Activism at work, with DeRay McKesson
Empowering employees to bring their whole selves to work is a staple of a Culture First organization. But does that mean leaders should make space for activism in the workplace? Damon and DeRay McKesson explore how organizational activism can be a key lever for systematic change.
Together, they uncover key ways that businesses can drive meaningful change at the structural level, beyond merely programming.
We then hear from our very own CEO Didier Elzinga, who shares how business leaders can create space for activism in the workplace and empower systematic change.
Gain insight into workplace Diversity and Inclusion
We’re offering our podcast listeners a highly valuable resource: Culture Amp’s 2019 Workplace Diversity, Inclusion, and Intersectionality Report. Get your copy below!
DAMON KLOTZ: Hi everyone, it’s Damon Klotz, host of the Culture First podcast. For every episode of this podcast, the team here at Culture Amp uses their collective intelligence to help you take action on the ideas that you’re going to be hearing in this episode. We do this by gifting you a downloadable asset from our website. For this episode, our team of people scientists looked at the latest trends in employee representation and experience to bring you our research on diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality. Head to culturefirstpodcast.com/activism to get your copy. All right, let’s get started.
DAMON KLOTZ: Hello and welcome back to the Culture First podcast. This episode is going to focus on the topic of activism. If you’ve listened to at least one previous episode of this show, then you will know I’m a fan of creating containers for the conversations that we’re going to have, so that we can better understand a topic from a few different perspectives. In this episode, we’re going to be looking at activism from a societal perspective to learn how we can actually build the world that we think we deserve to live in. Next, we’re going to debate the role that organizations should be playing to make structural changes for good in society. And then we’re going to be hearing from a CEO to learn how do they balance their personal views from the organizations, and what would they do if an employee activist was arrested.
DAMON KLOTZ: Before we do get started though, I want you to stop and think about what comes to mind when I say the word activist. For me, I think about standing up for something. Standing up for something that you believe in, and something that you believe should change for the better. But what comes to mind when I say the word employee activism? Well a quick Google search will bring up a lot of articles about this. Recently we’ve seen the New York Times put out coverage about the Google employees who stood up against the company, because they thought the work that was happening there was unethical. Walmart employees have been protesting against the sale of guns. And then employees from all around the world participated in the global climate strike. Activism and employee activism, I believe, is an important topic and I’m excited to be sharing these stories with you today.
DAMON KLOTZ: My first guest is DeRay McKesson. DeRay is a civil rights activist, community organizer, and host of “Pod Save the People”. He started his career as an educator, and then came into prominence in the year 2014 when he marched on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Marches like this led to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. DeRay’s been named one of Time Magazine’s 30 most influential people on the internet, and 11th on Fortune’s world’s greatest leaders list. He has over a million followers on Twitter, and famously wears a blue Patagonia vest.
DAMON KLOTZ: Now, I do want you to know that you might actually hear this vest at times through the audio. And we’re actually going to be talking specifically about that vest and its importance later in the episode.
DAMON KLOTZ: And we are here having this conversation.
DERAY MCKESSON: I’m here.
DAMON KLOTZ: So today I’m joined by DeRay McKesson. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me today.
DERAY MCKESSON: It’s good to be here.
DAMON KLOTZ: If you were to explain to a five-year-old what you do, how would you describe that?
DERAY MCKESSON: I would tell a five-year-old I help people make the world better.
DAMON KLOTZ: And if you had to say this to say a 25-year-old, how would you describe the business that you were in?
DERAY MCKESSON: Oh, I would say like the police are killing people and they shouldn’t be killing people.And we can do a lot of work to make sure they stop. And this idea that, to a 25-year-old, it would be an exploration to them about what’s the world you want to live in, and I think that we can build that. You tell me the world that you think people deserve, and then I would say to you I think we can actually do that in a lifetime.
DAMON KLOTZ: So if I really knew you, what’s showing up for you today?
DERAY MCKESSON: If you really knew me, you’d know that I’m not always really serious. I meet people and they think because of the work I do that I’m like just-
DAMON KLOTZ: Always on.
DERAY MCKESSON: Hello justice, like hello freedom, that is like how I walk into the room. And there’s a time and place for that. When we think about the work of activism, some of it is the battle but so much of it is also the joy. The joy has to be part of the work. So when I was a Chief of Human Capital in the school system, I was tough. I think I was really fair. I was focused on systems, focused on scale, and I wanted you to enjoy being at work. I get that if you were to choose, you probably wouldn’t be here, and that makes sense to me. In the sense that if you could earn an income and not go to work, most people would choose that. But while you’re here, I want it to be a place where you grow and learn and we have fun and we all get challenged. I think those things are important to me.
DERAY MCKESSON: When I think about the workplaces where I’ve done my best, it’s been places where I was challenged and I was loved and I was pushed and I had fun. That was real to me.
DAMON KLOTZ: Before I got too far into my conversation with DeRay, I wanted to let him know a little bit more about me, and why I was nervous but also excited to be having this conversation with him.
DAMON KLOTZ: So to start, I want to share a story with you based on your work, the research I’ve sort of done about you, and kind of just acknowledged where I’m at. So I wanted to acknowledge that I want to share the cognitive burden with you. I think that’s one of the things that really struck me with the work that you’re doing, is that you cannot be a solo activist. You’re trying to take people on a journey. And to be super honest, I’m a 30-year-old, white, straight male, born in Australia. Have been living in the United States for four years.
