Underestimated: From Struggle To Success

In this conversation I spoke with Donald Thompson about the key learnings from his own life that he draws in his new book, ‘Underestimated’. We also covered his experience as an African American Chief Executive in the States, what his business does and the importance of taking an intersectional approach to implementing diversity and inclusion within organisations.

It was my pleasure to have another diversity and inclusion author joining me for this conversation. I’m in the UK and my guest is based across the Atlantic in the US. A leader in diversity and inclusion, Donald Thompson is the Chief Executive of the Diversity Movement, a North Carolina firm that offers its clients digital learning tools, content, conversational AI and analytics.

In addition to serving on Walk West, Vidant Medical Center, Raleigh Chamber, Towne Bank Raleigh and several other boards, Donald is an expert in technology, marketing, sports and entertainment. His writings have appeared in multiple publications, including entrepreneur.com and cnbc.com. And with two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald is a thought leader on achieving goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth.

Donald is also an angel investor, investing over a million dollars in North Carolina ventures alone. He knows about the importance of diversity because he’s lived it. In1970s America, Donald’s family worked tirelessly to give him a better life. Their example served him well as he went on to become a successful chief executive, angel investor, diversity and inclusion expert and tech entrepreneur before he turned forty. In his book ‘Underestimated’ Donald shares his stories of struggle and success as a Black man in contemporary America, overcoming the challenges inherent in finding one’s place and fulfilling dreams.

We started by diving straight into some of the core topics that Donald writes about in his book ‘Underestimated’.

I asked Donald, ‘As an African-American Chief Executive in a world where there are only seven Fortune 500 African-American chief execs, what has been your journey like so far?’

‘There’s a couple of things but one is the obvious, right? In most rooms that I go into, I am the only one, or one of the very few. And that’s whether that room has fifty people or at a conference of thousands, you have to get comfortable within yourself to make sure that you realise that Wait a minute, that’s not the only thing that can bring us together”.

I had to get over having a chip on my shoulder of feeling alone in these sessions and look at what other connections I could make through relatability points with others in the room to make it more comfortable for me. My purpose was to grow my business. The second thing that I would say is that the world in general, from a racial equity standpoint, is a tricky place right now. In navigating that as a Chief Executive Officer, I’ve had to make sure that I’m settled with who I am, what I do, and what I can deliver so that the course of the business can be at the forefront and not always the racial underpinning of what’s going on in the world.’

I know Donald is the son of an American football coach so I was keen to find out what lessons he has learned from that experience about recruiting and retaining top talent.

‘One of the things that’s important is that your best talent might not have the traditional pedigree which I learned a lot from my father. You must be looking at the qualities of individuals that might not show up on a resume. For example, it’s always nice to find someone through their secondary education, their college years, if you will, but who has also held down a full-time or part-time job. People that started a business while they were in college, even if it failed, it doesn’t matter. There are traits that you can find that are more than just their GPA, their grade point average or what they studied that allow you to see the full person that can be of value to your company.

The second thing in terms of sports and athletics is people that understand how to be on a team. That’s one of the reasons I like to hire folks that are ex-military or that have been in theatre or a band. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sports. The question is, has someone been able to work together well with others to produce something of high quality? Those are a couple of things I’ve learned along the way.’

I was curious to learn about the ways in which mentorship has benefited Donald and how he thinks it can benefit other people.

‘In this digital world, if there’s something that we want to learn quickly, we’ll go to YouTube, we’ll put in a search bar, and we’ll look at four or five videos on a particular topic, right? That is like a digital mentor. Think about it now in a corporate setting. If you don’t know how to do something well, why would you want to work ten times as hard when someone can share with you the cheat codes? I was very focused in my career on finding out how to work hard, but also to be efficient. That kind of communication, learning and sharing comes through very powerful mentoring relationships. I’m a big fan of that.

I love Donald’s use of the term ‘cheat codes’ because when I talk to prospective clients, I always say to them, ‘Yes, you could struggle to go on this diversity inclusion journey by yourselves. But if you’ve got somebody holding your hand, they’re going to help you accelerate that progress and avoid the pitfalls because they’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt.’ So, I love that cheat codes analogy.

