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Leading through Broken Systems and Uncertainty: A Conversation with Russell Grimaldi

Interview Leadership

In light of an uncertain work environment, and rising concerns about COVID-19 and racial justice in the workplace, I sat down with Russell Grimaldi to pick his brain and gather his insights on the challenges that our present moment poses. 

Russell is the founder of Grimaldi Human Development. Prior to this, he spent 25 years in executive leadership roles at both large, publicly held marketing and communications firms, as well as in entrepreneurial ventures. Russell has a deep-seated conviction that the challenges businesses are facing in productivity and growth are invariably problems of people. He believes there is no known limit to the human capacity to create, solve problems and grow; and that it is always a matter of tapping into the unrealized potential that resides in us all.  

Adam  

What are your perspectives about the current state of “distress” in organizations today?

Russell 

This is a good place to start the conversation, and there is no more compelling evidence of the problem than what the data from Gallup says about the degree to which employees are engaged with their work.  Every year for several years more than half of respondents surveyed acknowledge that they are “not engaged” …and 18% are actively disengaged!  Gallup Analytics also reports that only 27% of employees strongly believe in their company’s values – and less than half know what their company actually even stands for. 

Organizational health and well being reflect the health and well being of the culture at large, and we are seeing steady increases in levels of anxiety, depression, stress-related illness, and even suicide among certain populations.  And all this was happening before the human and economic impact of the pandemic and the heightened awareness of racial injustice!  So, it is safe to say that organizations have been suffering the distress of a disengaged, alienated, and depressed workforce for some time … and that this distress is only worsening.   

Adam 

What signs of hope are you seeing?

Russell 

I see many hopeful signals and am always eagerly searching for more. First, there is the fact of widespread and growing awareness of the problems of our time, which is always the first step towards finding solutions.  COVID-19 has exposed fundamental weaknesses in both our central and our local services. We’ve been made all too painfully aware of how disproportionately people of color are impacted, and the crisis is further compounded by the spate of Black killings which has exposed profound inequities in our institutions and the services.  But at least there are serious conversations taking place. It remains to be seen whether companies are truly serious about allocating resources and turning commitment into action. 

Resources outside the corporation are also being sought… firms are seeking counsel of experts and sincerely asking themselves, “who are we”, “what do we believe”, and are our actions consistent with our stated values?”  The paradox of change is that it often takes a real crisis to stimulate the positive corollary to the negative circumstance. This is the basis of my hope for real transformation. As the problems are perhaps greater than at any other point in my lifetime, so is the motivation, determination, and will to solve them. 

With respect to our evolution as the human race, another indication of hope is a whole emerging generation is looking for meaning and purpose beyond their paycheck. Corporate leaders are also listening more actively to Millennials and Gen Z aspirations for the practical purpose of attracting and retaining the best talent. In order to effectively compete, companies must diversify, include, and integrate this diversity, and find new ways to meet the needs of the whole person. 

And, finally — though it is an overt commercial plug, it is nonetheless a sincere one — platforms like Pro-Habits are proven effective tools for turning positive intent and good ideas into powerful and dynamic action.

Adam 

What worries you most? 

Russell 

It may surprise you that I am most worried about the booming stock market and other indicators returning to previous highs; the result of which is then that people are lulled back into their previous complacency and the will to change dies along with the mistaken notion that everything is okay again.  Although we want all the metrics to move in the right direction, they are almost always trailing indicators. For a movement to gain momentum and for change to take hold, there must be sustained commitment. 

Finally, and not surprisingly, I can’t let an opportunity pass to stress the importance of voting — and it is particularly important to turn out racial and ethnic minorities — acknowledging my concern that the pandemic, and the accidental or intentional suppression of the vote, could take us somewhere other than where the real will and heart of the citizenry lies.  

Adam 

What unconscious biases do you witness most in the workplace?

Russell 

As they are by definition unconscious, these biases are not always easy to spot, but they do make themselves known and they are certainly felt. One need only look at the data on Black leadership in corporations to see the impact of systemic racism. Less than one percent of the Fortune 500 top leadership are Black. And despite all the talk, there has been little or no progress over the last several decades… as incredible as that is!

Nearly every company issued statements in support of Black Lives Matter, but the actual data say that corporate America is failing to hire, promote and comparably pay Black men and women who work at their firms. The inequities are self-perpetuating and compounded by other negative effects —stagnating income levels and worsening of the race, class, and wealth gaps that are growing wider during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To the question of how implicit biases are revealed, the work that the non-profit Project Implicit is doing, studying implicit social cognition (thoughts and feelings outside of our conscious awareness and control) and turning the research into practical applications for addressing diversity and improving decision making, is important. Again, I see the Pro Habits platform as a great tool and framework for implementing solutions to the effects of unconscious bias.

