Joerg Schmitz 0:08
Welcome to The Inclusive Leader Podcast. The practice of inclusive leadership enables us to tackle the complex challenges of our times. This is the space for conversations about inclusive leadership. I am your host Joerg Schmitz and I welcome you to this episode. As an anthropologist, Dr. Cheryl Williams is equally at home in the jungles of Suriname as the corporate jungles around the world, focusing on what divides as well as unites us, Cheryl has crystallized in her work, the art of getting one another. To her, it is the essential foundation for getting anything done in this multicultural, diverse global environment. This is why she focuses on compassionate curiosity as the essential practice of inclusive leaders. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Cheryl. So Cheryl, I ask everybody that same question at the beginning. So what do you do?
Cheryl Williams 1:11
Joerg, I have been really pleased to have been able to work in this whole field of civil rights, which it was long ago referred to as now, social justice and many other terms it's taken on. And we'll talk a little bit later about why this is so passionate, and necessary for me to do. But I'm labeled rightfully as a corporate anthropologist today. That's comes from a solid 20 plus years experience in human resources. A solid 20 plus years in, in academics in academia as a professor, and being able to combine business with academics has led me to this area of corporate anthropology for years, where I've had the-- really the benefit of being able to consult with many organizations. What is corporate anthropologist, many ask? It's funny, Joerg, on my business card it says "a corporate anthropologist" like, well, what is that? Well, anthropology is simply the study of a culture, if you just go really, really broad, when you talk about corporate anthropology is when we combine what we consider traditional anthropology, which is what is a culture, which is what people think, what people see what people feel, what people do, and how to and all those things, and embodying the terminology, culture, with business. So it connects those dots and it connects primarily the tools that an anthropologist uses when they're going in mapping a ethnic culture, or a racial culture or gender, or historical, or many other things that the anthropologist. So organizations that I work with, really have me go in and really get an up close and personal snapshot, as well as deep dive understanding of who is attracted to their field, their business first, who might be attracted to their company to work for and then why. And then what actually do workers do once they're there. So using the tools of cultural assessment, using the tools of being able to [unintelligible] observation, which is, of course, you know, the number one skill for field anthropologists, which is what I am, it's the skill of observation. So we do that. And we kind of bring the study of humans if I were to say that in a very short way, and we marry it, or we put it into the study of a business, the lessons of business, I should say. So that's kind of in a in a real nutshell, what what I do and what corporate anthropologists do.
Joerg Schmitz 3:48
Yeah. And like, you know, we share this passion for Anthropology. So I think I'm going to be self indulgent here. But can you say a little bit about the field research that you have done? Because I think that's, that's really fascinating, and maybe give an example of how that field research has helped you professionally?
Cheryl Williams 4:10
Absolutely. Thank you. So when I was working on my doctorate, on my PhD, and it got to the field work, I had long also wanted to work in this field of working with tribal cultures. I was very interested in, particularly at that time, the African ancestry cultures because it was a lot of things going on in the world that was bringing the difference between African Americans, Black and white, not just Americans, of course. So in doing my studies of looking at what populations I was going to look at, it took me to the Amazon jungle that took me to the Amazon rainforest to study at that time in 1993-94. The tribal community there was called a "bush negros." Of course, that term itself can be very insensitive or offensive to others, except in context, and in place, that was the appropriate label that the Africans who lived in the interior chose. You refer to the tribal name, of course, if you want to be correct.
But what they did in a nutshell, it took me deep into the Amazon rainforest, because I was looking for what is African, from a communication perspective about what people do, what people see, what people think, what people feel that's purely African? Because so much of what all human beings know, and it's a collective of the many cultures as well as down there. But there are specific and unique things that are culturally grounded. And if I were to be able to ramp that up to an American audience, a European audience, an Asian audience to help them to understand, well, this is why eye contact, this is why physical space, this is why, you know, volume of of how you deliver messages is so important across this culture, because that's how I understood more accurately. So I live for a little over two years deep in the Amazon jungle. Studied within the tribes, there are six tribes that live in the rainforest.
