This article was originally published on Forbes.com on March 28, 2019.
As building diverse workforces and diverse workplaces becomes more important, I want to profile business leaders who have been thoughtful and intentional in creating workplaces that embrace different people, needs, and skill sets.
This interview features Sarah Clark, the CEO of Mitchell, an integrated PR firm that creates connections between businesses, brands, and people through strategic insights, customized conversations, and consumer engagement. Clark has more than 25 years of experience in corporate communications and a strong track record of protecting corporate reputations and redefining perceptions in key areas of business.
Serenity Gibbons: What responsibility, if any, do you feel leaders have regarding building diverse workplaces?
Sarah Clark: Culture comes from the top down, as well as the bottom up, which means leaders must drive and nurture diversity from every angle. First, though, they must see people as people, not as titles, colors, genders, etc. True inclusion can only exist when diversity becomes so woven into the organization’s fabric that it’s an everyday expectation, not a seasonal or annual initiative.
The good news is that the majority of leaders understand their responsibility to promote equality and inclusion. However, many have not learned how to move their workforce from seeing diversity as a badge or a quota to helping team members genuinely value one another’s unique backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets.
Gibbons: What’s one piece of advice you would give to a minority considering a future in business?
Clark: Never try to fit into someone else’s vision of what you should be. The more authentic you are, the stronger your personal branding will be. Every minority is an individual, not a representation of a group. Remember that, and you’ll be able to power through situations with people who don’t understand the value of diverse teams.
Gibbons: If you could go back and talk to the child version of yourself, what would you say to prepare yourself for your entrepreneurial journey?
Clark: Focus on collaboration instead of control. Rather than tell your peers what to do, let go of your need to be in charge, and learn from those around you.
Gibbons: What barriers have you had to overcome along your journey?
Clark: I have been very fortunate to have had opportunities, though others might have seen them as barriers. First of all, I grew up in a southern state and naturally adopted a regional accent. Interestingly, the accent could have been a barrier if I had been embarrassed about it, but I never was. In fact, I love to talk about being a heartland native. It’s where I learned the value of family, hard work, and undying respect. Consequently, I never shy away from talking proudly in my Arkansas accent!
Of course, I’m a woman, which is another perceived obstacle. Yet I have never believed gender should have any bearing on success. My mentors — and life experiences — have taught me that I am a person first, rather than a woman first. I can be comfortable speaking up and owning my authenticity. I can be just as much at ease sitting back and listening when it seems right to remain quiet. Yes, gender discrimination happens, but I don’t let it steal my success. I showcase my talents and lean on my empathy, intuition, ability to problem solve, and other traits.
Finally, being a mother is often made out to be a career stumbling block. Yet after I adopted my son, I think I became a better worker. Becoming a mom to a wonderful son made me a better time manager, opened my eyes to see the world in a different light, and inspired me to find personal and professional fulfillment in new ways. In other words, I became stronger, not weaker, because of my parental role.
Really, it’s not a surprise. Ask any executive mom, and she will tell you that she practices the same behaviors on and off the job. From active listening to endless patience, motherhood pulls from the same toolbox as being a corporate leader does.
Gibbons: How has your view of success been influenced by your background?
Clark: My formative years definitely shaped who I am today. I was fortunate to grow up in a family where everyone — parents and siblings alike — was a hard worker, valued integrity and authenticity, cared about other people, and treated everyone respectfully.
To give you an example of those values in action, I always get to know individuals who work for and with me because I see myself as a servant leader. I listen to their stories and care about what happens in their lives. When you authentically give of yourself to your colleagues, you can build a team that rallies in both the good and bad times.
Gibbons: What do you see the U.S. business landscape looking like in 10 years?
Clark: Although we all know that some trends will fluctuate, I believe technology will continue its evolutionary course. Simultaneously, the upcoming generations will help everyone eliminate our conscious and subconscious biases through discussion and clarification.
In addition, we'll look for new ways to connect and communicate, whether in person or virtually. Business revolves around building relationships. We must continue to strive for rich interactions with consumers and other businesspeople globally to shape the future.
To be sure, the landscape will be much different in a decade, thanks to Millennials and members of Generation Z. Their definition of a trustworthy community — which we have found through our research is an “omnilocal” view — will put the emphasis on “local” in terms of shared values and lifestyles. It would be unrealistic to think that the world will look completely unrecognizable in 10 years, but the small and big changes ahead will add up to relevant differences between now and then.
Gibbons: What’s your current view of diversity in the workplace, and how has it evolved?
Clark: Diversity has moved to become a cultural shift in the workplace, and we are seeing improvement little by little. Executives need to spend time integrating diversity and inclusion into the fabric of their companies, rather than ordering a certain number of programs, workshops, or trainings on the topic. The only way to integrate diversity into any organization is to practice it on every level.
Gibbons: As an executive at a public relations firm, how do you feel your work is impacted by diversity issues?
Clark: The statistics on this topic are quite clear: Diverse companies breathe energy, innovation, and freedom of thought into any project. Therefore, the more diverse and engaging our firm can become, the more impact our output will have.