December 10, 2020

Navigating culture in a crisis

Mandy Bynum McLaughlin - CEO, Principal - Mandy Bynum Consulting

Tiffany Stevenson - Chief Talent & Inclusion Officer - Box 

Christina Shareef - Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging - Reddit

Kiesse Lamour - Head of Industry - Pinterest



While most businesses are familiar with the concept of crisis management, nobody could have anticipated the combined crises wrought by 2020. A pandemic, a global reckoning on racial inequality, market volatility, and natural disasters have forced every company - and individual - to pivot away from business as usual.


This has not only meant a technological reconfiguration of work practices towards remote collaboration, but a reckoning with the unhealthier aspects of conventional workplace culture. The first of these to be challenged was undoubtedly the idea of a work / life separation, with so many people forced to suddenly abandon the commute and begin to work from home. But this was just the beginning. 


Many of the conversations at this year’s digital Black Tech Fest were precipitated by the shared global crises of this year, but it was the closing panel, ‘Navigating culture in a crisis’ - moderated by consultant Mandy Bynum - that focused on real-world strategies and work practices for businesses to adapt and survive. 


Shifting our collective EQ


A recent study by the Society of Human Resource Management found that depression and anxiety globally is going to cost corporations over a trillion dollars this year in productivity losses. Part of navigating culture in a crisis, then, really involves opening up about the psychological toil that world events are having on people. 


“This classic mantra that we’ve had historically around work that you keep your personal life over here and your professional life over here, that’s just not true. People of all backgrounds, regardless of where they came from, their gender, or their ethnicity… they’re all experiencing really unparalleled levels of stress and anxiety,” said Tiffany Stevenson, Chief Talent & Inclusion Officer at Box. “Everyone is trying to navigate this new normal.”


A key focus for Tiffany has been management enablement - updating the company’s leader development curriculum and, critically, allowing people to voice their feelings, thoughts, and concerns on the issues. This means allowing world events and issues to be discussed in business meetings, fostering a more open culture of caregiving and encouraging management to work with empathy and awareness. 


“These are real issues that are having a real impact, and caregiving has a real impact on people right now. So I want managers to feel equipped and empowered to lead with compassion, empathy, and awareness,” she said. “I would say that work has shifted in that direction. This is not a moment, this is a movement, and I think the door is really wide open for us to take on this collective humanity and scale it.”


Frameworks for tackling crisis


One of the most powerful ways of responding to a crisis is by looking for opportunities. But when it comes to thinking about crisis in terms of personal development, that’s hard, said Christina Shareef, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Reddit. She offered a broad framework for doing so. 


“First, you need to absorb what’s happening, begin adjusting to what that new normal is, and then the final stage is emerging on the other side, saying, wow, there’s some real change here, then after that, it’s about maintenance - how we avoid ending up where we were before,” she explained. 


Right now, with thousands of companies beginning to listen to conversations around crises in racism and inequality, there’s an opportunity like never before. But the challenge of tackling systemic issues has only just begun. 


“We’re here having vulnerable, open conversations without the language we were perhaps using before to sugarcoat what folks were going through in the workplace,” Christina said. “To be very frank, white people are listening right now - white CEOs are listening, the C-Suite is listening now in a way that wasn’t happening before. From one perspective, that IS the opportunity.”


“But there’s no way to really affect systemic change until we understand that fixing the results of what’s happened - fixing the fruits on the tree - will never yield results if you don’t fix the root of the tree. Now people are paying attention to what has gone systemically to get us here.”


Putting your money where your mouth is


For Kiesse Lamour, Head of Industry at Pinterest, changing company culture in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the pandemic is a problem for the entire industry - not just individual companies. 


“On the one hand, you have grups of companies that have had a knee jerk reaction to [these crises] for fear really of being called out, and as a result, the commitment that they’ve made to their constituents have ended up [being] performative and tone deaf initiatives,” she said. “If you were to ask these companies what has actually happened within their organisation to tackle these issues since they put black squares on their Twitter profiles, what has happened to their services and their products, they would say not much, right?”


On the other hand, there are organisations that have decided to take stock, re-evaluate, and ask themselves tough questions in order to define a path forward. “This usually comes from companies who have really invested properly in educating themselves and providing safe spaces for these discussions to occur,” Kiesse explained. “Putting in the effort and their money where their mouth is has been vital in helping organisations move forward.”


Key initiatives for doing this include monthly manager power hours, a forum where managers can identify wellbeing issues and prepare for team meetings, as well as new learning curriculums such as unconscious bias training - but it goes much deeper.


“2020 has really provided the fuel to be unapologetic about our demands to really uproot and dismantle systemic racism in our organisations,” she continued. “We are more connected to our humanity than ever before - we catch each other at home, and see so much more context than just our office. Leaders need to tap into their own humanity.”


Ultimately, the initiatives that have been introduced as part of this year’s crises are just a foundation for long-term change. “In ten years from now, this all needs to be part of our corporate DNA and part of our culture,” Christina argued. “There won’t be a separation between the diversity & inclusion program and business strategy. They become one, and we reach a stage where companies could not fathom running their everyday businesses without these elements.”


Black Tech Fest brings together 90 speakers across 20 hours of content celebrating Black culture and tech breakthroughs. Catch-up now