DAMON KLOTZ: So I’d like to think I’m reasonably well read, tapped into what’s happening in the world around me, and have empathy towards my fellow human beings. Yet the one thing that I’ve sort of learned throughout this process is that I don’t know enough about the things that we’re going to speak about today. And it feels like the more I educate myself on these topics, the more that I realize I just don’t know enough. And I kind of went down this rabbit hole of I want to learn more, don’t know enough.And then that left me with a lot of anxiety around this conversation. So when you hear me sort of say that I want to share the cognitive burden with you, but then I’m also holding that I don’t know enough about this, does that make you feel like, oh, I need to educate another straight, white dude about these topics? Or does it make you inspired, because you know that people are willing to change?
DERAY MCKESSON: I think my question is what are the things you want to know about? So there’s some things where we just know a ton already and it’s a matter of pointing you in the right direction. And then there’s some things that we really do have to follow our curiosity with. So I do not feel like I need to educate you. It might be a like how do I help push you in the right direction so that you can learn as much as you know. And also validating the fact that I know a ton about the police, and a lot about criminal justice, I would consider myself an expert, and I’m still learning everyday too, right? That learning is actually part of the process of what it means to grow, and that the more and more that we normalize that the closer we get to building the world that we both want, and the world that we deserve.
DAMON KLOTZ: I think that’s one of the key things that holds me accountable is I want to be curious always. And I think being okay with not knowing enough, especially when it comes to the issues that truly affect different parts of society, means that I can at least show up in a way to be always open to learning something new, so I can actually help people through the privilege that I have access to it.
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah.
DAMON KLOTZ: How do we actually kind of create a better experience for both people inside of companies and inside of just the world that they live in, that doesn’t have to feel so disparate and where they have to feel like they have to show up in two ways? What are your thoughts on sort of how we can show up at work and in society in a way that allows us to actually just be our true self and hold those fears and concerns and strengths that we have?
DERAY MCKESSON: I think that what I’ve realized is that there’s a big difference between managing, andI’ve been in places with a lot of leaders and not a lot of managers. There are people who their vision is great, the speech is great, the foresight is really interesting. The ability to make sure that there’s paper in the room on Monday is a nightmare. Just the mechanisms of managing people and time and resources and talent, not great. And I don’t know if we glorify leadership too much, and just we don’t help people understand the mechanics of what it means to manage. But I’ve seen that really limit incredibly gifted people from having the impact that they wanted to have, whether it was about workplace culture or even outcomes.
DERAY MCKESSON: So when I think about the culture, there are a host of things around culture that I think are important. But the simplest is this idea that values are things that we should see, hear, feel, and touch. Values are things that should be evident. So whenI see people’s value statements when I go visit their company, if I have to search for it, it’s not a value. So if the value statement is like I believe in communication and we believe in da dada, and if it is clear that nobody’s communicating, that might be aspirational but it’s not like a lived value. Values are things that live. And I’m interested in the places where the values don’t yet live.
DAMON KLOTZ: What motivates you to continue to be an activist?
DERAY MCKESSON: I think we can win. I think we can win. It’s that simple to me, that I wouldn’t do this if I thought… Just like most of us, I could do a ton of other things. But I do this because I think we can win. I think that we can win in our lifetime. I think that I’ll be like 65 and I’ll look back and be like, phew, that was really hard and we did it. But I really do think that we can win. And I think that these last three years of this presidency had been a reminder of the pace with which the government can move if people want it to move. And that some of the things that we fight for, we need to start fighting for in a way that honors the fact that we can do it in this lifetime.
DAMON KLOTZ: A lot of managers around the world are managing teams in quite hostile environments. When we think about globally what’s happening in the political systems, when we think about what’s happening to different members of society, it’s actually quite hard to manage a very diverse team and truly be able to show up for all of them. What advice do you have for managers looking to boost the psychological safety of the employees that they manage?
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah, I think that in my experience managing teams, managing managers, and managing human capital, most senior leaders know. Whether they are participating in knowing or not is one thing, whether they are acknowledging is one thing. But most people know when the culture is awful, or when people really do get along, or people don’t like them because there was a tough decision or because they made a bad decision. People often know. And the question is, will people respond to that knowledge or not? So when I think about this question of how do people lead in tough places or tough times, I think that more people need to be courageous and brave about sort of walking into owning the fact that they might’ve made bad decisions. Sometimes have that tough conversation with people, and saying I get it, I get you’re frustrated. That makes sense to me. Here’s where we are, and the decision’s not going to change. Or letting other people share space and power.
DERAY MCKESSON: So when I was a Chief of Human Capital, I was 31. I was the youngest Chief in the history of the school system in Baltimore. Most of the people on the team were older than me. So from my age to 65 I managed. And it was like I’m going to be the Chief tomorrow, right? We don’t need to fight about power. I have the structural power, so I don’t need to lord it over you. I don’t need to, I just don’t need to. That is wild. I don’t need to do those things. And I can walk into the room, and I want anybody to come in with the best idea. I want us to talk about it. And that was a like how do I make sure that my ego is not driving, but my focus on the work is driving. I think there are a lot of people for whom in the workplace the ego is actually driving them. The focus is not driving.
DAMON KLOTZ: There’s a book called “Ego is the Enemy”, which sort of played a really important role for me in terms of understanding how do I actually let whatever expectations I have about what I should be playing in this actually just sort of fall to the wayside. And actually say the best way for me to serve myself is to serve others. Do you kind of see that as a way that you’re trying to show up in your work?
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah, in the work of activism for sure. I think when I was in the workplace it was this question about what is the best thing that we can do? What is the best way to do it, and what’s the best thing that we can do? Sometimes they were the same and sometimes they were not the same. So there’d be times, and it was like the best outcome is this. Given our capacity and resources, we can get really close to it, but we can’t reach it. That was sometimes what it was, and sometimes we could match it. And that was my focus at work.
