The Transformational Leadership Talks series is hosted by David Alexander, Managing Director at The Human Capital Group, and features advice and insights from leaders who are transforming their industries.
Welcome to the Transformational Leadership Talks, a series featuring leaders who are transforming their industries on a global basis. Today, I’m sitting down with Taiwan Brown, Vice President, Inclusion & Community Relations at RealPage.
Q1: Thanks for joining us today, Taiwan! Let’s dive right in. What are some of the things that companies need to be thinking about, besides compensation, if they want to attract the right talent?
It’s really important that companies have a strong employee value proposition. People want to work for a great company that has strong values that align with their own personal values, but also a company who’s strong in their respective industry, has a good reputation and who’s getting business results. They also want to work for a company where they have a rewarding job with a future.
People are looking for opportunities to be challenged. They want learning opportunities that will allow them to grow in their careers and where they are able to get mentors.
Culture has always been key and is becoming increasingly more important. Is it a positive environment? Do the CEO and senior leadership care about the wellbeing of their employees and the communities they serve? This is a key aspect of my role – corporate social responsibility. People are looking for companies to take a more active role in building stronger communities. Applicants are looking at how companies are giving back and making a difference in the communities where they live and work.
Q2: What does it mean to truly have a culture of diversity and inclusion? What’s the difference between the companies that are getting it right and those that just seem to be checking the boxes?
First, it’s important to distinguish the difference between diversity and inclusion; sometimes those words are used interchangeably. Diversity is all about the ways in which we differ from one another. This could be obvious things like ethnicity or gender but it’s also the cognitive differences. How do we think? How do we approach problem solving? All of those things encompass diversity.
When we talk about inclusion, we talk about leveraging those individual differences for the success of the organization. We can’t just focus on diversity. We have to move to that next step of inclusion where people feel valued, respected and feel like they have a voice that’s heard.
That starts with the CEO and moves down throughout the organization, but leaders have to walk the talk in this space. It can’t just be words or things people see on paper. Employees want to visibly see the leadership’s commitment to this process. It also helps when you have advocates and champions within an organization who help communicate, support and push that diversity and inclusion message. Communication is so key because you have to talk about why diversity and inclusion is imperative for the company’s ability to deliver results and drive innovation. There has to be a clear business case for D&I. Those are the things that determine the companies that are executing D&I well versus those who are just checking a box. Looking at representation statistics and making sure you offer sexual harassment training does not mean D&I is integrated and woven into the way the business operates.
Q3: I had the opportunity to hear your story and I was wondering if you could talk about your own journey to overcome personal bias?
Sure, I’ll tell you the story of two different individuals. The first individual grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, in a middle-class black family with two loving parents. This individual was raised in church and taught to have pride in their race and a lot of confidence in themselves. Their parents were actually a part of the Civil Rights movement, so they knew and experienced the realities of racism. They grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods, went to predominantly black schools and even went to a historically black college and university.
The other person was a black male who grew up in West Texas. He experienced a lot of challenges and difficulties in his family life early on and was adopted by a white family in high school. His family provided him with all types of emotional stability and really showed him what love looked like.
This is also a love story, David. Those two met and ended up getting married. This is the story of me and my husband.
I grew up in Greensboro, NC and my husband is from West Texas. It was so interesting when we got together. His background was just so different from mine. I remember the first time I went to visit his family and it was just like that movie, The Blind Side. I didn’t know this could really exist. I thought it was Hollywood and didn’t think it could be real based upon how I grew up and some of the messages I heard. It just made me aware that I had some unconscious bias that was formed at an early age. I really had to relearn some things — and that’s the story of my unconscious bias.
Q4: What a great story and I appreciate you sharing that. I think every one of us deals with unconscious bias. What’s your top recommendation as people try to figure out how they need to address it, both professionally and personally?
