The role of leadership in diversity and inclusion

Dr Robert Traynham delivered an RSE signature event from Aberdeen University on how leadership can help nourish diversity and inclusion.

How does one lead in the field of diversity and inclusion? What are the leadership qualities that we seek and need in this ever-changing and emerging field?

For Dr Traynham, the answer is simple: “you must have a moral compass – of which comes from within – there is no textbook for this.”

Watch our recent signature event, from the University of Aberdeen, where Dr Traynham engages with some of these vital questions posed by Professor Neil Vargesson and the audience in Aberdeen.

Our signature events are designed to educate and encourage new thinking, ideas and conversations. We want to amplify the RSE’s mission of ‘knowledge made useful’ through events like these by enhancing our understanding of national and global scientific, cultural and economic topics.


Please note transcripts are automatically generated, so may feature errors.

Sir John Ball FRSE  02:57

So welcome to this Royal Society of Edinburgh signature event. My name is John ball and I’m the President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. And many thanks to the University of Aberdeen for for hosting this, this occasion. So I have to make a couple of housekeeping notes when there’s no planned fire alarms, so should you hear an alarm follow follow the staff wherever they lead you. The event is being live streamed, so it’s being photographed and recorded. So these these are all Society of Edinburgh signature events are designed to educate and encourage new thinking, ideas and conversations and the event aims to amplify the RSE’s mission of ‘knowledge made useful’, which is from its charter more or less, by enhancing our understanding of national and global scientific, cultural, and economic topics. So the this meeting is going to be chaired by Professor Neil Ferguson, who’s a fellow that was such member and holds the Chair of Developmental Biology at the University of Aberdeen. So I hand over to him to introduce our speaker.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  04:13

Ok, it’s good to see so many people here in Aberdeen and I gather there’s quite a few people online as well, which is great. So we’re delighted to have Robert here. We’ve got about an hour, and it’s a fireside chat. So we’re gonna I’m going to ask Robert some questions. He’s going to hopefully answer them. And then we’ll open it up and

Dr Robert Traynham  04:42


Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  04:42

By way of a quick biography Robert is a political veteran, and a communications expert who’s advised many, many different corporations around the world. He was an intern for President Clinton. At one point you He has advised senators. And I also found out that you were president of the US Senate press secretaries Association. And at one point, and you have been named one of the 50 most powerful people in Washington DC, for nine years.

Dr Robert Traynham  05:14


Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  05:14

SS he’s now Head of Global Public Affairs at Meta. So it’s fantastic to have him here. And as I say, we’ll start this conversation off. And hopefully we’ll delve into your career and into equality, diversity and inclusion. So the first question, thanks for being here in Scotland. And it’s important to talk about you and your journey. So where are you from in the States? And how do you get to be where you are?

Dr Robert Traynham  05:44

Well, first, good evening, and thank you very much for having me, I really appreciate it good to see all of you. And also all of you who are at home on your smart device. Thank you very much to the RSE for having me. It’s also thank you very much to the University of Aberdeen, my Alma mater and so very fortunate to be here. I’m from the state of Pennsylvania, we call the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I was born just outside of Philadelphia, in a suburb, my parents grew up in the inner city of Philadelphia, my parents actually grew up right across the street from each other. So I was one of those rare people that might when I went to see my grandparents, my grandparents literally lived across the street from each other, so is a little weird, but anyway, but my parents actually wanted a better life for their kid. My father was a freshman in college, and my mom was a senior in high school. So out came me. And they decided for the good of anything that my mom would finish high school, and that my father would drop out of college. So in many ways, I’m actually living my parents story, in many ways. But the reason why I mentioned moving to the suburbs is because we were the first and only African Americans on our block. In fact, in the whole neighbourhood, for the first instance, back in 1974/75, I was born in 74 and we moved there in 75. And so we were the only ones for the most part for the first 10 years. So in many ways, I’m very, very, very comfortable being the only one in the room, the only person of colour in the room, at least at that time. I remember very vividly sometimes being on the school bus. And kids would take their, their their hand put through my hair, to feel a little bit more thicker hair. So anyway, my story is, I think, pretty unique in many ways, but also uniquely American in so many different ways. So.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  07:35

Okay. And your connection to Aberdeen, you mentioned, this is your alma mater.

Dr Robert Traynham  07:39

Yeah, to make a long story short, I actually wanted to be a medical doctor, which we’ll talk about later if you want to. But nevertheless, one of my dear, dear friends was he actually graduated from here was a dear colleague of mine at Georgetown University. And so I’m a bit of an anglophile, I really, really do enjoy British royal history. But I’m also a bit cold war buff as well. And so I wanted to study the “special relationship”, as we call it. And that’s some relationship, as you probably know, between the United States In the United Kingdom, and so the person who was studying that too at the time or researching that time, was Professor Tom Weber who’s still here at the University. So he and I just hit it off. And my my interests specifically, I have a theory, and my theory is, is that the late Queen Elizabeth II actually was much was much more influential behind the scenes than we actually know, you know, we see her in pearls, you know, waving with a little white glove. But my theory is, is that she had so much knowledge that she actually was girl power before there was a thing called girl power. Remember, in 1952 more than 70 years. And so this was before Margaret Thatcher was before Nancy Pelosi. This was before Kamala Harris, way before that stuff. My point on this is that my theory wasn’t that she actually influenced things behind the scenes more than we’ll know.


