Reflections on Year One Leading The Diversity Movement

I’ve been CEO of The Diversity Movement for one year, and in that time I’ve had some amazing conversations with clients, partners, and team members.  We’ve grown and we’ve learned, and here are some of my reflections from year one.

Transcript

Jason Gillikin: Welcome to the Donald Thompson podcast. I’m Jason Gillikin, CEO of Earfluence, which produces this show.  And we’re calling this one, a solo DT episode, Don. How’s it going today? 

Donald Thompson: Going good, man. The DT experience.

Jason Gillikin: Well the DT experience  has included about one year now of leading The Diversity Movement. So congratulations to one year of leading that team. I’ve seen some explosive growth over the last year. And what I want to ask you about on this episode is, what have you learned in a year of running The Diversity Movement?

Donald Thompson: Yeah, I appreciate the question. And I’m really excited about talking about this topic, right? Like we certainly haven’t achieved all the goals that we want and set out into the future, but when you have a business and you get to that year mark, when you have a business and in that year, you get to a seven figure revenue market and you’re building a team.

You do have to slow down, and this is something  I’ve learned to get to your question, to celebrate progress. You know, I’m really, really pleased with the team that we’re developing, the talent we’ve been able to attract, and the caliber of clients that are trusting us with very, very important and complex projects and issues and opportunities, right?

They’re not all issues. A lot of them are opportunities to grow. So I’m very, very excited about that. One of the things that, that I’ve learned that I’ll share pretty quickly is I’ve been a business person and entrepreneur for a number of years now. And so I have some experiences to draw from, but every journey is different.

Like you go into it and you think, you know, your build out your little strategy deck and, and your game plans and stuff and everything I tell people to do. And, you know, and it’s important right? But what I’ve learned is that you have to really leave space for things that are outside of your control as you’re building that initial team in that initial momentum. It’s not something that you can completely program. And the more experienced you are, sometimes the more rigid you are with how something’s supposed to be done. And so that’s number one. The second thing that I’ve learned that I’m really proud of and excited about for our team is that, you know, with this business, I was very intentional to over-hire from a talent and experience level for each role.

You know, a lot of times you try to do things with interns or junior talent in different things. And, and we have all of that in The Diversity Movement, but in the key positions, I really overhired for the stage that we were in even financially and took some risks there, to make sure that I had people that were ready for this moment and the next moment that’s coming.

And that’s something that I learned. Typically in the past when I’ve bootstrapped businesses, you kind of hire for what you see in front of you, what you can see. And what happens, and this is a challenge, is that when you grow quickly, you outgrow the capability of your team and that’s problematic. Because you hire somebody that’s a good tactical player, but they can’t scale to lead a team of four or five or 10 folks. And then what do you do? Because the person was good at the job you hired them for. But now in six months, because you’re a startup, the jobs change. And so one of the things that was really important is I hired for what we needed now and for next, and that’s a really, really big learning.

The second thing is that we were very deliberate and intentional with our process for when we would be ready to raise outside funding. We bootstrapped this thing for a while longer than even people advise, because I wanted to come to the table with investors with legit case studies, with clients they could talk to -billion dollar clients, startup, financial, healthcare, non-profit, higher ed.

I wanted to not just talk about theoretically, a mobile app that we were building, but a mobile app that’s in beta that they could go to the Apple store, they could go to the Google Play and they could try it. I wanted to not just have a roadmap of e-learning courses. I wanted to have 10 that they could try and see the sales and how we were tracking.

So what we did is we delayed as long as we could so that we could build evidence, case studies, credibility, clients, and now, as we’re transitioning into the fundraising component, I don’t want to say it’s easier because it’s not. It’s very difficult to raise funds, but when people are asking questions that require evidence-based answers, we have some of those answers.

In fact, we have a lot of those answers. And that allows us to be at a little bit more position of strength as we’re going out. And so that’s another thing that I learned.  For me, you know, I, I can’t run from the fact that many of the businesses in the past I’ve bootstrapped raise a little bit of money here and there, but mostly it’s been bootstrap businesses, but this one, we knew that we were going to have to raise funds because the opportunity is so extensive that we didn’t want to miss time to market windows on our product development strategy by trying to just reinvest our own profit. We needed to get some help and support. And then the other thing we wanted to do is build a national brand and that’s going to require  some external funding. And so we’re really pleased with the receptivity from investors. But the other reason I wanted to wait to get evidence is quite frankly, the numbers for people that look like me haven’t been great over the last 10 years for raising money. And so I just prepared to have more evidence at the table ahead of time, to see if I couldn’t mitigate some of those concerns. And so far that’s been helpful. One of the cool things that I’ve learned and I’m excited about is the receptivity of the CEOs of organizations that are our clients and the commitment both in personal time and engagement, but also financial commitment from board levels to C-suite of leaders that want to move from the why DEI matters, why diversity equity inclusion matters, to the, how do we move the needle, get things done and measure outcomes. And I’ve been very, I’ve learned, but have been very pleasantly surprised at the action orientation at the commitment based dialogue that I’m having with leaders across a lot of different industries.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a bunch of companies that are just trying to win the press release. But I want to acknowledge that so many want to get things done and I’ve had the opportunity- we’ve had the opportunity at The Diversity Movement to work with many of those companies. 

