Debra Williams is an amazing leader who has a history partnering with boards, C-suite executives and leaders to achieve sustainable business results.
This episode is important to me because we not only dig into the area of DEI strategy and the role of leadership HR in an organization to counteract toxicity.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
Follow KEVRA: The Culture Company on LinkedIn to keep up with your favorite behavioral scientist, Dr. Sansberry. At KEVRA: The Culture Company, we partner to effectively evolve your organizational culture by focusing on competency development, best practices, and leading research to deliver systemic and innovative solutions for company success.
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Counteracting Toxicity Through DEI Strategy with Debra Williams
Debra Williams is a catalyst who influences transformation. She partners with boards, C-Suite executives and leaders to align customer and employee experience to achieve sustainable business results. This episode is important to me because we would not only dig into the area of DEI strategy, we would also examine the role of leadership and HR to counteract organizational toxicity. Through Debra’s experience, she also shares some helpful tips for individuals who were in a toxic environment. Let’s get to it.
I’m excited. We have Debra Williams here. How are you?
I’m fantastic. How are you?
I’m doing well. I’m excited about our conversation and dig into workplace toxicity and how it relates to DEI. Before we get started, we’d love to hear about your story.
My name is Debra Williams and I’m very fortunate to have quite a diverse and interesting background. I held the title for the last couple of decades of Chief HR Officer but the role has grown much broader than that. I have executive leadership experience in operations and strategy. The way that I typically describe myself and people describe me as I’m a catalyst who influences transformation in organizations, in teams and in people. I typically work with organizations to implement very broad organizational-wide, business, talent, DEI and customer-focused strategies. I’m focused on making sure there’s alignment between the talent culture and business strategies. It’s a lot of fun.
If there’s no alignment around creating a productive culture at the CEO level, the rest really doesn’t matter.
With that being said, you sound like the go-to person when it becomes tough. Let’s dive into the toxicity in the workplace. As we dive in, tell me generally where you sit. When we talk about toxic leadership and when you think about that, what’s your perspective? How do you come into that?
I am typically brought into an organization to help lead turnaround, transformation or growth. Sometimes, it’s all three at the same time. It depends on the business. Typically, in organizations that are in need of undergoing some turnaround or transformation, a part of that is the culture. When we talk about toxic culture, it’s helpful for me to clarify how I define that. When I think about toxic culture, I think about very obvious things like bullying, very blatant harassment and discrimination in any of its forms.
People have to get their minds right to go into the work environment because they know that they’re going to have to have their guard up. Something is going to happen either with leadership or with individuals whose behavior the leadership will endorse. Over the years, I’ve either reported directly to the CEO and/or the board. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of consulting. I am the person that’s hired by the board or by the CEO to help them lead these strategies. I will have a very transparent conversation with the CEO. I’ve never been afraid to speak the truth to power.
From my perspective, whatever the culture is, positive, toxic, or blend of the two, it is directly related to the behaviors and outcomes that the CEO and her or his leadership team model, expect and reward. What I often will see, it starts at the top. It’s not that cliché of the tone at the top. It’s about the behaviors but it’s also about the outcomes.
A theme that I’ve seen and this would be a good research topic for you, in my experience, the connection between CEOs who have risen to a level that is far beyond their education, experience and expertise, they’ve surrounded themselves with people who’ve convinced them that, “I can help you keep your job because I have that expertise.” Too often, their behaviors are the toxic ones that are rewarded. The impact that that has, as I’ve seen, is it’s like dropping a pebble in the lake. It permeates throughout the organization. It affects the energy that people bring to work.
You feel as though you can’t be your authentic self and you have to come in with your guard up and that’s energy that’s not being devoted to the work. It affects the ability to attract and retain talent because people have choices and we’ve always had more choice than we’ve realized. Unemployment numbers in certain segments are notwithstanding. We are still in the midst of a much more candidate-driven market than we’ve ever been in. People have a choice and people will leave.
Also, every organization has customers. Whether you’re automotive, healthcare, education or retail, you have customers. Whatever is in your culture, your customers experience. Long leading, the CHRO plays a role and we as individuals have roles in that too. If there’s no alignment around creating a productive culture at the CEO level, the rest doesn’t matter, in my experience.