DERAY MCKESSON: I think in the work of activism, it is like I’m always focused on this idea of what is the world we deserve and how do we build it. And how do we get there, who do we fight, how do we battle, how do we dream? But it is about this acknowledgement that we think about the conditions of the world today as present but not permanent.Poverty is present, and we don’t think that’s permanent. Hunger present, and not permanent. Mass incarceration, present not permanent. And when you start to think about this system as present but not permanent, the question becomes well how do we make something better?
DAMON KLOTZ: What’s that first step that we want to do to actually change it, knowing that we know that it can change?
DERAY MCKESSON: I don’t say this cheesily, but I think the first step is really the imagining process. You’d be shocked at how many people when you say what is the workplace you want to work in, people actually haven’t even had that dream yet of oh I want to work in a place that. Like people know all the places they don’t want to work. What we don’t want is actually sort of an easy thing. The what we want is much harder. So when you ask people what is the healthcare system you want, people actually have not been trained to dream about a world that they think they deserve.
DERAY MCKESSON: And it’s not their fault, right? It’s one of the things, especially with poor people and marginalized people, is that you grow up and you know the constraints so well because you’ve had to know the constraints as a matter of survival. So you know how to stretch $10, you know how to deal with the crazy boss who is sort of mean and maniacal, and you just sort of figure it out. Because you’ve had to maneuver in a place with a lot of constraints. And the question of the world we want to build, the world that we think we deserve, is one of saying, constraints aside, what would we do, right? If there were not constraints, what would be the world that we live in, right? And how do we normalize things that seem radical to people?
So I think that we can live in a world where every kid eats breakfast, lunch and dinner, not a radical idea, right? I think that we can work in workplaces where everybody gets customized feedback. That should be still radical, you know what I mean? That’s what makes sports teams so great. It’s sports teams’ model this idea of like every player, regardless of their talent is always coached, right? And that makes sense. And that should be the workplace.
DERAY MCKESSON: Every employee, regardless of their talent should be coached, because we believe that feedback makes people great. And those sort of things seem like really wild to people, especially at scale. And how do we normalize them and force systems, institutions to change?
DAMON KLOTZ: One of the concepts that I’ve decided to learn about recently was the idea of, if you could design a society, what would it look like? What are some of those things where it’s like every kid gets breakfast, people get access to coaching and feedback. You can show up and feel like you can be your true self at work. But designing a society where you don’t know what your place in that society will be, so not designing from your current level of privilege and access, but designing from, if you had no idea where you’d end up, whether you’d be at the top or the bottom, what would that society look like? And I think some of those examples you just gave are things that we would all agree upon, should just be part of this society that we all want to live in.
DAMON KLOTZ: And then it’s about thinking that we have access to actually make some of those changes real. It’s like what’s holding us back from actually making that our reality?
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah. And I think that frankly, especially older generation. There a lot of people who have dreamt before us whose dreams didn’t get realized and I think that people are disappointed. I think there are a lot of people who have lost hope. I think there are people who have seen the worst of this country in a way that we think this moment is bad and people are like, I’ve survived much worse and that is real. So I do think there’s like a little fatigue that happens with people always fighting and always resisting and sort of being like, I want to do something else, right? I don’t want battle to be my only identity and that makes it see me as an activist. So I’m hopeful though. I think that there are more people energized than ever before.
DERAY MCKESSON: If there’s anything that causes me a little bit of worrying, I think that both the level of comfort that people experience in society today, some people and the perceived level of comfort that people like to think exists in the world has made people not even complacent, but I think the people overestimate their ability to ride it out. They’re like, oh, we’ll just ride it out. And Trump is a great example. Before Trump won, I was at this dinner and a legendary democratic strategist, he was like, “If Trump wins, it’ll be like trying to unring a bell.” And I thought that was like the best sort of description of what this presidency turned into. And the reminders is, you don’t ride out the unringing of a bell, right?
DERAY MCKESSON: You can’t unring a bell. So what does it mean that there are a lot of people don’t realize that their life is forever changed, or the way we think about society is actually done, right? It’s changed, that when norms are broken, they’re no longer norms. And I think that a lot of people have been lulled into this like, oh, we’ll ride it out. And it’s like, no, it’s not a norm anymore, right? When the norm is broken, it is no longer a norm.
DAMON KLOTZ: Let’s take a quick pause here.
DAMON KLOTZ: A lot of the ideas and stories that DeRay has shared left me inspired about the future state of the world that we actually can create. But that last point, that last point really stuck and stayed with me. When a norm is broken, it’s no longer a norm.And as I look around at the world right now, I’m seeing nothing but norms being broken and a lot of change. But the bell has been rung and we can’t unring it. All we can do now is acknowledge that the norm has been broken. What leaves me with hope though, is that a new norm will come and change brings opportunity and it brings opportunity to do things differently.
DAMON KLOTZ: What role should organizations be playing to create a more fair and just world that we believe can exist?
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah, politicians say the world is run by people, right? And that when people stop consuming, or people stop consenting, or whatever, that actually powers the world, right? And organizations have become these vessels for the way that people feel like they need to move through the world or access capital, whatever. But the people are the building block of what society looks like. When I think about the role of organizations, I think today what I’d say, which is different than when the protest began, I think that I’d say today that organizations have to fight to change structural things and until the structure changes, it doesn’t matter at scale, right?
DERAY MCKESSON: So what does it mean that some of these tech companies do volunteer days at shelters, cute, right? Interesting, definitely helps people in the moment, after school programs help people in the moment, but it’s like what does it mean to actually change a public school system? That’s a structural thing. Organizations should use their power to do structural change because that’s what will actually change the outcomes. Some of the programs stuff is interesting and it’ll help people’s lives. So this doesn’t have to be an either, or, it can be a both and, but there are a lot of organizations and corporations that sort of issue their responsibility at the structural level and then they only operate at the program level.
