“So I think, at the end of the day, you still have to maintain hope. You still have to look for the best ways to try to find peaceful positions, and I think be open-minded and not get too wedded to any one idea, because again, I think that’s what dooms us, when it’s like it’s staunchly this because I think when people operate in absolutes, you’re absolutely wrong. There’s so much gray.”   Bernard Coleman

Show Summary

In this episode of “Stories from the Field,” we sit down with Bernard Coleman to explore the vital roles individuals and organizations play in today’s polarized world. We delve into the responsibilities of each individual during election cycles, emphasizing the importance of advocacy. Bernard shares insights on cultivating a creative imagination to envision peace, especially now during times like the Palestine-Israel conflict.

We also discuss the reaction of corporations and universities to diverse opinions and the critical role of leaders in managing these challenges. Bernard sheds light on the upcoming leadership transition from Boomers to Zoomers, highlighting the urgent need for current leaders to understand and engage with the values-driven, DEI-focused younger workforce. Join us for an insightful conversation on navigating the complexities of advocacy, leadership, and inclusivity in the modern world.

Learning Highlights from this Episode:

  • Bernard discusses the responsibility of each individual in advocating for harmony and peaceful solutions.
  • Highlights the need for responsible participation in political and social discourse.
  • What it means for organizational leaders in navigating these challenges and fostering inclusive environments.
  • Discusses the area where leaders need to upskill, including understanding DEI, fostering flexible work environments, and aligning organizational values with those of the younger workforce.

Hear the Full Episode On:

About Bernard Coleman

Bernard is the VP, People at Swing Education where he leads the People function. In this role, he works to enable best-in-class employee engagement spanning performance management, career development, succession planning, retention, and recruiting and onboarding processes to create operational excellence. Before Swing, Bernard was the Head of Employee Engagement at Gusto where he led the Employee Engagement function. Prior to Gusto, Bernard led diversity efforts at Uber and before that, directed HR and DEIB efforts for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as the first ever Chief Diversity and HR Officer in U.S. history for any presidential campaign. His insights have appeared in The New York Times, TIME, TechCrunch and USA Today. Bernard holds an MBA from Trinity University, a BA in psychology from Hampton University, a Strategic Diversity & Inclusion Management certification from Georgetown University and is a graduate of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership.

Resources & Links

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bcc3/

Full Transcript

Christine Lee: Hello, and thank you for joining us today in our new episode of Stories from the Field. We’ve got an exciting guest here today: Bernard Coleman is the VP of People at Swing Education, where he works to enable best-in-class employee engagement, spanning performance management, career development and more, to create operational excellence. Before Swing, Bernard was the Head of Employee Engagement at Gusto, where he led the employee engagement function. Prior to Gusto, Bernard directed HR and DEIB efforts for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, as the first ever Chief Diversity and HR Officer in US history for any presidential campaign. His insights have appeared in the New York Times, TIME, TechCrunch, and USA Today, and we’re really excited to have him here today to discuss DEI in the political space.

Bernard Coleman: Thank you for having me today. It’s a real honor. I’m glad to be able to engage in this conversation to be part of this forum.

Oana Amaria: Well, we are so lucky to have you. Thank you for joining us.

Behind the scenes, we were chatting a bit about this episode and just this idea of DEI leadership in this election year dynamic, and what does resilience look like? And just based on the intro that we shared with our audience, you are the perfect, you are the Venn diagram of this conversation, so we’re really excited to ask some of our questions, and just really lead a discussion on what I think is top of mind for a lot of folks.

And so I’m going to start off with our very first question, and for context, when we’re recording this episode, there are protests around universities. There were oral arguments today with the Supreme Court. There’s a lot happening in our country; there’s a lot happening in our world. And given the polarized and the mistrusted reality that we’re living in, when you think about your experience both in the public sector, as well as just all the change you’ve gone through personally in your professional career, Bernard, what would you say is the role of each of us as individuals in this type of dynamic, whether it’s the uncertainty of the election, whether it’s an uncertainty of what’s happening in their organization or in their career, what would you say is a tip that you would share with folks?

