As a GenXer, I grew up during a time when the cultural narrative was beginning to embrace the notion that men, white men in particular, were at the center of all that was wrong in the world. Growing up in the 70s & 80s, and entering adulthood in 90s, you could not escape the blind hatred spewing from both sides of the debate.
Coming of age was confusing. I resented being held responsible for centuries of poor judgment and I resented being part of a class that was responsible for centuries of poor judgment. I was collateral damage, and I hated it. For many years.
I spent most of my 20s and 30s feeling like I was either a villain or a victim. Both roles seemed to be forced upon me and I struggled to find my own say in the matter.
It wasn’t until I was working at a male dominated software consultancy that I began to wrestle with my role and responsibility as a white male. Apart from the sheer lack of racial diversity, this software shop often referred to itself as a pirate ship, where many of the men spoke and acted like pirates.
It dawned on me shortly after losing a second female teammate due to a hostile and unprofessional work environment, that it would terrify me if my own daughter made a career in software. And yet, more female and diverse perspectives are exactly what the software industry needs! OIY!
I knew I couldn’t be a part of an organization that elevated the kind of behavior the drove talented and qualified women out. So I left.
Fast forward a few years and I found myself tasked with building a UX team from the ground up—a task that would prove to the most rewarding journey of my professional career.
History and experience taught me how white male “villains” treated female and diverse coworkers. I knew that wasn’t for me.
I was also appalled by peers who made it their crusade to be the “hero” for women and minorities. I don’t believe women and minorities need a hero. They are fully capable of playing that role themselves.
If villain and hero are off the table, then that left me with my go-to option; playing the victim. After all, it’s easy to throw my hands up and use my gender as an excuse for failing to be an effective leader. In fact, it’s even applauded by those that believe being a white man is my core problem.
It’s taking me years to figure this out:
Playing the victim perpetuates the problem as much as playing the villain.
Playing the victim is nothing more than a coward’s disguise. It’s an excuse, and I had to reconcile with that.
I needed to embrace a fourth narrative.
I’ve been awarded favor for being a white man, and that weighed on me as I wrestled through my position and responsibility as a hiring manager.
Here are 2 profound lessons I learned through my journey:
First and foremost; I needed help. I found it through my strong and fearless female boss, the examples around me, and most of all in the very team I was building.
Help came in the form of confidence, competence, hard work and smarts—not my own mind you, but that of my team! I’m sure they didn’t realize they were helping me by being awesome, that’s simply who they are. Their character allowed me to get past my own fears of being a white male manager. I had built up a crippling fear that I was destined to play one of the roles I had grown to resent. Their character gave me freedom; freedom to lean into who I am as a leader.
Which leads me to the second lesson.
Whether I liked it or not, I was part of “the good ‘ole boys club.” I was reminded of that reality when I looked around at who was getting promoted or fired, who was making decisions and ultimately who controlled the power. Therein lied the problem. Power.
It dawned on me, that if I truly valued diversity, than the power structure had to become diverse. In order for that to happen, white men had to give power away. I had to give power away.
Here is the interesting twist. My position, whether deserved or not, granted me the power to transfer power to my team. Once I realized that, I saw it as my responsibility to be the conduit.
Here are a few thoughts that gripped me through this lesson:
- Diversity means nothing if I’m not willing to transfer power to a diverse team.
- Having less power doesn’t mean I have less credibility. It is easy to get caught in that lie.
- Leadership isn’t about having all the power, although most leaders are reluctant to give it away.
- There is a difference between being right and doing good. I had to shift my focus from being right, to doing good.
- My experience and expertise was holding my team back. I had to make room for others to gain experience and expertise.
- To step out of the villain, hero, or victim role, I had to shift the balance of power. This was the key to having a more diverse and inclusive culture.
When all is said and done, I couldn’t be more proud of this team. They made me a better leader. They made me a better white guy.
LTR: Dana, Kedron, Kalie, Mari-Megan
UX Crime Fighters, thank you. I love each one of you.