Learning to bring my authentic self to work

August 08, 2016 | GET MORE : Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

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Greg Cunningham's first day of elementary school shaped his mindset at work years later.

My story begins in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city that was highly segregated across racial and cultural lines during my youth. My father, a butcher, passed away when I was 5 years old, leaving my mom a widowed mother of five children.

Her hope for me, the youngest, was that education would be my ticket to prosperity. She sent me to a suburban private school where I was not only in the minority, but I was one of the first black kids to attend. It was the '70s and inner cities were still smoldering from the tumultuous '60s. On my very first day of elementary school, I was called a racial epithet — as a 6-year-old. I didn't realize it at the time, but that day and the many incidents that followed affected my self-image and my confidence.

Years later when I got to the working world, I faced moments of self-doubt. For years, I tried to replicate how my peers spoke and carried themselves. I'd spend my Sunday nights thinking about how to best present a casual 30-second update during a weekly Monday morning staff meeting. I'd attempt to mirror everyone else’s presentation style and content in hopes of fitting in and feeling as if I belonged. Ironically, all I felt was inadequate. Finally one Monday morning I talked about seeing a movie with my family over the weekend, and mentioned an idea from the movie that could relate to our business. It sparked conversation and ideas; it was then I learned that being myself and mustering the courage to bring my authentic self to work was essential.

Now, I draw upon my past daily in my role as vice president of diversity and inclusion at U.S. Bank. Not necessarily the hardship of my youth, but having felt the universal emotions of fear, anxiety and the yearning for fairness and equality. I try to share my experiences in order to fuel the passion and purpose of others each day.

I've found it now more critical than ever to slow down and have conversations with those around me. In the process, my personal and professional lives' have married to simply become "my life". As a father of two teenagers, an 18-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter, I've found tumultuous times amid current events have created a unique opportunity to have meaningful conversations with my kids — at a time when anyone with teenagers knows how difficult it is to sit down to talk about anything without them looking down at their phones. I've painfully had to remind my 18-year-old son, Myles, to be constantly aware of stereotypes of young black men, despite the fact that he's student athlete on his way to Brown University to play Division I hockey. And some of you may have "met" my daughter, Whitney, a high school junior, in our "Talking to your kids about money" video on U.S. Bank's YouTube channel.

My story is merely one of over 73,000 stories that make up a community we call U.S. Bank; and they are all important. Our diversity and inclusion work seeks to create a safe — physically and emotionally — environment where each of our stories and experiences are valued and respected. It's how we continue to reach our collective potential and grow our competitive advantage. Being at our collective best every day helps us better serve our customers and communities.

In recent years I've finally started to see diversity and inclusion shifting from a socially responsible program to a business imperative. A recent McKinsey study, for example, found that companies with gender diversity in senior leadership had 15 percent better financial performance than the average company and those with ethnic diversity performed 35 percent better.

At U.S. Bank embracing diversity from the top down is critical to connecting with our customers. More than 90 percent of population growth in the markets where we do business is coming from multicultural communities. We must be prepared for this rapidly changing business reality.

I look forward to continuing to grow into my role as head of global inclusion and diversity. I view my primary responsibility as making sure our 73,000 employees find their voice in our company. I don't want them to try replicating someone else's — like I did.

Written by Greg Cunningham, vice president and head of global inclusion and diversity at U.S. Bank.