People and Strategy

Cordell Carter on How to Cultivate Thriving and Belonging

Episode Summary

Cordell Carter, Esq., is Founding Executive Director of the Project on Belonging and Executive Director of the Socrates Program, both at the Aspen Institute. He is also a commissioner of The President's Commission on White House Fellowships. In this interview with Tony Lee, Vice President of Content at SHRM, Carter dives deep into how societies and organizational cultures must cultivate thriving and belonging in the context of HR and business. (length 21:42) This episode of People+Strategy is sponsored by ADP.

Episode Notes

Cordell Carter, Esq., is Founding Executive Director of the Project on Belonging and Executive Director of the Socrates Program, both at the Aspen Institute. He is also a commissioner of The President's Commission on White House Fellowships.

In this interview with Tony Lee, Vice President of Content at SHRM, Carter dives deep into how societies and organizational cultures must cultivate thriving and belonging in the context of HR and business. (length 21:42)

This episode of People+Strategy is sponsored by ADP.

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1 (00:00):

Business success requires thinking beyond today. That's why AVP uses data driven insights to design HR solutions to help your business have more success tomorrow. AVP, always designing for HR, talent, time, benefits, payroll and people.

Tony Lee (00:19):

Welcome. I'm Tony Lee, vice president of content for the society for human resource management and the SHRM executive network, which is the premier network of executives and thought leaders in the field of human resources. We advance the HR profession by engaging thought leaders and executive practitioners to create solutions and drive success for people and organizations. I'm excited to speak today with Cordell Carter. Cordell is managing principle of expect in advisory and equity focused consulting collaborative and executive director of the Aspen Institute Socrates Program, a global education forum for leaders. He's also the founder of the Project on Belonging, a partnership between the Aspen Institute and SHRM. Thank you for joining us, Cordell.

Cordell Carter (01:03):

It is absolutely my pleasure, Tony.

Tony Lee (01:06):

Thank you. You've got a lot of experience, more than 20 years on the pursuit of organizational cultures, where everyone belongs and has opportunities to thrive. Where did this all begin for you?

Cordell Carter (01:20):

I'm a first generation college student. First in my family to have done what I've been able to do. I see the transformative power of education and opportunity. People had to meet me where I was. I was not prepared for college level study. I say that now in retrospect. I try to make sense of why I struggled so much the first two years before it finally clicked for me. I'm so thankful that I was in a supportive environment back at the University of Washington. They got me up to speed. I know that so many don't have that supportive environment that will help them adapt. I'm convinced that the very best organizations in the world do that very well and they get the best result as return.

Tony Lee (02:06):

Yeah. Let's talk about your journey to where you are now. You were, you were a preacher's kid. You're now an attorney. A global fellow and an ambassador for belonging and thriving. How did all those things come about?

Cordell Carter (02:22):

It goes back to me being five years old and I had a great uncle named James. My great uncle James was about 85 when I was five. He noticed how I would marvel at his globes. He had a collection of globes. He would tell me stories about how he'd travel all over the world. My older cousins would scoff and go outside and play kickball, whatever you did in the eighties. I was fascinated by this old man's stories. So much so that I would always ask to go to his house, which was a production. He didn't live that close to my mother and father, but I loved going over there. One day he gave me one of his globes. I still have it to this day. I would take that globe in my room and I would spin it around and close my eyes and stop it randomly.

I would whisper, "One day, one day." Whatever I found, whatever country that was, providing it wasn't water, I would go to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and I would write down everything I could find about that country and put it in a little box. I would say, "One day I'm going to go there." Fast forward, 35 years later, I am in Vienna. I had just been on a swing through Kiev, Lviv, Romania, and then Vienna on my way to Salzburg. It dawned upon me that every country I'd visited was on that "one day" box. Those note cards from when I was five. It was a very emotional moment for me. Without being aware, I was living the life that I had dreamt about.

All of that was possible because I was put in an environment where dreams can come true. I'm in a country where that can happen. I think the passion that I have to make organizations places where all can thrive, they'll all have opportunity to thrive and all belong. It comes from my own story. Started as little kid from Parsons Virginia, from good people. They're not educated people, but really good people. They love hard. They work hard. They loved me all the way through. I live for them as much as I live for myself. Frankly, I live for other people in the same situation as I was as a kid.