What have I learned? That startups are hard.

Like, they’re fun. It’s exciting, but it’s you know, and I’m getting a little bit older. It’s hard to not have a fully baked plan and have to really be nimble and thoughtful every moment that you’re building and it doesn’t get easier. Now, the reward is awesome and significant all those things, right?

So not complaining, but when you’re starting something yet again from the ground up, which we’ve done with The Diversity Movement, it is daunting and we launched the business in a pandemic. I don’t know how that’s anybody’s game plan right?  I remember we were featured in an Adweek article thinking about why would you launch a diversity and inclusion business in a pandemic?

And that’s when we launched our e-learning platform Beyond the Checkbox. 

 One thing that I think we’ve done better in this business than some of the others that I’ve run is how to move fast by slowing down. Every two weeks, we, for 90 minutes, we have internal training where we bring in a guest speaker to help our team get sharp.

Every Friday, we meet as an entire company and talk through what’s working, what’s not working, where people need help. Intentionally, I’ve learned over the years that if you don’t communicate well, you end up wasting so much more time in crosstalk, in rework, in misunderstandings. And so one of the lessons that I’m learning is slowing down to make sure that people understand their role, their responsibility, and the resources they have at their disposal to meet those responsibilities. And that’s something that I’ve had to grow into and be a better leader in that way. 

 I mean, you know, to a person that’s on the team, on the company, the mission of what we’re trying to do, which is basically we talk about this internally that we’re the DEI Avengers and we’re trying to change the world. The work is difficult because every conversation has some emotional twinge to it.

It could go political left or right in any moment with clients, with people we’re talking to like, and it’s highly emotive, the type of work. And so it’s hard. But the team that has joined us, and when I talked to our employees, they wouldn’t have it any other way because we are making a difference. And at the end of the day, people want to be paid a fair wage and all that’s good.

They want to have an opportunity for professional growth, but we all crave the ability to do something that’s making an impact. And The Diversity Movement has a clear line of sight impact for companies, for our community, for our country. And so our team is very dialed in to that mission and we’re doing a pretty good job of balancing the monetization component of what we’re doing and who we are, we’re a for-profit business, with the mission that we all came together for, which is to make a positive change in the world. What a responsibility to our employees to build a great culture within TDM because of what we’re trying to promote that other companies should do in their business. And we’re building that culture from the ground up.

And so the reasons that we try to spend a lot of time with our team is that we want to make sure that each individual has an ability to add to the culture and give people space to do that. And that’s everything from mistakes are okay, but not learning from them is not. What does it really mean to be a competitive learner?

That means we’re open to feedback and other points of view. Yes at TDM, we have lots of opinions and perspectives and data on the way we think a business should be run, the way people should be treated. But that doesn’t mean we have all the answers. That means we have to be open to people pushing back on our ideas, even though we’re the de facto subject matter expert. We’re all in this unchartered path to create cultural relevancy, cultural commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. And so we have to make sure that as strong as we are on what we’re trying to do, accomplish, and become, one of the best assets that we’re building as a team is our ability to listen and intertwine our thinking with the mission and values of our clients.

You know, leaders are used to having the right answer. That’s why they’re the leader right? 

And this is tough for leaders, right? Because this is an area that nobody’s really been trained or prepared for. So everybody’s in a learning mode by and large. And so the leaders that are succeeding with our work the most are those that are digging into their personal D&I journey. For their education, for their growth, for their betterment, for their behavior.

And that example of how they’re digging in is the most powerful engagement tool for what we’re trying to do within their company. You know, we talk about empowerment, we talk about, you know, bottom up leadership. We talk about transparency and all these things are good and true. But the reality is that people still look to their leader for behavior cues.

And so when the leaders are engaged, when the leaders create budget, when the leaders create space for not only courageous conversations, but courageous commitments to ongoing improvement and change, then organizations are open to following. And that doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of divergent views.

Often one of the challenges we’re facing is, you know, you’re working on racial equity and then another group feels like they’re being left behind. And so there’s a balance to this, but also, you know, what’s most important is that we can’t do any of this work alone. We’re better, stronger together in a lot of companies are figuring that out.

And it’s just good for your business. 

