Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors


As a supplement to our special edition Learning Link e-newsletter on the topic of change management, we spoke to Scott Cotenoff, Partner at La Piana, about what has become the change headline for the sector: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

What do you see happening right now at the intersection between social change and organizational change?

While some organizations in the sector have begun to change internally to address the need for equity, there’s also a need for greater urgency around addressing DEI and getting at root power relationships. For nonprofits and foundations, this means thinking critically about organizational structure, how power plays out within those structures, and ways to share power and include more diverse voices in making decisions. The thing is, we’re great at talk. But the question is what can organizations really do to make the changes needed? What does it take to make the decision, to make the change and create organizations that are equitable and inclusive in reflecting and serving our communities?

I also think it’s important to note that creating true equity, inclusion, and diversity in our country and in the sector must address issues related to gender, disability, sexual orientation and sexuality, and other traits that delegitimize and marginalize us. However, race and the lack of racial equity is and has been elemental in creating structural power imbalances and inequity. And so, that’s really what’s top of mind for me, and what will show up in a lot of my answers throughout this discussion.

Aren’t there organizations that are starting to make the kinds of changes you’re talking about? What can we learn from them?

Yes, there are, and they tend to be organizations led by people of color. And that will only get us so far, which is why I feel compelled to speak to other white people. It’s us who need to shake each other up and say, “let’s stop talking and start doing.” We need to challenge ourselves to understand and acknowledge both implicit and explicit bias within our organizations, to initiate opportunities to counteract this bias, and to create different cultures within our organizations to advance this work. And I intentionally include our own firm in that. It’s incumbent on us to speak directly to older white leadership precisely because that’s who we, in large part, currently are. As we’ve said in our introduction to the Black & Bold Leadership blog series when we launched it this year, we know we have our own work to do.

So, those who study the psychology of change often say that fear makes us cling to what we know, even if we know it’s unhealthy. Is this a problem, then, of letting go?

Letting go of power and privilege on one hand, and also letting go of what’s known and comfortable. That’s a potent combination. It’s comfortable to be in control, being part of decision making, and it’s hard to give that up (and sometimes just as hard to ask others to relinquish it). I think this is one reason why we see, in many organizations, a tendency to rely on people of color on staff to be the ones to make it uncomfortable for white people so that maybe something changes. But identifying the problem that needs to be changed has to come from everyone — not just people of color — seeing it, recognizing it, and speaking up.

And what of different forms of shared leadership or distributed leadership? Are those models part of the way forward?

I’m torn about distributed leadership, because ultimately the buck has to stop with someone. My heart says leadership and authority needs to be distributed rather than closely held, but I haven’t seen a lot of successful examples of doing that. Part of the challenge is that not only does the leader need to cede authority, those accepting shared authority need to pull together and step up when decisions have to be made. It’s about ensuring that those who need to weigh in have access to and are part of the decision-making process, and about having them prioritize that decision-making responsibility (even when they have other roles in the organization).

I think it takes a creative and thoughtful process to allow for shared decision making to happen effectively and efficiently, and I don’t really see that most organizations are prepared to move away from the traditional model of leadership. Again, there’s talk and there’s action — and those are two different things. Organizations do progressive work. but don’t think to look in their own house first. It goes back to accountability: if we’re, as a sector, in large part about making social change, then why aren’t we able (or willing) to make change in our own organizations — if only as a starting point?

So what is one thing you think any organization could do today to move closer to actually walking the talk when it comes to culture change, leadership, and DEI?

I think we learn the most by asking questions. So I’d encourage organizational leaders, senior staff, and boards to consider questions like the ones below — and use them to initiate real actions, such as:

  • Question: As a longtime leader, what’s stopping you from inviting others into leadership discussions?

Action: Ask this of participants at your next leadership team meeting. Then, based on the responses, develop a plan to counteract each of the roadblocks your team named.

  • Question: What are your concerns about setting up a more inclusive, distributed model of leadership within your organization?

Action: Then assign members of your leadership team to research and learn about organizations that successfully employ this model and report their findings back to the team.

  • Question: How might your organization strengthen its impact if it were more equitable, diverse, and inclusive, particularly as those are reflected in leadership?

Action: Pose this question at your next staff meeting and articulate an equity rationale to formalize your commitment to achieving this vision.

  • Question: How can you challenge leaders in your organization, particularly those who are white and male, to be more disruptive of implicit and explicit bias within your organization?

Action: Meet individually with each member of your leadership team to discuss this question, then support them in developing their own personalized action plans.

Any parting thoughts?

The value of inclusive leadership and equity-centered organizations is having different perspectives on the problems we’re trying to solve together. If you keep looking through the same eyes, you’re just going to keep seeing the same thing. Old ways won’t open new doors and old perspectives won’t get us to new solutions.

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