Challenging Leaders To Create Real, Systemic Change

You are currently viewing Challenging Leaders To Create Real, Systemic Change

Vanessa Ruda is Senior Partner, Regional Leader for RHR International’s U.S. Central Region.

Original article appears here:

A White executive coach realized she wasn’t doing enough to move the  needle.  She is now challenging her CEO clients to take the following  steps.

Like so many of my friends, family, and colleagues, I have spent  these past few months thinking deeply about racism in our society,  wondering how it got to be as systemically entrenched as it is and  wracking my brain trying to figure out how we effect meaningful change.

In the immediate wake of George Floyd’s murder, I found myself drawn  to different websites of organizations asking for donations to fight  racism and better the lives of those who have been marginalized. It was  easy for me to click the “donate” button, and I did so readily. I signed  petitions, I forwarded them to friends and family, and I shook my head  in disgust at what was happening in our society. And all of it left me  feeling flat. It occurred to me that I was responding in a very  privileged way. I was sitting in the safety of my own home, clicking  buttons on my computer, simply because I could. Don’t get me  wrong—organizations fighting for equality need money and petitions need  to be signed, and I will continue doing these things, but for me, it is  not enough.

As I was wrestling with what I could actually do to move the needle, a  colleague of mine told me, “Don’t look to your Black brothers and  sisters to solve this; this is a White person problem to solve. You need  your Black brothers and sisters to help inform you about the reality of  their experience, but it is then incumbent on those in positions of  power to take actions that result in change.” It was a profound  statement.

Some of the people I love most in this world are Black, and I  realized I’ve been living in blissful ignorance, assuming that loving  people is enough to create equality. It is not! It struck me that  leaders of organizations are uniquely positioned to effect change, both  within their organizations and within their communities.

As an executive coach, it has often been my practice to meet my  clients “where they are at,” focusing on the things that are most urgent  to them. Recently, however, I have shifted this perspective a bit, and  have challenged my clients to consider how they can leverage their  positions of power to create meaningful, systemic change. These  conversations have felt risky and uncomfortable, and I’ve wondered aloud  whether they are the right ones to be having. I’m not sure I know the  answer to that question—it is an ongoing learning experience, but the  prompt has led to some significant and meaningful discussions with my  clients. It has become increasingly clear that there are some specific  things leaders can do, in addition to promoting talent acquisition and  development programs to attract, retain, and promote minorities.

• First, recognize if you are in a position of power, influence, and  privilege. You carry a responsibility to use that position as not only a  force for good, but to drive change—embrace this responsibility and be  willing to own solutions within your sphere of influence.

• Second, acknowledge that there is an extraordinary amount of  learning that needs to take place—for you personally and for your  organization—and that this can only happen when people can come together  honestly and authentically, with the goal of trying to understand the  experiences of others.

• Third, be willing to be vulnerable and say, “I’m not sure what the right answer is, but I’m committed to figuring it out.”

• Fourth, know that you will inevitably make mistakes. As hard as it  may be, be willing to accept the feedback that is provided and commit to  continued efforts to improve and learn.

• Fifth, resist the urge to be silent. Even if born from fear of not  knowing the “right thing to say,” your silence is complicity with  maintaining the status quo and will not help to drive change.

On the surface, these may seem like obvious suggestions, but they can  be surprisingly hard to enact both personally and professionally.  Constructive conversations about inequality must be deeply grounded in  trust, which is something that all leaders should be vigilant about  building, now more than ever. Placing myself on this journey, I have  learned a lot, know I need to learn more, and pledge to continue pushing  myself and those I work with to take the actions that will allow me to  meet this challenge. It is the only way forward if we want to create  real change in companies and in our society.

Real change won’t happen overnight, but we can all start to take  small steps toward making a difference in our companies and society  overall. Collective action can create systemic change.


Over the past several weeks, these are some of the things I have done to try to be a force of good and create change:

• I have challenged my clients directly when I’ve heard biased  statements or uninformed viewpoints. Where possible, I have offered  perspectives, but I’ve also been an advocate for them looking at the  various situations from the perspectives of people of color and trying  to understand why they might see it differently from the White majority  perspective.

• I have encouraged clients to speak up, even if they don’t know what  to say or don’t have an answer. (I have suggested that just  acknowledging that they don’t know what to say might be a good start.)  It promotes transparency, builds trusts and creates an environment for  dialogue.

• I have asked my Black friends about their experiences with law  enforcement. In one conversation, I asked, “Has there ever been a time  when you have seen a police officer, say, at a Fourth of July parade,  where you have taken comfort in the idea that law enforcement was  present?” The response I got was a quick, “No. Never have, never will.”

• I have talked openly and honestly to my 16-year-old daughter about  her responsibility to use her privilege to make the world a more  equitable place, and I have listened to her when she told me to watch  “13th” on Netflix.

• I have challenged my 75-year-old mother to consider that different  dialects are not indicative of one’s intellect, but rather, are simply  that—they are dialects that carry their own rules and cultural  significance and should be respected, not judged.