CEO Conversations

Between a rock and a hard place: How one CEO navigated his team through opposing views

Kenji Kuramoto, CEO of Acuity, was faced with a difficult choice in the summer of 2020 when many of his employees asked him to make a public statement on defunding the police, while many others asked him to denounce the movement. 

Here’s how he went from “scared to death” to grateful for the opportunity.

In the summer of 2020, you were forced into an untenable position in the swirl of the national racial reckoning. Tell us about it.

“Many team members were deeply impacted by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the many things happening around that time. Some team members spoke up in favor of “Defund the police” – and they used social media, even LinkedIn, to make their sentiments known.

“But on the other hand, I had other team members reach out to me and say, ‘I have a spouse, a father, a son-in-law in enforcement. This is hurtful.  And we’re not sure if these are appropriate channels for our colleagues’ voices. Kenji, what are you going to do? What are you going to say?’

I was scared to death. I didn’t know how to keep the peace. No matter what I did I feared I’d alienate certain team members. I felt stuck. 

“So, I started talking to people I trusted and other socially-minded entrepreneurs asking: ‘How are you thinking about this; how are you addressing it?’

“Over the next few weeks I started to develop a bit of confidence, and to get unstuck. I realized I don’t have to follow any other CEO’s exact path. I wanted to create my own way, through conversations.

“After I began to see my best path, we started having conversations internally. I asked them how they thought I should address it, and did they agree with me that conversation was the right thing. I told them why I didn’t feel comfortable putting out a proclamation on Acuity’s stance.

“Many of the companies, I saw put out public statements had long-standing, more mature, public dialogues. I remember when Patagonia came out and made a stance on this, I was incredibly proud of what they stood up for. But I also realized that I didn’t have to jump to that because we hadn’t been having that dialogue internally. We hadn’t set that example yet. We needed to get on the path having those, then maybe we could make statements more broadly.

 “So, we spun up some conversations.  We were able to get a lot of these team members from different sides into the same room — virtually because of COVID — to have a conversation in a place that had real trust, where we were truly seeking to understand.

“Over the next nine or so months, we came to a place of feeling incredibly bonded. I watched us all come into understanding of someone with a different belief system or a different perspective or experience. It was a really beautiful thing.  A wonderful thing.

At the beginning, I wanted this whole thing to disappear. I felt there was so much business to worry about, PPP loans to focus on and other things. I felt, ‘Please, can we not address this?’ But that would have been a huge opportunity missed.”

Specifically, how did you set up the conversations?

“First, I talked to the individuals who clearly had strong feeling and others who I thought might be affected, especially some colleagues who are people of color and the people who have family in law enforcement. I asked, ‘Is there anything you think I can do as a leader?’

“One team member recommended a Diversity and Inclusion professional to me.  I spent some time getting ideas from her.

“Ultimately we found a LinkedIn Educational series to lean on. Last year LinkedIn made their entire Diversity & Inclusion series free.

“I landed on using one of these series to host a monthly conversation. We’d listen to the speaker together, then I’d follow-up with questions. I really recommend this to others: either find free video resources or hire one of the great experts out there. I felt supported, tethered to experts and had a framework for productive conversations.

“We set ground rules first. I initially got them from a consultant. They seemed fairly common sense, but it was important to set the conversations off well. I put these out and asked for input. There were times when many of us got emotional. These ground rules really helped make a place of safety and trust. That allowed vulnerability and connection to follow.

“We have a culture of very few meetings; only a couple a year that are “required.” We made this series opt-in. I’d go through the video ahead of time and post up some questions in advance, so everyone knew the topic.  About 10-20% of the team came each time. A couple made every single session. Others came about half the time.

“I expected more bumps in the road, but it really went very well over the eight or nine months they ran.”

How did these conversations impact the culture and team?

“We’re more ready to address the next racial reckoning, or the next problem we’re going to have as a society. More of those will come and I as a leader want to be better prepared for them.  As an organization, we’re in a different place together. Now we have the precedent and trust inside the company to talk about difficult things.

I think our staff know now that we don’t veer away from hard conversations. In our culture, there’s not such a thing as, ‘We don’t talk about that at work.’ Work and your personal things are not separate; we bring in feelings and life. That’s not only ok; it lets us understand each other better. Now people are sure we’re a place of trust.

“Leading by example (not just me, all of us were included in the dialogue) really set a tone and agenda: this is an inclusive place for people of all beliefs. If you have anything you want to bring to the table, it is a safe space.

“We’ve experienced our largest period of growth over the past year.  We feel incredibly fortunate and  grateful; many others have not fared as well. Part of the reason is that we’re not going to shy away from the challenging aspects of life. It’s ok if we don’t agree on everything. There are opportunities to learn from each other.”

While we have you, what’s one simple idea that helps your company benefit from your corporate generosity?

“We ask only one thing from our non-profit partners. We ask them to come once to our annual all-hands “AcuityCon” meeting and talk about their work and mission with our entire team and our partners.

“Acuity Cares is the company’s program offering pro-bono services to non-profits. We’ve built personal relationships with the founders and executive directors and our work has grown more programmatic and robust over the past 8 or 9 years.

“We always have an Acuity Cares client speak out at that annual meeting and every single time, it’s people’s favorite part of the meeting. The stories are amazing. And it puts a face and heart and cause behind the work we do.  It’s important  for all of us to see and feel how we’re helping with impact.”

What would you tell a small entrepreneur just starting out? What would you tell yourself years ago, based on what you know now?

“I think you should show your personality. Show yourself as soon as you can. Early on I tried to make us look bigger, more like other accounting services firms, and hide the fact that I’m more people-oriented than a typical analytical accountant.  But people like to work with people. It’s not only ok, but you could probably add more value to your business by being yourself. It’s engaging to people. I would have showcased our personality earlier; I think we would have grown even faster.

“And luckily, we embraced – with some learning and hesitancy along the way, I’ll admit – workplace flexibility and learning how to be a more human-oriented workplace. We found a huge population of talented people who were sitting on the sidelines thinking they had to work the typical accounting expectation of 60 hours a week and they just didn’t want to. They had other things they wanted to do in life, too. So, we grew into saying, ‘Work wherever and however many hours you want. We’re knowledge workers. You know what works best for you.’

“We have a deep pipeline of talent wanting to fill our next openings. They know they get to call the shots on how they work, they’ll have fun here, and they’ll benefit from real steps we’ve taken to be a place of work where we can get more attached to individuals, to organizations and to communities to help them make a difference.

“I wish I’d learned that sooner because it’s been invaluable to the strength of the company.”

Kenji Kuramoto
CEO, Acuity
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