I entered through Suriname, and Suriname is, used to be Dutch Guiana many years ago, and then it gained its independence in the mid 70s. And briefly what it is, when the Africans were taken from West Africa, and brought across the TransAtlantic slave times, as soon as they hit land. And if you were to actually even just use a ruler on a globe or a map and draw from Ghana, the belly of Africa, where the slave trade where the African trade started, and you blade on, you get, you hit South America. So as soon as the people touched land, they ran, they fled into the interior. And they lived there for over 300 years. They live there today, it's over 350 years. And they still live there, as I mentioned today. What they did is they fought a 100 year war with the Dutch colonists at that time. And they gained their independence, but they were relegated to live into the jungle, or the interior, as is, as we prefer to call it.
And so because they are, have been so remote, no newspapers, no outside tourism, no Peace Corps, the US organization, no media, you know, because they were more remote, and because of the forest, the environment, from how they plant, medicines, so forth and so on, they were able to bring over some of those same ways of living that you had in that part of Africa to South America. And it worked. So they were able to sustain that. And so then in the mid 19, mid 90s, when I first went over there, you had you had that. So I was able to embed myself and they invited me because I had several trips over there to gain entry before then I was able to, they, I was, they were kind enough to say no, come live with us. And I did. From the Paramount chiefs appreciation to the lone little villager, I have consistently gone back and forth for the last 20 some years going there. As you well know. Of course now, you know, if you go there today, right now you will see some cell phones, you'll see some tourists a lot of eco tourism off about 10 years ago, you still have a lot of that. Certainly their, their, their culture they're hanging on to, which is yet another lesson, how you really don't take cultural away. You can build on top of it, but someone's foundation, even after these many generations, there's still a lot that is, that is, that is very much so in place.
Joerg Schmitz 8:43
What I find fascinating about this, this field of study, first of all, it is so relevant to so many conversations today, right? In our society. You're also studying change, right? Communication style, cultural tradition, and identity. All of those things actually are things that I observe in corporations as well today, or in organizations. Right, you may talk to a tribal chief in Suriname, you know, but ultimately, that's like, like talking to an executive in an organization, even though they may not think of themselves in the same terms.
Cheryl Williams 9:25
Absolutely. Your view are so sure you're so right on that, you know, when I'm having my conversations with a CEO or, or a university president or a corporate, you know, executive, they're just trying, first of all they want to do business. That's why they're in business, you know, whether it's a nonprofit or for profit, you know, that they want to be successful. They want to have folks that work for them to be engaged. They want to be able to have customers, I'm over here doing quotes, although you can't see me doing my air quotes. They need to understand the people, whether they're called customers, clients. I do a lot in the entertainment business still, particularly sports entertainment. And so we will call them fans, you know like that, even the fans, they need to understand it. And I'll come back to the word understand. They need to recognize when you're in a different culture, obviously, sometimes someone will look at the face or just to the visibility and think, well, we must be the same. And it's not. It's not, just like, for me, I would move from tribe to tribe. And in some of the tribes, it was six tribes down in Suriname that I worked with, and I've had the pleasure to visit all six, it would be like going from, you know, Germany to Brazil, or from Japan to Argentina. You had as much you have some similarities, because it's humanity, but you have difference.
Although CEO, the business person needs to understand that even recruiting from Gen Z, as we call it, the the newer generation hitting the labor force, to the baby boomers, if I can use that phrase for those people that are in my age category, you know like that, who were there, when Martin Luther King and Gandhi were alive, anyway. So by being able to understand your culture, by being able to recognize the differences and the similarities, but you need to recognize the difference, to be able to embrace that even, you know, something as simple as the difference of the human being that works in an accounting, quantitative function and someone who might work in a public relations, qualitative function. They may, they may have and surely have complementing skills. But oftentimes, even the mindset, why someone might have chosen that career, someone might, those subtleties, can make a difference. And anthropology, who I'm out trying to map the culture of the Saramakas versus the Ndyuka, versus, you know, the Aukaners or some of those tribes is very different. You know, Joerg, one thing before, I've also had the pleasure to work a little bit with some in the, here in the US, some Native American communities. Same thing, you'll find the tribal differences, to this day, from when you know, when when when, when the American when when the Europeans first came to the shores of the United States, you find some some that are just very much so keep, that keep it intact, keep that culture intact, whether you're Cherokee, or whether you're you know, Cheyenne, you know like that, Blackfoot, and all the many, many, many other ones, I just named three, but the many tribes there. So I say all this to say, at the end, it ramps down to human beings.
