On June 9, two weeks after the global explosion of hurt and outrage prompted by the police murder of George Floyd, Page Chair Charlene Wheeless led a second Hot Topics discussion focused on concrete steps CCOs can take to address systemic racism within their organizations and across business and society at large. The discussion among Page and Page Up members was focused on the pragmatic actions that can be taken, recognizing that CCOs have both the responsibility and the ability to bring about change. 

Here are some takeaways. 

  • After the marching, the real work begins. This moment may be an inflection point, and the passion and attention can be productive. But too often the momentum subsides with the spotlight. Institutional change happens over years and needs to be sustained. If nothing else, CCOs should hold feet to the fire long after the world moves onto its next existential crisis, bringing the same energy and urgency to the topic.
  • Embrace the discomfort. These are complex, emotionally charged issues and progress should not be stymied by the natural discomfort that comes with addressing them openly. That includes getting past euphemisms, as Charlene noted: “Are you talking about diversity, or are you talking about racism? They are not the same thing. Organizations with diversity programs can still be racist.” CCOs are well-suited to create dialogue and safe spaces. One participant noted that the CEO has open office hours where any employee can call to discuss ideas.
  • Action must be paired with accountability. A participant noted, “This is not just a business case, it’s a moral case. Leaders are accountable for culture and environment,” adding that their organization ties executive compensation to diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes. Another acknowledged that the organization needed the institutional fortitude to be publicly accountable. “Are we being political? Yes. Will some object that any discussion of these topics is divisive? Yes. But the current situation has ripped the band-aid off. There’s no sugar-coating or avoiding the reality. For us, the path forward is to lean into it and to lead.”
  • Make the commitment professional and personal. Systemic improvement requires changes to policies and practices, company culture, a rededication to core values and an ongoing commitment to measurable progress. But all leaders should also commit to their own improvement through self-education, introspection, and dialogue – the latter of which doesn’t just mean talking and listening but also a predisposition to change one’s view.  

No matter whether or how any given organization decides to adopt a public profile in an era of “brands taking stands,” much of the leadership responsibility – and opportunity – will reside with Comms. As Charlene noted, “CCOs are able to say things or ask questions that other teams cannot ask.” Now is the time to do just that. 

Special thanks to Aba Blankson of the NAACP, Candace Steele-Flippin of First Horizon, Damon Jones of Procter & Gamble, and Andy Polansky for being among those to share their perspectives on this call.