Tony Lee (04:35):

Yeah. That's, that's really inspiring Cordell. Thanks for sharing that.Yu and I both attended the Visionary Summit this year, which was designed to examine the future of belonging in America. It's so important for senior executives to understand their role in helping to make that happen. I was pleased to see that the ideas of equity and belonging were explored from lots of different angles at that summit. Real estate and government and apprenticeships and financial wellness. How do you see all of these tying together in a way that senior executives can wrap their arms around it and help make it happen at their organizations?

Cordell Carter (05:15):

I'm going to borrow a term from Bill Parcells Hall of Fame acceptance speech. He said in it, and I quote, "Players deserve a chance to win. It's the job of the coach to make sure they have a plan to do it." I see leadership that way. That people don't come the work as this perfunctory exercise. It doesn't start that way. It may end up that way, but that's because of non inspirational leadership. I think a leader has two jobs, one yes, to create an environment where people actually want to be there, to sell the vision, to give them the plays that they need to be successful. That's number one. Number two, it's your job to create an upwardly mobile experience for your team for however long you have them. I think far too often, especially in the DC area we have a lot of transitions and people coming and going very quickly.

You fall into this trap of saying, "I'm not going to invest in a person because they're going to leave." That's it. That's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don't make sure, even if it's just six months, that's the best six months of their life so they won't say good things about you. You'll get lower and lower quality people. Frankly, in our current environment where we have a talent shortage at pretty much every level where every skill set, we cannot afford to be poor leaders. Rallying people around this notion of belonging and thriving, to me, is the most inclusive language you can use. I think far too often, the way we've spoke about diversity equity inclusion has been fairly binary. Either you were a diverse person or you weren't. If you weren't, probably this isn't for you.

I think that's highly problematic for a variety of reasons. Belonging and thriving, who doesn't belong? Who doesn't want to thrive? The thriving part is something that we can all do regardless of sector. The belonging part is something that happens at the executive level. It's not just expressing your values and your mission. It's living it. It's breathing it. It's showing it every single day. When you walk down the hall and you see a piece of paper, even though you're a CEO, you pick it up. Why? Because this place is somewhere where it should be clean because you want people to feel safe and warm and welcome. You want them to belong.

There's a lot that you can do from a cultural standpoint just by showing up and living your values, living the mission every single day. That's the easy part. It's hard to compete against the people doing the same thing. It's hard to compete against people trying to get your best folks. The best thing we can do as leaders is frankly, live our values. If you truly believe that people belong and you want them to thrive, show it every single day. That's the best thing you can do.

Tony Lee (07:52):

Absolutely. You're touching on a point that's getting so much discussion. Obviously, the great resignation. The fact that people are leaving the workforce, not necessarily even for other organizations, leaving period. There is some research that's saying that a lack of belonging, a lack of inclusiveness is driving this for some people. Do you see that?

Cordell Carter (08:13):

I do. I do. I was very disturbed when I read the SHRM data on resignations. It was, of course, interpreted from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In June, I believe it was 3.3 million people resigned. In July, it was 3.9 million. In August, it was four million, it might be 4.1. In October, it was 4.9. In September, I'm assuming the number was the same. What really got me was that 68% of the people that were currently employed are reporting that within 60 days they are looking to leave for another job. Clearly it's not about money. It's about the environment. It's people not feeling valued, not feeling welcome, feeling like they don't belong, not seeing a career path. These are things that are fixable. Frankly, we won't have a choice, because what I didn't mention is that we have 10.4 million open jobs right now.

It's like a permanent vacancy that we have all across the economy. If you've ever read the book, "Atlas Shrugged," labor is shrugging. Everyone is asking, "Who is John Gold?" Not just the super talented people, but everyone in every sector. It is time for a great reset to fix this great resignation. We have to rethink people-centric policy as we relate to labor. I just returned less than 24 hours ago from a trip across five countries in Europe. These are some of the issues that we talked about when we talked about belonging and it was almost a nafima to them. This idea that the benefit structure in the US is being so paltry in comparison to Europe, even the worst one in Europe. I believe it was Bosnia and Herzegovina, they had eight months paid maternity leave.

