True Accountability Requires Courage

Alterrell Mills, Contributor
Alterrell Mills, Contributor

Alterrell Mills (MBA ’16) reflects on the commitments and lessons learned in HBS’ Racial Equity Plan. 

We have all witnessed, or had ourselves been subjected to, the dreaded cold call of a classmate that refused to acknowledge their lack of preparation, drawing out their monologue and digging a deeper hole with hubris-laden attempts to avoid admitting to not having read the case. It is painful to watch. The classmate flipping through pages of the case, pointing to exhibits and hoping to repeat some of the talking points covered in their discussion group just prior to class. Harvard Business School’s Action Plan for Racial Equity conjured up familiar memories of watching bad cold calls. 

HBS’ overly wordy plan is not well packaged, relies heavily on rhetorical devices and structure that skirt accountability, and fails to address past inconsistent efforts toward progress. In most instances, eschewing concision produces clarity, deeper insight and exploratory space to better understand the author’s intent. HBS’ opaque plan, which is at times redundant, provides some glimpses of an organizational and leadership culture that has stalled progress for Black admittances, tenured faculty and case protagonists within the required first-year curriculum.   

Highlighting sub-optimal packaging and rhetorical devices in the action plan may seem like an overly critical view, but it is the manner in which we should view all topics we believe are serious. I approached the document with the same expectations of clarity found in a financial statement or donor report the school produces annually. As such, analysis of HBS’ action plan can serve as a useful framework for approaching topics of diversity, equity and inclusion with sincerity as well as practicing the behaviors critical to achieving greater equity within designed systems. In effect, this is the case about HBS written by HBS, for which we can apply a myriad of lenses including that of LEAD or LCA. 

Coming in at over 5,000 words, HBS’ plan outlines nearly identical actions as Stanford GSB committed towards racial equity. The GSB’s plan is 700 words (including the title) and was released two months ahead of HBS’. Similar to a cold-call gone too long, HBS’ opaque and at times redundant plan is hard to digest as it lacks visual cues, timelines and other accessible elements of a workplace presentation or case study. The strained communication buries salient details of their commitment under paragraphs lamenting inequity within the halls of HBS and the state of the world. 

Serving as either sly self-awareness of slow progress or virtue signaling, HBS’ most game-changing commitments are to hire a Chief DEI Officer and establish a Racial Equity Initiative. In many organizations, DEI responsibilities are decoupled from financial performance and employee evaluations. In fact, Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal have written about the endemic challenges of Chief Diversity Officer roles and how many are set up to fail. Often such roles are short-term tactics that bolster positive public relations and experience high turnover. 

Without linking equity goals to either financial performance or individual performance reviews, the efforts are doomed from the outset. I would hope each professor at HBS is as committed to research and cases that reflect the diversity of the classrooms in which they teach and whose grades they determine. In every role I have held at a for-profit company, I was expected to think like an owner and maximize shareholder value. And in my non-profit role, I was expected to complete work in service of advancing the mission. 

Organizationally, my hope is that the 93 professors (fewer than half of the faculty) who have committed to mirroring their cases with the demographic of the student body are able to compel their colleagues toward the path of equity. I also hope the new faculty studying race and those visiting are appropriately rewarded for advancing work that HBS acknowledges is not their area of expertise—currently and historically. I also hope HBS introduces incentives for existing faculty to prioritize meeting equity goals. When I was Co-President of the African-American Student Union (AASU), we awarded one professor in the required and elective curriculum that authored the best case focused on a Black protagonist (based on votes by both Black and non-Black students). In fact, the idea to tie recognition and structural rewards to outcomes is one I learned at HBS. 

Coincidentally, I was part of a group of students that recommended a Race Equity Initiative back in 2016. Three students and I enrolled in a second-year course focused on “Stereotype Threat at HBS,” which intended to make HBS a more inclusive campus. Many of the suggestions in HBS’ action plan have also likely been recommended by other students in large part from observing where HBS has previously chosen to advance minority inclusion. My classmates and I (with me being the only male student in the group) suggested building on the progress of the Gender Initiative among many other advancements for gender equity that were refused then or at least never actioned. 

Instead of feeling aggrieved, I am left to wonder what HBS’ motivations are to push for—and follow through with—their commitments. The $25 million of internal funds committed to support the Racial Equity Initiative is over a 10-year period, amounting to $2.5 million annually. Compared to the nearly $300 million HBS generated in publishing revenue, this is under 1%. At the same time, HBS has not committed to diversifying the product bundles it sells. HBS will develop materials focused on racial equity that are largely opt-in if they are not taught in the required curriculum or reflect gender and racial equity in the millions of cases sold to other institutions. 

To be clear, HBS is perpetuating structures that mirror selective segregation rather than integration. It is a similarly hollow tactic many of us have witnessed this summer when CEOs felt compelled to proclaim solidarity with their Black employees and customers following George Floyd’s murder but failed to address systemic racism within their own companies. Many of the same CEOs have been silent as Breonna Taylor has been deprived of justice. If there were ever a lesson to learn it is that organizations and institutions will commit to surface-level plans for equity and inclusion without consideration for structures and incentives that support sustained, individual progress toward these stated goals.

