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How do we define allyship, a concept that sounds straightforward in the abstract, but murkier in its practical application in the workplace? Marisa Grimes, the director of inclusion and diversity at Mastercard, was inspired by the words of Barbara Whye, the new VP of inclusion and diversity at Apple. “You can't self-proclaim it,” Grimes said, speaking in a panel discussion titled “How to Encourage a Culture of Imperfect Allies,” which took place this month during From Day One’s virtual conference on inclusive leadership. “You have to be deemed an ally by other people by words and actions,” said Grimes. “I do think a lot of people think of themselves as allies when actually you know their words and actions don't match.”

To Julie Yoon, a consultant at the leadership development firm DDI, allyship is defined to a large extent by the way others consider you to be. “And I think part of that is, you know, recognizing the privileges that you do have,” she said, “and actively learning, practicing inclusivity and standing up for the needs of others, specifically people who don't have the privileges that you have.”

Is it something that can be learned? Yes, but it takes commitment. “The concept of allyship is not a noun, it’s not static, it’s not accidental, it’s something that we intentionally choose,” said Teresa Hopke, CEO of Talking Talent, an inclusion-oriented coaching firm. Just remember, it’s OK to make mistakes, the panelists told moderator Lydia Dishman, a contributing editor for Fast Company. Among their key points:

Create a Safe Space to Prepare: Safe space is not just a catchphrase conservatives use to make fun of the sheltered places in academia. In an era when racial inequality and social justice are easy to endorse but also tempting to avoid in corporate conversations, Neela Pal, the head of strategy and management for the office of corporate engagement at Goldman Sachs, extols the virtues of a self-contained space to get ready for being an ally in real situations. When Pal was pursuing an MBA at Yale, she became a facilitator in a course on interpersonal dynamics, she recalled. In a sandbox-like context, groups of people guided by facilitators would express assumptions and perceptions, and the peers and facilitator would “de-risk high-risk situations,” Pal said. “I keep coming back to it. It’s not tied to my performance in a functionary way,” she explained. “There is a space where you can show up this way to practice, and then take what you learn to a higher-stakes environment.”

The speakers on allyship: top row from left, Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Jennifer Abbondanza of NBCUniversal, and Teresa Hopke of Talking Talent. Bottom row, from left: Neela Pal of Goldman Sachs, Marisa Grimes of Mastercard, and Julie Yoon of DDI (Image by From Day One)

Practice Empathy (Emphasis on Practice): “This year has been really focused on helping leaders become more empathetic and supportive, compassionate, curious, and creating cultures where people can bring their full selves to work,” said Hopke. “It's really been about raising the leadership competency within an organization to help create those safe spaces where people can show up this year with all of their baggage, with all of their exhaustion, and really figure out how they can thrive within that environment,” she said

This was critical as the racial-justice movement of the summer unfolded, revealing a need to create an anti-racist environment where people can have difficult conversations and learn how to support one another. “You have to have empathy for what it feels like to be excluded, not only what it looks like, [but also] what it feels like, and you have to practice,” said Yoon. “Practice that behavior of having the courage to speak up on behalf of someone or even on behalf of yourself. It's very, very difficult to do, especially in a workplace where, for many people, it could feel like the stakes are higher.” Imperfection needs to be tolerated, or people will be afraid to take unfamiliar risks. “Especially in organizations where this is not commonplace yet, we know that people are going to make mistakes, we know that people are going to do and say things that aren’t perfect,” Yoon said.

Let Data Help You: In an approach to allyship that’s heavy on soft skills, one of the things that people tend to overlook is the data from workforce analytics. If used correctly, they can help avoid the dreaded one-size-fits-all approach. There is power in the data: Seeing raw numbers increases awareness about where diversity and equity are lacking–and awareness can bring about change. At NBCUniversal, said Jennifer Abbondanza, the company’s VP of diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I), data has always had a seat at the table. “[On my] team the focus is to dig into the nuances of our data, and make sure that we understand what it's telling us,” she said. “So we bring that information to our executives, to our business leaders. We have open and honest conversations, and we use them to help us derive the great strategy.” With 14 different business units in her company, Abbondanza noted, DE&I initiatives need to be custom-built. “If we want to be effective, and we do, we really have to tailor it for the different units.”

Maximize Learning Opportunities: When DE&I training initiatives are put forth, they are sometimes met with resistance. “Sometimes that resistance comes from a lack of confidence and getting it right,” said Hopke. “I do think that it's beneficial to provide people with opportunities to be educated to raise their level of awareness, but also to teach them the practical how-tos. Because a lot of people–a lot of leaders in particular that I talked to–say that they don't do anything because they're afraid of doing the wrong thing. And so how can we instill the confidence in people? That can be through training, through coaching, through bringing people together in dialogue.”

Make It an Abiding Pursuit: Leaders should instill the idea of allyship as a lifelong commitment, not just attendance at a workshop or two. “For us, it’s more about continuous learning. We don't like to necessarily call it training, we like to call it more ‘building inclusive leaders’ and learning,” said Grimes. “We definitely rely on our business resource groups to provide that additional support and guidance. I think for us, it's always been about making sure that [leaders] don't just sit within their silos within their particular communities, that they look to engage employees across the company, regardless of what group they may identify with. So we encourage them to collaborate. It’s important for our colleagues to attend events for groups that they don't necessarily identify with, because that's how you learn and that's how you become an ally.”

In sum, it’s a journey. “Stay the course,” urged Pal. “We're very execution oriented. We want to get things done, but some of these things are big. They take a lifetime. So stay the course and see where that journey will take you because I think it's always surprising.”

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.