Excerpt from “Why race and culture matter in the c-suite,” by Ellen McGirt. Fortune magazine, January 22, 2016 (http://fortune.com/black-executives-men-c-suite/)
Leveraging personal and social identities
It was a dream job, the type of assignment that could make or break the career of an ambitious executive with an eye toward the top. “It was my first big promotion,” says Bernard J. Tyson, the 57-year-old CEO of Kaiser Permanente, a health care company with nearly $60 billion in annual revenue. The year was 1992, and Tyson, then in his early thirties, had been named administrator of one of Kaiser’s newest hospitals, in Santa Rosa, Calif. “Everyone knew this was the hospital to lead,” he says.
His physician partner, an elderly white gentleman named Dr. Richard Stein, was less excited by the news. “It was one of those Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner sort of welcomes,” Tyson recalls. And it went downhill from there. The two men were constantly at odds, unable to collaborate, with most conversations ending in angry standoffs. “He would say something, and I would react,” says Tyson. “It was the most difficult relationship I have ever had.” Failure seemed inevitable.
One day Stein invited Tyson for a walk. “He said, ‘I have to confess something to you, something that might end our relationship,’ ” Tyson recalls. “I have never worked with a black man like this.” He meant as a peer. Stein, it seems, didn’t know what to say, how to act, what to expect. Tyson saw it for the opening it was. “It was at that moment I realized that the majority of the population doesn’t have any sort of mental road map for how to relate to and work with someone different from themselves.”
Tyson credits Stein with the courage to open up about race. It changed the trajectory of their relationship and their work together, helping Tyson fine-tune a philosophy of inclusion that he believes can inspire empathy and courage within the organization he now runs—one that employs 180,000 people in eight states and the District of Columbia.
“I have the opportunity and the obligation to change the narrative around complex conversation like race that help us work together toward common objectives,” Tyson says. “but to do that, we have to tell the truth.”