Gena Cox on Leading Inclusion in Libraries

Dr. Gena Cox, organizational psychologist, executive coach, and author of Leading Inclusion: Drive Change Your Employees Can See and Feel (Page Two, Oct.), will deliver the opening keynote at LJ’s Directors Summit in Baltimore this December. LJ caught up with her to learn more about what motivated her to write this book and what lessons she feels can help library leaders make sure their equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts improve the workplace experience for library workers.

Gena Cox head shot, smiling Black woman with large earrings and locsDr. Gena Cox, organizational psychologist, executive coach, and author of Leading Inclusion: Drive Change Your Employees Can See and Feel (Page Two, Oct.), will deliver the opening keynote at LJ’s Directors Summit in Baltimore this December. LJ caught up with her to learn more about what motivated her to write this book and what lessons she feels can help library leaders make sure their equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts improve the workplace experience for library workers.

LJ : How does your experience inform your work?

Gena Cox: I didn’t grow up in the United States. I am an immigrant. My parents are from Barbados, but they met in England, and that was where I was born. I grew up in the Caribbean, I’m an island girl. And I came to the United States just before my 21st birthday.

When I came to the United States, I had already gone through those formative years. I thought I knew who I was, and I had luckily grown up in an environment where I was very supported. Everybody said, “You’re an A student, you’ll do fine, you’ll be great.” I came to the United States and discovered very quickly that the way that a lot of people were responding to me felt so different than everything I had previously experienced.
I recognized after a short time that it had to do with the way I looked. People were identifying me as an African American woman. I had no idea what that meant. But I recognized that they were projecting on to me ideas about what I believed, what I would do, what I felt, and so on. So, I had to quickly learn how to be an African American woman.

That’s relevant to why I wrote this book, [because] I have for decades [had] this luxury of observing the American experience as an immigrant, a psychologist, and an advisor, and recognizing that there are some patterns here that I’m not even sure Americans understand or see. Maybe they’re a little bit more obvious to me because of that difference.

For many years as a corporate advisor to leaders, I would look for opportunities to help leaders understand this aspect of employee experience, the aspect having to do with people’s race, ethnicity, or other ways that they might vary from the reference group. But there was never much space for that because it was sort of a taboo topic.

When did you decide you needed to write this book?

[In] 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was killed. Then less than two months later, Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home, and that really broke me because I felt like she could have been my daughter. And then, of course, in May [2020], George Floyd was killed, and that was when, I like to say, I came out as Black.

Up until then I had been pretending that these experiences that I was having weren’t happening. I wasn’t talking about them. And when my friends or colleagues would share their experiences, we would have those conversations together, but we would not share them with others, because when you talk about these things, a lot of people get defensive. They think you have an axe to grind, when, in fact, all you’re trying to say is, we suspect that this could be better, if you only understood how bad it was.

So, I decided that I could take what I know from my personal experience, from psychology, and from all the years I’ve spent in a corporate environment and try to weave together some points to connect the dots, to help leaders see this a little bit more clearly.

Who is your book aimed at?

I wrote a book that’s really targeted at executive leaders, board directors, heads of human resources, even diversity and inclusion—people who call themselves diversity and inclusion leaders, MBA students, executive MBA students, and people outside of the United States who might be leading an American workforce and not really understand this aspect.

I wrote a book that didn’t exist, and it’s not an easy book to read. It’s a nontraditional book, because while it does have some storytelling woven through it, it does also have some very clear, factual information. This is not a how-to book. It’s an example of how I watched some very adept and effective humans grow an enterprise by really understanding the importance of the human experience.

I hope leaders [will] read it and process it and say, “Do you think Gena is trying to help me here or is she trying to judge me? No, she’s trying to just share some information, that angle, with a perspective that maybe you haven’t heard before.”

What advice do you have for library leaders?