While HBS asserts their humility around the topic of reversing racial inequity, many of their choices and framing of core concepts suggest either self-flagellation or performative allyship. None of the listed members of the Dean’s Anti-Racism Task Force include an expert in diversity, equity or inclusion. Acknowledging ignorance of a topic without attempting to seek out experts in the area in which you have dedicated tremendous time and effort is the feigned ignorance that has upheld the systems of inequity the school itself purports to want to undo. Instead, the plan is filled with sentences lamenting the condition of the state of HBS and the world at large, which only serves to center HBS itself. It is a lack of true accountability in favor of martyrdom as a self-serving device. 

Moreover, the action plan’s use of language and structure absconds responsibility. In their framing of anti-Black racism, HBS leans on promoting racial equity and references the systemic barriers to opportunity. This framing rests on passive outcomes, suggesting Black people are held back or require a savior. It would be more exact (and accountable) to say Black people are excluded. Black founders are not “held back” from receiving venture capital funding; they are excluded. Black businesses were not “held back” from receiving pandemic-relief funding; they were excluded

Black veterans that served in WWII were excluded from the benefits of the GI Bill, as their white veteran counterparts purchased homes and entered the country’s newly emerging middle class. Seneca Village, paved over to create NewYork City’s Central Park, and Tulsa’s Black Wall Street were self-contained thriving Black communities that were destroyed. The systems and policies that prevented the accumulation of generational wealth were enacted by leaders—not passive outcomes of a blindly unjust system. It is imperative we are exact in our language or we absolve people and entities (historically and currently) of accountability. 

Similarly, in reference to “worse access to education,” the lengthy plan focuses on passive outcomes in lieu of naming the active forces at play or the architects of systems in equity. Discussing issues of access in education without a clear linkage to public school funding (e.g., local property taxes), government policy, the legacy of redlining, gentrification and white flight as contributors to educational access gaps absolves HBS and the students it educates of responsibility. Many HBS alumni set government policy, invest in real estate and sit on boards of charter schools that are competitors for federal and state funding of public schools. 

In order for HBS to move forward toward breaking the unequal systems it acknowledges exist, it needs to model sincerity. Instead of perpetuating the equity gap as a “pipeline problem,” it ought to acknowledge structurally embedded bias. The system that brought fewer than 40 Black faculty members to HBS over six decades cannot be a system anyone should aim to replicate. Attracting more candidates to a broken system is similar to scaling a product with poor unit economics. It is hubris that points leaders to strategies that overweight acquisition relative to retention or continuous process improvement. This is the same ego-centricism that compels the cold-called classmate to dig deeper into their ignorance, toward the hope they will eventually be off the hook of accountability. 

In many ways the solution is to read the case and prepare for class. We all have off-days and other priorities as students that make it almost impossible to be prepared for every single case. However, HBS published reports and data that suggested there was inequity well before this summer’s action plan. In fact, my biggest disappointment is that HBS’ administration and leadership had the same data that I analyzed for a case that I wrote and self-published, yet HBS did nothing with it for a few years. It is reminiscent of the leadership failings of both President Trump and Bob Woodward, one withholding data for political benefit and the other for profit. If HBS’ Racial Equity Action Plan were itself a case in LCA, how would you assess the leadership ethos and would you model the same behavior?

In the end, I hope HBS achieves its stated goals and reaches those goals with sincerity, accountability, and a sense of ownership as if their mission were contingent upon it. I also hope that HBS’ action plan serves as a lesson in preparation, similar to the lesson most HBS alumni learn while watching a poorly handled cold call. And for all HBS (and business people), I hope we start to apply the frameworks we have learned toward the greater good instead of relegating gender and racial equity to secondary and tertiary considerations. What if we viewed anti-racism as a financial target, aiming to maximize impact and value for all shareholders? What if we viewed gender and racial equity as operational efficiency, focusing our energies on continuous improvement? 

I came to HBS with no idea that I would leave the institution more hopeful and inspired that long-term progress was achievable. As I approach ambiguous problems in my professional and personal life, I recall the case protagonists’ dilemmas and frameworks we were taught. I firmly believe if we shift how we think about the job to be done similarly to the job that pays us, we can move much more quickly towards equity across many dimensions. And that it all starts with a commitment to action. So what is your 30-, 60- and 90-day plan to make progress toward equity?

Commentary articles reflect the opinions of the authors and not those of the Harbus.

Alterrell Mills (MBA ’16) is a social entrepreneur who has worked in mission-driven organizations, including the Harlem Children’s Zone and Tesla, after graduating from HBS. As an alumnus, he authored cases taught in the elective curriculum. Prior to HBS, he worked at American Express and studied psychology at Harvard College. As a cautious optimistic, he really does hope for the best.