Donald agreed, adding, ‘We all need help. I remember the first time I went to India. If you’ve ever travelled to India, it is very different from the United States. The number of people at the airport. The travel in cars, the little scooters and different things around, it’s very different. But, man, it was nice to have someone in the country that was there to greet me, that was there to show me around, to help me find my way. After the first week or so, I got more and more comfortable. But in the beginning, I was a little bit in awe. To have somebody to show you the way is a powerful thing in business, in travel, in life. I think more people should take advantage of that.’

I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, in one of my training courses, I talk about the lean back, lean forwards, jump in, mentoring mentality.

Lean back is watching a YouTube video, maybe listening to a podcast or reading a book by somebody who’s from a different background to you. Lean forward is going along to a networking event. For example, it could be an event that your organisation runs. If your employer has an LGBT network, even though you might not be LGBT yourself, you could go along to hang out with people that you might not always hang out with. It is a good way of chipping away at some of our implicit biases. Jump in is go and get yourself a mentor, meet them for coffee, make it a regular thing, make it reciprocal. Mentoring can be both ways, it doesn’t have to be a one-way relationship.

Donald agreed, ‘That is wisdom. I think the other thing that I would like to share with our audience is that when the mentoring relationship is reciprocal, you get the opportunity to have better and stronger mentors, right?

Everyone gives more when they get something back in the business context and in life. There’s nothing wrong with that, with both people gaining from a relationship. So, when someone’s taking time to teach me something, I always ask, “Is there anything that I can do to be supportive of what you’re doing?” That’s how I always end the conversation.’

Remaining with the topic of mentoring, I asked Donald Thompson what he thinks is the best way for somebody to find a mentor.

‘One of the things that I think is important, and I’ll use a corporate context, is to be known as a hard worker, an effective person within your organisation that gets things done. People in leadership want to mentor those that they see as the next risers and up-and-comers in the business. So, number one, do your job well, right? Be a team player.

Number two is there are a lot of programmes within organisations that are structured mentoring opportunities. Seek those out. Ask about those, talk to your HR and your manager etc. Another thing, if you can’t find a mentor in your organisation, there are outside opportunities simply by joining different networking organisations, joining your local chamber. You have to make yourself available to meet people that you connect with for mentoring. It’s not going to be like a lightning bolt that hits you when you go to your mailbox. There’s an active pursuit part to that as well.’

Donald has got loads of experience building teams and he talks about superpowers in his book. I asked him, ‘Why is it important to focus on our key superpowers?’

‘Winning is fun. Doing things well is fun. Succeeding is fun. We all have things to work on, but we want the majority of our time spent on things that we do well because that will give us the strength and the confidence to now work on the things that we need to improve. I think that people should start from areas of strength and then look to the areas of weakness through that because then you’re having wins at work. If you have wins at work, it’s much easier for me to coach somebody that has four areas of strength that we can grow and one or two areas they need to work on.

If we only focus on the areas that we need to improve from a self-esteem standpoint, it’s tougher. We all operate better when we’ve got some points on the scoreboard and when we’ve succeeded in what we’re doing. I’m a big fan of that.

The second thing that I would say, in our interpersonal relationships, I tend to look through the lens of what people do well first. When I think well of someone, I’m not worried about the personality, because I’ve conditioned myself in a positive mental space of how to work with that individual.’

That’s great advice. It reminds me of when I interviewed Dr Jonathan Mervyn-Smith, who is the founder of the Game Changing Index. The Game Changing Index is a tool to help you identify where you get your energy from, what he calls your proclivities. In a nutshell, there are five areas and you’re either somebody who’s creative and strategic, or you are somebody who gets stuff done and you’re an implementer. The fifth type is the person that brings everyone together, i.e., the game changer.

