goBeyondProfit CEO Interviews: Kenji Kuramoto, CEO of Acuity


Friday, October 21st, 2022

Between a rock and a hard place: How one CEO navigated his team through opposing views

Kenji Kuramoto, CEO of Acuity, was faced with a difficult choice in the summer of 2020 when many of his employees asked him to make a public statement on defunding the police, while many others asked him to denounce the movement. Read how he went from “scared to death” to grateful for the opportunity.

In the summer of 2020, you were forced into an untenable position in the swirl of the national racial reckoning. Tell us about it.

“Many team members were deeply impacted by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the many things happening around that time. Some team members spoke up in favor of “Defund the police” – and they used social media, even LinkedIn, to make their sentiments known.

“But on the other hand, I had other team members reach out to me and say, ‘I have a spouse, a father, a son-in-law in enforcement. This is hurtful.  And we’re not sure if these are appropriate channels for our colleagues’ voices. Kenji, what are you going to do? What are you going to say?’

“I was scared to death. I didn’t know how to keep the peace. No matter what I did I feared I’d alienate certain team members. I felt stuck. So, I started talking to people I trusted and other socially-minded entrepreneurs asking: ‘How are you thinking about this; how are you addressing it?’

“Over the next few weeks I started to develop a bit of confidence, and to get unstuck. I realized I don’t have to follow any other CEO’s exact path. I wanted to create my own way, through conversations.

“After I began to see my best path, we started having conversations internally. I asked them how they thought I should address it, and did they agree with me that conversation was the right thing. I told them why I didn’t feel comfortable putting out a proclamation on Acuity’s stance.

“Many of the companies, I saw put out public statements had long-standing, more mature, public dialogues. I remember when Patagonia came out and made a stance on this, I was incredibly proud of what they stood up for. But I also realized that I didn’t have to jump to that because we hadn’t been having that dialogue internally. We hadn’t set that example yet. We needed to get on the path having those, then maybe we could make statements more broadly.

 “So, we spun up some conversations.  We were able to get a lot of these team members from different sides into the same room — virtually because of COVID — to have a conversation in a place that had real trust, where we were truly seeking to understand.

“Over the next nine or so months, we came to a place of feeling incredibly bonded. I watched us all come into understanding of someone with a different belief system or a different perspective or experience. It was a really beautiful thing.  A wonderful thing.

At the beginning, I wanted this whole thing to disappear. I felt there was so much business to worry about, PPP loans to focus on and other things. I felt, ‘Please, can we not address this?’ But that would have been a huge opportunity missed.”

Specifically, how did you set up the conversations?

“First, I talked to the individuals who clearly had strong feeling and others who I thought might be affected, especially some colleagues who are people of color and the people who have family in law enforcement. I asked, ‘Is there anything you think I can do as a leader?’

“One team member recommended a Diversity and Inclusion professional to me.  I spent some time getting ideas from her.

“Ultimately we found a LinkedIn Educational series to lean on. Last year LinkedIn made their entire Diversity & Inclusion series free.

“I landed on using one of these series to host a monthly conversation. We’d listen to the speaker together, then I’d follow-up with questions. I really recommend this to others: either find free video resources or hire one of the great experts out there. I felt supported, tethered to experts and had a framework for productive conversations.

“We set ground rules first. I initially got them from a consultant. They seemed fairly common sense, but it was important to set the conversations off well. I put these out and asked for input. There were times when many of us got emotional. These ground rules really helped make a place of safety and trust. That allowed vulnerability and connection to follow.

“We have a culture of very few meetings; only a couple a year that are “required.” We made this series opt-in. I’d go through the video ahead of time and post up some questions in advance, so everyone knew the topic.  About 10-20% of the team came each time. A couple made every single session. Others came about half the time.

“I expected more bumps in the road, but it really went very well over the eight or nine months they ran.”

How did these conversations impact the culture and team?

“We’re more ready to address the next racial reckoning, or the next problem we’re going to have as a society. More of those will come and I as a leader want to be better prepared for them.  As an organization, we’re in a different place together. Now we have the precedent and trust inside the company to talk about difficult things.

“I think our staff know now that we don’t veer away from hard conversations. In our culture, there’s not such a thing as, ‘We don’t talk about that at work.’ Work and your personal things are not separate; we bring in feelings and life. That’s not only ok; it lets us understand each other better. Now people are sure we’re a place of trust.

“Leading by example (not just me, all of us were included in the dialogue) really set a tone and agenda: this is an inclusive place for people of all beliefs. If you have anything you want to bring to the table, it is a safe space.

“We’ve experienced our largest period of growth over the past year.  We feel incredibly fortunate and grateful; many others have not fared as well. Part of the reason is that we’re not going to shy away from the challenging aspects of life. It’s ok if we don’t agree on everything. There are opportunities to learn from each other.”

For more information visit https://acuity.co.