Bankole: Detroit CEO group can be force for equity
It is easy to vilify corporate titans as simply a bunch of leaders determined to exploit the public good through the series of tax abatements they request for their investments to stay in a city. At the same time, it is extremely difficult to convince some of these industry captains to take the necessary risks and move their entire business operations from the suburbs to the central city.
The latter is the reason Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson is having tantrums with the CEO community of Detroit by accusing them of taking business away from Oakland County. But focusing on how Patterson feels about who is making key investments in Detroit allegedly at the expense of his county would be a waste of time. The focus instead should be on how this informal roundtable of business leaders led by DTE Energy chairman and CEO Gerry Anderson can make life better for Detroiters and others in the region.
The key here is to ensure that in building the local economy of the city and helping the region, there is equitable growth all across the board. That there is real inclusionary growth through the support of entrepreneurs of color, who are often the last ones to have access to opportunities that will in turn help improve the conditions of residents in the neighborhoods.
That is why these leaders should not be distracted by critics or get entangled in the seemingly diversionary tactics often designed to take away from the goal of finding strategies to ensure the kind of business growth that would lead to jobs for residents. After all, change is not easy. It always attracts opposition when it has the potential for lasting and positive impact.
But it is innovative and forward-thinking on the part of Anderson to convene this level of the city’s business leadership at DTE’s headquarters, and periodically meet to collaboratively work to expand the private sector role in the city.
The group also has an opportunity to be an important bully pulpit that would not just promote investment but become a conscientious voice for equity and access to opportunities for minorities. It can work to help dismantle the structural barriers and entrenched practices that keep minorities from advancing within their institutions and organizations.
What Detroit needs to foster an inclusive economic climate is allies for equity among the ranks of the top business class. Leaders who have no qualms or hesitation in demonstrating moral clarity in their decision-making and boldly pushing for concrete initiatives that would change the current paradigm.
A Harvard Business Review interview last year with 11 CEOs about lessons in making the business case for diversity is instructive for Detroit.
“In order to make great progress the CEO needs to take this on as one of those personal initiatives that they’re going to be involved with and personally drive,” Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks, says in the interview. Johnson later explained how he refused to fill a key leadership position within the company until he had a diverse slate of candidates.
Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente, added, “We’ve evolved from equality to equity. Equality says everybody gets equal. Equity says no, everybody gets what they need. Part of building an inclusive environment is not how you’re going to change the person. It’s how you’re going to change yourself and the environment in which the person is going to have to succeed.”
Based on past conversations with DTE’s Anderson, I know he cares about the city. The challenge always is to ensure that we are not paying lip service to the mantra that inclusion is good for business. It should be reflected in the best practices of companies invested in the city as well as embedded in their workplace culture.
If the Anderson group also becomes known as the business commitment to advance inclusion in the city, then it would stand to make a serious and meaningful impact on many lives and better represents Detroit.
With bold and actionable goals geared toward greater equity, Detroit’s corporate leaders can close the opportunity gap that hangs over the recovery of the city like a sword of Damocles.
That is why they shouldn’t give in to the latest public rancor that leads to the kind of racial animus that has always haunted this region and prevented progress.
Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.