Bernard Coleman: I’d say the first thing is please vote. I think a lot of folks might have various feelings on the candidates, on the situation, on the state of the world, but voting is very important to our ability to civically engage and represent our voices. And to not vote is, when we think about the hard fought battles that people fought for us to be able to vote, to not do so would be, I just think, terrible. So I make sure I vote in every election. It doesn’t matter.

That would be the first thing I’d say, but be informed, be engaged and participate. Participation looks like a lot of things outside of voting, but I think people just need to really get involved. And through that process, I think you learn more about the world that we’re living in. You might hear from the other side, whatever your position might be, but I think it’s most important to understand, what are the issues in front of us, what’s at stake, but also understand what the opposition is saying to what you might feel. That helps inform how I think about things and why someone might feel that way, versus just being so staunchly in my position. I still want to understand why do you feel that way.

Oana Amaria: It almost gets at this idea of our responsibility towards advocacy, right? If we’re going to advocate for a position or for a candidate or for a worldview, I am hearing you say almost like that comes with responsibility of learning more or having questions, curiosity, nuance, which often I feel like is lacking in some of these conversations these days.

Bernard Coleman: Yeah, it is. I mean, I think a lot of people have questionable resources from where they get information. So I would say use reputable sources to understand and inform yourself. Expand your circle of influence and talk to other people to gain understanding, because again, we’re all doomed by our own perspective because I only have my own, only have my life’s experiences. So if you don’t open yourself to other people’s experiences and hear what they’re talking about, you could have a very mild view of what’s really going on, as opposed to taking in more information, and more information is never a bad thing. And so if that helps improve the perspective or empathy or sympathy or whatever motivates people to do anything, at least you’re getting more involved and it’s more of a position of understanding.

In politics, we call voters who don’t educate themselves low-information voters. So be a high-information voter. Try to get as much information as you can to understand what’s at stake, why is democracy important. No matter what’s going on in the world, you just can’t sit it out. So that would be my message to anyone, you just can’t sit it out.

Jason Rebello: I love that. And picking up on the emphasis and the importance of democracy, the Firefly team, we were listening to a podcast on the Palestine-Israel conflict and terms like decolonization and understanding how we need to be really aware and informed of the nuance between these different types of terms. But the real point that he was making is around this loss of creative imagination, this loss of hope. And the position that he took is that, essentially, anyone that doesn’t believe that the real path, the best path forward, given this conflict, is democracy is an emphasis on human dignity, is operating from a place of dysfunction. And so the question is, the question I found myself asking or reflecting on, and what I’d love to hear your thoughts on, is how do we continue to cultivate that creative imagination around the possibilities of hope and instilling more human dignity in the world?

Bernard Coleman: It’s a hard question to stay creative, to have that creative imagination when ideas get stamped out. We are very polarized in our positions and we choose sides, but the world is gray. Nothing’s ever really black and white typically. There’s so much nuance that goes into any discussion to the issue. And so, I think that’s when imagination gets stamped out, when we don’t recognize that it’s just not binary. It’s complicated. People are complicated.

And I often think of that Martin Luther King quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The other part is, it takes a long time to get there. We might never see it. Now, that’s a hard part to accept, that the work that we all do as practitioners, that we just do as individuals, that we might not see the change we’re seeking. But I think if you give up on hope and creativity and the creative imagination, then we are not moving towards that arc whatsoever. So I think, at the end of the day, you still have to maintain hope. You still have to look for the best ways to try to find peaceful positions, and I think be open-minded and not get too wedded to any one idea, because again, I think that’s what dooms is, when it’s like it’s staunchly this because I think when people operate in absolutes, you’re absolutely wrong. There’s so much gray.

And so for me as a person, I try to get myself space to change my mind and never be too wedded to any idea. Because when I think about things that I felt at 18, 19, 20, and now I’m 44, I’ve changed and grown as a person, so I think it’s important to allow yourself that growth. And I think that keeps that creative imagination going before it gets too rigid where you’re just inflexible to new thoughts and new ideas. And I think that’s what I keep for my hope, and that’s how I think about change and what I tell my kids. Change takes time. And so that’s how I think I’m enabled to envision peace or future that’s better than today.

