By Donald Fan, Senior Director of the Global Office of Culture, Diversity & Inclusion at Walmart, Inc.

In the wake of the coronavirus, racial injustice, hate crime, and a declining economy, we realize that leading through crisis requires an inclusive mindset with decisive action and strength of purpose. Inclusive leaders believe that people are the center of their business, and they are obligated to advocate and practice social justice, workplace equality, and social responsibility.

In a recent op-ed in USA Today, Doug McMillon, Walmart CEO and chairman of the Business Roundtable, stated, “Because we are at the moment. On one side sits the weight of history, with its deeply ingrained prejudices and complicated systems of racism. On the other side sit all of us, who must work together to shape a future of equality and justice. With the force of hope, the power of unyielding commitment, and the spirit of good, I believe we can move the great weight that not only exerts a relentless downward pressure on Black people, but also becomes more unbearable for all of us. Once out from under that weight, we can all stand up, together; find strength, together; and build opportunity for all, together.”

With a collective voice of moving the weight of racism and sexism that presses on people of color and women in corporate America, business leaders contemplate how we can create and sustain equality and justice systemically in the workplace. This article explores four evidence-based levers business leaders can embrace to initiate, evolve, and maintain racial and gender equality (RGE).


CEOs are responsible for leading RGE through overarching outlook, explicit expectations, and unwavering grit.

Commitment: RGE is the most vital component in an overall diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy. CEOs must set an affirmative tone and aspiration in achieving racial and gender equality in the workplace. The audacious vision drives the best short-term results.

By formulating an RGE framework with a compelling narrative, a robust strategy, and stretching milestones, CEOs present a blueprint to lead and propel the organization toward that destination. They should communicate this commitment openly and honestly through all channels, internally and externally.

Accountability: Participating in national RGE pledges, such as Paradigm for Parity, Catalyst Champions for Change, and CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, holds the organization publicly responsible for attaining equality in the workplace. Internally, the CEO is obligated to keep executive committee members and senior leaders accountable for owning RGE, with quantitative and qualitative measures and continuous improvement plans.

We often witness failures when business leaders depend on the chief diversity officer exclusively to achieve unrealistic goals in diversity, equity, and inclusion. CEOs should sit in the driver’s seat by carrying on a regular conversation with the most senior leaders to motivate them to lead RGE as an integral part of their performance. They should also tie RGE goals to performance evaluation and compensation.

Walk the talk: Chief executives must role-model inclusive leadership by demonstrating personal support, desired behaviors, and a commitment to justice and equality in the workplace. Alexander Hardy, CEO of Genentech, said, “I’m actually having more career-development conversations now than I was having before the pandemic, because … they can be really short, productive and focused. That accessibility actually is greater now, so use that opportunity…. There’s a win-win there; I’m very happy to talk a little bit about your career and your development and give you my perspective. I’m also gaining insight of what’s your experience like as an employee, what you think about business, what you’re working on.”

Nothing undermines a cultural- change initiative more thoroughly than lip service, when leaders fail to follow through. In their effort to bolster RGE, leaders can start with self-reflection to identify biases and actions that either support or undermine change.

Instead of pushing hard, we want to help managers disarm resistance to change, alleviate uncertainty, and remove hurdles along the way.

CEOs should be able to answer these questions:

  • What are our timeline and goals for achieving racial and gender parity?
  • What mechanism do I apply to inspire my leadership team to measure success and propel RGE continuously?
  • Are we all clear about where to play and how to win related to RGE?


CEOs are obligated to advance RGE as a cultural change rather than a compliance-based program. Invite and inspire everyone to cultivate a cultural norm of inclusivity and equality. In her memoir, Becoming, former first lady Michelle Obama wrote: “Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.”

Trust-based environment: By creating a safe space for employees to exchange their thoughts and ideas freely, business leaders can nurture trust-based relationships with all talent. Offer a feedback loop that gives you the constant pulse of employees’ sentiment and perception. The lack of safe spaces and processes to have eggshell conversations about what is happening in the workplace prevents leaders from understanding the current state of the workforce, including working experience and career hurdles of people of color and female talent.