If you are the leader of an entity, you have to do a little bit of soul searching and figure out what you believe, because the truth is any efforts to enhance diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, typically are not successful unless they’re led from the top with some sort of a strategic vision of what you want to accomplish. That doesn’t need to be complicated. There has to be a vision and a purpose, and it has to be consistent. They have to be able to articulate why do you want to do it to whomever they want to influence. You need to understand the macro characteristics in our culture and in our economy that are a result of history, not all of which was great, if you’re going to be able to manage 100 percent of your workforce or serve 100 percent of your clientele.

One of the reasons why leaders say, “We decided to focus on this, and two years later we didn’t make much progress,” is because it has been scattershot. You have to pick the few things to focus on that could make the most significant difference. A lot of the too-easy answers were implicit bias training and enhancing representation. Implicit bias training gets to the interpersonal aspects of this challenge, but the bigger problem is more systemic. And there’s nothing wrong with hir[ing] more people who are LGBTQ+, neurodiverse, or from certain racial or ethnic groups. But [if that’s all you’re doing], those people are brought into a situation where they don’t feel like they’re being respected. You don’t have the inclusion piece that wraps around the diversity piece. You’re shooting yourself in your foot, because people won’t stay or they will be miserable.

It is important to establish a culture that is consistent with what you want to accomplish. I don’t mean bringing in a consultant. It is important to have psychological safety, communication, and trust, where employees feel comfortable expressing what they are seeing [and] hearing, not just about diversity and inclusion, about everything.

How do leaders build that trust?

It’s simple, but it’s not easy. The only answer is to change the communication methodologies. Any time there is any decision to be made, the first thing leaders have to ask themselves, is have they included all the constituents. Have you included people from all levels, have you talked to the employees before you made the decisions, what assumptions might you make that could be faulty if you fail to do that?

What employees say they desire is transparency. They want to know how decisions are made; they want to be part of the decisions. They want to know, how do you decide who to hire, how to get a promotion, how do I get access to developmental opportunities. They want this experience of democracy.

How do you make this change visible to the employees?

You have to know what employees are experiencing. You need to understand their definition of what success looks like. Their definition of success is not just that you’ve added more people of whatever group. Their definition hinges more upon “What is my day-to-day experience like, working with my immediate manager?” So, you need to understand what the supervisors and managers are doing on a day-to-day basis.

In my book, I talk about a respect first paradigm. If for the rest of your tenure as a library director, once a week you could ask each employee, “Do you feel respected?” I bet you you’ll get a definitive answer.

The next question would be, “What are you experiencing that makes you feel respected?” And then the final question would be, “What are you experiencing that makes you feel not respected?” If you knew the answers to those questions, this would solve this entire problem, frankly.

What are some common mistakes?

If you don’t believe in this stuff, no matter how much you try to fake it, people are going to tell that you’re faking it. So, you have to know exactly where you stand, and make sure that your body language is aligned with your verbal communications and your written communications. And if you’re only doing the ad hoc, one-off things, it’s never going to get you to the strategic outcome that you desire.

Another mistake that I see is making declarations, but not holding people accountable for executing to make sure that you get results. You might have to insist that people who report to you do some things that they don’t want to do. Some of them will slow walk it, some of them won’t do it at all, some of them will say they’re doing it, but they’re just going around the edges of it. That might mean you have to take someone out of the supervisory position, if they’re not prepared to do what I call 100 percent leadership, which is to lead 100 percent of their team in the same way they lead the 75 percent. If I report to you and you’re my supervisor, you’re the only person I expect to have my back. And if you don’t, I don’t have a leader, and that means you are not effective.

How can leaders tell that they ’ve built a successful culture?

You have a library that is dynamic, where employees feel like this is a great place to work. And the evidence of that would not just be that they’re smiling and enthusiastic, but that they’re sharing ideas when they interact with your patrons. The patrons leave feeling, “Oh wow, I got what I wanted. This person really wanted to help me because they’re enthusiastic, they’re engaged employees.”

You can have a community where people want to come into that structure, interact with you via the internet, where they know that it’s going to feel like a place not just of education and elucidation and information and entertainment, but of a home. You only get those kinds of outcomes if you focus on culture.

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Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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