Jason Rebello: I think that’s a really important thought to hold in our hearts is that, things are worth really working for, things like peace, things like creating more opportunities for human dignity to thrive. Just because we might not see the full fruition of those efforts doesn’t mean that it’s not worth still doing. And I think we live in a culture that has trained us to desire things immediately or have quick results. And when we see the realities that are facing us, if we don’t understand that crucial point that the work is worth doing, even if we don’t see the full results in our lifetime, that is an important seed to be planted as it relates to that creative imagination. So thank you for that.

Bernard Coleman: Of course.

Oana Amaria: It’s so interesting because I feel like a lot of that could be applied to what’s happening with organizations as well. We think about what the workforce is going through, there’s a bunch of mass layoffs. It seems like they’re being used as a tool for reorganization versus what traditionally previous generations when they experienced layoffs went through. There’s a lot more advocacy and activism in the workplace as well and what people are expecting their employers and their organizations to participate in. And we get questions like that all the time, and so I wanted to throw it your way.

And when we think about how we’re seeing corporations react to various opinions, there’s a lot to react to in the past just two years alone. If we look at what’s happening right now, for example, with Google and firing employees that were protesting and what’s happening with university, in your opinion, what is the role of organizations, and then the leaders specifically within organizations, in managing other human beings going through this world? When we sign in on Zoom, we always give this example, you’re not leaving your identity behind. You’re not leaving your faith behind. You’re not leaving what the world sees or experiences you behind. So what would you say to leaders that have to navigate all this and you can’t just leave it at home? What are some tips that you would share?

Bernard Coleman: The two words that I focus on a lot are managing expectations. And I think a lot of people do a very bad job at it. And so what I mean by managing expectations is, I think, if you are an organization, you should have your mission, you should have your values, you should have the purpose that you exist. So that should be your guidepost for what dictates everything that you do. And that should be unwavering. It shouldn’t be a moving of goalposts, mission, and values. Typically, it’s the same thing, day in and day out, and the whole reason your company exists.

And I think within that, there are the norms that you have as a company, and I think leaders in the organization should help those norms live. So I think, as these crises in the world occur, it’s recognizing that people… I know I have a job and a role to do when I come to work, but it still impacts me. So I think you can operate within those parameters, through your mission, through your values, but I think you also need to let people know what the workplace is and what the workplace isn’t. And I’ve seen, over the last few years, it’s been kind of a sliding scale, where I think people expect too much for work. And work is trying to serve as a parent or friend. It is truly work, but I think it should still be grounded in the mission and the values, so that way, you at least are consistent in managing the expectations of what you can plan to experience when you’re here.

And then really making sure that leaders follow that and believe in that. Because I think if people are walking things back that they were proudly advocating for, that means that you are disingenuous and I can’t trust you, and I think that’s terrible for the workplace, and what does staff have to believe when you said you were for this and now you’re not for that. You have the right to change your mind, but if it’s grounded in mission and values, you can consistently stand up for whatever those things are because you said that’s your mission and your values and that’s why you exist.

And I think, one, we’ve seen a lapse in leadership and people being afraid to live by those mission and values. I think some people are using air cover of other, what I’ll consider bad actors who have a position and have attached themselves to it instead of being aligned to those mission and values. Because if those missions and values served you well yesterday, and then when you market share whatever it’s you’re trying to do, you should be able to be, what some people say, 10 toes down and still do it with those mission and values. You shouldn’t be wavering if that’s truly what you believe.

Oana Amaria: Yeah. I was going to say, and I think that’s actually just a lesson in general for organizations. Don’t sign up for something you’re going to let go of the first moment of conflict or change, which is what I think you’re referencing with some of the different backtracking with organizations. It just becomes very tough. And trust is not something that is a trade-off. That is not something that you can let go of with your organization and with employees. It’s not worth the cost, right?

