A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation, entitled “Are we there yet?”, to a group of attendees – a mixed bag of engineering students, a few employees, and employers – at the National Society of Black Engineers 42nd Annual Conference in Boston. The session was focused on diversity & inclusion or D&I. I began with my personal story then talked about the very different meanings of the two words – diversity and inclusion. I shared the state of the effort in academia and industry, giving examples of what organizations are doing, the demographic data (particularly in the STEM fields), the growing focus on the gender dimension of D&I, what it means to have a diverse and inclusive workforce, and the benefits of D&I. I ended the session by highlighting the critical need for building a culture of engagement via powerful relationships within the work environment as the foundation for successful D&I programs. You see, inclusion cannot be mandated; inclusion requires voluntary engagement. When organizations build their D&I programs on this cultural foundation they benefit from the collective collaboration that naturally happens when diverse people engage – creativity, innovation, productivity, and growth just happens organically. Don’t believe it? Just check out the D&I programs, related new products and initiatives at companies like American Express, Amazon, DuPont, 3M, Volvo, and others.
I left the NSBE conference and a few days later went over to Smith College, my Alma Mater, to moderate a panel entitled “No Girls Allowed: Game Changers” as a part of the college’s Women’s Leadership Conference. Prior to the conference I drafted questions for the panelists and found them squarely centered on issues related to diversity & inclusion. At the end of the panel Q&A, attendees in the audience openly engaged with the panelists and other attendees, sharing their own experiences and asking related D&I questions.
The evening prior to this conference, I attended a delightful Smith Tea hosted by Black students to provide an opportunity for existing students to connect with Black Alumnae who were on campus for the Women’s Leadership Conference. Again, diversity and inclusion took a front seat in our candid discussions with these young Black women on the campus.
Now I already know that diversity and inclusion (or D&I) is a hot topic. But as I have contemplated all that transpired during the span of these 3 very different but very similar events, this common thread related to diversity & inclusion has caused me to pause, reflect, and feel obligated – maybe a better word is compelled – to respond. Respond? – You might ask…Yes, respond. You see, as I listened to the discussions and questions at all three of these events, I heard a common theme that can be encapsulated in a single question: “How do I deal with D&I issues? (…at my school, in my workplace with peers and co-workers, when I am out to lunch or at a meeting, etc.)
And as I thought about how to respond in every instance at every event, this empowering 4 letter word came to mind …this word that all of these women – young and old, black, white, and other ethnicities – and all of us – at some point in time have managed (for one reason or another) to ignore or forget – perhaps because in the past it fell on deaf ears, or it was perceived as a sign of weakness, or because it appeared to dilute one’s independence, or it is demeaning, condescending, or makes one feel inadequate, even powerless.
And yet, I contend it is the most empowering four letter word perhaps in the entire dictionary!
What is this 4 letter word, you ask? Help.
verb \ˈhelp; Southern often ˈhep also ˈheəp\: to do something that makes it easier for someone to do a job, to deal with a problem, etc. ; to aid or assist someone; to make something less severe; to make something more pleasant or easier to deal with
Over the past 35 years I have been fortunate enough to have some great helpers…er…mentors – my Mom (Irene Clark Ward), Ruth Adam, Alice Dickinson, Frank Cooney, Joe Bresnahan, Jack Barnes, Barry Graham, Jack Altherr, Connie Ling, Michael Romaner, Bob Lindner, Bob Ives, Kim Dunn – to name a few. Dare I say that each of these people helped shape me into the woman – the person – that I am today. These people coached me – helped me – through some of the most difficult times – times when overt racism and exclusion were the norm, both in academia and the workplace – when diversity meant desegregation and inclusion was never an expectation.
On one occasion, I was asked to go to a site in Alabama to propose a large process automation project. The CFO, who was my boss at the time, talked candidly with me about the culture at the site. As he coached me he shared a number of tips about dealing with the various folks I would meet. He ended our talk with these words: “Don’t forget to ask for help”. I know I must have looked confused because before I could ask a question, he reminded me of a fundamental characteristic of the human psyche – that no matter how hard-hearted a person might appear – most human beings will not refuse to help someone when asked. I can’t tell you how many times I have followed his advice. And it has always helped me – empowered me – to overcome barriers and achieve success despite my circumstances.
“I want to understand the world from your point of view. I want to know what you know in the way you know it. I want to understand the meaning of your experience, to walk in your shoes, to feel things as you feel them, to explain things as you explain them. Will you become my teacher and help me understand?”