Trust serves as the foundation that supports collaboration and team citizenship through open and healthy conversations. Harvard Professor Frances Frei explains how to cultivate trust with the well-known trust-building triangle. People tend to trust you when they believe they are interacting with the real you (authenticity), when they have faith in your judgment and competence (logic), and when they feel that you are interested in them and care about them (empathy). Commit to owning trust by giving 100 percent of your attention to the people or the situation at the moment.

Breakthrough moments, such as reaching racial and gender equality, are often the result of steadfast efforts and taking actions in a trust-based environment, which build up the potential required to unleash a significant change.

Empathetic leadership: To win trust, CEOs need to demonstrate leadership with empathy. Start with cognitive empathy that pivots on attentive listening to hear and understand what is going on with underrepresented talent. Follow with emotional empathy that internalizes learning and putting ourselves in others’ emotional states—feeling what they feel. And end with compassionate empathy by acting to bend the curve. Make employees’ overall mental and physical well-being a priority by encouraging them to make micro-behavior changes to live a better life and share their journey with others.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, said, “I heard from hundreds of employees at every level and in every part of the company. We held focus groups to allow people to share their opinions anonymously as well. Listening was the most important thing I accomplished each day, because it would build the foundation of my leadership for years to come.”

Being and doing: CEOs ought to maintain a balance between being and doing. Cultivate the being by rallying employees with a shared purpose, corporate values, and moral standards. Educate leaders about the root cause and history of racial and gender inequality. Then equip them with the right tools and resources to correct problematic practices.

The right ethos in the workplace helps enrich employees’ experiences and unleash their full potential. It also guides the company’s practices to ensure equitable and fair career opportunities are available to everyone.

In the meantime, doing hinges on everyday actions toward the vision. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said, “While we recognize we don’t have all the answers, we agree it’s time that we start putting our words into real, sustainable action.”

In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear pointed out that small actions compound effects over time. For example, if you can get one percent better each day, you will end up nearly 37 times better after one year.

The Power of Tiny Gains Graph

CEOs should ask:

  • Why do I personally care about embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion in our culture? How do I align RGE with our core values?
  • What can I do to promote empathy and humility with my leadership team?
  • How can I nurture the ethos and accelerate RGE through continuous changes?


CEOs should build a supportive ecology that sustains RGE. This support system depends on each other but shares a common purpose and collaborates to achieve the overarching objective within an organizational design that is flat but highly responsive and interdependent.

Engagement: Removing racial and gender barriers takes a whole village. By chairing an executive council that provides direction and guidance to advance RGE, CEOs set a leadership example at the top. Senior executives should sponsor an employee or business resource group and help enlist a broader base of employees. Leaders can also influence sponsorship and mentoring programs to lift people of color and female talent for advancement.

Since most decision-makers are white males today, we must involve, inspire, and motivate them to become allies and advocates of RGE. When they are positioned as agents of change, white males become a driving force of RGE. And we ought to empower mid-level managers to be purpose-driven leaders who foster a sense of belonging by connecting and engaging people of color and female talent.

Microsoft board member Sandi Peterson talked about the qualities of leaders. “I’m a big believer in people who have a lot of humility, learning agility, intellectual curiosity, great listening skills, and who ask good questions and listen more than they talk.” These are the qualities we need to engage others.

An integral part of business DNA: RGE should be ingrained in the business objective and talent strategy, not an afterthought to the decision-making process. To achieve RGE breakthroughs, we must reconnect fragmented systems and combine disparate goals to create a joint effort to increase efficiency among different functional areas.

Business leaders and HR partners must revisit and strengthen incumbent policies and practices with objective procedures and processes to prevent unintended bias. They must implant equality and fairness through the talent lifecycle from recruiting, hiring, onboarding, development, promotion, and succession planning to performance evaluation. Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.Org, explains, “Companies need to rethink the norms around working. In one fell swoop, work life and home life got mashed together in a very disruptive way. Companies need to step back and say, ‘What should those new norms be?’ That may be setting certain times for meetings and certain times that are off-limits, setting norms around when you’re expected to answer email and when you’re not. And then really, explicitly communicating to employees that they can set their own boundaries, too.”

Data-driven decision-making: We need the best decision- making aid—maximum information before acting for change. Data analytics is crucial for achieving racial and gender equality. We can use descriptive data stories to inform history and lessons learned, predictive data to determine the explicit goals, and prescriptive data to offer options and solutions. Leverage intelligence behind analytics to suggest change and continue progress.