Bernard Coleman: It’s easily lost, and it’s very difficult to regain. I think organizations, organization leaders, should look, take a deep look, this is what we stand for and we’re going to stand by it, through thick or through thin. And then if it’s something that’s not aligned… I’m not saying don’t necessarily have an opinion on it, but you could state your position, like this is what we’re about and we’ll always stand up for these things. But I think it makes it easier to define yourself and be consistent, and therefore, manage those expectations so staff know that I can trust my organizations in these dimensions.

And for the other things that don’t align the mission and values, you also explained that. I’ve been at companies where, when I was at my prior company, there’s something I had called the issues framework and I said, “This is our mission, these are our values, and these are the things we’ll advocate for. And these are things we probably won’t.” But that helped people at least manage their own expectations when things came up in the world. Why we might be quiet? You can’t ball the ocean and be all things to all people. But what are you to people? And that’s what you need to define and hold to.

Oana Amaria: I love that. What did you call it? Issues framework.

Bernard Coleman: We called it issues framework. So we had a rubric. If something happened, and it impacts a small business community impacts our locations and impacts our significant group of our employee base, we need to do something.

Now what we do might vary, but we let everybody know something will be done, but it might be something… Oh, something’s happening, I’m just being facetious, something’s happening on the moon, we should do something. It’s like, well, we don’t have any customers on the moon. We don’t have any positions around the moon. We certainly feel for the people and what’s going on the moon, but-

Oana Amaria: We’re not expanding to the moon.

Bernard Coleman: Yeah, yeah. We’re not going to do anything about this. And then people understood it because you told them what the limits were or where our values and our motivations would take us. So it could be very helpful, because at least people understand. I think it’s the fairest thing you could do.

Oana Amaria: I love that.

Jason Rebello: Continuing on the theme of leadership, dealing with the changing world, in your article, “5 Future of Work Trends,” you talk about this leadership shuffle, from Boomers to Zoomers. And I’m going to read a blurb for our listeners to provide some context. You actually gave us some great insight. “Zoomers will make up 25% of the workforce by 2025. Leaders better learn about this group in a hurry. Zoomers are more apt to care about DEI, flexibility, values-driven companies.” And understanding this generation, these Zoomers as you titled them, the workforce really needs to understand, and leaders really need to understand, how to engage with this new workforce. So I would love for you to share a little bit more about this challenge, and what it’s going to look like in organizations. And what do they need to, they being leaders, what do they need from an up skilling standpoint to help them with this challenge?

Bernard Coleman: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s definitely a challenge, but if Zoomers, Gen Z actually makes up 25% of the workforce by 2025, that is a significant block. So I think the first thing is understand who they are. I think workplaces thrive when they have people. And so you want to understand your workforce, their needs, what their motivations are, and if they say they care about DEI and flexibility and values driven companies, what are you doing to meet that demand? What are you doing to meet that need, so that way you can get the best and the brightest to come to your company? Because if you’re saying we’re anti-DEI, you need to be in the office five days a week and we don’t care about values, we just care about widgets in our bottom line, that is very unappetizing for many people. And if that’s a generational shift, it’s going to impact your bottom line. So if people still are asking for the business case, it will impact your bottom line if you can’t get the best talent.

Secondly, DEI is critically important. When you think about this experiment that I’m going to focus on America, it is one of the few places in the world where you can come from anywhere and you could be successful. There’s the possibility. And I think people recognize that, the unlock that diversity, equity, inclusion offers, and then organizations that don’t want to be part of that, I think, it’s just quite telling about somebody what you can expect coming in.

Oana Amaria: I mean, you’re just describing the cautionary tale. If this is how people want to process the workplace, it’s like the opposite. It’s like the other extreme or part of the spectrum that we talked about before. That’s really interesting.

