Building Chicago’s Legacy Around Diversity
By Jim Kolar, PwC’s Greater Chicago Market Managing Partner

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Not a single day passes that we don’t see another Chicago news broadcast or headline about tragedy and another life taken too soon. It’s happening here, around the country and all across the world.

There’s no dispute that we’ve all in some way been affected by race-related violence happening in our community. Over the past year, my thinking has been challenged and I’ve gained new perspectives about how differently these events actually affect me after hearing from friends and colleagues.

I’ve come to realize how little I actually know about the significance of these events to some of my colleagues.

In Chicago, especially, race-related violence is an issue that cannot be ignored. And yet, the silence is deafening — as our US chairman Tim Ryan recently pointed out. This is an issue so many other business leaders are grappling with — how can we address issues of social justice with our employees?

In our local office, and across the country, many of our partners and staff were clearly affected by what was being reported in the media and we know that events were clearly impacting our people in many different ways. But, discussions were not happening organically as with any discussions on race-related matters because there was discomfort and fear of saying something wrong or offensive.

No one had a clear answer, but we knew we had to do something. Silence was not the answer, and we knew what we could do is provide a safe space for people who wanted to speak about it. Some felt they didn’t need to discuss and/or were not ready to engage. But there were so many who wanted to have a conversation, so we let them know we were here for them, ready to listen. Sometimes it was a one-on-one discussion, other times, it was in small groups across teams.

Thanks to the leadership of our US Chairman, Tim Ryan, who encouraged our firm to facilitate several discussion forums across the country over the last several months. I participated in the forums in Chicago and what I’ve taken away from these gatherings has fundamentally changed my views.

PwC’s purpose is to build trust in society and solve important problems, which is embedded in everything we do as a firm — as colleagues, trusted advisors and members of our community. Core to that is to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. This notion reverberated throughout these discussions. The meetings weren’t scripted. There weren’t any formal presentations or slides, no debates, no politics — everyone was present to share, listen and be respectful.

The discussions have given me a deeper understanding about what some of my colleagues have been going through. And I know it’s been the same eye-opening experience for others.

The overwhelming feedback tells us this is only the start of a dialogue that needs to be continued.

One partner told me he was skeptical at first, yet after hearing others’ stories, his perspective on unconscious biases changed, recognizing his own blind spots and what he needs to do differently. Many shared feedback along the lines of “how is it possible I’ve worked side-by-side with this person for the past six months, and did not know?”

Others shared how difficult and sometimes awkward it was to have the conversation, especially at work. Ultimately, though, they came to the conclusion that being our very best professional selves in the office means being our very best personal selves at home, and the two cannot be separated.

Some groups discussed the polarizing effect the media coverage has had in influencing their views. Someone also pointed out that having this candid exchange helped put everyone on the same page, recognizing how much closer we are than we think. This point especially resonated with me after the recent election, which only reinforced the need to have candid, respectful conversations during uncertain times.

The big takeaway was a question: Where do we go next? That remains open. However, we do know that by having open respectful conversations we took a step in replacing doubt with trust, empathy and understanding, and that the next conversation will come a little more naturally with less discomfort.

We all learned this is just one small step we can all take to change the way we can tackle such a critical topic in our community.

Most importantly, perhaps, what we uncovered in these discussions is an understanding that silence around these issues isn’t intended with malice or indifference. The silence is there because of fear, discomfort and simply not knowing what to say. There isn’t any “one and done” solution. We must continue to work within our firm and with others in our communities, and organizations. Personally, I am so proud to be associated with the great work that Chicago United and the Chicago Urban League do every day — each providing advancement and advocating for a more inclusive community for nearly a century, celebrating 100 years of impact in Chicago this year.

Everyone has a responsibility to keep working to become more conscious of their personal blind spots — no matter what background you come from. Everyone has the responsibility to continue to build the best legacy it can for the great city of Chicago.