I want to kind of introduce the term, it's not new at all, called compassionate curiosity. And that's something that I talk about doing every single day with within my work, within my field of anthropology, compassionate curiosity, it's the ability to dig for more information without judgment, but also simultaneously, identifying how one, how that person is feeling or thinking. So it's one of those gut level feels that often people talk about. And I don't mean to laugh at spouses, but my husband now gets it. You know, he says, when I say, he'll ask me, or I'll ask him, "are you hungry?" And he knows now to say, "are you hungry?" as opposed to telling me he is or he isn't. Because he's really recognized that I'm being nice, asking it as a question. When in actuality the husband wife combination like that. I really don't care about his state of hunger, but I'm asking him to, I'm being compassionate. Is he hungry by telling him that I am. But I say that as as kind of a an anthropologist joke, but. So my humor doesn't always come across. But that's kind of what we do, you know like, so. When I'm doing my field work, whether I'm in the interior of a jungle, whether I'm in a hamlet in India, whether I am in Namibia, you know, South Africa, Ghana, the Gambia, whether I am in Brazil, even, I've gone to Brazil many times, which is, has more of your Amerindians there as well. Although they have many of the Maroons, that's also the bush, the Bush negros today, it's called Maroons for some. So wherever I might have been able to apply this skill set, and I have been really fortunate that organizations have lived and worked in a little over 80 countries so far, where I've been able to apply these skills, these anthropology skills.
Joerg Schmitz 14:55
So you mentioned observation before and you wanted to come back to the idea of understanding, by the way, but is compassionate curiosity, the key skill you would say that you need and that you've learned and that is transferable to the corporate environment?
Cheryl Williams 15:11
Absolutely. That is the number one skill and doing, being, applying compassionate curiosity is the key. Because the difference between just being curious, is it something you want to know about? And that's good. I'm hoping people have curious. But just being curious can sometimes, you know, come across as if you're being nosy. You're trying to find out something that people don't understand why you're doing it. So it could have a tinge of not niceness, as I call it. But compassionate curiosity is a really good thing. Because I'm wondering, I want to understand, what is it about being German, that I need to know as an American, so when I'm working with Germans in Germany, about Germany, will help me better understand what's going on beyond just me reading the histories and trying to educate myself and become knowledgeable. So I want to be able to apply participant observation, we call it, which is my way of digging for information, paying attention to things, asking questions, clarifying what you heard, and a huge, huge connector with compassionate curiosity is listening. Whether it's active listening, you know, which is what we all teach today for active, listening to be, listening for understanding, not to be understood, but you'd have to sometimes listen for point, counterpoint. Because there are times when you're listening to a conversation, and there's hidden agendas there. So you need to be ready to ferret that out. You know, and I can talk more about that. I don't want to get too too, too off track at all here. But yeah, so you need to be able to do all of that. And you do it simultaneously, when you're when you're being compassionate while you're being curious.
Joerg Schmitz 17:01
So I asked you earlier, you know, what do you do? And you've done a lot, right? You were in HR and academia in, as a consultant working for organizations. Is it fair to say that what ties all of this together is actually that skill of compassion, curiosity, of participant observation, and using that constructively across all these endeavors?