I digress.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  09:12

Cool. So you’ve told you’ve mentioned before that you like storytelling?

Dr Robert Traynham  09:19

I do.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  09:19

And and what do you mean by this? Storytelling, but also why you like to do storytelling?

Dr Robert Traynham  09:26

Yeah. So I guess I’m gonna answer this question in two ways. One, I’m a firm believer, I’m an empathetic leader. And what I mean by that is that I really lead from trying to lead from behind. And I also recognise that every single for all of you, your ancestors, for people that came before you, the people that come after you, we’re all leaders in our own way. And how we show up to leadership is unique to us. I call it the moral compass. In many ways.  My point of all this is that we all have a story, no matter who you are, we’re humans. And we all have different backgrounds. And that’s what makes us – that’s the strength of diversity. And that is the strength of the human race.  And so telling your story is incredibly important.  Just as important as listening to that story and having empathy to be able to relate to that story or quite frankly to be able to have the vulnerability to say well, I’ve never been on a school bus and have someone run their hands through their hair out of curiosity. I’ve never been the only person in the, in the room who happened to be a person of colour or whatever. So my point is we all have stories.  and I think and I love telling stories, I’m a communicator at heart. Can you tell?  So I really enjoy telling stories – telling other people’s stories from a political standpoint but also listening to stories.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  10:48

Okay, cool. So before we dive deeper into EDI, or equality, diversity and inclusion, what’s your definition of leadership?

Dr Robert Traynham  10:58

Wow. So it’s a little complicated. But let me go back to the moral compass. So I believe that anyone that has a beating heart, like this guy over here, my grandmother used to have the saying, “Robert, always do what’s right but do it when no one else is looking.” Because the most important thing is to always do the right thing. And whether you get the credit or not is irrelevent. And my point on this is that is that we are all leaders. And so how we show up to this classroom, how we show up to a board meeting, how we show up to the person who is taking our order at MacDonalds means something. And the most


is when people just say – I had this the other day –  I was actually in California for a meeting, and


I was just blown away. I was I was


getting off the aeroplane. And the person, the flight attendant grabbed my hands and she said, “thank you.”


And I said, “for what?” she said, “you probably don’t remember this but you were on my flight last month,” I didn’t recognise her. And she said, “I actually dropped a cart of food” or whatever, I do remember this. And she goes,”you got out of your seat and you actually helped me.”

Dr Robert Traynham  12:25

“You’re welcome. But that’s what you’re supposed to do. Right?” And she said, “You have no idea how many people would not do something.” That’s the stuff that’s meaningful for me. Because one, it made a lasting impression for her, although I didn’t know that at the time. But also two, she remebered it. And, hopefully, I don’t know, those we won’t notice, right?Someone else saw me do that. And maybe we’ll think twice when you do something like that in the future, when no one else is looking?

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  12:57

No. So in your opinion, what makes a good leader?

Dr Robert Traynham  13:02

Someone that’s empathetic, someone that listens, someone… one of the things that… I know a lot and I have opinions. But I try not to talk a lot in meetings. I try to listen to other people’s point of view. And oftentimes the feedback that I’ve gotten, which is good and  bad was that, “Robert, you ask the question, you don’t give context.” And that’s true. I don’t want to hear myself talk in that context, just get to the question and let the other person answer it. And so I think for me been a bit more showing up in a way that’s empathetic, showing up in a way where they’re listening more than talking to the extent that we possibly can, having the emotional intelligence to the extent that we can to do the right thing when no one else is looking. And I’ll keep going back to that, because that’s incredibly important. So I’m extremely conscious, to not interrupt someone when they’re presenting. I try to give them my full attention to the extent that I can I actually put my phone down and be present. And so those little things like that, to me is incredible important. But the listening part, I go back to this because I  want to learn from you. I’m fortunate enough to be in a room with you. [External alarm sounds] If that’s the fire alarm I will follow you.


[Laughter from audience]

Dr Robert Traynham  14:26

It doesn’t matter whether or not this person has a suit and tie or not


I would make the argument that it’s actually more important for the person who’s wearing the uniform.


To go back to my dad who’s


actually studied to be a mechanical engineer. He’s actually one of the smartest person that, I hope he’s watching right now. Hi dad!


I’m gonna get a bit emotional so sorry about that.


he is actually one of the most smartest people that I know, smartest people that I know. But he couldn’t finish his college or college education because they had me so


And he wore a uniform, a postal uniform.


My point is that, like the flight attendant, people like that, in my mind are the ones that are arguably the most deserving of respect, and the most deserving of hearing your story.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  15:18

So we’ll delve a bit deeper then. So you’ve often talked about having a hard or difficult conversation in the workplace. So what do you mean? And how do you go about that? In a way, that’s a good experience for the person who you’re talking to and also for yourself.

Dr Robert Traynham  15:37

So at Facebook, we call it hard conversations. I work for technology company, Meta/ Facebook. And we call it a hard conversation because it can be a hard conversation. And we actually have those conversations in real time.  So what’s that? We don’t wait three months, or six months later at a review. And the reason why is because when we speak recollections may vary


You know, people would struggle a little bit in their heads about whatever happened six months ago, it could just esculate more than it needs to.


