The Air Up There: Tiptoeing Through the Halls of Power

Prologue – Choose

I have been blessed with profound opportunities in my life. I have been an executive at a Wall Street bank, a Diversity & Leadership Development Consultant, and a TV writer. I have seen the view from the top of the food chain, and while attractive from afar, things look different… oh, so very different, from up close.

My generation was the first to be born in the United States. In a painful attempt at assimilation, my parents unconsciously chose not to teach me Spanish. They wanted to spare me the tribulations of overcoming an accent in America.

It worked. Many times, when meeting me in person, people are shocked that I’m Latino, and my verbal neutrality has opened many doors for me. The price, on the other hand, has been far too great. Language is primary for Latinos, the key social glue that binds us together. Without it, I am isolated, different, one of THEM. As such, when Latinos speak to me in Spanish and I stumble out an accent-free reply, I am viewed with a combination of suspicion and disdain.

Identity has been an ongoing struggle for me across many group memberships. I grew up in Chicago, I consider myself to be an American, but have been viewed by Whites as my island is viewed – “sorta, kinda” part of America, but not really.

Another group membership I have struggled with is class. My class-identity first came to a head in grade-school, when my inner-city public school chose to initiate a pilot “gifted” program. The local minority kids watched in non-plussed awe as hordes of White kids from the ‘burbs where bussed in to a gleaming wonderland of new, shimmering classrooms filled with the latest textbooks and equipment. A few of the local minority kids, including me, were chosen to join the “gifted program” and I got my first taste in class dynamics.

The gifted kids wanted for nothing.  We got the best teachers, equipment, textbooks, (even a class computer years before anybody else in the school got one) and concierge service from school administrators. The “other kids” were left with our scraps and to the mercy of the local gangbangers – fading into the dust of the streets as our standardized test scores skyrocketed. We were selected to meet with local politicians, artists, and musicians. I quickly lost my old minority friends, who resented me once I “sold them out” for the White kids. I was one of the chosen ones, and my shine left them in the shadows.


The Only

There’s a steep price to pay when you’re “The Only.” In business school, I was the only Puerto Rican in a class of hundreds. On Wall Street, I was the only Latino in my division. In Hollywood, in four of the five Diversity Programs I was selected for, I was the only Latino. When you’re “The Only,” pressure magnifies exponentially as you feel, and are seen by others, as representing your whole group.

Wall Street beckoned me – it was the ultimate fulfillment of my “golden child” status, and I thought the money and power would make me happy – the American dream…right? But the money began to feel like a bribe to me, the price for my integrity.

On Wall Street, the price I paid for being an outsider trying desperately to fit in was a piece of my soul – the bits of my being I was forced to sacrifice by the dominant group. Group-level race issues are immediately and ruthlessly driven to the individual-level – making minorities who leave oversensitive, lazy, or not smart enough. Those that remain must endure group-level racial comments about “urban” people or those damn illegals. Somehow, we’re expected to nod along with these comments – given that we’re seen as exceptions, as different from our “problem” group memberships. I cannot tell you how many times I dreamed about snapping back when asked for the millionth time about those damned illegals – “I don’t know about being illegal. I’m Puerto Rican. I have my magical blue passport.”

But I played the game and auctioned off my integrity for the big promotion. I told myself that I would change things after I got my big break. I’d no longer smile through my clenched jaw. I’d make things better for members of other outsider groups because I knew what it was like to be marginalized because of what I looked like, not who I was. I rarely saw superiors or peers who looked like me so I often found it difficult to feel that I had a personal stake in the organization. Why should I believe that I could someday be on the other side of the table? But once again, I justified my efforts by telling myself that I could soon change things.

And I did get the big promotion. After the initial euphoria, I realized that I had not reached nirvana. Living with two faces became unbearable and my mask started to crack. I could feel my moral compass slipping. A stark choice emerged: Give up my true identity, which I was burying anyway, or continue to lose myself but cushion the blow with a mountain of money.

