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How to be an effective ally

Vivek, senior partner in Mumbai, shares his lessons and observations

I spent my formative years at a boarding school in the Himalayas. Its mission was “the production of boys to serve a free India.” Penned 12 years before India’s independence, the word “free” embodied the audacious hope of the school’s Indian and British founders. We were encouraged to challenge tradition.

When I would visit home during our breaks, my mother worked and would return in the evenings with stories of gender discrimination in the workplace and attempts to fight back against it. She eventually took “voluntary retirement” when she tired of fighting a system stacked against her.

Later, while I was attending college on the West Coast, I vividly recall noisy classroom debates about gender inequality and systemic discrimination.

Then, I joined McKinsey. Half our mission is “to build a great firm that attracts, develops, excites, and retains exceptional people.” We provide extensive diversity & inclusion, unconscious bias and anti-racism training for all our colleagues. And, our values play an important role too. 

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Becoming an ally

In my experience, some examine allyship from an intellectual distance; others treat the invitation to engage as an imposition. And some realize it requires acknowledging their own mistakes. This partly explains why it has become an issue that’s easy to identify or admire but difficult to engage and address. It’s a hard problem because it deals with our issues. It deals with us. 

McKinsey invests considerable time and resources in creating an environment where all people can thrive, yet we recognise there’s a long and constant journey ahead of us to reach complete inclusion. Global managing partner Kevin Sneader made diversity and inclusion a priority in every sector and regional agenda. He asked leaders tough questions about our progress and challenges. He taught us to be impatient about our progress. I love that we are trying to lead by example, even more than insight, on this agenda.

My journey of allyship was triggered by a few events and observations:

It’s our collective responsibility

Observing LGBTQ+, racial minorities, and other colleagues do the hard, emotional work of sharing, and often reliving, their experiences with discrimination; explaining why it is difficult to bring their whole selves to work; and standing up for personal preferences and needs can be disheartening and inspiring at the same time. This should not be their work to do alone. Their exhaustion, sorrow, and anger deserves to be shared by friends and colleagues. Today, we often share stories to remind ourselves of bias’s many disguises and nuances and the importance of allyship.

The role of pioneers

McKinsey’s culture celebrates respectful dissent. As an associate in New York, I saw colleagues who were willing to put themselves out there as early members of GLAM, McKinsey’s LGBTQ+ affinity group. They were comfortable being uncomfortable. I felt compelled to actively listen. I learned the effort of an ally pales in comparison to the tremendous personal courage and sacrifice it takes for a member of the LGBTQ+ community to stand up for themselves. Our biases were their burden. This naturally compels more allies to do more.

Four years later, I moved to Asia and was asked to co-lead our efforts to address gender inequity in India with Anu Madgavkar, a McKinsey Global Institute partner, whose research on gender equity in India was truly cutting edge. In 2017, after months of planning a session on inclusion for an office offsite, an engagement manager approached us with her willingness to come out to the entire office. We had to embrace this moment, show not tell, and released our agenda. She was out to her teams but not the broader office. She wanted to share her challenges with inclusion. When she bravely took the stage, she shared gut-wrenching stories of why she felt compelled to compartmentalise her personal life and how exhausting it is. The audience was jolted. Her stories brought many colleagues to tears. That day, allyship was thrust on anyone in the room who cared about humanity, dignity, or freedom. 

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Learning from mistakes 

The next few years, I witnessed well-intended colleagues in positions of influence act or speak up for underrepresented team members, but also unconsciously overstep boundaries. Early instances included outing a colleague to a client, overshadowing LGBTQ+ colleagues by occupying their right to speak up for themselves, or failing to recognise basic structures that gave rise to unjust privilege or discrimination. We also changed definitions of significant others for offsites, fitfully tended to pronouns, asked senior partners to check in on teams with a particular emphasis on inclusion, started a Pride Feed newsletter, and created well-attended community events.

While we are increasingly self-aware, we don’t always recognize and address issues as fast as we’d like. Once we do, however, we act swiftly and learn from our mistakes. 

The courage to stand out

Sometimes operating in environments that don’t share our values as a firm creates complexities. With one client, we observed discriminatory comments and received requests to change our team members. We addressed this with the client, explaining the credentials and value of each team member and the value of diversity on our teams. Our attempts were unsuccessful, so we stopped work for that client. We operate in societies that are at very different stages of understanding and openness, yet we must persist as allies and remain true to our values.

There’s no cookie-cutter solution to being an ally, just as there isn’t one for being a friend or mentor. It requires empathy, care, education, action, and a desire to learn from your mistakes. There’s no room for bystanders in the face of intolerance.

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