So it very well could have, I was mentioning this a couple of hours ago. And that is, I was actually giving a presentation earlier


And I was literally mid sentence and the person kept interrupting me, more than once. It was not just a casual interruptions. It was a little deliberate.

Dr Robert Traynham  16:28

So I, in that moment went: “you know Neil, I actually give you the common courtesy to listen to you, while you’re speaking, if you wouldn’t mind, give me the same respect. And then afterwards, I love having candid hard conversations.”  So addressing it in the moment, it’s not being rude, I want to be really clear. It’s actually being very respectful and diplomatic, but it’s addressing it in the moment. Because one, if you don’t allowing that person licence, to overpower you and that’s not fair to you. You have a voice as well. It’s your story that you’re telling in that moment, right?


Second, what you’re doing is you’re setting your boundaries. Setting what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate.

Dr Robert Traynham  17:13

And then having the hard conversation afterwards, I would say: “Neil, I would really love to talk about why you were interrupting me a couple times.” And get you to respond. It very well could have been, “Robert, I’m hard of hearing.” Ok that’s good to know. It could be I’m on medication and it makes me interact a certain way. Or i could be… and this was, well it dosen’t matter, it could be:


“I’m really sorry. I just had a lot to say. And I needed to get it out.” Well, that’s not ok.

Dr Robert Traynham  17:42

And so address it in that moment. You have a voice. But, in this moment this is what a conversation is all about: a conversation typically is a two way street, right? A conversation is allowing me the opportunity to express myself in a way that gives me equity, that gives me dignity and that gives me respect.


Because, by the way, my silence when you were telling your story, there’s a reciprocity that I gave you.

Dr Robert Traynham  18:08

So this is going to be a good conversation, please allow me the opportunity to have my ability to be able to speak rather than to be spoken to.


So anyway, that’s the sort of we have, we have quite hard conversations often and they’re very welcome.


You know often it’s, “hey I thought we talked about this. Why did you show up in the meeting this way.”

Dr Robert Traynham  18:28

“Well, what are you talking about?”


“Well, you said in the meeting  X, Y an Z, but that’s not what we agreed upon.”


So, it’s incredibly helpful feedback, I believe that feedback is a gift.


I believe being transparent and really addressing, with, not emotion but with examples, is incredibly important.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  18:50

But it must be difficult to do that. And you’re going to have some people that will react in a protective way for themselves and get quite aggressive. I mean, how would you how would you deal with that?

Dr Robert Traynham  19:03

Yeah, so I would say aggressive, maybe, defensive, definitely because that’s not natural. And I find, oftentimes, usually women and usually people of colour will say this: “Oh, I’m so sorry.” “What are you apologising for?” So it’s almost as if you have to be comfortable with yourself.


And this is why I think it’s incredibly important to have examples. Because I tried to do two things when I have these hard conversations in my team, and with colleagues.


I try to de escalate the situation. Never personalise it, always bring it back to examples. And this goes back to addressing it in the moment so that memories are somewhat aligned around what happened. That’s incredibly important. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this isn’t oftentimes extremely difficulat because to have that hard conversation, it can be akward. It can be offputting.

Dr Robert Traynham  20:03

But I like to think that it’s refreshing. Some type of medicine. You know, it can be discusting going down but hopefully you’ll feel better afterwards. Not always but…

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  20:17

So we’ll move on to diversity. So you’ve talked about faking diversity in job descriptions

Dr Robert Traynham  20:28

that we can say. So Are these for both of us?

Audience member  20:34

Just for you for your mics a bit..

Dr Robert Traynham  20:36

Ah here we go.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  20:39

So can you can you give us an example of how to bake diversity into a job description?

Dr Robert Traynham  20:46

Yeah, is this better? So baking diversity into a job description is actually two things, at least how I’m used to doing it. First is, at the at the bottom of the job description, you know, saying that: We value diversity, saying that we look forward to this, saying that, you know, that’s something that that’s obviously boilerplate language, right? But, but meaning it. And what I mean by that is that baking that into your job description by saying, having a passion for diversity, having a passion for hard conversations, looking forward to diverse opinions,


when I landed, here, I was at passport control. And the person said to me, “Oh, you’re American, are you?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, there’s some good Americans out there.”

Dr Robert Traynham  22:20

And I get it a little bit, have a little bit of sense of humour. And she said, and she asked me how long I was here to all the standard questions. And I told her, I was leaving, you know, obviously, on Friday morning, and she said, “well, hopefully you’ll find a good Scottish girl here.” And she said, and she goes us, “us, north, us, North Eastern Scotland, they’re better than the other ones.” And I leaned into, and I said, Man, “a couple things I want to let you know.” I said, “I’m sure. I’m not speaking from experience. I said, but I’m sure I’m sure all girls are girls, and I don’t think it should be a northeast Scottish day. And I said in Secondly, I said, “just really not my cup of tea.” And she looked at me she was like, “What do you mean?” And I said, “you have a line that’s waiting to get their pathway. I said, we’ll just leave it at that.”  So my point is, is that, even though I assume it was a joke, but there was a couple of assumptions that she was making there. Right? So a couple of assumptions I believe she was making was that I was heterosexual, which I’m not. I believe she was making the assumption that even if I was maybe who knows? But even if I wasn’t that, a northeastern I don’t know what that means. But I think I can surmise that a northeastern Scottish Scottish girl was nicer, better, different, better quality than someone else can come on. That’s ridiculous. Right? Well, totally different levels. So there’s a lot of assumptions there. That’s, that’s not good.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  23:45

So following on from that a little bit, then so we talked about making sure that you’ve got diverse members in your groups. So how, how do you proactively source candidates that are diverse in your in your group, for example?

