story, but if I share mine, a, it's super uncomfortable, of course, but b, it's not anywhere near as severe as what other people's diversity dimensions have caused in their.
And my friend Kenji, so I love him. He says we can't go down the pain Olympics road and get stuck in my story doesn't matter. My identity doesn't matter. It doesn't have anything to do with how I lead and how I show up and how I understand this. That's never true.
It matters and it not only matters for us to put the pieces of ourselves together so that we can understand where we came from, what informs who we are, what we've overcome, what we're proud of, how we identify, but it also is so critical to story telling. If we are ready to, because it shines a light for others to feel less alone.
You know that leader who has dyslexia, that leader who never finished college, that leader who lost a child to suicide, that leader who is a single parent or caregiving and experienced the pandemic in a very different way. Or has awakened to what's happening in the world through a loved one or a team member who came out as trans and their learning curve as they supported this individual.
There's so many opportunities to tell, and even storytelling about privilege is really powerful. I've started doing that and trying to be a role model for some of these leaders who think they don't have a diversity story. When you don't have a diversity story, to me, that means there's a whole lot of privilege there.
and that's so rich in terms of a, something to be tapped to begin to verbalize that, that can be extremely terrifying for people. So I've been doing it and experimenting with mine and saying I'm LGBTQ and I'm, cisgender female, and those identities have caused me to have to really find my place and struggle to have my place.
but I'm so proud of them. I would never trade the experience for anything. It has given me my own story to use. But I also was raised in these certain ways that have allowed me to be an insider. And every chance I get, I will talk about how I enact my insider role. When do I feel it, when do I know it's there?
When do I understand the power that I have that other people may not? And it's not about oh, I deserve this. I worked hard for this, whatever. It doesn't go down the road of I'm a bad person because I grew up in a certain way. What I wanna talk about is how are you using what you've been given to create more equity around you?
So once we wake up to the gap to the disparity, we begin to study, we begin to understand it, and we begin to activate it. What are we utilizing as our tools? And I think it's so important to mentor, to sponsor, to lift up, to make space for, to champion, to advocate for more representation.
And if you are an insider in any of those systems, for whatever reason, It's incumbent on us because sometimes you're the only one in the room that is clued in enough to say, time out. Have we looked at who's around this table? Have we looked at our slate of candidates? Have we looked at our customer demographic and how it's changing and how we're falling behind?
Sometimes some of us are not in that room. So if we get in that room and we can actually advocate, like that's the opportunity. None of what I just said should make anybody feel like they're a bad person. In fact, these are assets that are completely accessible to us, right this moment.
This is not something that requires extra work. It may require some strategic planning to sit down with yourself and say, if I understand privilege with a small p as something we all have access to in different ways, what am I doing today, tomorrow, every week, every month to make more space to.
Elevate to address, to challenge. How am I doing that? Everyone has a diverse story. Those stories are in us. They're our loved ones. They can be about privilege, they can be about what's easier for us in this world. And when we begin to talk about that, it literally lets the air out of the balloon in the room. It's just this beautiful moment where people say, oh, okay, so now I'm learning about
my own position in the system and what's needed of me, and I begin to see it. You have to see it to be it. We all always say that, but we say that in terms of those of us who are underrepresented. But you also have to see it to be it, to see leadership. And leaders who know what to do with what they have access to.
That is an incredibly powerful example that we don't see enough of, and we don't hear enough spoken about more openly. And a lot of leaders don't wanna brag about it. They don't want to take up space and talk about things like this. But we always have to balance when we step in and when we step back and when we step to the side.
It just depends, there's no one answer. What I wanna see is knowing and okay, where am I needed here?
Mahan Tavakoli: That storytelling, Is critical, whether it is in getting other people to share their stories or the leaders having the authenticity to share theirs in order to then be able to become true advocates. As you quote Frederick Douglas toward the end of your book, if there is no struggle, there is no progress, this is going to be a struggle.
