Lenora Billings-Harris, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) is a CPAE Hall of Fame speaker and is a recognized authority in the areas of inclusion, diversity and unconscious bias. She has been included as one of the 100 Global Thought Leaders on Diversity and Inclusion by The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) and was named by Diversity Woman Magazine as one of the twenty top influential diversity leaders in the US. Her award-winning diversity leadership research is recognized in academic journals internationally. Additionally, she serves on the Advisory Council of the Nido Qubein School of Communication, High Point University, as well as being on the adjunct faculty of two universities.
Diversity, inclusion and mitigating bias is a full-time focus for Lenora. She partners with clients to help them leverage their diversity of thought which impacts employee engagement, customer satisfaction, community and corporate relations. Her powerful yet engaging style inspires audiences to take personal and organizational actions that disrupt bias and accelerate business results.
She has presented to audiences in over 40 countries and six continents. Lenora recently keynoted at the Inclusion Conferences in Cape Town, South Africa and in Tel Aviv, Israel to share best practices with leaders within business, government, education and NGO communities.
Billings-Harris co-authored TRAILBLAZERS: How Top Business Leaders are Accelerating Results through Inclusion and Diversity, and is the author of The Diversity Advantage: A Guide to Making Diversity Work, 3rd Ed.
In addition to management positions held with two Fortune 100 companies plus the Business School at The University of Michigan, Billings-Harris has held leadership positions with several non-profit organizations. She is a past president of Win-Win Resolutions with a mission to reduce bullying, violence and prejudice in schools and communities, and was a founding charter member of the Maricopa County Black Chamber of Commerce. She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and past president of the Global Speakers Federation. In 2016 she was the Cavett Award recipient, the highest honor bestowed upon professional speakers in the USA. In 2018 she was inducted into the Council of Peers Award of Excellence Speakers Hall of Fame.
Before launching her business in 1986, she held management positions at two Fortune 100 companies, and managed executive development seminars for the Graduate School of Business, University of Michigan.
68 yrs. young and proud of every year and every wrinkle
Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now.
In addition to delivering keynote presentations, and executive briefings, I am focusing on helping very diverse people have courage conversations at a community level.
Let’s start with the basics. Unconscious bias – what is it? How is it different from bias?
Attitudes, beliefs and mental associations that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions sometimes unconsciously and unintentionally. It’s the stories we make up about people we don’t really know based on our past direct or indirect experience.
How did you transition from working on the corporate side to becoming a diversity expert and internationally recognized speaker?
I wanted to have more control of my time in order to be more involved in various community roles. I reached out to former colleagues who had started their own consulting firms to learn what was involved. Initially I delivered all types of leadership development workshops. This matched what I had been doing within some of my corporate roles, so it was easy. My initial clients were in the automotive industry, which was one of the industries within my background.
While we’re at it, there’s a lot of talk about diversity these days but it means so much more than just people who look differently. What’s your definition?
Diversity includes all the ways we each are unique. Each of us is a culture of one. The easy definition is “Who is on your team.” Inclusion is, “Who gets to play.”
You usually speak to corporate companies and business about unconscious bias in their business practices. What about unconscious bias in our everyday lives and older women?
For real change to occur, our biases are not left at the corporate door. When we become aware of our biases and their impact, we begin to see it manifest 24/7 everywhere. Recognize that all of us have bias. It is not good or bad. It all depends on the impact that biases have. For example, I have a bias toward clothes that do not wrinkle. I travel a great deal and this makes my packing easier, and faster. Plus, I don’t need to iron once I arrive at the hotel. This bias serves me well.
We tend to only focus on biases that have negative outcomes, but we must start with knowing we need bias to get through the day, while accepting that some biases lead to negative outcomes. There are positive and negative biases about older women, thus we need to speak up more often to counter these biases. For example, I am thrilled to see more seasoned female actors speaking up about the scarcity of roles for older women.
What are the first steps we can take towards identifying our own unconscious biases?
First accept that to have bias is human and stop the guilt trip. Then ask for feedback from others who know you well. Ask people to bring to your attention your words or actions that exclude, or are judgmental. There are many fascinating books about how bias works in our brain and that provide many examples of everyday bias.
Once we’ve identified them, what are the first steps we need to take towards combatting them?
Again, realize all biases are not bad, however own the ones you have that lead to judgements that are not based on facts or evidence. Then be willing to B- BASIC™
B- Be the other (intentionally go to places where you are “the only one”)
A-Ask for feedback
S- Suspend judgement
C-Check your ego at the door
You also talk a great deal about bridging the generational gap. Obviously we support that, but can you tell us a little bit about how?
Generational bias is judgement about groups not within your own generation. Just like other biases the more you get to know people different from yourself the more likely you will stop stereotyping the whole group. Older generations have knowledge to share that younger people need, and younger people have knowledge and perspectives that can help older people. Both need to be willing to listen and learn.
Culturally, aging is viewed as this sad thing. In reality, I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t feel bad or sad. I feel better than ever. What’s the key to changing the conversation about aging?
Be the change you want to see by speaking up constructively when others make biased statements or decisions. Provide a different perspective. Be willing to wear your age well. I regularly tell professional photographers not to Photoshop all of my wrinkles ( just a few 😊). I need to look like my photo when I show up to speak.
What’s the best thing you’ve read lately?
Black Hearts White Minds, a novel by Mitch Margo
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
The power to cause people to listen more then they talk in order to lead to deeper understanding of others.
If you had a warning label, what would it say?
Beware! I cry for joy easily.