Dr Robert Traynham  24:04

So I think that’s a good question. So we have a thing called find, grow and keep. So in this is hard, hard work. It’s really easy to so we send resumes out and you know, we just can’t find qualified people. That’s a 1970s term. Right? So so what does that look like? So how do you find people right? So it is showing up in the inner city where my parents grew up. It is showing up in areas where makes you just generally uncomfortable, but it’s exactly where… So I enjoy being uncomfortable. I actually enjoy being in rooms and in situations and cultures where I’m slightly uncomfortable. Why? Because I’m learning. Is because I’m uncomfortable because it’s something that’s new to me and something that I haven’t experienced before. And so what I mean by that is that, you know, we have a thing called HBCUs – historically black colleges, universities in the States. Historically, those are universities that have been underrepresented in many ways. Some of them are in rural areas of the country in the South. Some of them are in areas that are outside of major metropolitan areas. And so most college recruitment doesn’t go there. And so when they do go there, it’s only just showing up on the day, as opposed to developing a deep and rich relationship with that university over time, so that the relationship is authentic. And you know, that story or their story like the back of your hand. And so therefore, their story becomes your story. And it’s intertwined. And so therefore, when you show up, first of all, you’re not just showing up once a year, you’re showing up a couple of times a month, so that the relationship feels a little bit more authentic. So when you say, “Hey, we’re actually hiring for X, Y, and Z”, it’s a much more fluid conversation, it’s actually much easier than you think. I can’t speak to here in Europe. But study after study after study has shown us that when there’s an authentic relationship, in communities that you don’t typically have a relationship with, you actually find to have a rich, deeper applicant pool. And by the way, that applicant pool is not just it could be people of colour, but it very well could be as I’m not single, but I’m in a tradition, I’m in a non-traditional relationship. I don’t know what it feels like to be a working parent. So that’s diversity as well. Right?  I don’t know what it feels like to have a conversation with someone when they have to struggle between whether or not they literally put their kid in daycare, or they missed the board meeting. I don’t know what that means. I can’t but I can empathise with that. Right. So but having those types of experiences in in the workplace is incredibly, incredibly important.  Lasty, I probably shouldn’t be saying this online, but I’ll clean it up a little bit. And that is, I remember, not at my current job at a previous job. Where the recruiter said, “well, we need we need a young whippersnapper, you know, we need someone that’s in their 20s and 30s.” And I’m like, This is so bad. And I said, blank, “why?” And she said, “Well, we need someone that’s going to have a family, that’s going to be working 24 hours, seven days a week.” stop, stop, stop, stop.  So wrong on so many different levels. I said, “what we need to find actually is the complete opposite.” I said, “what I want to find is the best qualified person.” And I said, “given the skill set, and given where we are,” I said, “I’m actually looking for finding a new mom, or a mom that has a family at home,” and she was like, “what he was talking about.” And I said, “I’m really, really interested in having someone on my team that’s in their 40s, or their 50s. I’m interested in having someone in your team that can that not only has the gravitas, but just has the real world experience.” And by the way, that’s a big, big, big, big barrier in job descriptions is experience. When you say you want five to 10 years of experience in leading a team of 20 people.


Okay, so you automatically possibly could be segregating moms that have decided they have decided to build up, they may have experience in terms of the skill set, but they may have not have managed to team for 10 or 15 years simply because they’ve been raising a family for the past 10 or 15 years. So that’s discriminatory towards her. Right? And or it could be my dad, who was a postal worker who decided to go back to college, after his kids went to college and the whole nine yards, who has no experience in managing people, but has a wealth of experience in other ways. So anyway, my point is, is that you have to be really careful how you bake job descriptions in many ways, and how you fight that it’s a long way into your question, how you find grow and keep people, and I can talk about the grow in the keep, if we I know we’re running out of time. So I’ll pause.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  28:56

No that’s fine. So on a related area, then how do you counteract comments from leadership when they make things like we just hire or promote the best person for the job, regardless of race or gender?

Dr Robert Traynham  29:13

So I will, so when I hear that, that’s that that sounds right, right. That’s what you want. In theory. That’s what you want in utopian society, raise your hand who lives in a utopia. So that’s not real, right? It’s a wonderful aspiration, who doesn’t want that? Everybody wants that, from an aspirational standpoint. But my lived experiences that’s really, really hard to find. So it goes back to my point around you have to deliberately, deliberately find or try to attract people that are different. That’ again, that takes a lot of work. It’s really, really easy folks to say that you want sushi. It’s great. And you might be able to find sushi at the Tesco. I don’t know how good it is, but you might be able to find it there. But if you really want authentic sushi you might have to do little homework, right? You might have to really, really sweat a little bit. And you might have to be uncomfortable going into place, I don’t know where here in Aberdeen, to find authentic sushi. So that takes work.  And genuinely, and this myself included to be clear, we’re not very adventurous people, we tend to kind of stay in our lane, we tend to do the thing that we know, we tend to really just follow the script, if you will. And this is where you need to be a little uncomfortable. And this is where you need to challenge yourself. Because yes, of course, Neil, everyone says that, but I’m not sure how many people mean it. And I’m not sure exactly how many people actually raise their hand and say, I’m going to do the work to find the real authentic sushi.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  30:47

Yeah, good answer. So related to that, then you’ve also said that don’t be afraid to allow a voice that may be different to lead a discussion or implement a plan. So how do you encourage those sorts of people to actually come forward and raise their hand.

