If you've ever been the only woman, introvert, person of color or veteran in a room, you know that it can feel lonely and isolating. As more and more companies (including ours) attempt to build more diverse and inclusive workforces, one of the dynamics that fundamentally needs to shift is who speaks up on matters of belonging.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School, is one of my leadership role models, and one of my favorite quotes of hers is, "It takes courage to speak up against complacency and injustice while others remain silent. But that's what leadership is." The sad truth is that we expect folks who are under-represented in the workplace to speak up about injustices and micro-aggressions and don't spend enough time thinking about how each of us can be a better ally in the workplace to others.
To me, allyship is a verb, versus a noun, and it starts with a combination of self awareness and empathy. You have to know better to do better, and to adopt a mindset where you're constantly learning, growing and improving how you stand up and show up for others. Allyship at its core is the act of unlearning and relearning. It's not an identity, but rather a lifelong commitment to building relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability with marginalized individuals or groups.
This month, I took a pledge to be a better ally at HubSpot and in my personal life alongside many of my colleagues. Throughout October, I read, listened, watched and learned from my colleagues and from external leaders about their experience, with the intention of learning, growing, and challenging my own assumptions and actions. Here are three ways all of us (myself included) can be a better ally at work:
1. Make space, don't take it up.
When it comes to allyship, it's less about the intent, and more about the impact. As Henry Wu, one of our Design Leads, puts it "I'm constantly asking myself -- am I giving energy to the people part of this group and the cause or am I taking away energy?" If you're taking up space with your feelings, you're taking away the space for the group to talk about theirs.
If someone is brave and courageous enough to share their unique experience and perspective with you, honor it. Amplify it. Create space for it in your team meetings, in your business, and in your brand. You don't always need to add your own color or perspective or context to something when sharing -- if anything, making versus taking up space can be a powerful and authentic way to show you care enough to make someone the narrator of their own story.
2. Recognize your blind spots.
If you've never walked in the shoes of the group you're being an ally to, you will undoubtedly make mistakes. While that may sound like a failure to some, it's in fact a sign of an ever-evolving, growing, and learning partner, coworker, family member, or friend. So if you find yourself in this position, own it, apologize and learn from it for next time.
As an example, I am lucky enough to support the LGBTQ Alliance at HubSpot as their executive sponsor. Two years ago, I didn't feel I knew enough about the experience of folks who identify as transgender and how I could best support them as a leader. I spent a few hours just listening to people I admire who identify as transgender or who work as professionals in the field, and in doing so learned more about preferred pronoun usage, the transition process, and how I can be a more supportive colleague, friend, and leaders to folks who are transitioning. Admitting you don't know all the answers and being vulnerable enough to address your blind spots proactively is part of the role of anyone who wishes to work as an ally, and your work learning is never "done," just evolving.
3. Stand up, and show up.
One of the most powerful lessons on allyship we have learned as a leadership team at HubSpot came from the radical candor of one of our colleagues. In a panel of employees sharing feedback, she was brave enough to say "when it comes to diversity and inclusion initiatives, if you're not showing up or speaking up, your silence as a leader is deafening."
If you're someone who has been sitting on the sidelines of diversity initiatives at your company and not showing up or speaking up, I would gently encourage you to reconsider. Your candidates, your colleagues, and your customers are paying close attention to what you do, not just what you say, as it relates to diversity and inclusion. So next time someone invites you to a gathering of veterans, parents, leaders of color, or women (among others of course), consider attending, listening, and learning. No one expects you to be perfect, but your colleagues do expect you to match what you say with what you do and say every day at work.
Being an ally means being vulnerable and courageous to admit you don't know everything, to speak up for others when it matters most, and to amplify diverse voices in your organization. In that way, it's a whole lot like the broader journey of leadership: a journey, not a destination, and an exercise in humility and empathy.