People were shuddering at that. I was like, "Ladies, do you realize how little maternity leave we have in the US?" Their question was, "How could women possibly work?" It just hit me. It's a simple question, but it's a question that we haven't asked ourselves. If women are 53% of the population, surely you should be skewing benefits towards the larger port of your labor force. We need these people. We need everybody all hands on deck because we're leaving money on the table. We're leaving economic growth on the table because we don't have people-centric policies. That's going to change because just what you said, people are deciding, "You know what? Take this job and shove it. I would rather sit home and not engage in an environment that I don't feel welcome, that I don't feel valued. I'm going to stay right here and wait till you figure it out." They're waiting for us to figure it out.

Tony Lee (10:49):

We have got to start somewhere. What would a company leader do to start down this path? It's pretty radical to say, "Okay, we're going to give a year and a half maternity leave." There are things they can do. Right?

Cordell Carter (11:03):

Absolutely. Absolutely. I think flexibility is key. Frankly, COVID is forcing some of these decisions. There was reluctance, even for myself, for a new staffer, if you would have asked me three years ago, no way would I have allowed them to work from home. I don't know if you know how to work, so I need to see you, I need to see you in action, that type of thing. COVID has changed, myself, has changed the leadership of many others because we didn't have a choice. The offices weren't open and guess what, productivity actually went up. When you don't have to deal with commutes, when you don't have to deal with childcare, amazingly more time is found. I'm getting some of our best product, including from myself, because of the fact that I can go downstairs, grab my coffee, stay in my pajama pants on the bottom, put the shirt and tie on top and turn on Zoom and get to work.

It's been a revelation. Frankly, I don't know if we can ever go back to an environment where we're commuting every day. It's two to three hours of time that is nonproductive. That's number one, being more flexible. Number two, I think we have to listen more. Frankly, because I don't enjoy having to hire every six months, I'm spending a lot of time talking to staff. "How are you doing? What can I do to make this a better environment for you?" Asking the question, even though most of them are so shocked by it they don't have an answer, has been great for them, because it has shifted our relationship. They now see us as team. We are teammates. It's not me as the coach calling plays and whistle and benching you if I don't like the way you execute it.

It is us working towards a common goal. I'm doing work. They're doing work. We all have our parts to play. I'm fully articulating why this work matters to the greater mission of our organization. It gets back to what Bill Parcells says, "In order to know the play for your team to have a plan to win, you have to know your particular role in your organization." Leaders do. Can't just say you're an analyst and you have to do analytical stuff. No, no, no. Tell me how this is directly correlated with the plan, the strategic plan for the entire organization? That means that I, as a leader, have to know my role before I can filter down to my teammates. There's going to be a lot more work the leaders have to do, but this is good work because we need to keep our best players on the field and not have to go out to recruiting circles again. We don't want to do that. We want to limit that as much as we can.

Tony Lee (13:33):

Yeah, no, absolutely. Can you draw a line from greater flexibility to greater belonging? You hear some folks say belonging comes from being together, physically together in a room where we're innovating together and talking together. A lot of people don't see it that way. Do you see the line?

Cordell Carter (13:51):

I do see the line and frankly, the line belonging, it requires you to know who your people are. I was in Delphi two days ago. The first principal of Delphi was to know thy self. I say also know your team. There are certain quirks, everyone, the question I always ask people, "What do you need to be your most productive self?" Sometimes it means I need to move closer to my mother. Sometimes it means I need to move further from my mother. Sometimes it's these other issues like, "You know what? I'm not a morning person. I would much prefer to work late at night. Is that possible?" We put this one liner on the bottom of the email that says, "My work hours may not be your work hours." That little tweak right there made one of my best staffers feel included even though she's working on the west coast.

Her getting up at 6:00 AM to meet my 9:00 AM is just not something that I even considered was an issue because she had already always done it. It has changed her quality of life. The fact that she's three hours behind us and doesn't have to get up with us on the east coast. I'm ashamed that I didn't even think to ask that question two years ago. This new revelation, this idea that, "Hey, this is one of our best employees. Let me check in with her to see how things are going." I realized we had a major issue and the issue was, she is getting up way too early and she's rest broken.

It makes for a horrible day for her. I got what I wanted, but she is not getting what she wanted. I need to make sure there's a win-win for her. That's the line between this flexibility. You have got to talk to your folks. We say, "Talk to your customers." You also have to talk to your team and figure out, this is a non-consequential conversation. I need to know, what does it take for you to be your very best self and what can I do to make that happen for you?

Tony Lee (15:41):

Yeah. It's something that can be easily done. Absolutely.

Cordell Carter (15:44):

Frankly, it becomes a value differentiator. Someone may offer her $15,000 more than I can pay her. That's real money, but are they going to offer the same flexibility, the same understanding?