– James P. Spradley
But how can the simple act of asking for help be empowering? It took me a while to figure this out. But when you ask someone for help, you allow the person from whom the help is requested to be empowered. And at the same time, you are empowered, too. You see, you are suddenly able to take control of what was once perceived as a powerless situation. You are empowered to stop feeling sorry about your circumstances and to take action to stop or change the dynamics of the situation. You invite the person from whom you are requesting help to walk in your shoes. You engage with them on the most personal level. You become teacher and the person becomes your student as you begin to help the person experience what you experience. As you teach him/her what it’s like to walk in your shoes you also solicit his/her help to make things better. In doing so, you push the reset button and begin a do-over – a refresh that allows you both to work together to resolve the issues.
Let me tell you, I grew up poor in the South, the youngest of 10 children. I wrote about my childhood and what a powerful impact my Mother (Irene Clark Ward) had on all of us. My Mother was a true Matriarch who taught us through her example. We had very little but she shared what we had with those around her who had less. She instilled in us a desire to achieve, to help ourselves, each other and others who were less fortunate. My Mom taught us not to look for hand-outs, but she also taught us to recognize the need for help – to ask for and accept the help of others when we had done all that we could on our own. And she also taught us to return the favor.
So while I attended an Ivy League women’s college where the importance of being strong, confident, independent and knowledgeable was reinforced, emphasized, and engrained, I also brought with me (from my humble beginnings) the importance of humility, teamwork, relationship-building, and collaboration. You see, I could not have attended Smith College had I not received a full scholarship from General Motors – my family could not afford it. And while it makes some folks feel better to qualify this gift by saying I earned it with my high academic standing, high GPA and high SAT scores, nonetheless, General Motors helped me to achieve my Ivy League education. And oh by the way, when I completed the application for financial aid – I was asking for help! Having the strong levels of confidence in my ability instilled in me at Smith College coupled with the sobering humility that comes with a sense of self and an appreciation for how I got to where I am today – has served me well in the workplace and in every aspect of life.
So when should you ask for help?
Asking for help seems counter-intuitive in this competitive world of high expectations and over-achievers in which we live. And yet I heard young women talk about having been given opportunity and access but feeling excluded on a campus that is from all outer appearances diverse (but apparently not perceived as inclusive). I heard women talk about their male counterparts who still make off-color sexual jokes at meetings and in elevators in a workplace that is diverse (but apparently not yet inclusive). I heard a woman ask how you know when it’s time to leave and I felt the pain of her inquiry even more so because I have seen the data that confirms lower retention rates for women, especially those working in STEM fields. And I heard a woman ask how she should deal with her female boss who expects more from her than her male counterparts.
For folks in underrepresented groups – not just women and Blacks but members of other ethnic and global groups, the aged, youth, members of the LBGT community, the disabled, etc. – for all of us – asking for help sometimes feels like we are making ourselves more vulnerable. Somehow amidst all of the hurt, anger, disappointment, and other emotions we may be feeling – because we are being mistreated or being treated differently – we must never forget to ask for help even though doing this can appear to be unacceptable, foreign, and a sign of weakness.
But let me tell you, your white male counterparts do this all the time. And it is not seen as weakness but rather as strength. People who know when to ask for help are viewed as intelligent, confident, and valuable. Not only that, but having the ability to recognize when help is needed and the courage to ask for help speaks volumes about you and your character. It says that you are willing to work with and rely on others as a part of a team to get things done. And when we dare to do this, we begin to feel more included – because we know that someone is there to help and that we are not alone – no matter the circumstance.
Don’t get me wrong, asking for help should never replace taking more serious measures when deemed appropriate.
But more often than not, when D&I issues arise, asking for help is a solid starting point in the conversation.
So, the next time you face a diversity & inclusion issue… at school, at work, at an event, or meeting – don’t forget to use the most empowering 4 letter word in the dictionary. Ask for help.
And if you are on the receiving end of this request – don’t forget you have a reciprocal responsibility in the D&I effort. Do what you have been empowered to do: HELP!
Peggie W. Koon, Ph.D., is the CEO and Founder of Leading Change, LLC, a leadership coaching and consulting firm. She is the 2015 chair of the Automation Federation, the 2014 president of ISA, and the former vice president of audience at the Augusta Chronicle and Chronicle Media, a division of Morris Publishing Group, Morris Communications.
Connect with Peggie:
A version of this post originally was published on LinkedIn Pulse.