DAMON KLOTZ: So rapid fire questions. What do you love most about the work that you get to do?
DERAY MCKESSON: We get to see the world change.
DAMON KLOTZ: What’s one thing about the industry that you operate in that frustrates you?
DERAY MCKESSON: People are not willing to take the truth with them into every room.
DAMON KLOTZ: What’s one thing that you care about more than most other people?
DERAY MCKESSON: I’m obsessed with structures. I like believe in sustained structural change, which is not sexy sometimes, but it keeps me up at night.
DAMON KLOTZ: What advice seems obviously right, relatively easy to follow yet is still often overlooked by most?
DERAY MCKESSON: I’m obsessed with this notion recently of simple but not small, a reminder that some of the… So I have this necklace. Shout out to the sound guy. I have this necklace that is the bread tie. It’s the little thing that holds it back together. It’s a reminder of this idea that sometimes the solutions that actually do the best work are really simple, right? And people lose their bread tie often, they throw it away and then they spend the next whatever trying to figure out how to keep the bread fresh. They twist it and they get a new rubber band and doing all the stuff, and it’s like, have you actually just kept the first thing?
DERAY MCKESSON: If you kept the simple solution which is a bread clip, you’d have been fine in the first place. So I think sometimes we believe that the change that’ll fix the problem or the thing that will impact the most people has to be this grand magnificent, it has to be this grand thing and sometimes it is simple. I remind people all the time that anything that’s ever changed the world probably started in a living room, a basement, a kitchen or a porch, right? That is actually where change originates, it’s in these small places. It doesn’t always originate on a stage in front of 500 people.
DAMON KLOTZ: Small groups of communities getting together about things that they’re passionate about with the belief that change is possible and that they’re the people to change it.
DERAY MCKESSON: Yep.
DAMON KLOTZ: What’s something that you know that you need to get better at?
DERAY MCKESSON: Oh, so much. I think I know a lot about what I know a lot about. So I think that there are other issues like climate change that I don’t know a ton about. I know more than probably the average person, but not an expert, and I can be. I taught middle school so there’s some elementary school stuff that I just don’t know well because I wasn’t an elementary school teacher. So I’m interested in learning more about teaching reading, for instance, what does it mean to teach your child to read? I’m like, by the time they came to me as 11-year-olds, they could read.
DERAY MCKESSON: They might not know how to divide, but they could read. So those are things. I’m interested in those on my spare time, or as a part of the work.
DAMON KLOTZ: I’m fascinated about, if you can create the dream role for you within society, what is your biggest aspiration for the role that DeRay McKesson can actually play in the world? Is that what you’re doing right now or is there some sort of 10 or 20-year vision on the work that you want to do?
DERAY MCKESSON: What I’m doing now, it is about pushing systems and structures to change. I believe in it. I think it’s important. I think we can win. I don’t plan to do this for the rest of my life because I think we can win, right? I want to do this, I want us to win and then I’ll go do something else. I don’t know what that something else is, but I don’t wake up every day being like, you know what? I want to fight for justice every day. Not because I don’t want to, but because I believe that we can actually find the justice and then there’ll be other people to fight for issues that matter to them.
DAMON KLOTZ: We’re going to be hearing more from DeRay McKesson later in this episode, but I thought this would be a pretty good time for us to turn to the people scientists from Culture Amp and look at what data do we have that’s going to bring us some additional context. So to do this, we’ve looked at over 360,000 pieces of employee benchmark data made up from our ethnicity benchmarks. So what did we find? Well, what we found in our research was that there are systems inside of organizations that are impacting non-white employees in a less favorable way. These are similar to the systems that obviously DeRay’s been talking about in terms of how do we make structural change.
DAMON KLOTZ: So an example of maybe one of those systems is going to be the idea of fairness, which is one of our factors inside of our benchmarks and factors are just a grouping of questions that allows us to look at certain themes. So there’s one question that I really wanted us to focus on. When we asked the question, people from all backgrounds have equal opportunities to succeed at this company? There was 78% favorability from white employees and a 14 point difference for black employees. Soto dive deeper into this, I also want to look at our 2019 diversity and inclusion report. That same report that I mentioned that beside this episode that you can get at culturefirstpodcast.com/activism.
DAMON KLOTZ: So in this report, what you’ll see is that straight white men answered with 80% favorability to that question, whereas black women answered only 54% favorability. So why I’m personally a big believer in being an activist is because I think I should be using my platform and privilege as a straight, white male to be able to help bring change where I can. We have Employee Resource Groups at Culture Amp, or ERGs as you might know them and one of them is called Camp Color. We have private Slack groups if you are a member of Camp Color so that you can have a safe container to have conversations about your experience as a person of color at Culture Amp.
DAMON KLOTZ: But then we also have a public group and this is public group is for people who want to show their support. So this public group, typically it’s called an ally group, but when I spoke about this topic with one of the group’s leaders, she actually said that she wants to change the group from being called an ally group to an activist group. So this might sound like a subtle language change, but why is this change so important? Well, because I believe that people need to not just be there to support, they also must be willing to share the cognitive burden and do the work.
DAMON KLOTZ: Remember what DeRay said earlier in this episode, older generations of people can lose hope for change over time due to the disappointment of not seeing anything change. So I believe it’s up to other members of society to also be willing to step up and help create the world that we all deserve to live in.
DAMON KLOTZ: My next guest, well, he might be a familiar one.
DIDIER ELZINGA: Didier Elzinga, CEO and founder at Culture Amp.