Tony Lee (15:55):

Maybe even the same access to a senior leader who will listen.

Cordell Carter (16:00):


Tony Lee (16:01):

Converse and engage. Great guidance there. Let me ask you about something a little different. You have been appointed to President Biden's Commission on White House Fellowships. What's that about?

Cordell Carter (16:13):

Yeah. This is one of the premier professional fellowships in the country. Our best and brightest in the country are applying for this. Typically between the ages of 28 and say 45, they read like superheroes. I was on a regional review panel for four years before being appointed to the commission. The most difficult challenge for me, I found, was saying "no" to someone because they were all amazing people. Essentially, you pick between 11 and 19 incredible leaders to spend a year working right under a cabinet secretary. Some famous alums include the late great Colin Powell. I believe Hazel O'Leary was her name. She's a former... I want to say energy secretary, several governors, some incredible people that have taken part of the CEOs. You name it. These are folks that are already on their way to great things with or without the fellowship.

They're deciding to take this year to spend in public service. I'm so inspired by them. Now as a commissioner, I'm not engaged in a regional competition anymore. I only see the top 30 finalists. Trust me, It's a lot more difficult. I would much rather be at the regional in terms of my heart, because I feel like I question my decisions all the time as a commissioner, because all 30 should be in. Perhaps up to top 50 should be in. The federal government needs these folks, but we can only pick maximum 19. Every year the class is guaranteed to be stellar. I mean stellar because these are such great people and they're seeing this as an integral part of their career path, whatever that may be. Be it medicine, be it law, be it policy or consulting. There's nothing but greatness that we should expect from these young people, and they deliver every time.

Tony Lee (18:08):

Yeah. It's funny, once those selections are made, 11 good people who could get jobs somewhere else now are available. Right?

Cordell Carter (18:15):


Tony Lee (18:18):

Let's talk a little bit about the project on belonging, which is the partnership between the Aspen Institute and SHRM. How did it come about and what's it about?

Cordell Carter (18:27):

It came about from several conversations I had with Johnny Taylor, Jr. CEO of SHRM about DE&I and some discomfort I had about the way it was being messaged to America. Of course, the last three years... Actually you can argue the last six years post Ferguson have been very trying for corporate partners, for civil society, for the country as a whole. We've had quite a bit of unrest. I don't want to be Pollyannish about it, but these things have existed before, but it felt different this time. It has felt different, especially the last five years. I'm thinking, "Okay, what can I do to add value here?" I am not a DE&I person. What I do is convene leaders. I promote leaders. I help develop leaders.

I do the same for organizations. How are you creating a culture where you can get the very best out of your very best? That's my focus. We were looking for new works, mainly about new works. I said DE&I is a vehicle. It's a strategy, if you will. It's on the road of discovery and I'm a very visual thinker. I'm literally with my hands in front of Johnny moving my hands through mountain ranges and going over mountains. One mountain is politics. One mountain is race. One mountain is history. I said, "Okay, but the destination, what is the destination?" We've never described the destination. We know what the view looks like outside the car. We know what the glove box looks like inside the car, but we don't know the destination.

We believe that destination is a society and organizations where everyone belongs and everyone has equitable opportunities to thrive. If I can take this analogy a little further, inside that glove box of this car called DE&I are keys, and keys to some doors when you get to this city called belonging. On the other side of that door is thriving. That does not mean that everyone has a shot to be a CEO or to be very top in the field. It does mean that people have a shot to be the best that they can be in their role, given their skillset, experience and knowledge. That is what we're trying to get to. That analogy has given a lot of folks comfort and I've really run with it. Thankfully those 300 plus people that showed up in October for our visionary summit also agreed. The response has been incredible.

Tony Lee (20:56):

That's wonderful. Cordell, what a great way to describe it. It's so exciting and we're all going to watch and see how it develops. We're out of time, but thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us. For more information on the topics that we've discussed today, or for further details on the SHRM Executive Network, please visit Cordell, thank you.

Cordell Carter (21:19):

Thank you, Tony. Have a good one.

Tony Lee (21:21):

You too.

Speaker 1 (21:24):

Business success requires thinking beyond today. That's why AVP uses data driven insights to design HR solutions to help your business have more success tomorrow. AVP, always designing for HR, talent, time, benefits, payroll and people.