James and Krista White literally wrote the book on Anti-Racist Leadership, drawing on James White's three decades of experience as an executive and Krista White's background as a writer and DEI consultant to create a modern-day blueprint for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at work. The father-daughter duo have identified four pillars for building workplace culture and advised listeners in a Fishbowl Live conversation to approach DEI work as ongoing care rather than a one-time fix.
"This work is multi-year and requires the same kind of commitment that any other goal within an organization might have," Krista White said. "It's going to be difficult work. You might have some uncomfortable conversations; there might be pushback. Ultimately, this work is about legacy, and it's about ending up on the right side of history."
What does anti-racist mean?
Anti-racism isn't the absence of racism; it requires proactive work to dismantle systems of inequality. The Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre defines it as "the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably."
While that idea is often viewed through the lens of race, anti-racism work overlaps with intersectionality - how "individuals experience oppression differently based on where they stand across social markers." Within the corporate world, anti-racist leadership efforts benefit the intersectional spectrum, creating more equitable environments for all marginalized employees.
The four pillars of anti-racist leadership
In their Fishbowl Live conversation, the Whites outlined four points for developing an anti-racist culture.
- Anti-racist leadership requires a holistic approach; it can't be achieved through a single DEI leader acting as the company's conscience
- Companies need to audit their systems before enacting changes
- Middle management is critical to anti-racist leadership
- Anti-racist leaders must set and track goals to evaluate the organization's progress.
Here's how leaders can put those steps into action.
The holistic anti-racism approach
"The CEO can't delegate the work of anti-racist leadership or DEI because it's the work of culture," James White warned.
What he means is, companies can't just shift their DEI work onto a chief diversity officer or the human resources team. Anti-racism isn't a weeklong sprint or the topic of a single webinar. It must be embedded into every aspect of the company culture to lead to meaningful results.
To create that change, leaders have to be open to feedback, and listen to their teams with empathy. James White offered an example from his tenure as CEO of Jamba Juice, where he welcomed feedback cards from staff about practices the company should start, stop, and continue or improve.
"The bottom line is leaders need to find every way that they can to engage the organization, listen, and learn," he said. "I think we all have to bring an open heart and an open mind to the work, and take ourselves on this journey collectively."
The full systems audit
If you don't understand the scope of a problem, it's hard to find the best solution. For example, you wouldn't want a mechanic to "fix" your car without a diagnosis. The same logic applies to DEI strategies.
"It's really important to do almost an anthropological-like review of every system inside a company that touches humans," James White said. That review should include recruitment and hiring, onboarding, jobs assignments, promotions, and compensation.
The middle management factor
Every layer of an organization should be focused on how to be anti-racist, but middle management is the critical lever for driving sustainable change.
"Middle management is typically the place inside a company where we all experience the organization," James White explained. "Most of us don't work for the CEO or even the executive team. We've got to make sure that we supply the middle management in our organizations with the tools, the education resources, and the systems to ensure that they can make this work live inside a respective organization."
One way of furthering that work is to leverage Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) as partners in action learning and driving change. Don't place the entire responsibility on ERG's, but take advantage of their influence and access to employees to further drive your strategy. James White said this strategy allows people inside the organization to work on the organization in meaningful ways.
Krista White added that it's important that companies recognize and reward ERG leaders accordingly. "That is one way to acknowledge the incremental work that usually people of color and other marginalized people are doing," she said.
The need for metrics
"In business, anything that matters, we measure it and then we incent people for it," James White said.
The Whites pointed to Medallia, a company that successfully tracks its anti-racism progress through metrics. "They set [a] goal to reach parity with the U.S. Census for their Black employees," Krista White said. "Getting from 1% to 13% is pretty daunting, so they set yearly benchmarks and are working toward that goal."
As a result, Medallia moved its representation from 1% to over 7% in less than three years.
The future of anti-racist leadership
James and Krista White said the best companies are trying to make real progress inside their organizations to move forward. They're developing long-term plans and leveraging the diversity of their organizations to set goals and build an incrementally better company cultures.
"This isn't something you can just check off. It's not like you just do one DEI training and you're suddenly an anti-racist leader," Krista White said. "At the end of the day, we believe anti-racist leadership is gonna be a core capability for leaders moving forward," James White added.