Dr Robert Traynham  31:08

So I’m a big believer in this. So usually the most quiet person in the room I myself excluded, usually is the smartest person in the room, usually, or has a lot to say. My experience is, from a cultural standpoint, or some type of other stigma, they feel like they can’t really talk as much as they should. So I observe, if it’s my meeting that I’m that I’m chairing, I’ll observe, and usually I’ll have a quiet conversation with that person on the side, not the day, I usually do it the day after, and I say “I noticed something. And it doesn’t make me feel good.”


“If you’re comfortable, I would love to learn your story. And I would love to learn why you’re quiet.” Now a very well could be, could be a very good reason. But oftentimes, at least in my line of work, it’s often “Oh, you know, my culture. I’m a woman, I have a lisp. I’m from the south and I have an accent.” And my, my story is the same. I say, “you have a voice. I don’t particularly care if it has a cadence to it. I don’t particularly care. In this case, if you’re a woman or a person of colour, what I care about is what’s in between your two brains. And what I care about, is that you feel like your authentic self. And so what does that look like for you?” So I throw it back to them? For some, it’s “Thank you, Robert. I now have a little bit of licence and equity to be able to tell whatever I need to tell.” It could be oftentimes this is the case, it’s do you mind just call on me. And then I’ll just run from there.

Dr Robert Traynham  32:52

Sometimes it’s “Thank you just for asking the question, because I’ve never been empowered to do that before.” And then usually at the next meeting, I’ll just follow it away. And then I’ll say, “Neil, excellent, excellent memo. I didn’t have, I didn’t have a chance to read all of it.” I did. I’m lying “Can you summarise what you said? And actually want you to please leave time for questions afterwards.” So I’m giving you I’m giving you the microphone. and but I’m setting you up in a way, hopefully, hopefully, in a way where it feels equitable to you.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  33:30

Great answer. Okay. Two last questions then.  First one is how do you approach conflicts that arise from differences in backgrounds and perspectives in your team?

Dr Robert Traynham  33:43

So hard conversation. And so it depends on the person and the personality really. What I’ve, what I’ve found is, I’m a very direct person. And what I found is, is that most people appreciate that about me. They always know, you always know you’re staying with me, you will always. My parents are watching, they raised me so they know this about me that I’m a pretty transparent person that way. So I will tell you, I will never tell you how I’m feeling at work because I don’t think that’s really relevant. But I will tell you, in many, many ways, how I’m showing up for work. And it’s to me, that’s a difference. So for example, I wont tell you if I’m had a big fight with my partner last night, I will I don’t think that’s any of your business. But I will tell you, “Hey, listen, I’m not in the right headspace. This morning between 9 and 10 I promise you, I will get there. Do you mind just give me an hour. And the reason why it’s because I love to have a conversation with you about X, Y or Z” Really, really clear with the example and allowing the person to be able to respond to that. And oftentimes I will say if it’s a hard conversation or disciplinary thing I’ll say, “I recognise that this is a lot of information to process. I recognise that the examples that I gave hopefully are are rock solid. But Neil, let’s pause, do you have any feedback for me?” “The examples that I use are the ones that I can relate to because they directly affected me meal. But do you have any examples for me that you’d like to raise? It is 6.30 right now. I recognise that I’ve been chatting now with these specific examples, for about 10 minutes, what I would like to do is pause for about 30 seconds, for allow you to gather your thoughts. If you’re comfortable, I can leave the room or I can stay. But I really, really want you to have the next few moments to process what I’m saying. Because I actually have some steps that like to walk through, Would that be okay with you?”  So I’m in control of the meeting, right, I have to deliver a hard message. But I’m allowing you the dignity, I hope, I’m allowing you the grace, I hope, I’m allowing you the platform, I hope to at least relay your story, I may not agree with it. It may be a hard story. But I’m allowing you that opportunity to be able to do whatever it needs to be done. Now, if this was a termination, which sometimes happens, I will leave the room. And I’ll come back in. And I will thank you for all the and I’ll be sincere about this about all the things that I’m sincere about. And then I’ll quickly move to with well this is the next steps in terms of what we need to do. I’m really, really, really, really sad that it has to come to this. But I’m actually joyful because I think this is an opportunity for you to learn from using the three or four examples, and then maybe take this as a go forward learning behaviour for you. So that is I’m not suggesting that it’s easy, but it is something that I do. Yeah.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  36:41

So last question then for me anyway. So you’re clearly very busy, you clearly have an awful lot of things you’re juggling at any one time. And you’re talking to lots of people to see how they feel, et cetera, et cetera. So what do you do to relax or switch off?

