e035. It’s a Calling with Christopher Bylone van Sandwyk

Christopher Bylone van Sandwyk has been named a Top 15 Champion of Diversity by Diversity Global Magazine. Christopher is transitioning into new role, to be announced soon.

Connect with Christopher on LinkedIn

Including You Podcast Interview with Christopher Bylone van Sandwyk

e035. It’s a Calling with Christopher Bylone van Sandwyk

[00:00:35] Amy: Welcome back to Including You. I’m Amy C Waninger, your host. My guest today is Christopher Bylone Van Sandwyk. Christopher has been named a top 15 champion of diversity by Diversity Global Magazine. He’s served in the role of Chief Diversity Officer at multiple companies, and he’s currently transitioning into a new role to be announced soon.

[00:00:57] Amy: We have an exciting conversation today that is going to talk about all the things that Chief Diversity Officers can’t talk about when they’re actually working for a company, so I’m really excited to talk to them today. Welcome to the show, Christopher.  

[00:01:09] Christopher: Thank you, Amy, for having.

[00:01:13] Amy: I hope I didn’t set you up too much there, but-

[00:01:14] Christopher: No, not at all.

[00:01:16] Christopher: The pressure’s on, so let’s go.

[00:01:18] Amy: Alright, sounds great. So I wanna just open by saying, first of all, thank you for being on the show. It’s rare that I interview someone that’s not in an active role at the time of the recording. And so we’ve decided that we’re gonna take full advantage of this moment in, in history, this moment in time.

[00:01:34] Amy: And I wanna start with just kinda asking about you. Why is this work important to you? Why do you keep going back to this? Because I know that there is so much stress and so much pressure. Which we’ll get to in a little bit. And it’s often a thankless job to be in a Chief Diversity officer role.

[00:01:54] Amy: You never feel like you’re doing enough. People will tell you you’re pushing too hard, you’re not pushing hard enough. You’re always walking this tightrope. Why is this work so important to you that you keep going back to it?

[00:02:03] Christopher: I think you will probably, it’ll be an, a common answer for a lot of folks who are in this role.

[00:02:08] Christopher: It’s personal. To me, this is not a job, it’s a calling. There’s- you’ve seen that Venn diagram where it says, what are you good at? What does the world need? What do you enjoy and what can you get paid for? In the center, it says, purpose. And for me, this is my purpose.

[00:02:26] Christopher: I’ve done other roles, I’ve done workforce planning, I’ve done HRIS. But for me this was a coming home for me. So I started out actually doing social justice work in college. And then after I graduated from college, I went into to higher education and worked with student leaders who were leading social justice organizations on a college campus.

[00:02:50] Christopher: I joked and said I was breeding new activists, but what I was trying to help them do was to understand about how to create positive change on campus. How were they- cause you could create change and it could be negative change. And so how are you making positive change? And then I wound myself up in the corporate world just by happenstance of the way our careers, our everybody’s path is a little different.

[00:03:11] Christopher: Wound myself up in corporate America working in HR, doing various different types of roles, and at the time I wasn’t doing DE&I, I was doing workforce planning. And then the opportunity to do DE&I again presented itself and I just said, it’s the right time. I want to get back into it ‘cause it’s literally what I’m passionate about.

[00:03:33] Christopher: And I knew I was missing something. And I said, if we’re gonna do DE&I and you want me to lead it, I have a caveat. The only I’m going to do this if we’re willing to roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty and not just do the Kumbaya facade stuff, yes. We need to develop an ERG program and we need to celebrate International Women’s Day and Pride and Black History Month and people with Disabilities day.

[00:03:58] Christopher: Yes, absolutely. But if we’re not willing to change policy, if we’re not willing to change the way we recruit and promote and retain. And train employees about inclusion. One, I’m not your DE&I guy, and two, I quit because this is not, that’s not the type of organization I want to be a part of. Luckily they said yes.

