Two Roads Converged: My Journey to an Inclusive Workplace

Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” is famously misunderstood. Many imagine it’s about the success we find when we take a less trodden road. Close attention to the narrator’s “sighs” reveal that the poem is really about regret—the inability to travel both roads and the concern that the other road holds the promise that the chosen road does not. I think many of us have had a “what if?” experience.  

A few years ago, someone asked me to consider making the move to work at Blanchard. I did a bit of research about the company. It looked like a good organization doing good work. The content was solid. I was concerned, however, that the company looked and felt quite homogeneous and somewhat religious. Neither of these things is necessarily bad in and of itself. But as an LGBTQIA person of color who tends to push the boundaries of what’s considered traditional, it gave me pause.

I grew up in a very religious family with a military father, so I had a lifetime of training to make myself fit into certain roles and expectations. I knew I could pass if I needed to (e.g., I could wear long-sleeved shirts to cover my few tattoos or slide under the radar when it came to my sexuality). After all, I had lived part of my life in the closet—my own or that of others’ making. Having experienced microaggressions, racism, and other forms of bias in workplaces that didn’t walk the talk of their values, I worried that I might enter into a situation with Blanchard that would require me to mask parts of my identity. The idea of returning to that place felt deeply uncomfortable and inauthentic to me, so I declined the offer.

Earlier this year as the pandemic started to become endemic and as workforce needs and trends started shifting, I began to take stock of what opportunities were out there and where my career was headed. I knew any organization I considered would have to take the work of DEI seriously—as more than a check-the-box effort. While I was considering a couple of positions, Blanchard came back to me with a different offer. By then, I knew several people who had been working at the company for a few years whom I trusted to be honest with me. So I asked them about the culture. Was it welcoming? Did they feel they had to mask parts of who they were to come to work? Could they bring their authentic selves to work every day?

What I heard in response caused me to reflect. One person told me her coworkers were lovely and genuinely curious about the people around them. I heard from someone else that the company was committed to learning and growing. And I heard over and over that “difference” wasn’t sidelined; it was honored and invited.

In retrospect, I can see how my own experiences, assumptions, and biases were at work. As someone who had experienced significant trauma and harm because of organized religion, I approached some communities and people with caution, even though I knew not everyone who held certain beliefs was intolerant. For me, accepting the job offer was a leap of faith that required an extension of trust, both in the people I had talked to and in the promise of possibility that Blanchard extended. I had to set aside the biases that had kept me safe in some situations but potentially closed me off from other opportunities and relationships.

Unawareness to Awareness

Courageous Inclusion, our new product offering based on Jennifer Brown’s book Inclusive Leadership, uses a four-stage model (UnawareàAwareàActiveàAdvocate) to demonstrate how we can grow from a state of little to no knowledge about a specific inclusion issue (Unaware) to extensive knowledge and consistent activism (Advocate). While the model is meant to help individuals track their own journeys through various issues, I’ve seen Blanchard moving through this transition from an organizational perspective when it comes to the issue of homogenous perspectives that deterred me at the start.

Recently, I sent a note to a leader in the organization following one of our all-company meetings. The note was, in part, an expression of gratitude for his leadership. The other part challenged him to consider how we might have gone about something in a more inclusive way. His response was, hands down, the most thoughtful, humble, and vulnerable response I’ve ever received from a person in a leadership position like his.

People need guidance and a framework to grow. As is always the case, senior leaders must recognize and prioritize this journey for themselves and for the company. It sets the tone for the organization and sends a very clear message about what is appropriate, how people can move through difficult conversations and issues, and what the rules of engagement are. What leaders model in their behavior, people will follow.

The Courage to Change

Many times, organizations appear to be further along in their DEI journey than they actually are. They might have employee resource groups (ERGs) or long-standing DEI policies. Don’t get me wrong, companies need to have policies and procedures that help protected groups. We need spaces like ERGs to cultivate psychological safety and offer opportunities for people to learn, grow, and be heard. But if people aren't doing the day-to-day work on themselves, then the environment won't be welcoming.

How do we do the work of inclusion with courage?  

  • We must be receptive to new information. The dissonance between new information and our biases is a cue that we must reassess our perspectives and challenge ourselves, just as I did when the information I was hearing from those trusted colleagues didn’t match my assumptions.
  • We need to meet change head-on—but with sensitivity. Change is hard, but we can’t shy away from it. Leaders need to articulate how and why a company’s perspective has changed and people have to be held accountable. But we can do the work with sensitivity and care for those who might feel jolted into new stages of awareness. It can be scary to open ourselves up to different ways of thinking, being, and feeling.
  • We have to keep communicating. Robust communication is key in any organizational shift. But when it comes to interpersonal work relationships, people often shy away from difficult conversations out of anxiety about getting it wrong, fear of conflict, or lack of knowledge. Those silences carve out space for doubt, shame, and misunderstanding to fester. Someone may be left feeling unseen, unheard, and unwelcome. Someone else may walk away feeling a sense of failure, shame, and self-criticism for not having done the right thing. When everyone commits to the work, there’s more room for the growth that comes with figuring it out together. If you don’t know how to start, try this: “I’m still learning about ______, but I want to do my part. I want to get it right for you. When I don’t, I hope you’ll tell me. It will be a safe space for you to offer me that feedback.”

Many organizations have had to do the hard work the last few years of taking stock of themselves, their practices, their brand/image, and their values—and Blanchard is no exception. What makes Blanchard exceptional is that they have always centered people in their content, in their relationships, and in their practices. They are doing the work, daily, to re-center voices that haven’t had airtime, to embrace new ideas and ways of thinking, and to reflect individually. And they’ve begun to move the needle organizationally, one by one, and person to person, building on the relational model they’ve always used.

The leap to real inclusive practices is far shorter when you already have built a solid foundation—which brings me back to my story. If I hadn’t been willing to examine my perspective, I wouldn’t have landed in this place where I am both challenged and empowered to use my full range of gifts and passions. But because I had the courage to reassess my biases, my road converged with people who had the courage to meet me where I was and walk the path with me. For that, I’m thankful.

About the Author

April Hennessey

April Hennessey is the Director of Innovation for The Ken Blanchard Companies® where she serves on the DEI Practice Team for Diversity & Inclusion. In that role, April provides thought leadership to drive next-generation, innovative learning experiences that promote inclusion and belonging.

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