We had a great conversation about how you assemble a team, making sure that you’ve got a great balance. If you’ve got loads of people who are great implementers, but you don’t have anyone who’s strategic, who’s got that long-term vision, then you might not do a very good job of progressing your mission. Likewise, if you’ve got loads of people who are very strategic, but you’ve got no implementers, then you’re not going to get anything done.

Donald said, ‘I think that is a very powerful approach and an easy way to understand diversity. Many times, when we think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, people typically jump to race, gender, and sexual orientation. But personality, skill set, geography, all of these different things play into innovation, how we can work better together and how the best idea can win for the business or the organisation. So, I love that, because you need somebody strategic, somebody creative, but you also need that person that keeps us on task and gets stuff done. And then you need that collaborator, that game changer if you will. I love that, I can’t wait to listen to that episode.’

Now Donald has lots of businesses and ventures and he has established the diversity and inclusion practice called the Diversity Movement, very much like my own business. I wondered why he looks at diversity and inclusion broadly and does not home in on a particular group or characteristic.

‘This isn’t to negate those that have a very niche lane, but we decided that our end goal for the Diversity Movement was to create a better workplace for all. When you think about it with that kind of umbrella, then you must take into account disability inclusion. You have to take into account neurodiversity, you have to take into account generational, right? Ageism is a real thing now. If you’re above 50 years old and you go for a job, people are going to look at you differently if you’ve got a little grey in your beard or in your hair. That doesn’t mean because of our age, just as if you are a young professional, that your ideas aren’t powerful, that you can’t fulfil a certain role. We have to think about all of the elements that allow us to use differences in a positive way. For us at the Diversity Movement, there was no way to do it only focused on race, only focused on gender. We had to look at the kaleidoscope of DEI to build a better workplace.’

Donald’s approach resonates with me. I always say to my clients that employees are not just one thing either. There’s a race, a gender, a sexuality, a disability or different levels of ability. I talk very openly about being a White gay, disabled man, for example. But my experience in the workplace would be very different from if I was a Black, lesbian, non-disabled woman. But you know, you have to speak to all parts of me, you can’t ignore part of me. I’ve had that in the past, I’ve worked in an organisation where they said, “Oh, yeah, we’re so focused on gender and ethnicity right now, but disability is a low priority. We’ll get around to that in a couple of years”. I was like, “Hang on a minute… That’s kind of at odds with saying that you want to be the most inclusive organisation on the planet.” So, go figure, how does that work?

Obviously, Donald works with several organisations. I asked him, ‘How do you see employees perceiving the progress of diversity and inclusion within the modern workplace?’

‘I do talk to a lot of companies and a lot of employee resource groups within organisations. There are groups of employees that are very pleased that their companies are now taking diversity, equity and inclusion seriously, that programming is in place, and that managers and leaders are getting training, and they’re pleased with that. But there’s a large subset that thinks organisations are not moving fast enough. There’s also a lot of frustration that there is talk about DEI, but it’s not filtering into everyday work practices.

I think that one of the challenges within that is that it’s a longer-term change, right? It’s not something where it is an immediate alteration of behaviours within organisations, especially large ones. It’s really a Catch-22. The organisation puts in time, money and resources, but then they don’t get credit for their efforts, because folks that are in underrepresented parts of their organisation feel like it’s been so long that the change should be almost instantaneous. It’s a conflict of expectations, around what can really occur and in what timeframe.’

I come across this so much in my work. It’s such a common dilemma that organisations have. Creating space for leaders to really consider diversity and inclusion is important. I asked Donald how he suggests businesses do that. How do they create that space for those senior leaders?

‘One thing I think is important is that leaders are held accountable for every word that they say. There are a lot of leaders that aren’t speaking up about diversity, equity, and inclusion. They’re walking on eggshells because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.

In our culture right now, and people can call it cancel culture, people can call it whatever they want, there is this immediate and very visceral reaction to any misstep or misstatement. And so, what happens is a business leader says, “Well, if I default to saying nothing, then I can’t get in hot water”. Right? Then they become more passive. What we need to create is an opportunity for business leaders in areas where there is psychological safety for them as well, to be able to really get educated on DEI topics, but in a space where they can have learning that’s tailored for them. Often when you’re working with executives, they want to learn and understand and grow.