DAMON KLOTZ: Based on my knowledge of working with Didier for over five years now, I know that I could have got his opinion on any episode that we’ve put out on this podcast so far, but what I also know is that there’s plenty of videos and other podcast episodes where you can learn from Didier on any of those topics and I really do encourage you to go find them. I wanted to hear though from Didier about his perspective on supporting or not supporting employee activism, and how he balances his personal views as a human first from his views as a CEO, from those of the perspective of Culture Amp as a company.
DAMON KLOTZ: So listeners of this podcast have potentially heard you before, seen you give a keynote. If they’re a long time customer of Culture Amp, maybe they’ve even been on the receiving end of a demo from Didier back in the day.
DIDIER ELZINGA: Or I solved one of their support tickets or even better, I might’ve written the piece of code that the product team hates the most, that that particular client is still using.
DAMON KLOTZ: Look, there’s definitely some sort of backstory that potentially listeners have had of you, but maybe there’s someone who’s listening to this who has never heard of you or me, and they’re just listening for the first time. So if I was to ask the question, Didier, if I really knew you, what would I know?
DIDIER ELZINGA: You would know that I worked for Hollywood. You would know that I used to work on Hollywood feature films, that I’ve worked on Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and all those things. You would know that I founded Culture Amp. You would know that I did that because I care about culture as being the biggest lever that we have and that drives me to this day. You would know that I like to talk and I like to tell stories, and that I have a story for most things and I have an opinion on most things.
DAMON KLOTZ: Do you, as a CEO, support employee activism?
DIDIER ELZINGA: Okay. I’m going to say yes and no. So what I mean by that is I think if, and this is kind of like the concept behind being an entrepreneur too. If you’re willing to hurt for something, nobody can tell you what you could or should do. I think this is fundamental. And sometimes people say, well you can’t be an NBA player if you’re not tall enough. Yeah true, probably. But, if you’re willing to work your ass off, and work ten hours a day, and just shoot a basketball because that’s what you care about, no one can tell you that’s not what you should do. Maybe you won’t play in the NBA, but you can maybe make a career in basketball some other way.
DIDIER ELZINGA: Like, so for me, the bit of activism that really resonates with me is this idea that nobody else can tell you what matters. Like, you’re the one that decides what matters to you. And I think activists are people that have made their choice. This matters to me. And it doesn’t matter what anybody else says, I’m going to make a point in this because I need this to change.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And that really resonates with me. Like this idea that the future doesn’t belong to the people that were anointed to it. Unfortunately, it often does from a systemic point of view and an oppression point of view. But I want to believe that the future belongs to the people that haven’t given up and the people that believe more than anyone else that it needs to change. So, that part of activism, absolutely.
DIDIER ELZINGA: The no part in me is not that you shouldn’t have activism, because like I said, I think you should. But it’s such a tricky thing to try and figure out when is activism the right way to solve and change the system, and when are there other ways to change the system. And so, I’m not qualified to be able to say that I know the answer to these things either. But I also see that there can be a trap where sometimes you see people get so caught into the activism that they don’t get to make the change that they want to make.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And so, I say this knowing that I’m a CEO. Like by almost definition, I’m at the heart of the system, so I’m like the least activist possible person. So, I have a very warped sense of the view. But I’m always trying to figure out, for a lot of things that people feel they need to be activists about, shouldn’t that be core? Why do you have to be an activist? And I say that challenging myself, that for all the words, sometimes things don’t change and you have to fight, otherwise they won’t change. But I also want to hope that sometimes when we’re fighting, if we could stop fighting, we could sit down and actually make the change that needs to be done.
DIDIER ELZINGA: Activism is important because, without it, things don’t happen. But there’s a point at which it needs to get beyond a duality of, there’s a bunch of people that are activists and everybody else who is not an activist. And we have to find a middle ground. So, as a CEO, I want to create a space where people can take things that are important to them. And ideally, I want to create a community where we can all work on those things. But I also want to recognize that, at times, people will have to be activists for something because the rest of us either don’t think it’s important, or aren’t interested in it, or whatever. And it’s their activism that will change our mind because we’re wrong.
DAMON KLOTZ: Recently in Australia, the country where you and I are both from, our country was devastated by wildfires. This led to a lot of conversations inside of Culture Amp about how could we support our country during this tough time. And some of the ways that you can actually support is you look internally to the groups that you
already have, who they are willing to support. So, we have Employee Resource Groups or ERGs. And then, we have clubs dedicated to different topics.
DAMON KLOTZ: And one of the clubs that we have is specifically around climate change. One of our employees actually asked you in our CEO channel on Slack, what would your response be if they were arrested for protesting while wearing a Culture Amp t-shirt? How did you respond to that?
DIDIER ELZINGA: Do you want to pull it up in Slack and quote what I said? I’ll see if I can remember exactly how I put it. I basically said I’d be proud. I’d be proud that that person stood up for something that they believed in. I happen to believe in that cause too, but that’s not the point. I’d be proud that somebody was willing to put themselves on the line. And I wouldn’t think that that was a challenge for us as a brand.
DIDIER ELZINGA: Now, I studied ethics at school, at uni. And I’m a big believer in ethics. And the problem with any of these things is there’s no simple answer. Like I can say that and it’s like, great. You’re like, what if one of our people was wearing a Culture Amp shirt and they were protesting out the front of a family planning clinic, which starts to get a lot more complicated. And how do you feel about that? And, okay, I feel very different. But the core idea is, I don’t want to shy away from somebody believing in something enough to put themselves on the line for it.
DAMON KLOTZ: I think the employee might have specifically said, if I remember, if they were shackled to the Sydney Harbor Bridge or something wearing a Culture Amp t-shirt on the front page of the newspaper. And I think it’s very easy for us to say… well, actually maybe it’s not easy because there might be some CEOs out there who don’t believe in climate change. And, if the employee was arrested wearing the t-shirt, that might go against them. I guess that’s really where a lot of these questions get tough. And, for you, it’s like how do you separate yourself as CEO with your own belief system versus the CEO and face of the company and what they believe in?
