As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Chuck Shelton.
Chuck Shelton is the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Greatheart Consulting in Seattle. For more than 30 years he has honed his unique expertise in engaging and equipping executives — particularly white male leaders together with their colleagues — to grow their global business through inclusive leadership.
Since 1981, Chuck has researched and written on leadership development and global diversity and inclusion (D&I) internationally through more than 400 projects. He has presented this information as a consultant and speaker as well as in his coaching and training efforts.
Through global D&I projects focused on strategy, culture, engagement, talent, learning, and sales, Chuck has developed inclusive leaders at Aetna, Alaska Airlines, Avon, Capgemini, the Johnson Space Center, Liberty Mutual, Lush Cosmetics, Schreiber Foods, Ziply Fiber, and more than 80 additional organizations. In 2012, he designed and directed the initial Study on White Men Leading Through Diversity & Inclusion. Corporate sponsors for this research included Alcoa, Bank of America, Exelon, Intel, Marsh & McLennan, PepsiCo, PwC, and Walmart Stores.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
When Dr. King was killed in 1968, my parents took me to a racial reconciliation workshop in Seattle. I was a 13-year-old white boy from the suburbs. The pastor, Reverend Woodie White, a Black man, looked at me and said, “I need you to take responsibility for being white so you become part of the solution and not part of my problem.” Unexpectedly, that moment became a calling in my life. I’ve spent the 50+ years since then learning about my many advantages and building bridges with people experiencing disadvantage to get things done together. Eventually that led to building a company that equips people to lead more inclusively.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of our key experiences was the 2012 study we conducted with a number of Fortune 500 firms around white men leading through diversity and inclusion. Not surprisingly, the research found that we as white men think we are leading more inclusively than our colleagues who are not white men think we are. The reckoning on gender in the #MeToo movement and the reckoning around race since George Floyd’s murder have positioned our work at the center of redefining leadership by integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
I have a lot to choose from, many of them cringeworthy. Early in my career I asked a female VP to make copies during a meeting, because I thought she was an admin since she introduced herself as “someone who gets the practical things done around here.” An hour later I got to ask her to forgive me. I’ve mispronounced the names of people from both inside and outside the United States. I’ve fumbled to use words people wanted me to use about them (“Black or African American?”), and I’ve struggled to understand people speaking heavily accented English, especially on camera during the pandemic. And I’m still learning how to correctly and consistently use “they and them” as a person’s preferred pronouns.
Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have learned to offer a heartfelt apology when I speak in a way that fails to connect with others. I try to ask people how they would like to me pronounce their name or describe their identity. Fearing mistakes around diversity can paralyze us, and I cannot let that happen in my line of work and in my role. When a CEO seeks to be thoughtful in such practical ways, it helps build our company culture, and it helps us connect with clients.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
It’s hard to select one person when I am grateful to so many. The man who jumps out in my mind right now is Dr. William Pannell, now retired from the faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary. Bill is funny, smart, crazy talented, and a caring Black man. He has experienced a lot of misbehavior and blatant disrespect from white people who claimed to be Christians. He is so grounded in his beliefs and so graceful in his behavior. As his student many years ago, I often got to tag along with him as my mentor.
Can you share a story about that?
I remember sitting next to him during lunch in a board meeting, and another director — a white man — speared a piece of watermelon and held up the fork in front of him, staring at Bill. It was a racist taunt, off-handedly thrown, filled with rancid disrespect. I was stunned. The guy just kept staring, with a small idiotic grimace, at Bill, who I consider one of the finest human beings I’ve ever encountered. I looked over at Bill, and he was staring this guy down with a big smile on his face. The other fellow looked confused and then broke contact. Bill leaned over to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “You never know when hate will come at you, and you have to be ready to respond to it disruptively. There’s a brokenness to that guy that makes me very sad.” And then he went on with his lunch. I sat there, so angry I could not speak, and knew that I could not glare at the racist across the table like I wanted to because of what Bill had just taught me. I couldn’t believe he even had the presence to turn to me and make it a teaching moment.
I learned from Bill that I have choices when ugly things like racism appear. I am now rarely surprised by the brokenness of others, even leaders in board meetings. And I try to emulate the way Bill was ready, prepared in the moment, to respond with strength and care, even in the face of malice.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
When you build an executive team with a mix of identities, you bring together viewpoints that help you avoid mistakes, open new markets, manage through social change, make better people decisions, and innovate products and services that new customers will buy. Executive teams composed almost completely of white men — and remember, I am one — are much less likely to succeed right now and in all the days of commerce to come.
Four years into renewed #MeToo energy, one-plus year since the rising of the Black Lives Matter movement, we are now more aware of violence against people who identify as Asian or Jewish or trans, and who knows what direction the hate will come from next? Executives are struggling with the accountability expectations of their younger employees and customers. A large company CFO in his 50s recently said to me: “In all the years of my career, no one has ever held me to account for speaking about racial reckoning or how gender includes men too or about voting rights in Georgia, where our company does very little business.” He urgently feels the need to integrate diversity and inclusion into his leadership work, and his executive peers are helping him do that.
If your executive team features a mix of people with great heart and talent, everyone gets better, and everyone makes fewer mistakes when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Most importantly, executives take personal responsibility for growing a culture that reduces bias and generates opportunity in hiring, evaluation, and promotion decisions. White guys then learn to lead inclusively as well.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Three things seem fundamental to me.