I couldn’t change things from the top because I had stripped myself of my morals to get there. How can you tell others that they’ll get a fair shake when you know it’s a lie? I wavered between turning my back on the city of gold or just keep swallowing my pain to pay back the staggering debt I had incurred in business school to buy my membership into the upper crust.

It was too late. I couldn’t live with who I’d become anymore. One month later… I was gone.

The impact of race in the upper echelons of Wall Street was often subtle. At the individual level, my fellow analysts and I were superficially equal. We all interacted with our peers and superiors and had the same roles and responsibilities. But at the group level, stark differences quickly emerged. It became apparent to the few minority analysts that while the formal playing field was level, real power was informal. Those who had access to mentors and to crucial “stretch assignments” were quickly promoted. Informal power determined who got access to the hidden rules and norms of an organization, the ways “Things really work around here”

Race, in and of itself, didn’t seem to be the conscious variable when it came to advancement. Most of the bosses seemed more interested in “Folks like us” – they wanted to be sure that new additions would be comfortable to be around, would fit within the culture. The issue, in reality, was intimacy. We worked together for long hours on The Street, and camaraderie, shared comfort, and common ground were crucial to success.

However, race was used as a proxy for comfort. People who grew up in the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, and shared similar life experiences etc. were obviously “Folks like us” and could be trusted to fit in. Those that didn’t may be eminently qualified to do the job, but they certainly weren’t like us. This is one reason stereotypes are so powerful in American society – functioning as shorthand to determining “folks like us” and demonizing difference. Stereotypes never survive contact, as people often discover their human connection. But such contact doesn’t occur often enough – otherwise these stereotypes would cease to exist. Their continued presence is a sad testament to our American brand of isolation. Those who are not “Folks like us” are the nefarious THEM and must be stopped before we “lose our country.”

As a hetero male on Wall Street, I was on the dominant side of this equation as gay peers were isolated and ostracized. I kept telling myself – I can do more good from the top. I’ll change things when I get my big break. Fear of losing my hetero card and greed kept me quiet despite what my inner Jiminy Cricket kept telling me – “This is wrong. Do something.”

The problem with being a martyr is that martyrs die. While I want things to be better for members of outsider groups, I will not kill myself to get there. I have a family I want to raise, two boys who need me. I must balance fighting for their future while ensuring I have one of my own. There’s a reason why minorities as a group die so young compared to whites – these emotional wounds are cumulative and physically devastating.

Minority pioneers are fulfilling these martyr roles and sacrificing themselves to create spots at the top. Successful activists of the future must build a critical mass at the top of the food chain. When outsiders become insiders, stereotypes die, institutional biases and discrimination retreat and the real bastion of dominant groups, informal power, becomes visible and accessible to others.

Power is the future of diversity. Until power issues are addressed, the rest is merely window dressing.


Affirmative Action Babies

A famous Hollywood Showrunner once said to a group of aspiring writers, including several women:

Yeah, so sometimes you just gotta gangbang a script to get it to the network on time. Wait… so, okay. I can see from your face where some of you are going with this. Gangbanging meaning rape and stuff. But you know what… whatever. That’s what it’s like in a writing room, you know. You need to be able to say stuff without worrying about the polite police. Get over it.

In terms of outright hostility towards women and minorities, Wall Street can’t hold a candle to Hollywood. The “Boys Club” of Hollywood writing rooms remains fossilized from the 1960’s. And given the fierce competition for ever-dwindling jobs, will likely stay that way.

A key barrier for minorities in the halls of power is Affirmative Action bias. In Hollywood, Diverse TV writers often get their break through network Diversity programs, where networks groom new talent and then pay for a staff writing position on their shows. These programs exist to help counteract “Folks like Us” bias. And while they are one of the only ways to get a foot in the door, such slots come with a scarlet letter “D” for “Diversity.” Peers and bosses often express reservations about your qualifications, attributing your presence solely to affirmative action or quotas. Such marginalization makes it profoundly difficult to be seen on your merits and creates a hostile work environment. Advancement seems like a fantasy. Survival takes over.