Cheryl Williams 17:27
Absolutely. You know, I would say that it's interesting, from when I was in grade school, high school, and certainly undergraduate in college, I was often tapped to be one of the leaders, and I certainly didn't consider myself a leader. But I remember asking someone, particularly in high school, "why me?" I mean, I've dealt with, and I meant that sincerely said, "Because Cheryl, you get us, you get us." And I've thought about that, often, you know like that. And I've even had family members that have said to me, you know, just kind of in passing, you know, "Cheryl, how do you do that, you get us." And I thought, you know, I finally decided that that's a compliment, I finally decided that that's probably a good compliment. Because I do take the time, whether it's a company, you know, a CEO, a physician, a lawyer, a professor, you know, a consultant, you know like that, or the front line.
You know, I have, my youngest grandchild is eight years old. And even with a little eight year old, I have compassionate curiosity, when he comes to me, he may or may not have had a good day in school, he may or may not want to let his dad know that he had a bad day at school. So he comes to me. And I say, well, you know, his name is Thomas, I say, "Well, Thomas, tell me, how is your day?" I'm applying compassionate curiosity. And it actually is healing. The healing way. Now take it out of the eight year old, you know, environment, you put it now with a 62 year old CEO that has issues or wondering why is my, why is engagement so low within our employees? Why is turnover so high? What's going on within my shipping and receiving area? What's going on within the the front desks operation, what's going on? And so, I go and I spend some little time. At the end, I'll tell you a little bit about a few things that that anyone can do. You know, you don't have to be an anthropologist to do this. And so that's what we do. So I do, I get them to disconnect to recognize that, you know, seeing something without judgment, seeing something without immediately putting, you know, when you when you hear something and you want to, I don't want to keep using the word judgment, but that's what it is. That you really want someone as open minded, that was what I'm thinking. You need to be as mindful and as open minded as you can, but now recognizing you, we're not all the same. No matter how how compassionate Cheryl Williams will be it's still going to be a little bit different from Joerg Schmitz, which is a good thing. So then when Joerg and Cheryl, work together, and we happen to be fellow anthropologists, then. "Well, Cheryl, this is what I heard." And I'll say, "Well, Joerg, this is what I heard." Because somewhere between all of that was what was meant. You can hear the words, but, we both can hear the same words, but you pull it through your lens and histories, I pull it through my lens and history. You know, this is not just an exercise and academe. I know sometimes people say, "Oh, sure, you know, academics is not a good thing." But this is really an exercise that anyone can do. In my opinion. Now, we all should do. Because that's what's really going to even bring humanity up a few notches in the world on what's going on. And I'll I'll wait for you to maybe dig a little bit deeper, if you would, like on social trust. But that is one of the end results for all of this.
Joerg Schmitz 21:00
Yeah, I know that you have been I mean, as as intently as you are focused on compassionate curiosity. And I love this, by the way, you mentioned this a few times, times digging deeper for more information without judgment. And this whole idea of getting someone else, you know, or sometimes I call it, understanding what it's like to be someone else, right, in a sense. But the other part you've been focused on is that idea of social trust. And you mentioned it just now. So why don't you talk about that a little bit? And how is that connected to your work, and then to what you're concerned about?
Cheryl Williams 21:37
Social trust, in a nutshell, is a company's what a company's cost is an undertaking economic transactions, which is why companies, even nonprofits are in business, for economic gain somehow. And now what they do with that gain is, of course, is always good. And if the employee, the client, the customer, the communities feel that as a company, we can trust that what you're doing is for the good of all humankind, then that's a really good thing. And I know it sounds like that's a really big, esoteric thing to say. But it's crucial, because social trust can determine social and economic development, as well as human well being. Think about companies that are in your, in your community in your neighborhood. As soon as you say, now, I'm just gonna throw out a couple names. You say Amazon, you say, Microsoft, you say Apple, you say Budweiser beer, you say, you know, Taco Bell, Doritos, some of the those things. You say of these companies and different things, pop to mind, a company that, as soon as I hear the word, Patagonia, you know, the outfits, I immediately have and feel like there's a trust there. Because I know they give back to the environment, the environment is something that's important to me. It's more than just the PR piece of what a company does. But so you have to have a social trust, because companies need to feel, employees, customers need to feel that whatever it is you are in business doing. You have a humanity that's grounded in it at the end of that, at the end of that rainbow, as I say, at the end of that is human, human wellbeing. Oh, even if you are a manufacturer of weapons, of which I am not a gun person at all. I don't mean to be political about that whatsoever. But there's even a way to be compassionate about whatever that product might be. It may have its it may have its reasons for being certainly. And companies will tell me, "Cheryl, we get that. Now, how do we do it? How do we do social trust?"