I totally agree with that. If you look at the research, it agrees with you too. One of the things that you lifted up like the example you used, the CEO worked their way up or tripped upstairs and they got into the role. The CEO is surrounded by individuals and it’s like, “I’ll help you keep your job.” The whole framing is survival. It’s not about, “I’ll help bring customer success.”
If we’re in a hospital, “I’ll help improve patient outcomes.” It’s more so, “I’m going to help you keep your job.” You’re already breeding fear into the system. That’s serendipitous. We’re totally aligned in that notion. With those “people’s strategies,” how we frame things can lead to toxicity in the culture. I’m curious. Talk to us about that link between toxicity in culture and strategies like DEI.
As soon as you teed up that segue about historical strategies that may not have garnered the results, the DEI, I can say the same thing about HR. We know a lot of theories but not enough practical strategies that are moving the needle far enough and fast enough. In my degree, it’s the same thing about DEI so I would say a couple of things.
If your culture is fairly homogeneous and it is a productive culture and productive culture doesn’t mean you don’t have varying opinions, you actually do. You don’t have divergent opinions, you do. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have robust dialogue, you have to but you do it in a way that is productive and respectful. Organizations that are at the far end or higher levels of that are organizations that are ready, in my opinion, to begin the very hard work to do bonafide DEI strategies.
If your organization is, I always use this as an example, pretty homogeneous and toxic, until you address those toxic elements of the culture, which can be behavioral and skill-based. Whether people have the Education, Experience and Expertise or E3 as I like to call it, for the roles, until you address those two particularly at the leadership level, you’re not ready to tackle DEI. It’s like aspiring to be accepted to a PhD program and you don’t have your bachelor’s degree yet.
People want solutions and people have choices. As the economy begins to reopen, people will exercise their choice about whether to stay in an environment that they see as counterproductive and toxic or not.
Plenty of people are getting a quick DEI certification and now they feel like they’re experts to take on DEI because we’re treating it like it’s project management or PR initiative.
I and several of my colleagues are doing some truly strategic DEI work with organizations. One of the first things that we do is assess their readiness for it with regard to where their culture is, from toxic to productive and also where their leadership happened to be with their skillset. Rather than just focusing on DEI in silos, let’s do some training or mentoring or let’s look at who we’re connecting work with externally.
We work with organizations that are willing to commit to taking a deep dive into their culture and talent strategy. For example, looking at how your jobs are designed. Where are you searching for talent? How are you selecting talent? What is it about your culture that even if you were successful in attracting someone and we think about diversity very broadly, what about your organization would want them to stay? We’re challenging some of the traditional thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion.
I have often heard big search firms say, “I would hire them as CHRO. I need you to find me a COO, Vice President or CEO. I want you to bring me a diverse pool of well-qualified candidates,” and I would hear, “That’s going to be difficult. That’s going to make the search even harder. This is already a difficult search based on how you frame the job.” I’m like, “Why?” There are people who are Black, Latinx, younger, older, have different abilities, LGBTQ and every element of diversity who are extremely well-qualified. You’re just not looking in the right places.
What we often hear as a historical strategy is, “We need to train more, fill in the blank, women and people of color.” I’m a lifelong learner. I came out of my mom’s learning. I will learn and be focused on learning, growing and developing until the day I’m called home. I’m a proponent of that. When you say you can’t find any need to train or fill the pipeline, it suggests there are not any people filling the blank who possessed that and we know that’s not true. The data and the facts show that it’s not true.
It’s more of the search firms’ myopic view of what qualified is in most cases. That’s something we’ve got to be very careful about.
It’s your internal talent acquisition team or your leaders who are selecting talent. Where are you looking? As I said earlier, I’m always focused on, how do you ensure that you’re aligning talent, culture and strategy so that you can consistently deliver what you promised your customers? If your customer base is diverse and you have not sought to understand what matters and how to connect and fashion your offering to them, that’s an opportunity as well.
When you think about DEI and use all kinds of synonyms for what is going on or when you think about all these strategies that occur in different organizations, what are some behaviors that you see that are incongruent with what we say related to DEI? What are some toxic behaviors have you that you’ve witnessed or seen that are incongruent?