[00:04:22] Christopher: This is the type of DE&I role that we want to have. And for me, it’s about how do I impact the most people intentionally. Also, I hope one day we don’t need Chief Diversity Officer roles. It just needs to be so embedded in the business that I’m working myself out of a job. Now, thankfully, right now, for my own family, financial security, I have a lot.

[00:04:50] Christopher: We have a long way to go before I work myself out of a job, I know I’m gonna be financially secure for a very long time and many of my peers will be as well, ‘cause we have a lot of work to do. So for me, it’s just about, “How are we creating good?” Lately, I’ve been saying to folks there’s been the eight old adage of a rising tide will rise all ships.

[00:05:10] Christopher: And to me, I think that doesn’t work. The sea is really rough. We are in some really big storms and we have to tie our boats together so that we can weather this storm out. And so hopefully on the other side of the storm we are in, and when the seas finally come back then we’re all like, we’re all safe.

[00:05:32] Christopher: But until then, we gotta join partners. Like, this work can’t be done alone.

[00:05:40] Amy: Absolutely. It’s- I’m fond of saying to audiences, to media interviews, to anyone that will listen: It is not always productive to look, as an individual or as a group of people, to look at the obstacles that we face individually or as a group.

[00:05:58] Amy: What we need to be doing is looking back and seeing who hasn’t gotten this far. And how can we clear the obstacles we didn’t see, so we can all move forward together. Because until we all move forward together, we’re really missing an opportunity to learn, to grow, to push, to change in transformational ways.

[00:06:20] Christopher: Yeah, and it’s because, know, I come to this space with a lot of privilege. I am male and I am white. I own that. However, I know it’s my responsibility and I need to be held accountable to ensure that by doing this work, I am not just taking up my own space. What am I doing to make sure that the voices of the underrepresented groups are being heard?

[00:06:48] Christopher: It’s- you know it- it’s about making sure that the voices that need to be in the conversation are there. I may be able to open the door, right, but I better be holding people in with me and then saying, okay, I’m not just about giving up my seat at the table but making sure that they are at the table and their voices are being included in the conversation.

[00:07:17] Christopher: Sometimes over my own voice because they’re the voice that needs to be heard. Now I also say that with a caveat because it should not be the responsibility of the oppressed or the disenfranchised about always educating the other parts of society about their oppressions and what is- how they’ve been disenfranchised.

[00:07:40] Christopher: Because we can’t tokenize people. It’s not just about taking, the gay person or the disabled person, or the person of color or the woman and saying, “Okay, tell me all about them.” I do know what it’s like being a gay person?” and when you’re the only gay person in the room and they say, “Christopher, what does the LGBT community have to think?”

[00:07:59] Christopher: And I’m like, “I’m Christopher. I only represent Christopher in this.” Like, I can only talk about my experience One, when you start putting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, I’m a gay man. I’m not a trans woman or a trans man. I can’t tell you about those experiences. I can sympathize,

[00:08:19] Christopher: But I can’t tell you about them firsthand, so making sure that when we’re having the conversation that we’re including trans voices, we’re including people of color, we’re including women in those conversations, so that it’s their lived experience that is shaping the strategy in which we’re trying to achieve.

[00:08:36] Amy: It’s so important and I love that, I don’t speak for all people from my particular group. They didn’t give you the scrolls, right, when you came out. You weren’t bequeathed with the LGBTQ position scrolls, where you could just walk into the room and say, here’s what we think and-

[00:08:50] Christopher: It’s like the gay agenda,

[00:08:52] Christopher: like when people say, “Oh, the gay agenda.” And I would’ve been like, okay, the gay agenda is coffee. Get the kids on the bus lunch. Okay, get the kid to football, get the kid to dance, make dinner, ask my husband how his day was. It’s my agenda.

[00:09:06] Amy: My gay agenda is now catching Maddow every Monday night.

