Two years ago, I experienced an epiphany. In September of 2019, I was sitting in the audience of an all-employee meeting at Cisco where Chuck Robbins, Cisco’s CEO, hosted Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, in a courageous conversation. I was struck by a statement Bryan made. He said, “We have to commit ourselves to getting proximate to the poor, to the excluded, to the marginalized. When you are proximate, details emerge, insights emerge, understandings emerge, that you will not achieve from a distance. There is power in proximity.” That powerful statement changed my perspective on my work, and the proximity initiative was born.
In the time, we have brought together Cisco business leaders with employees in over 1,500 proximity meetings to have their own courageous conversations and share their lived experiences. This month I had the incredible opportunity at Cisco IMPACT (Cisco’s Annual Sales & Marketing meeting) to reconnect with Bryan to get his advice and thought leadership on the evolution of our powerful initiative.
Again, Bryan’s statements resonated with me. He talked about how our society has a belief system that is anchored in fear and anger. He went on to discuss how fear and anger are the essential ingredients of oppression and injustice; how they fuel false narratives about racial difference and marginalized communities. And how oppressors use these false narratives as a rationale for their unjust actions.
Bryan’s comments reminded me of times when I have found myself on the wrong side of false narratives. When business leaders created or believed false narratives about me and my character, it left me confused, self-conscious, isolated, and powerless to do anything. Years ago, at a different company, my manager brought me in her office to discuss my year-end performance review. She began with this statement: “Although you are not a director in this company, during this performance review I’m going to evaluate you as director.” She positioned this approach as a favor to me and went on to tell me that she had different expectations for me than everyone else. At the time I was the only Black person in the department.
Her rationale was rooted in a false narrative – one that said I was not intelligent, not a cultural fit, and that I did not assimilate. She used that rationale to position the business against me. I can now see how her rationale and the story she was telling about me was consistent with fear and anger. Her logic was anchored in a false narrative about racial difference to marginalize my performance and my impact to the organization. Not only did this have a real impact on my work, even more debilitating was the impact that false narrative had on my being.
Baseless statements like these quickly become corporate realities. And for me, they became personal nightmares. Navigating these landmines was psychologically draining. I was forced to spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy to apply coping techniques and workplace survival tactics to keep my sanity – not to mention, my job. I could only hope someone would get to know me on a human level to shift their perspective.
In 2018, when Cisco acquired the company I worked for (not the same company as in the story above), I was skeptical. I thought for sure Cisco would reject someone like me. I was shocked when my leader, Tschudy Smith, took the time to get proximate to me; it changed my personal journey. She engaged with me and learned about my lived experience. Because of this, my employee experience changed and the drain on my energy disappeared. My level of engagement rose exponentially, and I couldn’t wait to go to work every day. This was liberating! We developed a relationship, and she gave me the confidence to be myself. She gave me confidence to be Black, a father, a husband, a friend, and most importantly, the confidence to embrace my own identity at work.
If we are to overcome these presumptions and misconceptions, I believe we must first get proximate to those who are marginalized. Proximity acts as the catalyst, facilitating critical learning so that we can understand this threat to equality. As we gain new insights, those with power and privilege have an obligation to use that knowledge to change the narrative. To me, changing the narrative is deeper than just a change in mindset. It is a belief. It is a conviction that leaders must have to fully shift the paradigm. That conviction leads us to commit to the hard work ahead and to be willing to move through the discomfort as we drive transformation.
My interactions with Bryan and the work that he has shared with us have helped me get proximate to my own story. I now have clarity and can see how false narratives impacted my career and the impacts on others like me who have been marginalized or overlooked. I’ve personally seen the power of proximity and believe that getting proximate to people from marginalized communities will be the most important leadership capability of the future and a business differentiator.
My call to action is for everyone to get proximate to people who are different than you to understand their lived experience. You will learn and gain incredible insight. Embrace these learnings, acknowledge them, and use them to take action to change the false narratives about racial difference and marginalized communities. I’m with you! LET’S GO!