It’s organizations that have some degree of dysfunction. Whatever that dysfunction is, there is somebody who’s benefiting greatly from it. Sometimes they’re valued as having an irreplaceable skillset. Across many industries, they’re viewed as the rainmaker. They’re the ones who are bringing in clients, dollars, things of that nature and bottom-line performance.
Behaviors that are counterproductive get rewarded and protected. Often, what I will see is they’re very aware that they are benefiting from the dysfunction and toxicity. They will do everything in their power to make sure that it doesn’t change including going for the person who’s trying to drive the change. Change in any form can be a threat to them.
It might be creating a more productive culture or changing your reward structures. If you’re not producing the desired outcomes or demonstrating the desired behaviors, you’re not going to get the promotion, the plum assignment, the raise and you may not work anymore. Sometimes, what I’ve seen is if they see diverse talent as a threat and that will become a target as well.
Based on what you’re saying, that had me thinking about how many companies are posting DEI roles more than I’ve ever seen. My thought is your DEI situation, whatever that may be, whether that’s optics, numbers, engagement or whatever that is. It’s not the reason that it is because you don’t have a DEI person. If you bring in that person, it’s probably going to make it worse in a way because when you talk about retention, how are you going to keep people? How are you going to retain?
What it comes down to is it’s time for truly actionable strategies that are going to garner results, be measurable and move the needle farther and faster than they have in the last several years. As one who loves research and does research, there’s a lot of research out there. The Harvard Business Review a few years ago dedicated its entire August issue to diversity and inclusion. They had a lot of research about many of the typical strategies that people thought worked that don’t work. The research supports that.
As individuals, if we haven’t defined our values and what they look like in action, whether we’re currently with an organization or considering to join one, how can we determine whether that a fit for us if we don’t know what matters to us?
We’re still doing it.
What I would say and I’m going to tie together the last several months during the pandemic and everything that has happened during that period. It’s not just the global health issue because that is critical that we have to address this pandemic but it has exposed a lot of health inequities and socioeconomic disparities. George Floyd’s killing wasn’t anything new. It happened to be videotaped for everyone to be able to see it.
Inequities inside of the workplace are not new. With so many organizations whose individuals did not have to be present to do their work and they had to go to remote work, a lot has come out of that as well. I sound like I’m all over the place but this does tie it together. Now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and may be able to resume in person working in those environments, a lot of organizations are making the choice to remain hybrid or remote going forward, which also affects the culture.
The way that I see all of these things that have happened over 2020, in a lot of what I’ve read and many people I have talked to, a lot of people have given thought to what is important that deserves their energy and attention and what doesn’t. We also have had a lot of these historical, strategic and systemic issues that have not been addressed and now people are ready for them to be addressed.
Tying this back to the discussion about the workplace and DEI, people want solutions and people have choices. As the economy begins to reopen, people will exercise their choice about whether to stay in an environment that they see as counterproductive and toxic or not. People will make a choice about whether to stay in an organization that is not addressing DEI seriously versus one that is willing to do the work. That, from the CEO’s perspective, should resonate because it’s going to affect their ability to attract and retain the talent that they need. It’s going to affect their ability to serve their clients and our customers. Ultimately, it’s going to affect their ability to hit their bottom line targets.
We need to be able to paint that line that you addressed because a lot of people don’t see it. Why are we doing DE&I? Why are we doing this? Taking that a step further, when we think about how to go from the toxicity to a more transformational organizational culture, what are some practical strategies that you can think of related to that? How do we get there?
It does have to start with the CEO and perhaps the board, depending on what the structure is of that organization. Whatever the outcomes and culture of an organization are, they are directly related to the outcomes and behaviors that the CEO and her or his executive team model, expect and reward. In the environments where I have seen very productive cultures and strong organizations that attract, retain, engage and develop talent, the CEO and her or his leadership team are aligned around what values and values and actions define the culture. Also, what education, experience and expertise are required to produce the desired outcomes and make sure that they sync with their business strategy and that the detail and hard work done to hardwire that happened. If you don’t have that, it’s not going to happen.
Where most people fail is the value-based behaviors. Most people fail there because some people will say a bunch of things about DEI doesn’t practice it when it comes down to it from a behavioral standpoint. Nobody ever wants to admit that. That’s where the majority of issues you see toxic workplaces fail because of that lack of behavioral congruence between what you say and what you do.