[00:09:09] Amy: If I can stay awake late enough, that’s my gay agenda. Yeah. But no, but I think this is so important because we tend to see others, we tend to see monolithic others. And we tend to see individualization in our own experience, and that tends to be true across the board. I know within the LGBT community, I’ve had these conversations where people say why-

[00:09:29] Amy: Why can’t other people see the nuance in our- in our experience? Why can’t, why can’t they see that? A black trans woman does not have the same needs as a queer Hispanic male or a bisexual white woman or a gay white man, why is that so hard to understand?

[00:09:47] Amy: And my response to that is how good are we as the LGBT community large at understanding that not all people of color have the same experience or perspective? Not all black people have the same lived experience or perspective. Not all black people in Mississippi who are descendants of slaves have the same, or descendants of enslaved people,

[00:10:10] Amy: have the same lived experience or perspectives. There’s a lot of nuance in everyone’s experiences depending on where we grew up and how we were raised.

[00:10:18] Christopher: Or even just white straight men, don’t have the same experience. So how are we making sure that we’re being cognizant of their lived experience? Because we haven’t touched on socioeconomic status.

Amy: Religion.

[00:10:30] Christopher: Religion. Just, there’s so many aspects to what makes somebody. And yes. Right now, rightfully we’re talking about gender, race, ethnicity, disability, LGBTQ. We, sometimes we’re talking about veteran status if we’re organizations based in the United States and a lot of times we’re having the conversation from a US lens.

[00:10:53] Christopher: Having served in global roles has really opened my eyes up to understanding how these conversations happen differently outside of the U.S. And to me that’s so important that we don’t, that we- I don’t wanna say don’t, ‘cause then I’ll make a double negative. But we need to be having conversations about what does diversity, equity and inclusion look like

[00:11:15] Christopher: in other countries and not putting a US lens on it. And sometimes learning, us in the U.S., we need to learn what our colleagues are doing around the world because sometimes they’re actually doing it better than how we do it here. America isn’t always the best at doing something. And so we need to take the examples of what other people are doing and, best practice and share from wherever those best practices are coming from.

[00:11:40] Amy: Absolutely. And that brings me to my next question because I wanna talk to you a little bit about what’s worked in your experience. But I also wanna talk about this because the chief Diversity Officer role typically sees about a two-year tenure before a person leaves a role either because

[00:11:58] Amy: there’s some organizational change that precipitates the change in the position or the person decides that it’s time to go for a variety of reasons. And I wanted to ask you since you’re in this transitory space in time, what is it about this role that you see as being particularly difficult to

[00:12:23] Amy: Build sort of a legacy presence in this space in a particular company? What is it about this role that is so challenging to keep filled, to keep, to maintain continuity?

[00:12:34] Christopher: So I think it goes back to- so there’s a plethora of reasons. So off the top of my head, quickly, something I said earlier, earlier in this conversation, it’s personal.

[00:12:49] Christopher: This work is draining, this is- you’re not making a widget. You’re just mentally at the end of the day, exhausted. Because you are dealing every day dealing with 10 different types of topics. You’re going from one conversation where you’re talking about gender, and then the next time you’re talking about helping a trans person come out at work, and then you’re talking about somebody who has a disability, who, the building that they’re in isn’t accessible to them.

[00:13:15] Christopher: And then you’re talking to the black colleague who is my manager is discriminating against me. And then like you’re just, you’re constantly going. You’re a ping pong ball right in, in this world. And at the end of the day, you’re just like, “Oh my God. Can I just catch a break for a second?” And however, there’s a systemic problem: budgets. DE&I budgets are not sustainable.

[00:13:35] Christopher: I was in a conversation the other day, and somebody made a really great analogy about, if a mark- if a marketing plan goes awry, you don’t eliminate the marketing budget. You probably double down on the marketing. So when DE&I programs don’t necessarily work the way folks want them to, initially don’t cut it. Invest more.

