2002. It was a big year. George W. Bush came up with the term “Axis of Evil.” Serena Williams won her first single’s title at Wimbledon. American Idol premiered and MTV unleashed “The Osbournes” reality show.
I also started my own reality series – Spitfire Strategies. It is in its 17th season as of July 2.
There are a lot of books, blogs and expert advice on starting something, but less on keeping it going. People say, “Fake it until you make it.” But in the social change world, you don’t ever “make it.” If you are lucky and persistent, then you make it a little further down the road.
When exactly does the faking stop? How do you know you are getting it “right”?
At 33-years-old, as I hung up a sign that read “Spitfire Strategies” at the entrance to my newly created office, I thought “there.” A woman-owned firm. A novelty then, and frankly, now. The staff handbook was in my head, and I started building the company like all the other companies around me.
I considered myself a maverick when I matched our maternity leave policy with that of the federal government, even though those rules didn’t apply to a company of our size. Indeed, I also considered myself forward-thinking when I agreed that senior staff could work remotely. I said Spitfire was about achieving social justice – and we were.
But each of these decisions signaled un-values that I unknowingly let manifest. I adopted policies and practices for others without always thinking through the full implications. With Spitfire’s maternity policy, I unwittingly signaled that when a new child came, the mother needed bonding time, but the dad didn’t. By not paying close attention to the language used in the policy, I suggested that parents were a mother and a father rather than families that came in all sorts of packages.
With an inequitable remote working policy, I codified that somehow people with more experience were more trustworthy than those less experienced – that they had lives outside the office, but the rest of the firm never needed to stay home for similar reasons. And by conflating in vision statements that racial justice was embedded in social justice rather than a very specific and essential goal on its own, I underestimated that it needed to be explicitly named and addressed.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize how important it is to examine on a regular basis the systems I am perpetuating and the systems I am challenging. As a business owner, I have the power to set policies and practices. To create and disrupt norms. To hire and promote. And as a communications outfit, Spitfire has the power to get attention for some ideas over others and amplify certain voices and stories.
That’s a lot of power and responsibility. Using it well and wisely is a daunting proposition. In the last few years, I’ve come to several conclusions about leading evolving organizations that may be useful to others (I know you were wondering when I was going to get to the communications advice in this blog).
This means communicating your convictions. Use your voice to name the problems and the culprits. If you mean racial justice or systemic racism, say it. Don’t code it. Even if you can’t fix the problem right then, don’t ignore it. Focusing attention is powerful and part of the solution.
I am honored to work alongside some of the smartest communicators out there. They are also incredibly brave and persistent, willing to interrogate systems and call out discrepancies and discriminations. My colleagues at Spitfire have shown me what it means to stop and prioritize the time to have much-needed conversations. To say what needs to be said, rather than delay or step back when it is most important to be clear-eyed and step in.
None of us are perfect and some of us are stubborn (I can hear someone somewhere saying, “Use your ‘I’ statements, Kristen”). When you realize that you have been perpetuating stereotypes or biased systems, don’t just fix it in secret. Announce it. Acknowledge that it was wrong, and why.
I’ve learned a lot about this with my colleagues who have been participating in a Living Cities initiative to change the narrative about race in corporate C-Suites, as well as colleagues at Ascend at the Aspen Institute. Both push society to consider bias that perpetuates unjust systems and limits opportunity. Sharing these biases invites others to reflect and see where they have areas for improvement. It also gives us role models that show us that admitting when we’re wrong is part of making it right. Being wrong and staying that way is exactly the opposite of a social change agent – it’s a status quo agent. And who puts that on their LinkedIn profile?
I have a dear friend who is the best moderator I know. He tells me to approach every meeting with genuine curiosity. It took me a while to totally get what he meant. But it hit me like lightning one day when meeting with some of the account executives at my firm.
There is power in saying “I don’t know,” and meaning it. These three words are magical. “I don’t know” opens space to learn from others. It makes space to co-create. It is hard to say when you are presumably in charge. But a big part of change is realizing what isn’t working and recognizing we need something better. You do not need to wait for a clear answer to signal the need for meaningful change.
As many of you know, I get in a trailer for three to four months a year so I can reconnect again with America. It gets me out of my bubble in D.C. so I can experience people in campgrounds, from the Ozarks to the Black Hills to the Canyonlands of Southern Utah. Along the way, I am struck by leaders who start every conversation expressing care with whomever they are talking rather than disagreement, disrespect or dismissal. If we want others to see the humanity in each of us, we must first show that we see it in everyone.
There are days when communicating care seems impossible – our differences are so great, and the stakes are so high. But as Elie Wiesel said, “Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.” Imagine our world if every person had “giving hope” on their to-do list. It is certainly on mine as I go into Spitfire’s 18th year.