- The Agreement to Care and Respect: To succeed, a democratic society requires its citizens to show a basic degree of care and respect for the interests of others. In the United States, and in many other democracies, we are struggling with resurgent lines of division and “othering,” with people hunkering down inside their identity groups and ignoring or denying the rights and needs of their fellow citizens. The shared commitment to care for one another, even those with whom we disagree, is a requirement if we aspire to establish a society known for inclusion and equity.
- Inclusion is Built on Personal Responsibility: Each one of us — and especially those of us in leadership jobs — needs to figure out how advantage and disadvantage work in our own lives. For me, as a highly educated straight white man of the upper middle class, that means I account for and accept the call to pour out my life for others. When more of us seek to serve, society stabilizes from our contributions. How? When we sort for the privileges we have and the challenges we face, it leads us to understand what’s working and not working with people around us. We listen, we speak of our risks and opportunities, and we build a new story together. That’s what inclusion produces.
- We Must Grow Justice in Our Systems: Personal awareness and interpersonal skill have to lead to measurable change that reduces bias and generates opportunity. We are accountable to build systems, culture, and a brand that is known for inclusion and equity.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
You steward the culture like no one else. Your words, your actions, your care are the sole rudder for the organization as a whole, for good and ill. It’s a fearsome challenge to do well.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There are myths about the nature of leadership, like:
Telling people what to do gets sustainable results: If you push too hard from the top, you’ll get compliance for a while, but you won’t get excellence and innovation and inclusion, and your company and your reputation will pay the price.
Vulnerability is weakness: In the era of pandemic and reckonings around race and equity, successful CEOs have become “chief empathy officers,” as one Fortune 100 CEO said recently.
“Having power” means that you always get your way: You should be able to hear your own CEO laughing at this myth. The purpose of power is to give it away, so others choose to follow you fueled by the motivation and the resources that accompany the empowerment.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Strangely, I thought I would take myself more seriously with the CEO title. I’m also the founder, and as such I am centered in the organization’s life. But my actual job is to guide and motivate and provide resources while essentially getting out of the way of my people. The energy in many of my days is in that de-centering; it’s a dance to wield my agency as a servant leader. I’m really loving the challenge, but sometimes I wish I was better at it.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
“Cut out to be” implies that leaders come from a pattern, and I doubt that. Truly effective executives are wildly unique: I’ve worked with deeply introverted CEOs, founders of companies who will never be burdened with the knowledge of an MBA, and executives who people follow in spite of themselves.
The times we live in are redefining the nature of executive work: technical expertise will always be crucial, but the emerging success factors are empathy, curiosity, and a demonstrated capability to work across every human difference. I admit I’m biased here — I did name our firm Greatheart Consulting, after all — but if you watch the literature and your own leaders, the executives who are rising, differentiated from their peers, are centering emotional intelligence in the customer and employee experience.
The only completely clear disqualification I see for aspiring to be an executive: that one is not deeply to committed to the care and success of employees and customers as human beings. If you don’t really like people, please don’t seek an executive position.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Humility is necessary — we shape cultures, but even CEOs just play a role. That said, the core values need to be clear and lived out; people coalesce around success, and I highly recommend behavioral guidelines about how you talk and work together. For example, an inclusive workplace grows around agreements like “explore intent and impact,” “we will not blame or shame ourselves or others,” and my favorite, “listen to build trust.” And then listen to people — often. A work culture is fantastic only when employees say it is.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m several decades into developing inclusive leaders, and they are making things better. I once heard success defined as “when the people who know you the best love you the most.” So maybe members of my family and my small company are the best ones to answer this question about me.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It will require way more of you than you think. I’m in my 60s, and I’m working about 60 hours most weeks. That’s a tall order. I think my team can attest to how often I fall short, but persevere, find my courage, and move on to better decisions. As a founder I must learn how to stay central to our growth and simultaneously step aside. I feel that I’m constantly climbing a steep learning curve.
- It will be even more satisfying than you hoped. And I founded the company with pretty high hopes. Making the kind of difference we are with our clients is one of the great joys of my life. And I’ve said to my team that they are making dreams I didn’t even know I had come true.
- You gotta get used to the financial pressure. Earning our way to sustainable profitability is like having a pulse: It puts life-giving pressure into the system. Knowing that our people and their families depend on our financial success is no small burden — at least not for any senior leader focused on their people.
- Obsess around getting and staying organized. As an entrepreneur, I would be happy if I could spend all day, every day cooking up fantastic business ideas. But clients and employees require that we actually turn my/our vision into replicable, continuously improving services and products. Getting our executional act together is core. The truth is that I might not have listened to this advice when I started, but now I know our growth depends on it.
- Life is too short to mess around with bad matches. Avoid clients that won’t be a joy to work with, and move away from client relationships that have run their course. Steer clear of hiring people who will not be both a culture fit and a culture add, and find the right way to help employees move on when they don’t find joy in delivering the results you need.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I feel incredibly lucky to say and believe that that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do. At Greatheart we are proposing that organizations redefine leadership by centering diversity, equity, and inclusion in what leaders do and then equipping people in any role to lead inclusively.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The New Testament notes these words of Jesus: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” My life has been filled with every sort of advantage, and that drives me, every day, to reduce the disadvantages so many still suffer for aspects of their identities. Inclusive leaders are changing the world, and I get to be in on their development. It’s a very cool thing.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Mellody Hobson is the co-CEO of Ariel Investments. I so admire her voice and impact, and it would be an honor to meet her. I’d like to explore with her the potential for investing in the growth of Greatheart Consulting.