Joerg Schmitz 23:50
This gets us right back with why this is important today, right? I think we've all seen institutions that have served us more or less well, for a number of decades, or sometimes centuries, crumble, right? Crumble and really lose their relevance or their support by people or by groups. And I think this idea of social trust is central to that.
Cheryl Williams 24:17
Exactly, exactly. Thank you. Yeah. You know, it's not a bad idea. For organizations, it's certainly my opinion, but it's not self serving at all, for companies to really tie in what academics know, meaning research, that's connected to their business they feel because you have more than just nuggets of information is well thought out, well detailed. Here's what's going on. You know, oftentimes, when I'm writing corporate training programs, I'll have the company say "Cheryl, leave all the theory out. We want application. Leave all that mumbo jumbo theory out." And I get it. I know what they mean. They don't want to have long, you know, 15, 20 minute, 30 minute, you know, types of lectures. You know, other than, other than maybe in a university environment or learning environment, but you know, when I say, you know, it's theory, it's just what makes something explainabl. In a nutshell, you know, that's what a theory, theoretical means that is something, it's a way to explain things, whether it's social penetration theories, whether it's uncertainty reduction theory, it's a way that you think. So you don't have to, we don't have to use the word theory. But it's the why.
So then as soon as you know, you write the training program, and it's a good one, they'll say, "Oh, that's great," you know, like, the activities like all this and that. We have to kind of embed in there, why you're doing it, because if not they'll ask. "But, Cheryl, why did you have us start out with the icebreaker that was on personal identities? Cheryl, why did you have us start off with an icebreaker on this or that. Or our first video clip that we saw." And you recognizing it does tie to the bottom line of the objectives? Because within corporate training, you know, we you know, we take great pride, and I know you do, because you you've done it too with, with what we call behavioral objectives, which are objectives that are always measurable. So instead of saying, I understand something, I would say you can explain it, or you drive it, or you can, so, that's something you can do. Whereas you can't, I can't see if you understand it.
Joerg Schmitz 26:19
So now I have to ask you, why has that become your focus? From my perspective, you you have a, an extremely interesting blend of a practical orientation, mixed in with academic foundation, mixed in with a ton of just practical experience, and why has that become your focus?
Cheryl Williams 26:48
You know, Joerg, thank you for asking that question, actually, because it's important to me, that part of Cheryl Williams. I came from humble beginnings, I guess that's a polite way to say it, out of Gary, Indiana. And Gary, Indiana, for those of you who know a little bit about the US and the Midwest, and the sojurn of the, of the African American coming from the south, moving up to the north, you know, when slavery was, was emancipated, so forth. That was what launched me in understanding when people are treated differently based on skin color. I don't think I understood what race meant then when I was in third, fourth grade. But I understood when people were allowed, you know, I understood videos we saw. I understood, trips to the south when I saw "for coloreds only," or "no coloreds" or "for whites only," you know, messages. And I had very good parents who helped me to understand that and I had very, very intelligent parents. But then, you know, I got into high school, and that was at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. That's what it was called then, and the marches on Washington. And I mean, I was not just there listening on the radio, I'm actually was engaged in some of that. I didn't, I didn't march on Washington, but in Chicago, they had some, some marches. And so many of us Junior High and High School Kids went over there and did it.