Dr Robert Traynham  36:59

I have a couple of things that I do. So I didn’t really enjoy photography. So I submit anonymous for photographs under a pseudonym. And I’ve won a couple of awards and some that like this is garbage. My partner and I we have a place. So I’m from Washington. I live in Washington, DC. I’m from Philadelphia. And there’s a place called Cape Cod, which is north of Washington. So we have a house up there. So I do a lot of sailing. And he’s a deadhead. So and I’m a pseudo deadhead. So we listen to a lot of music on the boat. No Wi Fi.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  37:36

Excellent. Well, thank you very much. And we’ll now open up for questions to the audience.

Dr Robert Traynham  37:43

Lots of questions.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  37:44

We have time for questions. Oh, I’m sorry. And before we ask questions, please put your hand up. And if you could just give us your name as well, just so we know who? Who’s good. Who’s asking the question. Thank you

Audience member  37:57

Neeva speaking, Eva Hightus. Thank you very much for that that was really enlightening and very, very well presented.  You make it sound as if you have a formula, which helps you to get through many of these difficult situations you described. Could you tell us if you had training for this? And if so, what it was and how else you develop the strategy that you have?

Dr Robert Traynham  38:22

That’s a good question. So yes and no. The Yes, part is yes, I’ve had traing. Facebook, I think, I’m biassed, but one of the best I think was we had Sheryl Sandberg, our Chief Operating Officer. She’s no longer with the company. But she was with the company almost since it started. And she is the author of Lean In. I don’t know if you’ve familiar with this. But this is very much of transformational book around women in leadership. And in being your authentic self, which really does translate, at least for me, as a person of colour for a person of colour leaning in. And what that means is in many ways, as you probably know, is to lean into a conversation. Don’t be afraid to have the conversation. Be specific with examples. Be your authentic self. So to your question, we’ve had a lot I have had a lot of training in the Facebook world with that stuff. Been with the company now for five years, but prior to that no training whatsoever. I worked in politics prior to joining Meta, and so a lot of issues brute force and lacquer. Just old school just honestly, I think it’s three things. I think it’s formal training. I think some of it has to do with my personality. If I had to be honest with myself, and a lot of it is rather than that is probably watching right now, my parents

Audience member  39:47

I’m Morag Beers. I’m the university’s director of estates. We’re going to master planning mode later this year. And I’m kind of curious as I know some of my colleagues are is what do you see the value and collaborative space? Seen as you’ve been able to take time out of your nine to five job and to interact with other colleagues. And have you seen any good examples of offices, corporate offices where there was collaborative space? That worked really well?

Dr Robert Traynham  40:12

Yeah, thank you for the question. And when you say collaborative spaces being physically or mentally or both? Yeah. So the analogy that I would use is I grew up in a house where the living room was the living room. You know, you brought up the good china for your grandparents at least my parents did. And the kitchen was the kitchen. The living room was the living room. We’re not allowed to sit on the couch unless we had guests. So. So everything was very compartmentalised. And so when I go into an office now, no offence, but when I go into the office now, when I see cubicles and I see offices, and I see the hierarchy of of institutions, it’s so uninspiring to me, in many ways, because I don’t know if you’ve ever been to, at least in technology, we have no offices, everything, we’re all equal in that way, we all have the same desk, no one has the office, arch CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, no one, no one in our company has an office. So we all have the same desk, we all have the same chair. And so there’s a wonderful equalising moment there. But in addition to that, think of an open space, open floorplan house where there is no wall for the kitchen, no wall. And so my point is, is that the collaborative the collaboration that we do, we all have oversized monitors. And that’s done on purpose one, obviously, to be sensitive to your eyes. But it’s also so that you can see what other people are doing. Right? And so we have a lot of glass, because of the transparency, both mentally and physically. Our offices are always you see raw concrete, in wood that goes halfway up. And the reason why, psychologically, psychologically, is because we’re never finished, we’re still working, things are in draft mode. So it’s an interesting psychological thing. Also, in our offices, we have dozens upon dozens of couches, in beanbags. I know that sounds cool, right? In some ways, right? But it, you ever walk into someone’s home and you instantly feel welcome. You just the feeling the aura, the culture, everything where it’s not like you have to ask to sit down on the living room, you can sit because just so anyway, the company is very much like that, where it’s very, very common, let’s go for a walk that to have this meeting, I actually not to belabour this too much. I actually have a lot of our hard conversations, I deliberately go for a walk with my colleague, I deliberately, sometimes will sit Indian style, or I will sit lower them. And the reason why I like to walk with them is because they’re no barriers, between you and I are equal in this in this in this in this case. And it’s much more collaborative to walk and talk. Sometimes I’m sitting Indian style, because I’m going to fire you. But I’m going to do it in a way that’s graceful. And that’s definitely professional. But I’m going to do it in a way that hopefully you feel good. I don’t, I don’t mean to say this. I just as an example, two times this has happened to me, where I’ve let someone go two times, and the person has thanked me. And they’ve said, I kind of knew this was coming, but you made me feel a certain way. That I want to say thank you back, right, but that a little bit. But it’s like, okay, you know, hopefully this person is leaving with a little bit of dignity. Hopefully this person hopefully I’m giving a little bit of grace into your question. Hopefully, I’m being an empathetic leader, where I’m allowing this person to leave in a way that they still feel a little bit respected. That’s the most important thing, at least for me.

