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Interview with Al Vivian of BASIC Diversity

December 14, 2010

Al Vivian is the President of BASIC Diversity. He also ran the Advanced Practitioners’ Think Tank at our Leading Diversity Summit in 2009 and 2010.  This year, he will host a breakout session on “Practical Competence: Putting Cultural Competence to Practical Use.” At last year’s event, we sat down with Al for some quality Q&A…

Al Vivian
Al Vivian at the 2010 Leading Diversity Summit

Tell us a little about your company, BASIC Diversity.

We are a 35-year-old diversity consulting firm. We started off doing only race; my dad, who was a member of Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal executive staff, was seeing the need to still do some work on race relations after the movement “ended.” So he started doing race relations seminars. He was blessed if he got to do two seminars a month, because people didn’t really want to deal with this issue. Then in 1989, back when I was a captain in the Army, Dad did the Oprah show and the floodgates opened. He was the first person to get two full consecutive days on the Oprah show. When it was time to go off the air, at the end of the show, the telephone lines were backed up. People in the studio were in lines trying to get to the microphones to make comments. So they went off the air, but they kept filming. And the next day they cancelled the show that was supposed to be on and showed the continuation of Dad’s session on there. And when I saw Dad do what he did on the Oprah show, I said, “Wow! That’s what I want to do.” So I made the decision that day to leave the Army and come work for my dad.

Some people say that after President Obama’s election, we entered a post-racial world. What are your thoughts?

I would love it if we were in a post-racial world. But I don’t think we should ever get to the point where we don’t notice people are different, because we can’t really understand people if we don’t know the perspective they’re coming from. Usually, different races have different challenges that create different perspectives. I don’t want to say “become post-racial,” but I want us to get to a point where we’re “post-the-period-where-you-get-treated-negatively.” I don’t think we’re there. However, the election of President Obama is a huge sign of how fast we’ve changed and how far we’ve come. I’m 48 years old. I was born in 1961. When I was born, I had no civil rights. When I was born, no one like me or anyone like me that had come before could vote. And the short time frame from that time to now – less than 50 years later – not only can we vote, we have elected a black president. It took a whole lot of white votes to get him in office. I think that is a tremendous change, a turning point in our society. However, there’s still a lot here that has to be worked on.

You often talk about the difference between diversity management and diversity leadership. Tell us about that difference.

We’re pushing towards diversity leadership. Management is very important, but management deals primarily with policies and procedures. We’ve gotten that down pretty good – every major company out there has great policies and procedures in place. The challenge now is, “Can we lead all of that diversity that we have now?” So I want to go towards diversity leadership, which is more about motivation and inspiration. How do you motivate and inspire people to want to connect across cultures? Because we’re at a point where we have to. The demographics have changed. So the old-school command-and-control model won’t work anymore. 21st century demographics demand that we change. The world is flat. The work force population has shrunk. Vertical, hierarchical corporate structures are becoming outdated. In most organizations, they won’t work. Now we have to have flat horizontal partnership based structures. That requires relationship building. More specifically; relationship building across cultures. People of color, those who are not white, are now one third of the U.S. workforce. Women are half of the U.S. work force. Globalization is a fact of life. White males will only be 17 percent of the new entrants into the global workforce. So that’s major demographic change. You add to that the generational piece – Generation X, Gen X’ers, they’re not the same as we were. I’m a boomer. They don’t want to be micro-managed. They want freedom. They want you to empower them, tell them what to do and leave them alone, and let them go do their jobs; as opposed to looking over their shoulder– which is how boomers were raised. Gen Y’s don’t respond to command and control either. They need to be coached and inspired. So organizations have to now prepare all of their people to lead across cultures. Organizations that catch onto that will do really well, because there is a major talent shortage that’s about to hit us. Organizations that create inclusive cultures, are the ones that will be recruiting and hiring people very easily. Those who don’t do that, will be saying farewell. Those that do, will fare well.

One of your specialties is talking about the uncomfortable things that people don’t want to discuss. What are some of the conversations that we’re not having that we should?

Al Vivian in Action
Al Vivian leads the AP Think Tank at the Leading Diversity Summit

People are afraid to have conversations because they’re afraid they’re going to say something that’s going to really upset someone else. I believe that our biggest problems are not coming from the conversations that we are having; Our biggest problems are coming from the conversations that we’re not having. People can easily see that I’m different than others because of my race, just as Asians are different, Latinos are different. But rarely do people connect the dots about what that means. So then I have to ask questions like, “If I’m not perceived the same, what impact might that have on me getting hired?” And they say, “If you show up with somebody else who’s equally matched, they’d probably have an advantage over you.” Yeah, that’s right, they have the advantage – so I have to be better prepared to just get in the door. But let’s say I’m equally prepared. That impacts my opportunity to get in the door. Then let’s say, I then can’t get a job – what is it going to do to my ability to put food on the table? Roof over my head? What impact is that going to have on the communities in which people that look like me live? Or let’s say I do get the job – but now how’s that going to impact my opportunity to get promoted? And then how’s it going to impact my opportunity to connect with people across from me in that work environment, because the informal networks determine more about our success quite often than the formal networks? I’m not just talking about for African-Americans, Latinos and Asians in predominately white organizations. Let’s say it’s a predominately black owned organization. Let’s say it’s Johnson Publications, the people that do Jet and Ebony magazines. Great organization, but if you’re a white guy working there, you would be out of the norm, and if you can’t connect with those people who are across from you, who are different from you, that’s going to impact your success. Whoever’s in charge in that organization is responsible for creating a climate that is inclusive and open to all of the people there, whether it be white males in a non-white dominated environment, whether it be somebody who’s gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in a primarily straight culture, whether it be women in a primarily male culture; whoever is in charge in that organization is responsible to create the environment where everybody can thrive, where everyone is engaged. Those that really do that will have the extreme competitive advantage over everybody else.

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