Lieutenant General Ray Silveria, superintendent of the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) made headlines last week with his pointed remarks about incidents that had taken place at their prep school. A few days earlier, racial slurs had been written on the message boards of five of the cadets.
Silveria noted that such behavior "has no place at the prep school, it has no place at USAFA and it has no place in the United States Air Force." He's been largely praised around the world, and across social media for his leadership in handling the incident.
Many companies want to build a diverse and inclusive culture but struggle with how to do so practically. Silvera's address (see below) was a masterclass in leadership in this regard.
So take a cue from his message to create an environment where everyone on your team feels like they belong, so your company can perform at a higher level. Here are three ways to do it:
1. Address the problem head-on.
Silveria and the staff didn't just handle the issue and investigation quietly and hope that it would blow over. He held a press conference and addressed more than 4,000 cadets and staff members to talk about what happened, and where he stood on the events.
If you want to improve in a particular area, you first have to acknowledge that it exists. Jason Fried did this recently with an Inc. article he wrote about a lack of diversity at Basecamp, the company he co-founded, along with what they are doing to fix it:
Basecamp is approaching its 18th year in business, and for most of those years we've been mostly male and mostly white. We're not proud of that.
We weren't almost entirely male and white because we wanted to be. We simply kept doing what we'd always been doing: hiring people just like us. So we ended up with a lot of white guys.
2. Outline the values of your organization and what they look like in practice.
Lieutenant Silveria clearly expressed the importance of diversity within their institution. He noted:
And it's the power of the diversity ... the power of us as a diverse group. The power that we come from all walks of life, that we come from all parts of this country, that we come from all races, all backgrounds, gender, all makeup, all upbringings. The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful.
He didn't just stop at expressing why diversity is welcomed--he offered up a very clear directive on what that looked like in day-to-day practice. He noted that "outraged" should be the appropriate response to the slurs and that treating everyone with dignity and respect is non-negotiable.
The lieutenant made sure there was no ambiguity about where he stood on people who weren't able to live up to this standard:
If you can't treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can't treat someone from another gender, whether that's a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can't treat someone from another race, or a different color of skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
3. Enlist everyone in the organization to take part in shaping the culture.
As a leader, you set the vision and expectations of the culture you want to create. But it is the way it is carried out by everyone within your organization that makes the difference in what the culture turns out to be.
For instance, a disconnected corporate culture between leadership expectations and employee behavior cost United Airlines $800 million overnight after one highly publicized incident. What the company publicly said they valued, didn't ring true at every level of the business.
Silveria invited the cadets and staff to take part in carrying forth what their organization stands for, exclaiming "this is our institution, and no one can take away our values." He implored everyone to have the moral courage to call out anyone who wasn't operating with dignity and respect toward others.
He also invited everyone to communicate more, even on difficult and uncomfortable topics as a means of coming together. He added, "what we should have is a civil discourse, and talk about these issues."
You can build a diverse company that is also inclusive, and performs at a high level. But you can't expect for it to happen on it's own. You have to lead your team in a way that gets them there. Following these lessons from Lieutenant General Silveria is a great place to start.