Audience member  44:04

Thank you very much, Robert. My name is Owen Cox. Just one question that you mentioned earlier on about your interaction with the young lady on the aeroplane. I think that sort of leads into the dignity and respect work that’s going on at the university. There’s also the caring side of what we do. How do we change attitudes across the University on a grand scale to instil that mindset? We can do it on a one to one basis, we can have those hard conversations, but I think we need to think a little bit bigger. Thank you.

Dr Robert Traynham  44:37

Yeah, it’s hard. It’s really hard to scale. I mean, we have 8000 people at our company and it’s I’m not suggesting that it’s easy, but it does happen one one head at a time. You know, my my leadership philosophy. So let me talk a little bit about the moral compass and that is, you know, I call it lead forward. And so the lead forward is you are a leader in the organisation. So how do you how do you set the tone? What is that tone? And how do you set that tone? How do you deliver that tone? Because somebody’s got to do it. Right? And then how do you lead across? And so this is the moral compass. How do you lead across? And that leading across to your colleagues? How do you show up in a way? Where if it’s your flight attendant colleague, where you stop what you’re doing and help him or her? What does that look like for you? Right? To use that example? And how do you lead through. And so the lead through is oftentimes the hardest. And that is when you have to deliver hard news, a budget cut a salary reduction, we’re going in a different direction. And so that’s equally as hard, right? And so and how do you lead with empathy? And so this is all part of my moral compass here. And that is, Listen, I don’t necessarily have all the answers you to have equity you to have a voice. And so if I could give you the example is, we’re gonna go up this mountain. So I’m leaning, I’m leaning, I’m leaning forward, that’s my vision, that is how we’re going to do it. But that diversity in the room, I have a very strong opinion about how we’re going to get to the top of that mountain. But the diversity in the room may say, I think we may want to go this way. Or based on my lived experience, I think we should go this way. Or based on, you know, my own disadvantaged background, or whatever the case would be, we really need to think about going this way. And what I mean by this, what about the person with disabilities? What about the person who has social anxiety? What about the person who grew up in an all white neighbourhood, and went to all white schools? Me. And who says, “Yeah, but we may want to think about it this way.” Give you a prime example. I remember and must have been maybe in the second or third grade, and my parents were just going out of their wit’s end, because I was the only child at the time, my my, again, my parents have been very young. And my brother’s sister came 10 years later, when my parents got more settled. And my parents were at their wit’s end because my hair was up to here. And we could not they couldn’t find a barbershop to cut my type of hair. So I remember this vividly, I remember, my mom was like, freaking out. And I remember saying, “Mom, it’s okay, I’ll, I’ll find it.” She’s like, I’m seven years old. And I remember going out, and I remember asking my neighbours, and you’re like, this kid is nuts. And then probably, Dad, you probably remember this. If you’re watching, I remember walking around the corner. And I remember seeing someone slightly slightly lighter than me. And I remember seeing my parents are really trying to find somewhere to cut my hair. And I remember looking at him, he was a police officer. And he said, “Get in the car with me” – I would never done this now,for a lot of reasons, but this was in the 70s. And, and he took me to his house, and he cut my hair. And I came home, obviously looking like this with no hair. And my dad was like, “where did you go?” And I said, “I went right around the corner.” I said, “I forget the guy’s name because he’s a cop.. I went around the corner and such and such.” And my dad said “you did what?”  And there we go so we made a friend that day. And that’s just that’s me being a little brave. That was me being a little curious. That was me being slightly uncomfortable. But that was also in many ways, my own little diversity moment. Right. And in terms of just trying something that’s a little bit different in terms of getting to that mountain, that’s probably not the best example. But it’s a way of maybe thinking about getting to the top of the mountain through different different skill sets.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  48:32

So did he cut your hair after that as well?

Dr Robert Traynham  48:36

He did. He did he… Well, look it was just me and my dad, there was my dad and me in terms of people need to get their hair cut in the suburb that we were in. So that was him for quite a bit. Do what you got to do it’s called survival.

Audience member  49:02

Thanks, I’m from regatta universities. I just came in to join tonight. Glad to be here. And my question is, how have you navigated through both conscious and unconscious biases on your way to leadership?