Jane Fraser, the incoming CEO of Citigroup, shared this example in a recent interview: “A few years ago, in a move that was pretty far outside our comfort zone, we publicly disclosed Citi’s raw pay gap for women globally and for minorities in the U.S. The data revealed we have a lot of work to do to get more women and people of color in senior and higher-paying roles. But we think it’s essential to give people the information they need to hold us accountable for progress.” Her story illustrates how data can inform the right change and, in the meantime, hold us accountable for progress.

CEOs should contemplate these questions:

  • How can I invite everyone along the course?
  • How can I make diversity, equity, and inclusion an integral part of my business and talent strategy?
  • How can I elevate RGE with pathos, ethos, and logos in the long run?


CEOs should pivot the two organizational changes: mindset and behavior. Decades of research have found that organizations with a growth mindset are more mentally primed to approach and take on challenges, take advantage of feedback, adopt the most significant problem-solving strategies, provide developmental feedback to subordinates, and be persistent in seeking to accomplish goals. Coupled with actions on the right track, RGE is attainable.

Growth mindset: Satya Nadella used “growth mindset” to describe the emerging culture he has nurtured at Microsoft: “… growth mindset, because it’s about every individual, every one of us having that attitude— that mindset—of being able to overcome any constraint, stand up to any challenge, making it possible for us to grow and thereby for the company to grow.” He embraces the shift from being know-it-alls to learn-it-alls.

A fixed mindset leads to stagnation, whereas a growth mindset leads to agility, engagement, and a higher degree of adaptation in the face of change. We should nurture a growth mindset across levels to enable employees to succeed and achieve their career aspirations. Create an optimal zone through psychological safety and physiological arousal, where people of color and female talent can grow and perform at the peak of physical, mental, and skillful abilities.

Inclusive behavior: Business leaders have to set an exceptional example of inclusive behaviors. A habit-breaking approach to racial and gender bias leads to behavioral changes and improved work climate. In the HBR article, “The Key to Inclusive Leadership,” Julie Bourke and Andrea Espedido revealed the signature traits inclusive leaders share and how to become an inclusive leader:

  • Visible commitment: They articulate an authentic commitment to diversity, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable, and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.
  • Humility: They are modest about capabilities, admit mistakes, and create space for others to contribute.
  • Awareness of bias: They show an understanding of personal blind spots and flaws in the system, and work hard to ensure a meritocracy.
  • Curiosity about others: They demonstrate an open mind and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and seek empathy to understand those around them.
  • Cultural intelligence: They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.
  • Effective collaboration: They empower others, pay attention to the diversity of thinking and psychological safety, and focus on team cohesion.

CEOs should ponder the following:

  • What mindset do I need to win the competition and sustain RGE?
  • What are the inclusive behaviors that my leadership team and I should role-model?
  • How do I lead in this legacy defining moment?

Chief executives must step up and address racial and gender injustice head-on. All of us are adjusting to this new world of work. Now is the time to create an effective RGE strategy from the top down and mobilize everyone along the path from the bottom up. Practicing inclusive leadership in crisis times helps curb the spread of misinformation, decreasing the risk of bias, xenophobia, racism, and sexism. By focusing on racial and gender equality and inclusion in the workplace, we can create happier and healthier employees, broaden our talent pool, and ultimately, boost business performance to win the competition.

Equity at Work: Donald Fan

This article is one of a three-part series on the topic of Equity at Work. With the heuristic study, the author aims to answer the fundamental question: Why and how does equity create value in corporate America. The first article, “Four Essential Levers CEOs Can Adopt to Achieve Racial & Gender Equality,” was published in the PDJ’s Fall 2020 issue, to discuss the leadership competencies needed to advance equity. The second piece, “Charting the Path to Equity in the Workplace,” in the PDJ’s 2021 Q1 issue, presents a case study demonstrating how business leaders elevate equity at work. In the third article, “How To Make Equity Center Stage All the Time,” the author further explores how to make systemic changes and integrate equity into business DNA.

Equity at Work

  1. Four Essential Levers CEOs Can Adopt to Achieve Racial & Gender Equality
  2. Charting the Path to Equity in the Workplace
  3. How To Make Equity Center Stage All the Time

Donald Fan

Donald Fan

Donald Fan serves as Senior Director in the Global Office of Culture, Diversity & Inclusion at Walmart Inc.