Thought Leadership

ICON 2020 Preview: In Conversation With DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson

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Carolynn Johnson is a fan of the ICON 2020 theme — “Strategic Communications: Navigating a World Disrupted.”

“I am excited to know that disruption is part of the theme. People need to understand how they can show up and be part of a solution. Right now, look where unchecked, unbalanced repetitiveness has gotten us,” says Johnson, CEO of DiversityInc, a data, consulting and strategic advisory company.

Ahead of her keynote speech on Oct. 27 during PRSA’s virtual gathering, Conference Chair Del Galloway, APR, Fellow PRSA, and John Elsasser, PRSA’s publications director, spoke with Johnson in an energetic exchange in which she shared her perspectives on how the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racial injustice have disrupted business — and the radical thinking, empathy, kindness and openness that she says are needed to improve diversity, inclusion and communication.

Our Conference theme this year is “Strategic Communications: Navigating a World Disrupted.” What does this disruption look like to you in 2020?

That question reminds me of a conversation I had with Michael Dowling, the CEO of Northwell Health (ranked No. 1 on DiversityInc’s 2020 Top Hospitals and Health Systems List). Michael is one of health care’s most influential voices. He takes a stand on societal issues that many health system CEOs shy away from.

Leaders who are effective and transparent offer a certain level of disruption — disruption to make sure people don’t get comfortable, complacent. They are constantly working toward irreversible, sustainable, positive change.

From a personal vantage point, positive, powerful forces have always changed how we live. The late Rep. John Lewis talked about being in good trouble. Good trouble is disruptive.

Consider the racial unrest as a result of the murder of George Floyd, [and] the loss of many others to the terror of racism, excessive force and other injustices. We have every right to feel the way we feel and to exercise our right to peacefully protest.

As a result of the rapid spread of digital technologies, we’re being forced to face it — face what has happened, and is happening, to Black and poor people in this country who are often viewed as powerless. To navigate these skewed times, it requires radical thinking, the willingness to be disruptive and to unlearn bad behavior, along with empathy and kindness.

Now let’s consider the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of our personal and professional lives. This disease has changed, and continues to change, the way we do business. Yet, the Fortune 500 CEOs I talk with share this disruption has created opportunities for more efficient, faster and inclusive ways to communicate.

How can communicators help clients and organizations navigate this disruptive world?

No matter your title or where you are on the org chart, you can contribute to creating a sense of calm for others. Through a certain level of calm, people are able to accept what you’re trying to communicate. You establish calm by keeping things simple. You establish that by making sure that you are well-informed of the issues, and that you do not try to boil the ocean, but remain focused on the main issues.

Further, and no matter the issue, educate yourself. Listen to all sides — not just the sides that you’re comfortable with or used to hearing. Make sure that you are open. And even if you don’t like what’s said, ask questions to make sure you have all the information or understand the messenger’s intent or point of view.

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and others, is silence on racial equity still an option for executives and organizations today?

That depends on the organization’s goals. I don’t judge silence in the same way that most people do. There are some organizations where I appreciate their silence. I know what’s going on [behind the scenes].

Well-intentioned organizations are making sure they fully understand the totality of the current events and what role in the solution they can effectively play. They often start with communicating to their workforce that they matter, that they belong. And, along the way, they’re [learning] what they should eventually say and do when they go public with an announcement.

Silence is not always an indicator of not caring. Sometimes people are getting ready to show how much they care. So, I encourage people to understand silence before passing judgment.

Is there a point when organizations need to stop having conversations and take action?

We have to stop talking about the problems, and be thoughtful and strategic in solving them. Especially if we’ve been saying we’re going to do the same thing for years. Good leaders [and] good communicators must have people around them, a circle of advisers. These advisers must have the authority to stop you from just talking — and drive action. They will challenge you and make sure you understand what is at stake and the potential outcomes of your decisions.

Larger organizations — I’m thinking about those who are eligible for our DiversityInc Top-50 (must have at least 750 U.S. employees) — have done a lot of work and invested resources [so] it is difficult to quickly state every action, especially when it matters the most. On top of that, they are often too conservative in how they communicate their accomplishments, contributions and successes.

Meanwhile, other organizations that have the resources and influence must do better — if they have done nothing impactful, then it’s time to get going.

What do the executives who lead your “Top 50 Companies for Diversity” list understand that others do not?

They don’t just look at their performance. They see what others are doing and then benchmark accordingly. They have an understanding about their culture and their people… with a level of empathy. Finally, I think they truly believe that every person is created equal.

Photo credit: tverdokhlib

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