A Line In The Sand

A Senior Executive of a Fortune 500 company at the start of an all-day Diversity training session said to a room of diverse peers and subordinates, “This is ridiculous. This Diversity stuff should be left for colleges to fret over. This is supposed to be wok. We all have jobs to do—why are we wasting a day talking about this here?”

I’ve heard many variations of this argument during my time consulting and facilitating to large corporations, and every time I hear it, I quickly move to engage the questioner.

I start by asking a simple question “if not at work, then where?”

I continue by relaying a fundamental reality – that we exist in a world where we can live, shop, and socialize in places filled with people who look just like us and talk just like us. We can watch TV news and read magazines brimming with people who think just like we do. Work is often the only place people have to deal with diversity – sharing space with people of different races, sexual orientations, ethnicity, religions, etc. I challenge the questioner with my key premise, “if we can’t talk across difference at work, then we’ll never be able to talk anywhere.”

This line of resistance usually comes from alpha-males in the system in an attempt to lay the foundation for checking out and sitting in privileged silence. I find that the best strategy in this case is direct and specific questioning about group and system-level memberships. By jumping between levels of system, I can keep the questioner present in the here and now, despite his overwhelming desire to be seen only as an individual. The resulting tension is a huge boost to the intervention as it keeps people engaged with exploring advanced diversity work at the group and systems level.

Corporations are a powerful proxy for society. They mirror society’s issues around Diversity but have an added bonus – accountability. Corporations exist to make money and take enormous pains to measure their activities on a monetary basis. Losing markets and talent due to poor people skills have direct costs that can be highlighted to alter corporate behavior.

I believe that in order for Diversity to evolve beyond a program or a department at a corporation, it must become part of the organization’s DNA. This is accomplished by embedding the benefits of Diversity into the different functions of a business such as Accounting and Marketing. If Diversity advocates cannot make persuasive arguments using the calculus of cold, hard cash then Diversity will be seen as expendable – a luxury to be jettisoned during times of economic distress.

Diversity must be made a corporate priority because it’s good business, not just good optics, or the right thing to do. On several occasions while staffing for a consulting project, I have been seen as a way to add a little color to a team, but not necessarily as a key contributor. During the engagement, my skills and talent would expand my role, but my expertise often surprised colleagues. It shouldn’t. Talent and customers comes in all packages. Diversity is about effectively managing your people to unlock their passion. It is a cornerstone of effective leadership. Without highly motivated, talented people your competitors will win. This is the key message Diversity has to offer businesses.


Back To The Future

A CDO of a Fortune 500 company described her Diversity efforts as:

So we’re all about honoring differences. We host brown bag lunches where different people can get together and talk about their differences. We really want to make Inclusion a priority here.

Although I have encountered rare instances where Diversity departments or advocates contribute to real and systemic change in their respective organizations, far more often they are stuck at the outer echelons of the organization, with little or no power or influence. Part of the problem is STRUCTURE, with Diversity Departments functioning as offshoots of Human Resources or Legal Compliance. Seen as a cost center and an obligation, Diversity is tolerated rather than embraced by the power brokers of the organization.

Another key issue is INTENTION – why does the Diversity Department exist in the first place? Is it to recruit talent (common) and help them succeed in the organization (rare). At the core is a fundamental problem with the birth of many of these programs – the threat or filing of a lawsuit. Diversity Initiatives born under such a cloud suffer from several key obstacles, including 1) resentment from power brokers, who see Diversity as something forced on them from Legal Compliance, 2) resentment from members of subordinate groups, who receive confirmation that their concerns only matter when they air dirty laundry publicly, and 3) handcuffing the internal Diversity staff, who often find their initiatives hijacked by senior management demanding hastily assembled training sessions. This training generates lots of paper but limited results. One-time training does not change corporate cultures but it does provide cover for corporations when the next lawsuit is filed – “look, Mr. X completed an online training module for sexual harassment, it’s not the company’s fault he didn’t listen.”

So the onus is on Diversity advocates to constantly engage corporations at the individual, group and organizational levels of system, or Diversity will always be marginalized. For all of their faults, affirmative action programs were at least measurable. Progress was visible and accountable. Diversity is often buried under a cloud of confusion. What is success? How is it measured?