DIDIER ELZINGA: It’s something that I think about a lot, which is increasingly companies need to take stances on things. They actually have to tell the world what they care about. But, if I’m taking a moral stance or if the company is taking a moral stance, whose moral stance? Mine as the CEO? Ours as the founders? The board’s? The company as a whole? And, as we get bigger, we’re 400 odd people now, there’s not going to be very many positions where everyone in the company is all on the same line. And, if there is, are we really as inclusive as we want to be?
DIDIER ELZINGA: And so, I’ve been talking to people about this. And we’ve had some interesting conversations internally, which is I think there’s an element where people want to know some sense of the morals of their leaders, like what do their leaders care about? What are their leaders willing to hurt for? And what’s implied in that is, what are the leaders willing to let the companies hurt for in pursuit of some greater good?
DIDIER ELZINGA: And so, I think there’s an element there where I can speak for myself as CEO. But then, in a broader sense, it’s this idea of how are we thinking as a company? And you go back to the mission.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And so, where I kind of stand on this at Culture Amp is to be able to say to people, look, we’re trying to change the world. We’re trying to create a better place to work.So, in a public sphere, we are going to take a more progressive stance on issues. That does not mean that everyone in the company needs to agree with those issues. So, it could be climate change, it could be same sex marriage, that as a company, we believe that that is a progressive and positive stance in what’s possible with humans. It doesn’t mean that everybody in the company fully embraces that. There may be people that have religious or other reasons why they’re like, actually, I’m really not comfortable with that idea. But they’re willing to accept that as part of the bigger picture of what Culture Amp could be.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And I know that this is a conversation that a lot of CEOs and senior leaders are having, which is like, we know we need to take more stances. What should we take stances on? And what shouldn’t we take stances on? And when does it just become ego? When does it become me getting up and saying, this is the way I think the world should work? The last thing people need is another middle-aged white man telling them how the world should work.
DAMON KLOTZ: Is it important for CEOs of organizations to use their platform and resources to be an activist for the causes that they can actually have an impact on?
DIDIER ELZINGA: I think it is incredibly important for CEOs to use the platforms they have to make change. Is it important for them to be an activist? I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, take Mike Cannon-Brookes. I mean, he’s essentially being a climate activist in a very effective way. And I take a huge amount of respect for what he’s doing there. I go back to DeRay and other activists. I actually wonder if I would have the courage to do what they did. Because, in all of these situations, these are people that put everything on the line, physical, mental, emotional. And I would like to think I have the courage but I don’t know if I would at the real point where you sort of sit down and at some level you go, this is more important to me than anything else.
DIDIER ELZINGA: So, I think it probably depends on like would you make a good activist? I’m not sure all CEOs would. But I think it’s incumbent on CEOs to realize that, whether they use it or not, they have influence and power. And so, they have to take accountability for how that influence and power is being used. And, if more of us were using it to make change that’s needed in the world, then that change would happen faster.
DAMON KLOTZ: It’s hard to always know when my voice is the voice that needs to be heard versus when I can tell people, it’s okay in this space for you to use yours. And I think an example of that is, maybe not everyone will know this, but there’s a public holiday in Australia which has caused a lot of debate in the last decade, which is Australia Day. Typically, it’s a public holiday that the whole country has. But there is a significant movement to us not celebrating that day.
DAMON KLOTZ: And, rather than say like… it’s very easy to say, here’s my stance, which means that this is the company’s stance. You gave employees the choice to say, if you want to take this day off, you can. It’s a public holiday. But, if you want to work, you can come to work and you can take it at another time. So, I think that was a powerful way using your voice to let people actually come to a decision about what’s important to them rather than a company or a CEO saying, this is important to me. Maybe it’s important to you.
DIDIER ELZINGA: Yeah. That’s something that I wrestled with, which is, at some levels you could see it as a cop out because you’re not making a choice. You’re putting it back to people to make choice. But it’s also about allowing people to express themselves and allowing that to say that maybe there’s some people that do want to recognize that day. And the very reasons why people think the day shouldn’t be recognized, which I happen to agree with, are valid. That person may have valid reasons too. We don’t have to force a fight where one person is right and one person is wrong. Ideally let’s let people do this.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And then, let’s educate each other. Let’s understand why you have that view. Because the number of times I’ve sat down and thought I understood and then listened closely to what’s going on and realized I didn’t understand, and I’m much better for that. And so, I think these are opportunities for us to have conversation rather than take positions, but actually explore.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And the point you make about making space for others, I think that’s the most powerful thing you can do. So, it’s great when I get up. And I like speaking and I think I’m reasonably good at it. So, I get up in front of the company or crowd and I try and express how we think or feel about something. And that’s great. But, if I can create space for somebody else to do that, that’s better. And it’s more powerful.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And it’s hard for me. Like it’s hard to realize… as a CEO, you get to a point where you realize that a lot of your job is symbolic. You’re in a meeting with a customer so that you can get the right people to turn up to the meeting, because if the CEO is coming, they’re going to turn up. And your job is just to create space and create a container, and then get out of the way. Because they’re not there to hear Didier. They’re here to hear the CEO. And so, the CEO creates the space and then gives the floor to the people that are ready.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And so, I think, if we put an activist lens on that, it’s actually really interesting to sit down and go, how can I use my space and place in the system that people are trying to agitate against to create room for them to do it? And I spent a lot of time inHollywood. And you think about all those great films and stories and that situation where they’re kind of mythic leader was willing to use the fact that they were orthodoxy to allow someone who was not to have access to something they did not have access to. And then, that created the opportunity for change and for space. And so, that is something that I try and figure out and hold myself to account too is, am I doing that enough.