Adam

What can leaders do to prepare for challenging conversations about inclusion with teams, especially given the fact that most workforces are remote?

Russell  

I can think of three fundamental things leaders can do to prepare for these conversations, what I modestly refer to as “The Grimaldi Way “in my coaching practice:

  1. LISTEN!  Actively listening to what is being said and not being said, and giving people a forum to share, is the rudimentary starting point. Listening demonstrates respect, which is an ingredient that is essential to any productive dialogue.  The more a person can take in without evaluating and judging — and this is particularly true for leaders — the more there is to work with in terms of creative problem-solving.
  2. EMPATHIZE! Understanding the values and goals of the individual or group is absolutely critical and precedes alignment with the goals of the organization. Conversations and indeed all forms of communication are precursors to shared goals, shared purpose, and shared commitment.  We communicate effectively only to the degree to which there is mutual respect; and the quality of communication determines how productively and co-creatively we internalize and actualize our shared purpose.
  3. PRACTICE!  The law of learning requires frequency, intensity, and recency. Just like the old joke about the person who asks for directions to Carnegie Hall. How does one get there?  The answer is always, “practice”. Only through repetition of desired behavior do those behaviors become new habits.  Practice listening, practice empathy, practice sharing goals. If you will allow me to quote you, “micro-interactions between managers and their individual contributors have lasting, powerful consequences.” I couldn’t agree more.  

Adam 

Corporate statements on equity are a first step in the right direction, but what comes next? 

Russell 

Everything I have expressed in response to the earlier questions endeavors to address this most important question. There are slips between the cup and the lip that are too numerous to list, but I have noticed one almost universal failure among the parade of corporate statements we have seen with respect to diversity and inclusion—and that is the relationship of diversity and inclusion to the intrinsic purpose and strategy of the business. 

To cite an immediate practical example, if J&J is in the Band-Aid business, then it should be axiomatic that reintroducing multi-skin-tone products would be one of the actions that seem obvious… yet could easily be ignored in the proforma, knee-jerk, politically correct statement of support.  Diversity and inclusion are innately valuable, not something that companies should pursue as an externally driven requirement.  Diversity has universal importance and delivers proven benefits to a vibrant company culture, problem-solving capacity, and co-creativity.  But diversity and inclusion also have particular implications that are unique to different businesses – healthcare, food, entertainment, advertising, and media all have their equivalents of the tinted Band-Aids – and the mandate for leadership is to think through and apply the relevant strategies and programs that unlock this particular potential. 

Of course, there must be broad support for awareness and sensitivity training and development; corporations must also examine their board composition, gather and monitor data on diversity in all the ranks, and particularly at the senior levels. How often do we hear managers say they simply couldn’t find qualified Black candidates?  Let’s see where they are looking for candidates and how much effort they put into it.  However, essential as those actions are, when Verizon’s CEO states that they can’t commit to their brand purpose of “moving the world forward” if they don’t move it forward for everyone, then we have connected the value of diversity to the promise of the brand or the company.  

Adam 

Please share best practices and suggestions for today’s digital leader to embrace, change, and inspire their teams to move forward

Russell

Once again I hope there are some ideas coming out of the earlier parts of the discussion that are helpful for all leaders, including the digital ones, but there are a few final thoughts I might add. To embrace change and to inspire our teams to move forward, let’s not forget the critical role of vision, an informing image of the desired future. I have found the “as if” approach is key. In vivid and explicit words and images, what does our organization aspire to? If it is a change in attitude, a wider perspective, more openness, then start practicing those things now. 

Theoretically, digital leaders have a more tolerant and contemporary view of culture, but there is also a growing addiction to data, analytics, and logical consistency; while it is important to remember that embedded in the human nervous system is a mystery that doesn’t always conform to our addiction to linear thinking. 

We have to make the leap to intuitive thinking, and one of the responsibilities of leadership is to accept responsibility without complete information. The paradigm shift, if you will pardon the expression, is from finite possibilities to infinite possibilities; from a contracted state to an expansive one.  Leaders have to change climate and culture by virtue of what they exemplify and then by their stubborn integrity.  As in most things, it is a matter of faith and intense, all-out effort.  That is my idea of a “best practice” for creating the kind of organization where everyone can grow and prosper.

Adam Fridman is a serial entrepreneur, author, and CEO of ProHabits. Constantly pursuing insight into the world of work, he’s interviewed thousands of top executives and thought leaders. His life’s mission is to bring more humanity to the workplace and to help others lead meaningful, purpose-driven, professional lives.

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