By Bill Proudman

Many business leaders, especially white men, view diversity as a problem to solve or a set of strategies to implement. This approach overlooks the leaders’ personal role.

White male leaders who effectively lead in this effort do more than implement strategies to fix the problem. They first expand their mindsets—how they think about diversity and inclusion and how they feel and experience it.

The Impact of Culture

Like fish in water, many white men never have to leave their culture from birth to boardroom. Often they are unaware they have a culture that others must negotiate. They don’t see their behavior and action as a by-product of what the dominant culture values and rewards. Mind you, this culture is not bad. All organizations and groups have cultures. What can be problematic is when the dominant group—in this case white men—is unaware of their culture and how it impacts behavior.

For those who are not part of the dominant culture, such as women, people of color, and GLBT, this lack of awareness contributes to an expectation that they conform and assimilate into the accepted behaviors determined by the dominant culture. While everyone is expected to assimilate to some degree, it is often those outside the dominant culture who must become “bi-cultural”—experts in white male culture in addition to their own. This can be exhausting, particularly when it is not acknowledged by or even known to white men.

Vice President of Agencies at Northwestern Mutual Paul Steffen speaks about his awareness of white male culture: “Surprisingly, I haven’t had great resistance. I frame it as a learning, an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers; I’ve got a lot to learn. But at least I now know the culture is there.

“I’ve found when I bring up the notion of white male culture, other white men get curious. It starts a whole new conversation about diversity I’ve never had before with white men. When I do this with women and people of color, I can see engagement. I feel their acceptance that ‘here’s a white guy that’s trying to get it,’ that as a person of color or woman, they can talk about their reality. That creates a partnership.”

Ask More Questions, Have a Dialogue

Lee Tschanz, vice president for North American Sales at Rockwell Automation, has always known that to be a great leader, you can’t expect people to adapt to you; you need to adapt to them. But he never fully understood what it meant to adapt to his team because, unknowingly and unconsciously, he looked at his team through the lens of white male culture. Because of his journey to understand white male culture and to expand his mindset around diversity and inclusion, he now looks at people differently.

Tschanz explains, “I need to treat each person differently and have different dialogues. That also includes all the white males on my team. I also recognize I’ll never understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a woman or person of color and that they each have a set of challenges as they do their job that I don’t necessarily have. So I take that into account. I do less problem solving for people now, which was my old tendency. I ask more questions and have a dialogue, while trying to understand things more. My shift in mindset has allowed me to see things I used to not see.”

One particularly powerful exchange with an African American leader, whom Tschanz was mentoring, helped Tschanz understand the power of being willing to know what he didn’t know and to ask questions.

According to Tschanz, “I have always believed that leadership involved leading people in three dimensions: leading down with your direct reports, leading laterally with your peers, and leading up to influence those above you. My sense in evaluating this particular African American leader was that he didn’t seem to be able to lead up. I’d come to the conclusion he wasn’t going to go any higher in the organization because of this.”

Because of his ongoing diversity learning, Tschanz realized he should explore his assumptions. He knew that a person’s skin color or gender has an impact on their experience of the world and that it was likely different than his own. He began to be more curious about what the workplace was like for this African American male.

“When this leader scheduled a follow-up review with me,” Tschanz relates, “I started to coach him normally. Then I remembered I should find out more about his experience. I said, ‘I’ve been coaching you for awhile and I’ve gone to some recent awareness training about race. I now realize I’ve probably not looked at the issue of race and people of color the right way. Maybe I should be coaching you differently.’”

The mentee’s response was positive. He acknowledged that he had a hard time leading up.

“I asked him to tell me more and he said, ‘When I was raised down south, my dad and my grandpa always told me to not challenge white authority. Bad things happen to people who challenge white authority, up to and including hanging people in trees. That’s just in my head, in my DNA.’”

When Tschanz asked him what they could do, he didn’t know and Tschanz confessed he didn’t know either. After further discussion, Tschanz’s colleague asked if he could leave Tschanz a message when he was considering leading up in a way that felt like challenging authority.

From this one exchange, Tschanz’s mindset and mentoring approach broadened and shifted. For his African American colleague it was the first time a white man in authority had ever asked him about his experience as a black man. It was a powerful moment for both men.

These shifts in mindset might seem elementary to some. But to many white men, these shifts are huge: they are able to listen differently, ask questions, and be vulnerable. It helps them to see different realities and to lead more effectively by connecting their head with their hear.

From Shifting Our Own Mindset to Shifting the Organization’s Culture

A shift in leaders’ mindsets does not change organizations, but it creates a platform from which meaningful and sustainable change can be launched. Diversity and inclusion initiatives move from being today’s ‘let’s fix the problem’ program to an ongoing intervention focused on creating a culture that empowers and engages all employees.

Leaders like Steffen and Tschanz feel more energized to fully lead and leverage the diversity already existing in their organizations. They believe greater inclusion is integral to the business results they and their colleagues work towards every day.

They also better understand the complexity and ambiguity that exists when issues around culture touch down in their organizations. Their confusion drives their curiosity to learn about other’s realities that are different from their own.

They see their leadership development as an ongoing journey and publicly lead by example as they support environments that bring out the best in everyone. They truly become the change they wish to see in their organizations.

Bill Proudman, COO and co-founder of White Men as Full Diversity Partners, pioneered white-male-only workshops in the mid-’90s after repeatedly noticing that white male leaders disengaged from diversity efforts.