I’m wondering, Jason, one of the things that you and I talked about when we were chatting about this article is thinking about just the challenge that’s coming up, but also the skills. And we often talk about trust and all the things that don’t happen before the DEI programming gets rolled out. So I don’t know, maybe you want to just jump in on that one a little bit. What’s the upskill that needs to happen in organizations? And you could do this from your HR hat or from your DNI hat. What’s missing now with leaders?

Bernard Coleman: I don’t think they take the time to understand what the workforce is. Sometimes I see them crafting these job descriptions and they want this unicorn candidate that doesn’t exist. But I think more so is managerial skills. So you hire the person. You told them it’s going to be XYZ. You then flip the script and it’s ABC. And so it’s completely different environment than what I was told. So then I’m already questioning, is this the right place for me?

But then I think also they do want flexibility. And I’ve been calling them cultural clawbacks where some leaders are like, they want it to be the pre-pandemic days. We’re in the office five days a week where I can come by and almost take roll call as I walk down the hall and see who’s here, who’s staying late, as if that is indicative of how productive or the impact that you’ll add. So I think what leaders need to do in terms of up skilling is understanding what is actual impact and what is value, and that it can look different than it used to look, versus presenteeism in terms of I’m in the office and you can physically see me.

I remember I worked the job where people knew that the CEO would come in 10 or 11, so they’d stagger their day. So they’d be there at 10 or 11, so that way they can also stay late. So anyone who might’ve come in early, I’d be diligent and impactful worker, they’d miss out because they leave early. But optics are everything. So I think it’s really changing that narrative and helping people understand, look at the impact that they’re adding. Flexibility is, I might work at different times. I might do this, but what is the impact? What’s the value add that I’m bringing? So I think it’s really managerial up skilling needs to really occur in terms of understanding what is output, what is value add.

And also, it’s again, managing expectations. If it’s going to be A, make it A. If it’s going to be B, make it B. But don’t do this whole change in the scenario when someone gets in because I think that just makes for an awful experience.

Jason Rebello: I think that makes so much sense. Again, it’s at the root of so many of the conversations we’re having now with the organizations that we’re working with. I want to take a moment to shift tone and ask, take us into a more positive, even more positive dynamic. And I’d love for you to tell us and our listeners, what is it that you’re working on that you’re really excited about?

Bernard Coleman: Yeah. I’m trying to write a book. I’m writing out a book. I’m attempting a book. This is a very hard process. I went to a conference called AfroTech this past November, and I gave a presentation on the new leadership rules in the future of work. And so interesting story, when I went to present, I couldn’t actually see any of my notes. I could see my prompts, but I couldn’t see what I was going to say, so I had to wing the whole thing. But what ended up happening was, it was one of the best presentations I ever had. It was all from memory, but I think it was more natural and conversational. And I tried to remember everything that I said so that way I could write it down to make the book. So I remember, I got home and I wrote, no lie, like 25, 30,000 words. But to typically write a book, I think you need about 50,000. So it was like, now I got to get over the hump of like, what’s the other 15,000, 20,000 words I need to write?

But I think it’s really thinking about a lot of the things we’re talking about today. Trust. How do you build it? How do you gain it? How to restore it once you lose it? It was something called the other AI, it was called adaptive intelligence. It’s really thinking about, and that we’re talking about leaders and what they need to do to change or the up skill, just being adaptive, understanding what’s happening in the future. You can’t be looking at today, but what will the employee need tomorrow, next week, next year? But really being adaptive to that moment and preparing for the future as opposed to just today. I think that’s really a short sighted way of looking at things when they’re just thinking about today. You should always be future focused.

And it just talks about different ways of communicating and how we need to communicate better. There’s a lot of communal knowledge that doesn’t occur now that we’re outside of the traditional workplace. How are you fostering that? How are you making sure people understand where the wiki is or where to do this or where to do that? So there’s just so much, I think in the future of work that we need to think about differently, that the pandemic laid bare, that we all need to do in terms of up skilling to ensure that we are as productive as we want to be. So that’s what that was about, but I had a lot of gems that I talked about. But I’m trying to write this book and hopefully I’ll get it done.

Oana Amaria: Well, maybe-

Jason Rebello: Did you have a title yet? Do you have a title yet?