One of the coolest things that I get to do is the one-on-one conversations I get to have with executives.  There’s this moment when there’s enough trust that we can get to the heart of what they’re struggling with.

And one of the executives said, Don appreciate what you’re doing for our firm. And I’m excited about it. He said, but I am struggling with one, you know, a couple of things. And I was like, I’m into it. Like what? Like let’s talk. And we’ve been working with this firm for several months now and it’s taken those months for the leadership of that company to get to know me enough, TDM enough, to know that whatever’s on your mind, let’s talk about it. It’s not judgment. I might  have an opinion. I might not agree with you, but I want to hear what’s going on with you. And if I get somebody to call me DT, then we’re in  the trust zone.

He was like DT. He said I’m tired of being the villain in the movie. Like I get that, you know, the complexion of my skin has created some privileges and advantages, but when I’m trying to move into this moment, if every example being used, if every discussion leads to that the middle-aged white man’s the villain in every movie, it’s tough to continue to engage because everybody has feelings.

For us to just be able to talk about that, to think about how things are landing from multiple points of view was a powerful conversation for me, because it reminded me in creating inclusivity, you can accidentally push some people to the side, but in order for us to make the strides that we want to make to move to that better place, we have to at least work at, we have to have a goal for everybody feeling included in the conversation. And that doesn’t mean- I can use my privilege as a male, that we all can be uncomfortable, but that’s different from feeling like you’re the villain in the movie, every meeting on DEI.

And that was a powerful statement. It grounded me. It’s something we’ve talked about with our team is we do programming and different things, but it all comes back to, do you create an environment at all levels that we have enough trust with each other, that we can talk about tough things with each other and keep it moving because we’re talking about these things not to belittle or finger point or place that blame. We’re talking about these tough things so we can get the feelings out so we can get the plan implemented. We can get the feelings out so we can get each other’s perspective and we can move forward together. And so I’m really encouraged by so much of what we’re seeing, even though there’s so much work to be done.

So one of the things that was really impactful is certainly I have a perspective as a business leader, African-American in technology and business and all of that. But in order for me to be effective, incredible, like to be able to do this work, close to two years ago now I had to get some education about the broader context of DEI, not just my personal experience.

And so for me, becoming a Certified Diversity Executive and going through the pretty rigorous training process, the testing process, the project that we had to do, the 250 question test exam that I failed the first time and I had to take it again, but it created a foundation of number one, it showed a commitment to getting studied up.

Number two, it demonstrated to my team that I truly am a competitive learner . That if, if I don’t have the answers, I’m going to seek them. I’m going to find them. I’m going to sit at the feet of people that have more expertise than me. And that’s a good example. And then augmenting that structured learning and certification process with really working with, being coached by some of the powerful leaders on our team.

And so one of the things that’s been an advantage is I work with some of the top DEI consultants in the world. They’re a part of The Diversity Movement. And so when I’m going into a meeting and I have a question about a particular subject that I need to be more versed in, I can talk to Dr. Florence Holland, who heads up our consulting team.

I can talk to Dr. Oriana Leach who heads up our analytics group. And I get the opportunity to ask of these wonderful consultants- I can talk to Jackie Ferguson, I can talked to Kurt Merriweather. I can call Sharon McLeod. I have a luxury in that, when I have questions on my journey, I have a rockstar team that can help me practice in private and look pretty smart  on topics in public. And I take advantage of that and I would be remiss if I didn’t. And that’s one of the reasons that we, when we hire people, The Diversity Movement, one of the requirements is are they strong enough in their craft? Are they good enough communicators teachers, leaders, consultants, that I want to learn from them.

If the answer is yes, then we want them on our team. And that’s something that is, is really, really important and has helped me immensely because it’s a journey for all of us. 

You know, one of the things that we’re doing, we now have a lot of our technology platform elements in place. Some are fully released. Some are in beta where we’re testing, but we don’t want to raise too much money. We want to raise enough to where we can build out our technology stack, our analytics platforms.

Just some things that we’re moving, but we need to move a little faster. So in the next year, we want to have our technology suite that matches the productivity and the power of our SMEs. And then we want to upgrade our marketing a little bit, so that more people know who we are, what we’re doing, and how we can help.

Now that doesn’t mean that we’re the right firm for everyone, but our goal is to be considered. And at the end of that consideration, if we’re fortunate that you choose this journey with us, we want to be able to be helpful. But if you don’t know who we are, then it’s difficult to consider us. And so locally, you know, North Carolina, Southeast people are starting to be aware of what we, you know, what we’re doing, who we are, how we can help, but we want to expand that footprint from a marketing standpoint, so that we can continue our growth from a national perspective. And we think we’re poised for that. And I’m really excited about what the next year will bring. 

Full Episode Transcript

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, The Diversity Movement CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit Earfluence.com.

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