DAMON KLOTZ: So, one thing that you and I are both very passionate about is company values. So, my catch phrase on this topic is that values should be behaviors, not banners. Banners are the signs on the wall that you stand behind, where the behaviors are the things that you see every day. And, when I was talking to DeRay about this, he said that, values are things that you should see, hear, feel, and touch. They should be evident. And, when he sees a company’s values up on their website and then visits that company, if he has to go searching for it, then it’s not a value. Why is it so hard for companies and the people inside of them to truly live out their values as behaviors?
DIDIER ELZINGA: Well, there’s multiple layers to this. So, you can help illustrate values with behaviors. So, what are the behaviors that underpin the values? But there’s still the value there too. And values have all sorts of different components. So, there is, what is it? What does it mean? Why is it the value? Why is it useful? What’s the mutuality? So, think about meaning, relevance, and mutuality.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And then, there’s the golden and the shadow side. So, what happens when you use this too much? What happens when it gets weaponized? How do we want people to draw on values? So, values are this really interesting thing.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And this is one of the situations I should have my wife here because she’s the expert on values. But values are, for my mind anyway, so hard because they’re both really simple and really complex. They’re designed to be guiding principles. They’re designed to be things that help you understand and process things. But, to make them work, you have to figure out how to use them in all these different situations.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And so, lived values are ones where over time and through experience you can see how they play out. And it’s really interesting, like years ago I used to study Ninjutsu.And they have this thing called the Kihon Happo, which is like a wrist lock basically. And there’s like seven basic ways you do a wrist lock or whatever the number is. It’s been a long time since I did it. And I remember they teach them to you like in your first lesson. Like you learn all of them. And then, the idea is you spend the rest of your life learning how to use them properly.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And so, at one level, there’s no difference between what you learned on day one and what you know after 50 years of training. But, of course, the difference in how they’re actually used and how they show up is immense. And, while you’re being trained, something will happen and somebody will show you something. And then, they’ll like, and this is where it fits in Kihon Happo. And you’re like, I never would’ve realized that’s what you were just doing. And so to DeRay’s point, when you walk in, they have to be in the bones of the company. They have to be lived and real and they have to drive. And the line that I like the most is this idea that first we shape our values, then our values shape us. And so I think what you’re looking for when you go in is where’s the shaping? Where’s the shared culture that is shaping the way people behave?
DIDIER ELZINGA: Then you have a set of values. If it’s just learning and reciting words, no it’s not. But this is a journey that takes a long time for everyone to get together. And if you think about it in the Valley, many companies are doubling year on year, which means that more than half the people have been here for less than 12 months. So any behavior is a behavior that’s been learnt in a very short period of time, not something that’s been embedded and thought about and wrestled with.
DIDIER ELZINGA: And if you go back to things like if you have a faith and the sort of core doctrines of that faith, you spend your life thinking about those and researching them and understanding them and trying to figure out how to apply them in the world that you live in.
DAMON KLOTZ: Thank you to Didier Elzinga for joining me. All right, so now let’s frame this episode as we come towards the close. What have we heard so far? Well, we heard from DeRay and we learned more about his background as an educator and then his role as an activist. He shared his ideas about society, organizations and the role that we can play within all of them to create a more fair and just world. Just then we also heard from Didier, Culture Amp CEO, and he shared his thoughts on employee activism and the power of the behaviors that we allow inside of our companies.
DAMON KLOTZ: This is probably a good time for me to point out something that might be obvious to you now. So in case you’re wondering, I am very aware that every guest on this episode, yours truly included, has a name that starts with D, and the potentially missed opportunity to have called this the DeRay, Didier, and Damon show. There’s always learnings.
DAMON KLOTZ: All right, so as we come towards the end, what we’re going to be hearing next is from DeRay. And if you remember at the start, I told DeRay that I wanted to share the cognitive burden with him. So here’s where DeRay thinks that you should start if you want to share that burden. And we’re also going to hear a story about a school principal that actually scared DeRay more than the police officer who stopped him on his way to work and drew a gun on him.
DAMON KLOTZ: You’ve said before that you’re not going to give talks for the rest of your life to actually win this. So what is some advice that you can give to any member of society who wants to sort of share that burden with you?
DERAY MCKESSON: I’d say start where you are, follow your curiosity so that you actually know enough to be dangerous, and then ask every question you can. In my professional life, as an activist for certain, I’m never afraid to ask the question because I don’t know. And I’m okay being like, “I have no clue. I literally didn’t know that. I never learned it, didn’t see it.” I’m okay with that. And that has helped me tremendously.
DAMON KLOTZ: So people who might be listening to this can be from any corner of the world. Is there a story that sort of you could share with someone that will help them see the world more through your eyes?
DERAY MCKESSON: I don’t know if it’ll help them see the world through my eyes. I think that what is real is that anti-blackness is a global thing. I won’t even call a phenomenon because it was intentional, but racism is real, simple statement. Anti-blackness is real. I spend most of my time on issues of policing, and in Baltimore there was one morning I needed to go to the school … I used to run an after school program at a school. It was from 3:00 to 8:00 PM. It was very long with middle grades. And one morning I realized somebody had left something on the table at the school, so I had to go early, like 6:00 AM to get there when the custodian was going to open the school up, dah dah dah.
DERAY MCKESSON: So I’m riding through Baltimore and I’m definitely … I’m like sort of speeding I think, because the principal hated me so I needed to get to school before he got there. And I see a cop and the cop doesn’t even pull me over, but I see him and I’m definitely speeding and I’m like the only car in the street. So I just pulled myself over. I’m like, “You know what, give me a ticket. I got to go. So I’m totally … I won’t fight you on the ticket, give me a ticket. I got to get to this school before the principal because he hated me.”
