Things A CEO Shouldn't Say

by Julie Graber | on 28 Sep 2020

Wells Fargo’s CEO is one of the latest CEOs to come under fire for stepping in it. 

“While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from," Charles Scharf said in a memo. According to attendees, Scharf made a similar claim during a Zoom meeting over the summer.

Scharf spent last week back-pedaling and apologizing. And getting raked over the coals - deservedly so. 

Scharf isn’t the first to make this blunder and he won’t be the last, and while I realize little can be done to prevent an “off the cuff” comment, I don’t understand how it ended up being released in a memo. Isn’t anyone in charge of not letting the CEO say something so offensive?

I have a similar reaction every time a CEO gives what I call the “some of my best friends are women” speech (women, Black, African-American, minority, person of color - take your pick - we'll use women for this example).

This is when the CEO, who wants to impress an audience with all his organization does to support and advance a specific target group, will start through a list of accomplishments. He'll mention the women who are senior leaders (usually just a few which makes them easy to remember by name!). Or he’ll talk about the percentage of their workforce that is female (true of many organizations that have women in front-line jobs and clerical support - the lowest paying jobs of the organization and go nowhere) as if that is an indication of how well women do as employees as a whole. He'll go on to mention the company's women's leadership program, mentoring support, employee resource groups - everything they summarize annually in their yearly diversity & inclusion report - all inputs and processes - no outcomes.

It’s right about then that I think to myself that he’s giving us the “some of my best friends are women” speech. And I don’t want to hear it.

The reality is that there are so few organizations doing a good job on diversity and inclusion that someone should be making sure the CEO doesn’t try to make it look better than it is. 

What do I want? I want companies to acknowledgement that they still have work to do. I want them to recognize of the barriers and biases that need to be address. I want them to tell me what they are doing to fix the issues. I want them to describe the metrics they are using to track their progress. And I want them to identify who is being accountable (which should be every manager and leader throughout the organization).  

I want to know that that women have a fair chance to advancing to the top of your organization.

I don't care if some of your best friends are women. 

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