Celebrating Black History with Willie Grant

February 1, 2023

In recognition of Black History Month 2023, we are celebrating and sharing the stories of Black leaders and colleagues from across The SR Group and our networks. We are delighted to have been able to interview Willie Grant, Global Head Human Resources at CooperSurgical.

How can corporations create an ecosystem based on DEI to specifically benefit Black communities?

It is simple, ask a group of Black employees what they need. Engage with them in a conversation. Every company is different and the ecosystem should be based on the needs of the company and employees. Build and nurture an environment that is supportive, provides recognition and provides a fair opportunity to compete. The approach has to be led by senior leaders and supported by the next level down. The middle management level is where the ecosystem starts to break down if metrics are in place to hold the organization accountable.

What challenges have you faced during your career journey as a Black leader, and how have you overcome some of these?

I would say there are two challenges that I faced during my career journey. The first one, was early into my career. I would wait until everyone spoke in the room before I said anything. I wouldn’t interrupt people who were talking and would wait until they would finish their point, however, by that time someone else would start speaking. I had a manager say, “when you speak up, you are very insightful and on point. I need you to speak up more often and lead from the front.” Now, I have no problem interrupting people, speaking first or last or having a dissenting point of view. The second challenge was later in my career. I was not promoted to Vice President when I thought my work and the scope of my role supported it.  My manager at the time, shared with me that at the VP level, in addition to your skills and capabilities, people at that level and above need to “see” you as one of them. And a senior leader told her, that I used too many colloquiums. And from that point on, I would modify my approach to the audience I was addressing.  Now, I am who I am and I may not be for everyone and I am ok with that.

How has hybrid working impacted Black workers specifically (and/or historically excluded/historically underrepresented groups) and equity among workers? Have these impacts been positive, negative, or a bit of both?

I believe hybrid work has both positive and negative impacts to and on Black workers. It has had a positive impact by allowing space for employees to have better control over their home and work responsibilities. Additionally, it has created an environment where Black workers feel free to be themselves. There is this concept of “code switching” where I must be someone else in the office.  This can have an emotional toll on BIPOC workers. A hybrid work environment allows people to take a break from code switching. Hybrid has had or can have a perceived negative impact on BIPOC workers, particularly new hires, as they may feel they are missing out on the informal networking opportunities you get when you are in the office. There is a concern that I will not be given the prime project or be considered for promotion if I am not seen. There is a perspective of “your work will speak for itself” that does not always ring true with the BIPOC community and there is a belief that face time with your peers and leaders are important. This thought could have a negative impact on retention, well-being and performance.

Any advice for early career talent within the Black community who are navigating the workforce?

The advice that I would give to early career talent is the following:
– Act like you belong in the room, because you do
– Always contribute to a meeting. Don’t talk just to talk, ensure you are contributing and furthering the discussion
– It is ok to disagree with someone without being disagreeable
– Take the tough assignments, you will learn and grow like never before
– Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Closed mouths don’t get fed
– And lastly, I would advise early career talent to seek out a mentor, a sponsor as well as develop their own personal Board of Directors

How do aspiring Black leaders secure their rightful seat at the table?

You should always contribute to the discussion. Irrespective of who is in the room. Often time, aspiring Black leaders will defer to the most senior person in the room as a sign of respect. That approach is ok some of the time, not all of the time. Bring ideas and advance the discussion in any room you are in. And deliver on what you say you are going to deliver, when you say you are going to deliver it, if not sooner.

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