[00:14:00] Christopher: I also think that the reason why, and so again, this is the world according to Christopher Bylone. So we are in a period now where organizations, two years ago, roughly, Had an awakening and not one that they welcomed. Initially what was happening during the summer of 2020?

[00:14:25] Amy: DEI budgets and earning and development budgets were getting cut because of the pandemic.

[00:14:29] Christopher: But then what also happened, George Floyd was murdered.

[00:14:32] Amy: George Floyd was murdered on camera for the whole world to see.

[00:14:34] Christopher: World to see. So, companies then had to reckon themselves with the fact that, not just in the United States, but around the world. Specifically, black colleagues were not treated well.

[00:14:50] Christopher: You even saw Asian colleagues during the pandemic, specifically in the United States being harassed. You were seeing, our Hispanic brown colleagues being harassed and being told to go back to their own country. And that’s been happening for years. That wasn’t because of the pandemic,

[00:15:05] Christopher: but it came to a point where companies could not ignore it, and so they said, okay, let’s hire a head of DE&I. However, they gave no, no budget. They gave them no real authority to actually make change. And honestly, people going into this work went in it with okay, “I know I don’t have a budget.

[00:15:30] Christopher: I don’t right now, have real authority, but I’ll change that. I’ll convince them that I need a budget and I’ll convince them that, you need to give me the authority to make changes, et cetera.” A lot of organizations didn’t. I was lucky that I had a, I had- an okay budget.

[00:15:49] Christopher: I had decent authority to make changes. I knew where I ha- where my authority ended. So I could, okay, is this a change that Christopher can make by himself, or is this one that I need to go up higher in the organization? So I had a clear level of understanding what I was responsible for and had the authority to do.

[00:16:10] Christopher: However, most organizations aren’t giving their heads of DE&I, that ability. And so you can last two to three years in that type of a role, pounding your head up against the wall, feeling frustrated, and then it’s gonna wear on you after a while. And so then you say, “Okay, why am I still doing this?

[00:16:32] Christopher: I’m not making the impact that I wanna make.” And for those of us who, this is our career. It’s not about, oh, you were the, you were a really good head of marketing, oh, and you happen to be of a marginalized group, so now we’re gonna make you the chief diversity officer.

[00:16:48] Christopher: Because we’re also organizations, we’re not giving those practitioners or who were told they need to be practitioners, the training they needed to actually do this work. I felt I had been trained to do this work; this isn’t just something that got put upon me. This is who I am as a professional.

[00:17:07] Christopher: And so we need to do a better job to equip the people who are responsible for DE&I to actually do DE&I work. Not just because, oh, they’re a great head of this part of the organization, and so now we’re gonna slap the DE&I title on them, and we expect that they’re gonna make real change.

[00:17:25] Christopher: And oh, by the way, don’t give somebody two jobs. Don’t be the chief marketing officer and oh, now you’re the chief DE&I officer, because now you’re asking them to do two jobs. This is a job in and of itself. If the organization is not willing to have somebody in this role, and this is their full FTE responsibility, are they really committed?

[00:17:53] Amy: Yeah. Whenever somebody tells me they have two jobs, I’m always like, so they pay you two salaries, no. No, they never do. They never do. Okay. So given all of that, and the- and I think you started out with when you took the lead, DEI role, you said, “I wanna make sure that we’re doing real work.

[00:18:10] Amy: I wanna make sure that I’m gonna have the budget and the resources,” and you kinda negotiated all of that upfront. And I think a lot of companies do that, their intentions are good, and then they find out how hard the work is gonna be. They don’t have a clear business case. It’s not integrated into the strategy of the sustainability of the company or, they don’t have buy-in from people high enough up or-

[00:18:31] Amy: There’s, there are some obstacles that happen along the way and like the best of intentions that are going by the wayside. And I don’t wanna say it’s an intentional bait and switch, but a lot of times these promises fall apart. And I also think, correct me if I’m wrong, that in a role like that where you’re dealing with executives every day who are focused on things like financials, and marketing, and sales, and cost control and all of the other things,

[00:18:54] Amy: operational efficiency, all of the things that the other executives on the team are consumed with. There’s this balancing act of always worrying that my next fight will be my last. The next stand that I take will be the last stand that I take. I hear that from a lot of diversity officers, behind the scenes.

