Editor’s note: Entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column for WRAL TechWire on Wednesdays.

RALEIGH – During the last two months as our country faced urgent and powerful calls for social justice, many of my conversations with fellow CEOs have taken a deep dive into issues of race, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). These colleagues tell me, “I want to do the right thing, but I’m scared of the backlash if I say something wrong.” Sometimes, they even have their PR firm on the phone to double-check language or cut things short when the conversation gets a bit too risky.

These CEOs feel inspired to change. They want to support the Black community and build a more just, equitable workplace, but they simply don’t know how to move forward. They’re worried that one wrong word will further exasperate or alienate their employees, open them to criticism from investors and friends, or be taken out of context by the media. They’re terrified of being mistaken and condemned, so they choose to stay silent instead. Then, faced with the mantra that “silence is violence,” they berate themselves for not taking action and the cycle starts again.

I will tell you here what I often tell my friends: The most important thing is just to get started. Take the first steps and be ready to learn. After all, DEI is not a destination. It’s a journey and a practice to which we make repeated commitments.

No matter how bumpy or uncomfortable those first steps may be, you have to put one foot in front of the other. You might make a few mistakes along the way, but you will find that people are more forgiving if they know you are working towards personal growth. It’s the commitment to movement that matters. As CEOs, we are called to lead and to create momentum toward broad goals and directives. But how do we create momentum and direction if we are only standing still?

Let me share a few first steps that will help you make a powerful impact, while also avoiding potential landmines along the way.

  • Learn best practices for inclusive language.

This is the most fundamental step you can take in creating a just and equitable workplace. If we cannot communicate, we cannot do the work. Inclusive language acknowledges and values every person in the room, respecting their individual identity and inviting their participation at the table. It is the critical differentiator in building an open, accessible business culture and helps you avoid unintentionally silencing, offending or minimizing other people.

My team and I are releasing a white paper on inclusive language in the next few weeks. If you’d like to be notified when the paper is final, join our mailing list at The Diversity Movement and you’ll be the first to find out. Remember that real change must be CEO-led. Your personal commitment to inclusive language will point the direction and drive your team toward a more inclusive culture.

  • Lead by example

Show your team that you are curious, engaged and not afraid to learn. Admit what you don’t know and commit to personal growth. You may not fully understand the language of inclusion or the dynamics of racial and social injustice, but you are learning and you are taking those first steps forward.

I know it seems scary, but there is really no risk in saying to the world: I am trying to understand. Consider hiring a DEI coach or engaging in your own unconscious bias training. Those actions show your strength through vulnerability, learning agility and transparency. They show your team that you want to create a culture of learning and personal growth, so you will not shy away from hard conversations.

You may also find the need for internal listening sessions. These sessions help you understand what it’s actually like to work at your business and what problems your team already encountered. I cannot stress enough how critical it is to begin these sessions with a third-party leader. Find a partner who will work as a moderator and help you move beyond your own internal biases. The best partners will also help you formulate a communications strategy and create action steps for the future.

  • Review your supply chain

Take an active look at each step in the process to see how and where you can do more business with enterprises run by people of color. If you need help finding a POC-led business at any point in the process, I’d be happy to help you. Just leave a comment or reach out through LinkedIn.

  • Examine your hiring and recruiting practices

Review the language you use on your website, job postings and social media to be sure it reflects that you value building a diverse team and an inclusive workplace culture. Whether you have a one person in HR or a department of hiring professionals, those team members should be exceptionally well-versed in inclusive language and using those skills to work through job postings and hiring tactics. Diversify the platforms you use for recruiting. If you are always tapping the same resources, you limit yourself to a small section of the workforce and will struggle to be more diverse.

  • Re-evaluate how and where you donate your money and time

There are many powerful organizations that are already doing great work in the right way. See how you can help provide resources for them to be more successful in making a difference.

No matter what your first steps may be, the important thing is to get started today. Don’t become paralyzed by fear. Instead, be a role model for personal growth and active learning. You might make some mistakes along the way, but you and your business will be stronger in the end because you took action to start the journey now.

About The Author

With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald Thompson is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. Donald is currently CEO of Walk West, a digital marketing firm recognized by Inc. as the fastest growing agency in North Carolina for 2018 and 2019, and of The Diversity Movement, a technology driven D&I consultancy.  In addition, Donald serves on boards for several organizations in technology, marketing, sports and entertainment, and is a mentor for Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange.

You can connect with Donald on LinkedIn or at donaldthompson.com

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