Oana Amaria: I was going to say.

Bernard Coleman: It changes. It changes. Basically, I write a lot about leadership so it’s like the new rules of leadership, but I think I need something more provocative. But I don’t know. It’s definitely experience, that’s all. So right now the working title is, let’s see, The New Rules of Remote Leadership, or it could be Adaptive Intelligence: Leading in the Remote Work Revolution. I’m trying to get something that’s interesting that people find useful. And a lot of times, it has to be a good title to pull you in. Otherwise, you might miss the mark. I lose you hello.

Oana Amaria: That’s where good editors come and help, in finding that magic sweet spot.

Something that you said that I thought was really values aligned with what we do at Firefly is we anchor our work from a DEI standpoint into two different components. One, it’s about adaptive leadership. You can’t be inclusive if you don’t know how to be adaptive, so it gets at that EQ or the AI that you mentioned. The second thing is this piece where organizations don’t change, people change, so transformative. In order to transform, you have to be aware of what you have and what you don’t. And you have to choose growth over ego.

And I think that, what is so hard right now in the workplace, regardless of the content, whether or not you’re doing awareness building with DEI, whether or not you’re doing change management transformation because you just laid off X percent of your workforce, this piece around building trust I think is really powerful and important, and we talk about it all the time in our programming. But also, what I’m noticing that is so important and is often missing is also building nuance and building the capacity to have difficult conversations with people that I may not agree with and still walk away with that human dignity piece.

So, what I would love to hear from you, Jason talked about what you’re excited about, but maybe even in your book, maybe this can inspire you, but what is your call to action for the people listening to this? And for us, when we go into organizations, there’s so much data that shows that you can’t convince people, and there’s so much data that shows that if people are values aligned, they’re more productive. If they trust you, they’re going to show up. There’s so many wins. So what would you say, Oana, Jason, Firefly listeners, this is what I would invest my brain cells in for the next year, business critical, life critical, human critical.

Bernard Coleman: Yeah. I think there’s three things that I would focus on if I were just trying to improve. So I think the first thing is look within. I think a lot of people, there’s a lack of self-awareness. I think if you’re trying to build trust with something, first, you need to know who you are, how you show up, what your triggers are. You really have to be self-aware, I think, to be a good colleague, a good leader. Because if you don’t know yourself, how can you manage others?

I think the other thing is storytelling. I like to give people my stream of consciousness. So what I mean by that is, you might say by way of background, but giving people more context really helps. And so context to me is storytelling. It can be. Giving people the story, and I think people remember that more than data, more than anything, but telling that story, there could be some more connective tissue that’s created that allows people to understand a little bit better. Maybe they empathize with you more, but maybe now they truly hear you.

And then when you want to have maybe that more difficult conversation, the storytelling is the bridge. I find the story has really, really helped. I use a lot of anecdotes in my writing, or even use personal experiences. That brings the reader in, I think. But also, if you’re just talking with someone, I see you. I see you differently. Because it’s difficult to argue with one’s experience, but even if I were to argue with one’s experience, at least I understand a little bit what’s informing your thinking, and I think that helps build the trust, because at least I heard you out. I see you. I see where you’re coming from. But I’m self-aware about getting all righteous or picking my position or getting kind of staunchly in my modes. I really just try to listen and share stories. And I find that helps in bridge building, and at least starts the conversation on trust and opens the door on dialogue.

Because I think once you’re trusted a lot, it’s a lot easier once you are, versus like… I already lost you if I don’t trust you. My father says, “I trust you as far as I can throw you.” If I have enough trust, then we could probably have a meaningful dialogue after that and kind of get to some place productive.

Oana Amaria: I love that so much.

Thank you so much for spending a little bit of time with us and sharing some of your stories and your insights. We’re always so grateful for what we learn. And we get to grow as we listen to a lot of these episodes and get to record with a lot of our guests, so thank you so much.

Bernard Coleman:Thank you for having me. And again, thank you for creating this forum. I think these conversations are very needed.


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