[00:19:14] Amy: “I would love to push for that, but I’m afraid of crossing a line I can’t come back from, and then the, none of the work will get done. I’d rather get, this percentage of the work done than none of it.” And I’m wondering how much of that you’ve seen in your experience or with your colleagues?

[00:19:30] Christopher: I would agree. And I think that it’s a choice. I think this is the, this goes back to the time when I was a college student leader and I was advocating for real change, and I used to be the person that would just be on the picket line, rebel rousing. Being a thorn in the side of the administration.

[00:19:50] Christopher: But then I quickly learned that we weren’t actually making any progress. And so I said, okay, then how are we gonna make progress? And I said, okay, then we’re actually gonna have to talk, just screaming at each other across the street isn’t actually gonna make any change. So I said to myself, okay, I’m willing to go into the quote-unquote “lion’s den.”

[00:20:11] Christopher: And so I started to be somebody who I would go meet with the administration and I would be in the room saying, okay, let’s find a path forward. We know that- I know that I’m not going to meet, be able to get you to meet all of our demands, but I’m gonna need you to meet some of ’em. So how can we negotiate?

[00:20:37] Christopher: And when those negotiations- and sometimes they were like, great, wonderful. Let’s talk let’s meet in the middle, let’s figure out, and then we’re like, okay, we got X. Now let’s live to fight another day, I Christopher, I know you’re gonna be back here in about three weeks from now asking for more, but at least now we were-

[00:20:52] Christopher: However, sometimes those talks stalled. And so what I said to the leaders is saying, look, you have two options. One, I can go outside and tell the folks, listen, we didn’t get everything we wanted, but we got a good amount. Let’s go home. Let’s regroup and figure out our strategy going forward. Or I walk out and say, we got nothing.

[00:21:19] Christopher: Stay picketing. We’ll try again tomorrow. What do you wanna do? Do you want the picketers to leave and to stop drawing attention to this so that you could actually go and do other work? Or do you want them here? And the only thing that anybody is asking you about, and the only thing that you can give your brain tower to is figuring out how you’re gonna make these protestors go away.

[00:21:40] Christopher: So, to me, I have come to this work saying, “What can I negotiate for without compromising my morals? And keep moving the ball down the court. And so, I know a former employer that I was at where we were rolling out global parental leave. We were launching 16 weeks of fully paid leave for both men and women for birth adoption, surrogacy of a child.

[00:22:06] Christopher: That was gonna be revolutionary. However, at the same time, I was like, “You know, I wanna make sure that this policy that we’re putting forward is going to be the best. If we’re gonna do this, let’s do this.” So I started talking about, okay, what about surrogacy policy? What are we given to women who are actually being the surrogate?

[00:22:23] Christopher: What happens with miscarriages? When somebody has a miscarriage, what are we doing for them? And initially, everybody was a go. Then as people started talking, it was like, “Christopher, we feel like this is gonna be too much change at once. We are good with the 16 weeks because we know this is, but you’re asking for extra.

[00:22:44] Christopher: And I pushed right a little bit more. And what I- but then I really started understanding, I was like, “Oh my God, if I keep pushing this surrogacy thing and this miscarriage part of the policy, I might actually doom the whole thing,” and so I said, “You know what? Understand this is a bridge too far right now, let’s take it out.”