DERAY MCKESSON: So he pulls me over and I’ll never forget he comes to the car window with his gun drawn and he’s just pissed. And I am so terrified of the principal and this guy with this gun is just like … I’m like, “I just need him to go because you are stressing … you are messing up my flow because the principal was going to kill me too, so both of y’all would kill me.” So all I can say to him is like, “It’ll be okay.” I’m like, “It’ll be okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
DERAY MCKESSON: He’s like screaming, the gun is pointed at me and I’m like, “It’s okay.”
DAMON KLOTZ: You were saying those words to him?
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah, because I’m like … he needed to go. I mean, I guess I was afraid but I was really like, “Oh man, I got to go. If this is 30 more minutes and then there’s going to be … ”
DAMON KLOTZ: I have not got time for this.
DERAY MCKESSON: I’m like, “I really don’t have time for this.” So he calms down, I don’t get a ticket, blah blah blah. Then it was my birthday … it was around my birthday. My birthday was either like the day before … it wasn’t my birthday, but it was either the day before or the day after.
DERAY MCKESSON: And he pulls up next to me as we drive away. He rolls his window down. I’m like, “What could you possibly want now? You almost killed me.” And he’s like, “Happy birthday.” And I’m like, “We are not friends.” But it was this moment that was like, I didn’t do anything wrong, I pulled myself over, I did everything right, and still you came to my window with your gun drawn, which was a reminder of the risks that people face every day regardless of like the choices they make. I was wearing a hoodie, in some basketball shorts. It was at 6:00 in the morning. But I think far too many people have stories like that.
DAMON KLOTZ: When I speak to companies about values, I sort of think it in two ways. One is a value can exist as a banner, which is something that is easily seen on a wall but not easily seen as a behavior. The other way they can really show up is just through everyday behaviors. So if you’ve got a value of vulnerability, it’s like does the behaviors that you see actually showcase vulnerability or are people still holding that back because it’s something that they’ve been told to have but can’t actually show up and experience? So for me, a truly healthy workplace culture is where values are sort of lived out as behaviors and less as banners and things that are more of a shrine about what we think we should be as opposed to something that we can be every single day.
DERAY MCKESSON: I think that’s right.
DAMON KLOTZ: Is there a workplace leader that inspires you?
DERAY MCKESSON: My last boss. I’ve only… have I only had great bosses? No. This one boss is bad, but have mostly had really great bosses. And my last manager was a superintendent in the school system of Baltimore. Incredible. She was by far one of the best decision makers I ever knew. We can roll things up to her and her instincts are strong. Her ability to connect the dots across the things she managed was actually really strong. She needed things to be cued up for her and I was a good cue-er upper, and being like, “Hey I think you should see this. I think you should push on this. I think you should understand this better,” like those things. I was good at that and she was great at making decisions and I was … it was a great team to work on because she was really good.
DAMON KLOTZ: One of the final things I wanted to touch on is the idea of symbolism and just the role of symbols in society. You have a very clear symbol with your blue vest. Do you see a world where you don’t want to or need to wear the vest anymore or is it something that will stay true to you as a symbol for the rest of your life?
DERAY MCKESSON: I don’t know. We’re coming up on five years on the protests. We’ll see what happens next. The reason I wear it, the reason I kept wearing it is because it reminds me that everything we went through was real, that I can go to enough conferences like this and I never want to forget that what brought me to this work was the police killing a teenager, and that that happened in 2014. It’s the same vest I was teargassed and pepper sprayed and all those other things in this one, and it’s my way of taking the work with me everywhere. Maybe I’ll get a vest tattoo one day, like on my arm or something. I don’t know.
DERAY MCKESSON: But I only have two physical things from the protest. I have the pair of shoes I wear every day, because I didn’t plan to stay so I didn’t really pack for a … I don’t know how, I guess people pack for protests now, but I packed for weekend. I was like, “I’m going out for the weekend,” and I stayed much longer than a weekend.
DERAY MCKESSON: So I only have these shoes and I have a vest and that … I have this vest and a pair of shoes. But the shoes, I wear them so much that there’s no … the sole is like a nightmare, so I don’t wear them. But yeah.
DAMON KLOTZ: So it’s forever for now?
DERAY MCKESSON: I don’t know. I don’t know what’s forever, but it is for now. It is definitely … it’s been a good solid five years. I wear it so much that I’m just used to wearing it. It’s like I feel weird when I don’t have it on. I wear it every day. People think I just wear it to events. I wear it like down the street. I wear it to take the … I don’t know, I wear it every day because I have been wearing every day for so long. So it’s like a really good friend. And you don’t get rid of old friends.
DAMON KLOTZ: Thank you to DeRay McKesson and Didier Elzinga for joining me to talk about activism and how we can build the world that we all deserve to live in. I would love to know your reactions to this episode, so please use the hashtag culturefirstpodcast on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, wherever you’re sharing your stories these days. Feel free to tag me, @DamonKlotz or @CultureAmp.
DAMON KLOTZ: I really want to know how this episode landed for you, how employee activism is showing up in your company, and any other topics that you’d like me to cover in the future. A reminder that we’re offering all of our listeners today a highly valuable resource, Culture Amp’s 2019 workplace diversity, inclusion and intersectionality report. You can head to culturefirstpodcast.com/activism to get your copy. I do believe that the world needs to hear these stories now more than ever, so it would really mean the world to me and to our team if you left us a review and share these episodes with your network. Not only does it allow me to share this feedback back to the rest of the team who works on his podcast, it also helps gets this show in front of more eyes and more importantly, more ears. So until next time, thanks again for listening and appreciate your support of the Culture First podcast.