One of the first things, David, is that people have to stop being in denial. You have biases. I have biases. We all have biases. I think there’s this mentality that if I have a bias, I’m a bad person.
One of the things we have to realize is that bias is just a mental shortcut that we make when we process information on a day-to-day basis. Having a bias in itself is not bad: it’s how you respond based upon that bias that can be damaging.
To get out of that denial, people need to take a moment for self-reflection and really think about what you know. Pay attention to what’s happening as you go through day-to-day activities in the workplace, like hiring. One of the most common biases is an affinity bias. For example, people that you’re more comfortable with have attended your college and, therefore, you form a stronger affinity for them. They may get selected over another person who may be equally qualified or may have even stronger experience just because of that affinity. Pay attention to what you’re actually doing and really acknowledge your reactions and judgments. Sometimes you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to be willing to associate with people who are different than you are in order to learn more about their cultures and backgrounds.
Q5: Last question for you. You and I have talked a little bit about code switching. I’m sure our readers would like to know – what is code switching? And is it something we need to be aware of in the workplace?
Code switching is a term I came to know because I was invited to participate on a panel for Black Women in STEM and the title was “Code Switching or Soul Switching.” Traditionally, code switching is the active switching between two languages in a conversation. Today, it’s come to take on much deeper meaning which involves shifting between language, tone or mannerisms as you express yourself in conversation. Essentially, you’re choosing your communication style based upon the people you are interacting with.
The STEM panel contained all African-American women and the discussion was around whether minorities must “code switch” more in a business environment in order to have access to certain roles. When I think about code switching, I think about how you adapt or tailor your style or message based upon the audience that you’re communicating with. I think we do it on a regular basis and for me — being a woman of color — and for everyone, the true lesson is that you don’t want to lose your authentic self. Soul switching occurs when you change your values, beliefs and convictions to have your voice heard.
Q6: One fun question for you. What’s your dream job?
I am in my dream job! The only thing I could think about is perhaps doing it someday in a non-corporate environment. I love college students, so I could possibly see doing this work at a university. As I said, I love what I am doing today. I’m doing diversity and inclusion and corporate philanthropy and that’s what I’m most passionate about.
Q7: Anything else that you want to share that you think is really important about leadership or company culture?
It’s important for people to find a company culture that’s a fit for them. There are so many different cultures and I think you really have to find the place that works best for you. A place where you can give that discretionary effort, where work doesn’t feel like work, where it’s more than just a job and something you have to do every day. Work should be a place where you have fun, build your passion and give it your all. I encourage people to find the place that’s perfect for them where they can use their talents and passions.
Taiwan Brown is Vice President, Inclusion & Community Relations for RealPage, a leading global provider of software and data analytics to the real estate industry. In this role, she oversees and manages RealPage’s Inclusion and Diversity strategy and is responsible for the development and execution of global community involvement initiatives that help make a sustainable impact in locations where RealPage has a presence.
Prior to this, she was Senior Director, Organizational Development & Learning at RealPage where she partnered with leaders at all levels to deliver business results by maximizing the ability of the talent in the organization. She spearheaded key talent initiatives focused on high-impact training, innovative leadership development programs and employee engagement.
Taiwan is passionate about helping others and is a mentor at RealPage and in the community. She currently serves on the Richardson Chamber Advisory Board and is a proud graduate of Leadership Richardson. She is a member of the STEAM Advisory Council at Fellowship Collegiate Academy, a lifetime member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and co-leads the Couples Ministry at Concord Church.
A proud wife and mother of two, she enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, and serving others. Taiwan earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and her MBA from the University of Texas at Dallas.
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David Alexander is a Managing Director at The Human Capital Group. Prior to joining The Human Capital Group, he served as a senior human resources executive for world-class firms including SAP, AT&T, Washington Mutual, Allied Signal, Gateway and Compaq. Most recently, David served as the Chief People Officer for Raising Cane’s, who under his tenure grew from 10,000 to 20,000 global employees.
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