How to Create a Culture of Belonging with Cordell Carter

How to Create a Culture of Belonging with Cordell Carter

On this week’s episode of The Leadership Habit podcast, Jenn DeWall welcomes Cordell Carter, II, to discuss how to create a culture of belonging and joy! As we’ve mentioned before, Gallup’s State of the Workforce 2023 report found that only 33% of employees are engaged at work, and 17% are actively disengaged. 

Of employees who are fully engaged at work, 81% say they feel like they belong. Creating a sense of belonging at work is a top driver of employee engagement. So, how can we, as leaders, create a culture of belonging where employees can thrive? Tune in to this episode to learn from a belonging expert! 

Meet Cordell Carter, II

Cordell Carter II is the executive director and founding director of the Aspen Institute Socrates Program, a global education forum and the Aspen Institute’s Project on Belonging. He has worked for over 20 years, pursuing a society and organizational culture where everyone belongs and has equitable opportunities to thrive. 

Cordell also founded the Festival of the Diaspora, a Colombia-based convener of diasporic communities across the Americas. Previously, Cordell held leadership roles with the TechTown Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle Public Schools, Business Roundtable, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the IBM Corporation.

Why is Belonging so Important? 

Jenn opens the episode by asking Cordell how he became passionate about the topic of belonging. He explains:  

“So, you know, I’m the belonging evangelist. I’ve been engaged in this idea of bringing people together since I was a little boy, and I’m the son of ministers. And our Sunday table was always a full one. I’m absolutely accustomed to bringing folks in, and I believe in karma, I remember being a lonely college citizen in the hallways.

I couldn’t travel home, so people brought me to their table. And so there’s a tradition that I continue with my now high school senior, and every Thanksgiving, we’ve got some folks at the table that she’s never seen because I don’t believe in leaving people out.

And so this path to belonging via the Aspen Institute and other endeavors of mine was very, very natural. It’s like falling into my own personal universal own, you know? Like, oh yeah, that’s the background music of this guy’s life. He’s going to bring folks together. 

So I’ve been convening groups of leaders for almost eight years at Aspen via the Socrates program, which was created to introduce leaders to diverse contemporary leadership topics that are unpacking them in ways they may or may not know.

And then via the Project on Belonging created a couple of years ago. That program is designed to elevate the conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion to the outcome we’re trying to achieve rather than the strategy and what people are trying to be compliant with. 

The outcome we’re trying to achieve is a land where we all belong and should enjoy equitable opportunities to thrive. I think it is incumbent upon executives to set a tone expectation for their organizations that this is a place where people will belong. Getting to the thriving part is a little challenging, but that’s where, you know, they pay people the big bucks to figure it out.” 

What Does Belonging Really Mean? 

Later, Jenn asks Cordell to give the audience a good definition of belonging. He explains that at its core, it is creating environments where people want to come to work, stay with the organization and grow there. When employees feel like they belong, attrition goes down, and productivity goes up. More importantly, we spend 80% of our adult lives at work, so why shouldn’t we feel good about it? 

Is Belonging the Same as DEI?

Creating a culture of belonging can certainly include creating a diverse and inclusive work environment. However, DEI has become a divisive term. Jenn asks Cordell to share his thoughts on why DEI efforts fail and how it can hurt belonging when it’s handled poorly. 

Cordell explains, “I can think of three problems with the way DEI is typically done now. One is it is highly accusatory. Two, it is forced. And three, who wants to sit there and hear how awful things are? So we have to change the narrative. But I think how you say things and how you frame things is as important as what you say.”

Jenn agrees, saying, “Absolutely. I know I saw it in an organization where it very much created this me versus you. You’re a bad person. Yeah. And it didn’t create a productive dialogue. It created more people who wanted to leave and you miss the opportunity to actually have important conversations to help people. But what do, what do you mean by DEI fails? What does that look like in action?  What do you mean by that? 

Cordell replies,  “I think it’s a philosophical misunderstanding. And, and that misunderstanding from the very beginning of what we now know as diversity, equity, inclusion efforts starting in the sixties. Nixon wanted a notion of who was working for the federal government, recognizing that the federal government was representing an ever-growing percentage of, now it’s one-fifth, almost one-fourth of, but at that time, it growing. He’s like, Hmm, okay, well we can actually direct policy through our procurement policies. We can, I don’t have to go through Congress and say do this. I can just say, well, I’m only gonna spend or only provide contracts with vendors that are doing the following. And the first thing we’d be doing is providing a census of who works there. 

So you started getting some implicit pressures just by asking the question, how many women do you have working for you? How many people of color? How many, young people, older people like you, you wanna have an, you don’t wanna say zero. Okay? And so no one has to tell you to do this, do that. But you figure, if I’m gonna win business by doing these things, you’re gonna do it. That’s a logical reaction because of your fiduciary duty to increase shareholder value. 

And so where I think we fail is that we never tied that work to a greater outcome. Okay? We just evolve, evolve, evolve, evolve. We started involving a little critical race theory and critical feminist theory. Just critical studies in general. And I think rightly so, attacking the general narrative that everything’s been fine for 248 years. That’s not true. But everything hasn’t been terrible either, that is also not true. Okay? And so, that lack of connection to the broader objective is why DEI efforts often fail.

People think it, they think it, the objective function is a shame. Blame. No. This is a strategy to get us to an outcome. But we have not defined that outcome. Everyone belongs, everyone gets to thrive, and they get an opportunity to thrive. You get multiple shots in this life in the United States of America. That is our goal. 

If you say that first, then you start working back to some of the actual strategies and more challenging parts of very different conversations.” 

Cordell’s Insights About Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work

Later in the episode, Cordell shares his advice and insights about how leaders can foster a sense of belonging in the workplace:  

1. Accept the Present

“We have to love the present. And when you love the present, you’re willing to do what it takes to make it even better. It’s that realization that we have to stop pining for things we can’t have. I that think is important. The distance between expectation and reality is pain, you know? We can solve our own pain points by just saying, Hey, for this moment in time, this is where I’m, I’m gonna dig in. So that’s my advice. Organizations, calm down, accept the present.”

2. Talk to Your People

“Number two, talk to your people. Talk, especially talk to the ones that leave. Tell know why. What is it about us that makes you wanna leave? Is it, is it, was it money? Is there something I can do? Create these safe environments where people give you honest feedback. Bring some external reviewers in to do a 360 on you. You may not lead nearly as well as you think you do. Okay, maybe it’s you, and it’s not them. Can you evolve? Be honest with yourself, and be open to change because we all want to get on the right path. And once we are on the right path, great things will happen for the organization and ourselves.”

3. Look for Two People: The Roadrunner & The Anti-Hero

“Start following two types of people. One is what I call your “roadrunner”. This is a person you wanna chase. You wanna be like that person or organization. You also need your anti-hero. And that’s someone that’s like you but just lives under a dark cloud. They just can’t do it, right? They just can’t get the organization turned around. You need both of them in your life. I’m not saying you follow what the anti-hero does, but you watch them so you don’t repeat what they do. I even keep that in my personal life. I have roadrunners in my life, and I have anti-heroes that I keep on the periphery. I don’t engage, but I keep my eye on them.”

Don’t miss even more advice and insights from Cordell by listening to the full podcast episode! 

Where to Find More From Cordell Carter, II

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