So you fast forward from those 60s, 1960s here and what was happening in the US and around the world, different things were happening, to the murder, of George Floyd, the murder, and I'm going to use the phrase murder because I know it's dramatic, but that's how I interpreted it, lets me know that my work is still, and all of this work, not just my work is still necessary. As long as people continue to allow inequity, unfair, crime laden, disrespect, offensive, all those things, that when people get judged, based on the color of their skin, based on their sexual orientation, based on their gender, based on their religion, you know, based on that, and the list can go on and on. Versus in the famous words of Dr. King, versus the content of their character. And I live that, I do it, I do a lot of volunteer work I still do today. I do a lot of volunteering, and I'm happy to be able to do that for the cause, you know, absolutely for the for the cause. So in a nutshell, to answer your question, what what gets me up in the morning is, something's in my belly, something's in my belly that says this isn't right, and I can do something about it. My little pebble to help do something right is is in this space as an anthropologist, applying what I learned in school, as an anthropologist, how can I make that? How can I help that, help me help others like that? I guess I should say. So you know, I do it.
Joerg Schmitz 29:52
It really comes through how much this is work of passion for you. That is born of your personal experience and care for the world at large. And, and and specifically for, I think the the the experience of of black folks in the world today. This brings you back to Suriname as well, right, because which was all part of the black diaspora, in a way or the African diaspora. And I am, I'm just so you know, excited on one hand, not not about that, that that has to be the topic. But I'm excited and also very grateful to you to bring that experience and that passion that sits in your belly to this institute that we are creating here. And I don't want to forget to mention that actually, because it's really important to me, because I'm excited for what people can learn from you. What I can learn from you. What others can learn from you. And that's exciting to me.
Cheryl Williams 30:54
Thank you, Joerg. You know, and I, until the day I get my wings or close my eyes permanently, I will work in this space. And I will be there as much for others because others are there for me. And by no means a shameless plug. But I was able to, I wrote and released, actually my third publication, academics called inclusive leadership global impact. And in that particular book I, that I, that I co authored with my colleague, Dr. Gundling, we talk about, it's a lot of stories in that book. And we talk about what you just kind of mentioned, which made me think about the book, we try to tie personal stories to actual frames of how we can be more inclusive from a leadership perspective. Leadership is not a title. Matter of fact, you don't decide if you're a leader when I used to teach in my MBA classes on leadership, Joerg, the first day I would ask all, I would ask the students, "How many of you in this class are a leader, consider yourself a leader?" And then maybe you have 25 people in the class, you know, 15+, 20, would raise their hand that they're a leader. And I said, "Great!" So I'd say, "Well, who are your followers?" And they didn't have any, but half of them didn't have any. And I said, "How can you be a leader if you don't have any followers?"
And I'm using the term, you know, from a pure academic standpoint, leaders, leaders and followers. 'Cause you're either/or. At one point, you're also both. I'm both, I'm only a leader because others allow me to be a leader. Others put you in the place of being a leader. I remember reading one of Dr. King's, a book about Dr. King, one of the biographies that was written about him. And they said that when he first was pushed forward, he, by no means chose to be a leader. The people pushed him out front. That's how we started calling him a leader. I say that because there are people who try to put themselves into leadership roles, called dictatorship, and many other nice and unkind words. I mean, not nice to me, whether it's necessary or not, and once again, I certainly don't mean to make any part of this political at all. But but but it is, you know like that. So when you talk about being an inclusive leader, which is for what businesses and companies typically want, and and I agree it should, is you need to recognize who are your followers, back to the Infinity low bubble, how corporate anthropology can help you to understand who might they be? And if you are a leader, who are you leading? Who gave you that notoriety of being a leader? I'm not talking about job title, you can have the biggest job title, or the most entry job title in the world. But that has nothing to do with whether someone has put you into into that role.
Joerg Schmitz 33:47
But what are some really practical takeaways, although I suspect I can guess from our conversation, what you might emphasize, but what are some one or two practical takeaways for the people that are listening?
Cheryl Williams 33:59
Learn the tools of what, when you're applying compassionate curiosity, what that looks like. It works, even not only at work, but it works in your personal life as well.
Joerg Schmitz 34:16
Thank you for listening. You can sign up for more wherever you get your podcasts. Just look for The Inclusive Leader Podcast. To find out more about the inclusive leadership institute, visit us at www.theinclusiveleadershipinstitute.com.