Author: Alex Allen

Date: May 19, 2020

When I started in my role as the global lead for Customer Experience (CX) Inclusion & Collaboration, I was tasked with driving our organization to a more diverse, inclusive and conscious culture. I was lucky to be working for a company that values full spectrum diversity and is committed to an inclusive culture where employees feel welcomed, valued, respected and heard. For many months, my main focus was to drive leader awareness and education around the case for diversity: why they should care and what they could do to help. Often times, we spoke about things like attracting more diverse talent, driving fair and equitable hiring practices, mitigating bias…you get the idea. While these are all parts of our long-term strategy, I realized I was missing a key component that would end up possibly being the single most impactful leadership behavior we would drive: proximity.

Let me take you back to where everything changed for me. Last September, I attended an all-employee meeting where Chuck Robbins, Cisco’s CEO, hosted Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, in a courageous conversation. In my 20 years as an HR professional, I’ve never worked for a company as progressive and forthcoming as Cisco has been regarding the Conscious Culture movement. Before kicking off the Q&A portion of the event, Chuck referenced a comment he made in his keynote at Cisco Impact 2019, “Get close to a problem and you will be compelled to try and solve it.” 

The importance of his words became clear to me as I listened to Bryan and Chuck’s discussion about racial injustice and mass incarceration in the United States. Sharing his belief in the power of proximity, Bryan said, “We have to commit ourselves to getting proximate to the poor, to the excluded, to the marginalized. When you are proximate, details emerge, insights emerge, understandings emerge, that you will not achieve from a distance. There is power in proximity.”

As I listened, I was filled with an array of emotions: anger, depression, anxiety, and excitement. Now, I’ll be transparent and tell you that I was one of a few African Americans in the room, and it felt like Bryan and Chuck were speaking directly to me. One employee asked, “Is there Proximity training? Is there a ‘how-to’ guide on how to help or get involved?” Bryan responded that people should not think they need to be trained – the training comes in proximity. When you go into these spaces with an open heart and mind, and when we are just human, that’s when we learn.

That night I called my parents, cried with them, laughed with them and thanked them for their strength, determination, and protection from the cruel realities of our society. The rest of the week was a fog. All I could think about were the statements that Chuck and Bryan had made. There was a connection to all this I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and inside me was a growing, compelling need to act.

A few weeks later, I was back in San Jose to present a diversity and inclusion update to the CX leadership team. During one of our discussions around women and minority attrition, a leader asked me what they could do personally as a team to drive change. I took a chance and recommended we use the concept of proximity that Bryan spoke of and apply it to our organization. I challenged them that if they wanted to be “best-in-class” and value diversity and inclusion, the first step in this journey to achieving a conscious, inclusive culture would be for them, our highest-level CX executives, to get proximate with our underrepresented talent.

Without hesitation, they accepted the challenge! I couldn’t help but turn to Maria Martinez, our EVP & Chief Customer Experience Officer, to see her reaction. Without a word, she nodded her head in acknowledgement and agreement – and that was the moment the CX Inclusion Proximity Initiative was born.

As a part of the initiative, we challenge each CX senior leader and their direct reports to meet with two people each quarter who align with our inclusive workforce plan. This is definitely a journey with many hurdles to overcome, but let me tell you there is POWER in proximity! Just six months in, we’ve seen leaders’ eyes opened to challenges minorities in their organization face. We’ve seen team members tell their leader about what it’s like to feel excluded in their organization because of their “difference.” We’ve seen leaders take a bold step in their hiring and promotion practices because of things they’ve learned in their proximity meetings (remember when Chuck said you’ll feel compelled to act?). Tears have been shed, laughs have been had, and now reflecting on all of the learnings, I know without a doubt that proximity is the leadership behavior that will unlock so many doors in our journey to an inclusive and conscious culture.

The use of proximity in our organization is, clearly, a great passion for me! What does the concept of proximity mean to you and your organization? How does it fit into your strategy? How are you compelled to act?

Used with permission from Cisco.