But here’s the challenge. They’re struggling with the balance between empathy and economics. How do you fund your next DEI initiative when you may have to lay off 500 employees? How do you fund this new initiative when you need to put more dollars into technology? It’s not that leaders don’t care about the empathetic growth in the environment for their employees but a lot of times they’re not compensated for the way people want them to behave. So that looks at the board level for how we are designing what winning looks like for leaders. If you design the compensation expectation programmes around what winning looks like for leaders, they will educate and grow to that standard. That’s something that we have to work at a more holistic standpoint to get the behaviours we want.’

That’s great and it reminds me I’m working with a client at the moment where I’m a strategic advisor for a year, sitting in board meetings. In between those meetings, I’m running various workshops. The approach is to get inclusive leadership embedded in their day-to-day decision-making.

As Donald says, unfortunately, it’s that trade-off. In the UK we are heading into a recession and an organisation might have to make difficult decisions between laying off staff or spending money on a diversity and inclusion programme. My advice is it doesn’t have to be an either-or thing because diversity inclusion should be embedded in your culture and your decision-making, just the way that you do things. If you are in the unfortunate position of having to lay staff off in redundancies, make sure that you do that in an equitable and fair way. If you do an equality impact assessment, you might find out that certain members of your staff are going to be more at risk of losing their job. And they might be from a minority group, so, there’s a disproportionate impact. Organisations have to consider that stuff in decision-making.

Donald felt the same saying, ‘I think that’s right. And I think just the fact that we’re now having these conversations at the highest levels in the organisations is a positive. I very much understand those that want things to move faster. Unfortunately, and fortunately for me, is I live in a reality-based world. I know that this change is going to be incremental. What I’m trying to do and encourage clients to think about is how to develop momentum. I think you can develop momentum by taking one positive step forward at a time. Then we can look a year from now, and it won’t simply be a DEI conversation. It will be management training on how to get better feedback. It will be the implementation of a better mentoring and coaching programme within the company. It is a recruiting base within the company that is not one singular university or five. It is now fifteen to twenty and you’ve diversified where you search for talent. Those are things that we can start measuring now, and the more we can measure, the more we can sustain the funding over time.’

Donald’s business creates small bite-sized learning experiences using technology. I asked him why it’s important to take that approach.

‘We believe very firmly that psychological safety when learning something new is important. So, our micro-learning platform provides micro-video content on diversity topics in two to three minutes. These snippets give people the opportunity to learn quickly because we’re all busy and we’re all fighting the clock.

The platform provides the psychological safety to ask questions that you wouldn’t normally ask in a group setting or a typical listening setting or a group training. Because we know the reality is that if people feel uncomfortable with a question they have, they’re not going to ask it in public. But we want that information to be available.

Number two is scale. We’re in a global business environment, it’s kind of difficult to get all of your team members together at the right time and create the right learning moment for individuals because we all learn differently. We have to have technology that allows some self-help learning so people can learn when they’re ready when they’re open and their mind is ready to receive that new information. That might be on a Saturday afternoon. That might be early in the morning. The technology allows people to learn at their pace, but it allows them to learn in a bite-sized snippet, so it’s more comfortable and faster.’

We wrapped up our conversation with the question I put to everybody that comes on to the Inclusive Growth show. ‘In your opinion, Donald, what does inclusive growth mean?’

‘For me, inclusive growth means that we win faster together than we do with one or two individual superstars. That we create an environment where the best idea wins within an organisation, whether it’s an intern, a board member, or a people manager, it doesn’t matter. We’re all chasing organisational success. And because we’re chasing organisational success, we know that including all of the ideas and talents of the organisation gives us the best chance to win.’

To get your own copy of Donald’s book ‘Underestimated’ you can find it in all the usual outlets online or visit his website donaldthompson.com

Or to be in touch with Donald about his work you can reach out directly via his LinkedIn page or email him directly [email protected].

Underestimated: From Struggle To Success - Mildon