CW: How do leaders foster a work environment where employees feel comfortable addressing racism?
Irick: Corporate America must acknowledge that talking about racism is not comfortable for the majority of us, and it will take time for it to become comfortable. But, given today’s environment, dialogue on racism is absolutely necessary – and for leaders, it’s an obligation. Leadership is not about doing what is easy, leadership is about acting courageously and discussing the difficult and uncomfortable realities that we face. Leaders who do not acknowledge and act on the realities that currently plague our country are not upholding the privilege and responsibilities associated with leading.
Over the past two months at PPG, we have been focused on fostering an environment for honest and transparent dialogue as we discuss racism and George Floyd’s senseless murder by a law enforcement officer in Minneapolis. The reality is that recent events have uncovered the fact that systemic racism still persists in the United States, and at PPG, we believe that deeply-rooted systemic racism can’t be something we ignore. It must be a topic we openly discuss in order to drive long-term change. These discussions have not always been easy or comfortable, but they have been incredibly effective at driving awareness, building empathy, and moving toward actionable plans that will deliver change. Now is the time for all leaders to step up and to lead from the front. I fully believe that our children and future generations will look back at these times and ask us, “How did you choose to lead?” and “What did you do in response?” We should all consider how we will be able to answer these questions.
I currently lead a multi-billion dollar business at PPG with more than 6,000 employees and I recently shared a personal email with our entire team that captured my thoughts in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder.
In my message, I shared the story about how my father, who is Black, was a highly engaged activist against institutionalized racism and Jim Crow. He once helped with a “sit-in” with many others at a diner in his hometown in Orangeburg, SC that was a “whites only” establishment. He and his fellow activists stayed seated and insisted on being served in the face of disrespect and racist remarks in an attempt to influence policy and directly enact desired changes themselves. My mother, who is white, was also active in the civil rights movement during the 1960s. She often shared her experiences growing up in Florida, and her commitment to standing up for injustice and racism. Learning about each of my parent’s experiences, their values, and their courage to do what was right, but not easy, has directly influenced my beliefs, actions and leadership style today. And, while I would love to say that I grew up as a Black man in the United States with the issues my parents faced in the rearview mirror, the reality is that I have experienced discrimination and racism at different points in my life.
I shared this email because I wanted all of our team members – no matter their race – to know that PPG is committed to taking actionable steps to combat racism in our society and that we as a company are embracing the reality of where we are today in order to drive effective change. As our chairman and CEO Michael McGarry recently said during his opening remarks of PPG’s second-quarter earnings call, “enough is enough.”
CW: How do leaders ensure an anti-racist work culture?
Irick: George Floyd’s murder has put systemic racism directly in the spotlight and it’s remained in the spotlight for months, which indicates to me that employers see this as a pivotal moment to take action as part of their responsibility to advance social justice, equity and equality. Corporate America now accepting responsibility for the hiring, promoting and mentoring of diverse Americans with measurable commitments and strategic planning.
In order to build an anti-racist work culture, senior leaders must first listen and then take further appropriate action. As one example, following a recent racism roundtable discussion at PPG, a diverse employee recommended that the company create a social media task force, a group comprised of diverse employees who will be asked to review upcoming social media posts to ensure we are using language that fosters an open, inclusive environment. Open dialogue will lead to solutions, processes and actions that we may never have thought of before.
My hope is that companies who have publicly condemned systemic racism listen to their employees first, and then they conduct a thorough evaluation of their diversity, equity and inclusion processes, allowing them to put measurable actions into place.
CW: What specific initiatives does PPG undertake to create a positive and safe work environment? What changes can employers make to create an inclusive work culture?
Irick: One of PPG’s greatest strengths is the diversity of our people, who represent wide-ranging nationalities, cultures, languages, religions, ethnicities, lifestyles, and professional and educational backgrounds. Their unique perspectives enable us to meet challenges quickly, creatively and effectively, providing a significant competitive advantage in today’s global economy.
Our company-wide panels and in-depth team discussions are a major initiative, allowing us to listen first, learn and then put measurable long-term actions into place. We are also working with external diversity and inclusion experts to help us facilitate and moderate these important and timely panels, which will then result in a long-term action plan.
Beyond hosting discussions, we are highlighting diverse perspectives within PPG. Our Women’s Leadership Council hosted a discussion where a Black female employee in our aerospace business highlighted her past, challenges she’s faced and discussed the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement. This discussion was recorded and now lives on our employee intranet, allowing any employee to listen to the hour-long discussion. This presentation was incredibly well-received and the employee was met with a flood of support. In the comments section of this recorded presentation, employees said:
• “Thanks for sharing your personal stories - they are so powerful for generating the empathy required for positive change.”
• “Outstanding discussion during a really critical time in this country and across the world from my Aerospace family. This is a much, much older issue that has impacted many more lives than the virus! But the time is ripe to really have a positive impact! Really inspiring! Thank you!”
We also recently shared a broad list of anti-racism resources with all employees globally that provides information about how to become a better ally for diverse people. The list included links to recent articles, podcasts, books about racism in the U.S., critically-acclaimed books by Black authors, children’s books and more. Today, people are realizing that’s it’s not enough to be non-racist or quietly oppose racism, but they are learning that they must also educate themselves on how to position themselves as allies to Black colleagues, friends and family members. Often times, people may not know where to start, which is why we provided a launching pad with this list of resources.
This year, PPG also began rolling out unconscious bias training for PPG’s architectural coatings business in the U.S. and Canada. PPG’s senior leadership team was the first group to attend this in-person training, followed by a virtual offering to more than 250 people managers. The purpose of the training is to equip our employees with the critical thinking tools they need to help recognize their own biases and the biases of others, eliminate discriminatory behaviors, and ultimately create a more equal and just workplace.
Additionally, PPG places emphasis on the importance of a diverse candidate pool for all open roles, as we know that people with unique perspectives make our company more agile and help us overcome market challenges quickly and effectively.
Research conducted by economists, demographers, and research firms has long shown that diverse teams perform better, they boost innovation and grow profits. Research analysts at The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that diverse and inclusive cultures do in fact provide organizations with a competitive advantage. As just one example, according to a McKinsey report, which gathered information on 366 public companies, found that organizations in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry average. And, organizations in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to see financial returns above their industry average.
Hiring the best candidates – including people of diverse races, ethnicities, lifestyles, genders, ages, backgrounds, etc. – is the main focus for us. Furthermore, the more we promote and retain diverse employees the more well-rounded our company becomes.
CW: What organizations does PPG work with to promote cultural diversity?
Irick: The PPG Foundation will be donating to multiple organizations addressing racial injustice, including NAACP, the Center for Policing Equity, and the Equal Justice Initiative. In June 2020, we doubled our standard employee donation match program to support social justice organizations that have a mission focused on racial equalities and anti-racism. Moving forward, employees can continue to submit their donations for a 1:1 match.
PPG is committed to doing more in the cities and neighborhoods that we call home. We will engage with our communities, our customers, our painters, and our employees, to listen, learn, and take action. We will speak out louder against racism and discrimination in all forms and always stand alongside our Black neighbors and friends. We will continue to look for additional ways that we can drive change, and support our Black colleagues and Black communities.