So in addition to your book, Jennifer, we'd love to know, are there any other leadership practices or resources you typically find yourself recommending to leaders as they want to learn to become more inclusive leaders?
Jennifer Brown: Thank you for asking. There is, for example, the Harvard Implicit Association test. A H I A T is a very famous tool that's free online and it will give you some pretty shocking information about how biased or not you may think you are. Again, to your point, it's challenging.
It's really challenging to look at ourselves in these contexts, but so important to open our eyes. Some other authors. I love their work and I think it's so relevant to inclusive leadership. Carol Dweck's work on. Growth mindset. Growth mindset is failing forward.
It's literally pushing forward when you don't know how it's gonna go, you don't know the outcome and. Nevertheless, it's that resilience and flexibility. I love the conscious and competence model. Look it up. It's very famous.
I also think the five stages of grief are really interesting because, We may experience this as a grieving process, that is defensiveness, anger, and denial. Every time I look at that model, I think, oh my goodness, that's decade work, it's all just there and it's decades old.
It's a very famous structure for a reason because we are losing something perhaps, and perhaps what we lose is our old sense of self. Perhaps it's an old sense of. Security, perhaps it's an old comfort, but I do think it's a beautiful challenge for growth. DEI is such a laboratory for our own evolution, just in general, it expands our hearts.
It stretches our minds. It keeps us young. I'm in a certain generation where I do think sometimes we believe that we're set. I'm baking. As a human, I'm gonna be the leader I'm gonna be. But we are living so much longer now and we have so much wisdom to contribute but we have to work a bit harder to connect back into the world and how it's changing but that keeps us so sharp and so fresh.
It's not about having the answers, it's about asking the powerful question. Please go forward with that. Know that you do not have to have the answers. You don't have to be perfect at all. Read Brene Brown, that's another resource around her vulnerability. Research as being so compelling in terms of what people follow, what people resonate with is not what we think.
And a lot of us have to awaken to that and lean into that, and it's going to be, Unfamiliar and foreign, but it is transformative.
Mahan Tavakoli: I appreciate the recommendations most, especially the growth mindset. Carol Dweck’s, that failing forward is a big part of our own journeys, whether in becoming more inclusive leaders or other aspects of life, would love to know where the audience can find out more about you, your consulting, your book, where can the audience find out more about De Jennifer?
Jennifer Brown: Thank you. This has been so lovely. Aha. Thank you for having me. I have now four books , you can read about those on Amazon or other independent bookstores that you may patronize. Then the podcast is called The Will to Change. So I'm in the. Fourth year now, and hundreds of guests later, and we're having a blast over there.
And in all the socials, I'm very active. So LinkedIn communities, Facebook, Jennifer Brown Consulting is the name of my company. Jennifer Brown speaks on Instagram. And Jennifer Brown on Twitter. I did get that handle many moons ago. Somehow I figured that out. I don't know how still to this day, but please, I'd encourage everybody to get on our mailing list, become involved in our community, in our calls, in our educational series and our thought leadership.
Please, join. Us because it's full of practitioners aspiring practitioners, people who may not want to do this for their job, but really want to incorporate this into whatever we're building, whether it's our consulting practice or we're entrepreneurs or educators. Lots of parents love our stuff.
Lots of scientists love our stuff. Please just. And find me wherever you connect in with your own resources as you learn, and I'm really happy to meet each and every one of you.
Mahan Tavakoli: I appreciate the great work that you have done in this space, Jennifer, and your book, How to Be An Inclusive Leader, your role in Creating Cultures of Belonging, where everyone thrives. And my challenge to everyone listening is, Lead change and be a force for good in your communities and your organization and your team.
But I would underline your role. So focus first and foremost on yourselves as I need to focus first and foremost. On myself. We each are on a journey and we can move ourselves along first before we try to move others along. Really appreciate you in this conversation. Jennifer Brown.
Jennifer Brown: Thank you so much for having me.