What I would add there is the way that I think about performance if we’re going to use that term. Half of it is the how and the other half is the what. Even if you’re aligned behaviorally, you still have to produce an outcome. You have to make sure that you’ve got the talent to do that. Whether you’re the CEO, another executive leader, a director or vice president, there will be skill gaps from the HR’s perspective. If the CEO doesn’t view HR as truly strategic or doesn’t see the CHRO as a trusted advisor and consultant, there will be very little that HR can do to help move the needle on culture, talent or DEI.
They have to have the trust and support of the CEO to bring forth strategies, policies and procedures that are going to challenge the status quo. Change is noisy but they need to have that support. HR needs to understand the business, how to align those things, not be afraid to speak truth to power and have the courage to say, “Here’s where we’re doing things well and on point and here are some things that are not working so well. Help me help you.”
There’s a master class that I do call CEO of You: Taking Control of Your Career and Your Life. For too long, in the search process, even once one comes on board, the company has had or has given the perception that they have had the upper hand. The way I think about whether I’m going to join an organization or whether someone’s going to join an organization where I am, it’s actually two CEOs identifying whether there’s a fit from a cultural perspective, how you see the role and what you bring.
I ask participants to think about their approach to work from three lenses. One, what kind of life do you want to live? Companies talk a good game about work-life balance but if they really meant it, they say life-work balance. How does work meet to fit into your life? The second thing that I ask them to think about is what are your values? Just about every organization has identified its core values. Whether they live them or not is a whole different conversation but they have at least identified that.
I don’t care if it’s a group as small as 50 or as large as 500. When I ask the question, “How many of you have defined your values?” Less than 1% of the hands will go up. What I would offer as individuals, if we haven’t defined our values and what they look like in action whether we’re with an organization or considering joining an organization, how can we determine whether that’s a fit for us if we don’t know what matters to us? We also need to have boundaries and also have an exit strategy. If it truly is not a fit and a tacit culture, it’s not going to change and we may want to consider other options.
I love the way you’ve taken this from not only looking back at what has happened that relates to HR and DEI, taking it to organizational strategies and then ending us with what we can do as individuals. As we wrap up, first I want to thank you for your time and give you an opportunity if you want to leave us with some words of wisdom that you have for our readers.
I want to thank you for this opportunity. It’s a critical topic and it is a topic whose time has come to address it, both culture, toxicity and DEI because they’re all interrelated. I’ll hit those three points. For CEOs and boards, if you truly want to create a protective environment that serves your employees and your customers, make sure that you’re rewarding and modeling the desired behaviors and outcomes.
For my HR colleagues, make sure that we truly have the business acumen so we understand the business and how to truly align talent, culture and strategy and that we have the courage to speak truth to power and come with business solutions to help the organization. For individuals, know what’s important to you from a values perspective and be willing to make a change if the organization that you find yourself in is not a fit for you.
How can people reach you?
People can reach me through LinkedIn. It’s Debra F. Williams. I’m interested in connecting with individuals who have a need for someone to help lead their boards, CEOs and executive teams through executive strategy definition and execution, a DEI transformation, turnaround and growth.
Thanks for reading. Until next time.
- Debra Williams
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About Debra Williams
Debra Williams is a catalyst who influences transformation. She partners with boards, C-suite executives and leaders to align customer and employee experience to achieve sustainable business results. She also is a certified professional coach providing executive, leadership and business coaching to leaders across a wide range of industries. Her diverse career includes human resources and operations executive leadership and consulting roles in a broad range of industries and types of companies.
Passionate about community service, community engagement and professional development, Williams has provided board leadership for numerous professional and nonprofit organizations, including the Detroit chapters of the Society for Human Resource Management and the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources, as well as the United Way of Allen County. She received the Athena Leadership Award in recognition of her professional excellence, community service and passion for assisting others in realizing their full leadership potential and is a recipient of the Michigan Chronicle’s Women of Excellence Award. She is also on the Board of Directors of Credential Check Corporation.
Williams earned her Master of Business Administration from Lawrence Technological University, where she also taught in the College of Graduate Management, and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Wayne State University. She is a published author, and frequent lecturer, presenter and keynote speaker.