The major shortcoming of Affirmative Action Programs was failing to address the natural follow-up question “Now what”? Once people of color and women gained representation in an entity, what next? Without support and access to informal channels of power like mentoring or stretch assignments, affirmative action hires were doomed to stay in place as others were promoted. Over time, frustration and anger led to a revolving door effect, as people learned that they were pawns, not partners.

Diversity was supposed to address these shortcomings but has mostly fallen short. Instead of focusing on retaining the talent attracted by Affirmative Action, Diversity today often focuses on the diluted goal of Inclusion, where individual differences are honored and celebrated. While admirable, such programs do little to manage Group and System-level dynamics of power, which is where many Diversity Programs now fail. Diversity issues are mistakenly addressed solely at the individual level, where issues are seen as complaints from weak people and tossed into the corporate trash can.

As a consultant, my group identities have greatly influenced my work, often unconsciously. As a screenwriter, one of the primary rules we follow is “Character is revealed by action under pressure.” You don’t really know what you believe until you are forced to act.

I am deeply appreciative for the group level work I was able to engage in while a participant in NTL’s Diversity Practitioner Certificate Program. Two experiences hammered home the importance of group-level work.

First, as a Latino male, I come from a macho culture – where sexual orientation and gender are conflated. I confronted there for the first time my group-level assumption that gay men were not really men. Until I had to face my unconscious biases at the group level and put my Hetero and Latino man cards on the table, I was unaware of how my group-level biases affected my thinking and how I treated others.

The second life-changing experience occurred when I faced, as a man of color, my silence and dependence on women of color to fight my battles on race while I stood on the sideline. I had a chance, as a man of color, to apologize for my complicity and cowardice. And although I conveniently slip back into my power as a man in this society (it’s so much easier), I am different now, and better for it.

Until Diversity programs can effectively address Group-level issues such as these, the golden benefit of Diversity – unlocking the passion and commitment of diverse talent on a global landscape – will not be fully realized. People simply do not give their all if they don’t feel a personal stake in what they’re doing and they will leave when they find that partnership elsewhere.

The bottom line is that identity group memberships matter and should be constantly explored and examined. “Who are our people?” is a key question. But often in the halls of power, the dominant group revels in its exclusivity – why rock the boat? But the great strides in our society have come from group and system-level interventions such as the Civil Rights and Women’s movements. Organizational Development practitioners should keep group-level dynamics in play but must also brace themselves for the enormous resistance that will be heaped upon them by not just dominant group members, but also those from subordinate groups, who have been conditioned to believe that they belong just where they are.

For members of dominant groups, especially along race and gender lines, I challenge you to stay conscious of your group-memberships. Fight the urge to live on autopilot, seeing only what you want to see. For example, as a man, when confronted with group-level issues of gender, my passive-aggressive instincts kick in. I become easily confused about my offensive behavior. It’s not really that confusing. Or I get so sleepy – I can barely keep my eyes open. I’m not that tired.

As a man, I must speak up for women because power listens to power. This is the responsibility of power at the group-level and must be addressed in the moment. Silence implies agreement. I understand how difficult it is to put your group-level goodies on the table, to risk. As a man of color, I often feel that I must overcome my subordinated racial status by overcompensating with my dominant group memberships, which, at least at the United States level of system, are my gender and my sexual orientation. If I challenge other dominant group members around sexual orientation or gender oppression, I risk my dominant status in both groups. This multiplier effect makes challenging dominance a terrifying proposition. If I lose dominant status in all three groups, what am I left with?

But this is where the work is – there is no change without contact, no contact without risk. As I risk my dominant goodies, new allies and self-awareness emerges. I feed a little piece of my integrity and revel in the released energy of a congruent life – I am who I say I am, and others can see it and feel it in my presence. New allies and possibilities emerge. Contact with others increases as distinguishing behavior opens door to new relationships. Such is the stuff of an authentic life worth living. Go for it.