[00:23:07] Christopher: I just want people to know that we’re gonna revisit this in the future, but let’s get this great policy, that is going to impact so many people, let’s get at there. And so for me, I wasn’t compromising my morals. I was moving the ball significantly down the court, but also made the organization understand that this was the first of many actions we were going to do

[00:23:33] Christopher: To be able to be a family-friendly organization. And so it’s a balancing act, you’re not gonna get a hundred percent of what you’re asking for all the time, so you need to ask yourself, what’s success? To me, coaching a global parental leave policy, that’s huge, I’m like, people ask me, like you,

[00:23:56] Christopher: “What are some of your successes that you’ve had in your career?” And I say that one and it’s, that’s probably gonna make it into my retirement speech right now. Now I know I’m not gonna retire for 20 or 30 years, but, when I talk back about my career, that’s gonna be one thing I talk about. Hopefully I get to do it again.

[00:24:14] Christopher: But, that’s what I mean. It’s about figuring out how you’re gonna advance the bull down the court without compromising your miles and be honest with yourself about the change, the positive change you can make.

[00:24:26] Amy: Yeah. Doing, excuse me, doing the most good for the most people for the longest that you can,

[00:24:30] Amy: yes. it’s, there’s a lot of calculus that goes into that. There’s a lot of double thinking, rethinking, self-censoring really. And I don’t wanna say like politicking, but there is some politicking in it, to build the right support to build coalitions. And, that’s exhausting work.

[00:24:49] Christopher: And, but it’s also the same thing. It’s about knowing when to step aside , because knowing when your time is done with that particular organization, You have made all the change you could possibly make. And you know what? It’s time for somebody else to do the rest of the work,

[00:25:05] Christopher: and you need to be honest about yourself. What does that look like upfront? So that you’re not making an emotional decision? Because a lot of times we do. We’re getting fed up, we draw that line in the sand, and we put on the armor and we’re saying, don’t make me cross it. Then somebody makes you cross it and then you go,

[00:25:23] Christopher: I just crossed this line, now what do I do? And so now you have to make a decision. Do you compromise the line that you draw on or do you actually take action on it? And so we have to, and we ca- we get ourselves in this predicament all the time because it’s, we’re, it’s personal to us.

[00:25:41] Christopher: We just have to be mindful about the change we’re making. Like you said: do as much good as you can for as many people as you can, for as long as you can. And when you start to realize that is not happening anymore, it’s time to move on and move on to your next opportunity and do it for more people.

[00:25:58] Amy: Yep. Carry a different ball down a different field. Absolutely. Oh my goodness, Christopher, I could literally talk to you all day about this. I think it is fascinating. It’s work that I am passionate about and I know you are as well. And I know that our listeners are too, or they wouldn’t be listening.

[00:26:14] Amy: To really advance inclusion in workplaces, to make workplaces more equitable, more fair, more welcoming more diverse and more sustainable, frankly, because there is just there’s so much change going on in the world and the insides of our companies need to reflect that so that we can continue to serve broader, evolving, different client bases, customer segments,

[00:26:36] Amy: And, different constituencies all over the world. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. I can’t wait to hear what’s next for you. I can’t wait to see your update on LinkedIn. Hopefully by the time this airs we’ll all be in the know on what’s next for you. And I would love to have you back to talk about what’s working in your new role.

[00:26:56] Christopher: Absolutely. I’m welcome to continue the conversation. This has been exciting. Amy. Thank you so much was finally excited to be able to get to have this conversation with you and looking forward to many more conversations in the future. Cause the work’s not over. And we need to continue to tie our boats together.

[00:27:14] Christopher: DE&I should not be a competitive advantage. However, until then, we will make it one. But I hope one day I don’t, we don’t need this role in organizations because it’s just so embedded and having these conversations is going to advance that goal. So, thank you for the work that you also do and appreciate you including, so many voices in the conversation and getting that out there.

[00:27:36] Christopher: So, thank you so much and have a great rest of your day. Thank you.

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Amy C. Waninger Author Bio

Amy C. Waninger is the Founder & CEO of Lead at Any Level, where she improves employee engagement and retention for companies that promote from within. Amy offers assessments, advisory services, and training on essential skills for inclusive leaders. She is the author of eight books. Learn more at www.LeadAtAnyLevel.com

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