Dr Robert Traynham  49:21

That’s a good question. I want to show up to your answer with a lot of anger. I want to show up to your answer with also with a lot of grace. And the reason why I say that is because it’s a complicated answer. Because I have experienced microaggressions I have experienced conscious and unconscious bias. The grace part comes in the unconscious bias right? We all have that. Guilty as charged. In terms of the that’s what it is. It’s unconscious bias, as you all know, it’s something where we do what we do that we’re not very good with. But when it comes to the bias that you can control that is much more transparent. I call it prejudice. That’s a little bit harder, that’s a tougher pill to swallow on so many different levels. But to your question, I actually view all of these as teaching moments. I view all of them as moments where I have to be, as hard as it is, sometimes to be… not necessarily a better person. I hate that terminology. Because I’m not better than anyone else. But I do reserve the right to use the terminology the most more graceful person, the more patient person, the person that has a moral compass, that looks at all these opportunities as teaching moments, but also to have the hard conversation, “hey, let’s talk about you wagging your finger in my in my head. That’s not okay.” You know, I was a I put myself through college by working at a hotel for a few years. And I remember very, very vividly a person who doesn’t look like me, coming up to the front desk, and she handing she took her key and put it in my hand, no, hello. No, no greetings. She just put her hand up, put her keys or car keys in my hand. And I dropped them. I literally just dropped them dramatically. And shegoes “Why did you do that?” And I said, “well, because I don’t know your hands have been.” And she just gave me the most disgusting look. And she says, “Well, you’re supposed to park my car.” And I said, Ma’am, I think I was was the caller. So I must have been 21/22. And I said, “Ma’am, good evening. My name is Robert. I am not the valet. But I would be more than happy to introduce you to the valet, who can park your car. My job is to make your job as hospitable as I possibly can. So I’d be more than happy to check you in. But before I check you in, would you mind just addressing me as Robert, can you give me that?” I couldn’t believe I said that, but I did. And she just looked at me like with the utmost disgust. And she says, “Robert check me in.” And I said, “I’d be more than happy to.” So that’s a little bit of the grace, a little bit of anger, I readily admit that I’ve been angry. But also a lot of a teaching, hopefully was a teaching moment for not at that moment because she was too angry. But hopefully, if she’s still alive, hopefully that’s a moment where she remember I remember it where she wouldn’t treat someone else that happens to look like me as the valet. So hoping to answer your question.

Audience member  52:50

Hi, my name. My name is Rachel Elliotts, I work in the public engagement with research team at the University. I’m also a bit of a politics geek. And you’ve mentioned that a few times this moral compass . And I think we can all agree, on both sides of the pond, that’s often missing in our political leaders, if you could to hear your reflections on working in Washington, how you think leadership can be improved in politics.

Dr Robert Traynham  53:17

Thank you for that question. So I my life is politics in many ways I stumbled upon it’s a long story of which I can tell you about but I stumbled upon politics. I wanted to be a doctor. And that is what’s your question, I believe firmly believe that politics is still public services. So very admirable, and honourable profession. I do believe that there’s some bad apples, I can give you dozens of bad, bad apples. But I believe that public service is so admirable profession. But I do believe that because of social media, because of the 24 hour news cycle, we are not as civil as we used to be. There’s a lot at least in America, there’s a lot of shouting, a lot of anger. Our previous president, unfortunately had a lot to do with that in many ways where he he exacerbated in my view. And so I think just slowing down and having a moral compass and doing what’s right when no one else is listening, or watching. We’re missing that in many ways. And, you know, I don’t know how you unring this bell, because it’s because there’s, I can give you 1000s of examples of social media that is doing the right thing in terms of building community in terms of connecting 1000s of examples, literally. But I could also give you 1000s of examples where it’s not working right? And I do believe that the Civility or lack thereof, is something that is sorely lacking, treating people with kindness. And by the way, showing up I do this all the time at my company. I don’t agree with this engineer who’s going to design x, y, but I respect you. And so let’s figure out how we can find some common ground in a way where we can both leave this conversation or this project both feeling really, really good. What does that look like? That’s work really hard work, right? Because I gotta listen. I gotta show up and listen to another person’s point of view that I may not agree with. I got to ask questions. And I have to have the ability and the grace to be able and the patience, and almost the vulnerability to allow myself to listen to someone who may fundamentally disagree with me, fundamentally disagree with me. And that’s awkward, right? So give me an example of this was probably the most uncomfortable thing that I’ve ever done. And I was working the United States Senate at the time, this was back in 98, or 99. Some of you probably weren’t even born then. And a bunch of individuals from the Ku Klux Klan came to the United States Senate. They didn’t have their hood or uniform on but they self identified. And they want to talk to some senators about I forget exactly what it was, I raised my hand. And I said, “I absolutely do not want to sit down and learn from these individuals. That’s not going to happen. So but I do want to go to the meeting. And I do want to listen.” So they said, “Are you sure” I said, “I’m absolutely sure. I’m absolutely sure. Trust me.” So I went to the meeting. And of course, I couldn’t help myself ask questions. That was probably the most uncomfortable time that I’ve ever had. But I only bring this up as an example is because it really did force me to have I don’t know if it was a dialogue that’s too strong of a word, but definitely have constructive communication with people that I just fundamentally disagree with. And I think that’s what we’re, we’re lacking, at least in the society.

Audience member  56:56

Good evening.  My name is Mike. I empathise your feeling about the only one on the bus and the hair and all the rest of of it, in Highlands I know exactly how that works. And my question for you is, I’ve had one experience with an organisation that was very strong on its values, and with them I spent a lot of time on change management, excuse me, how do you do you have a way of recognising what progress you’re making in developing the culture you’re talking about?

Dr Robert Traynham  57:30

Yeah, that’s a good question. So I go back to the feedback as much as we over-communicate in many ways. So the change, we change a lot, we have a saying called ‘move fast’. And I won’t say the rest. But it’s called it’s basically move fast. And so my point is that change management is incredibly hard, incredibly difficult. And the only way that I know how to do that is to over-communicate. And really just level by saying, by the way, for the next hour, it’s going to be bumpy. You know, just managing that expectation upfront, you have a say, we very much want to hear from you about with the direction that we’re going but I want to be really clear with you, I can guarantee you that this change is going to feel really, really uncomfortable. And so the good thing about at least some of the sector that I work in, that’s constant, we call it innovation. Because if you’re not innovating, you’re kind of dead in the water in many ways, fortunately, and I assumed as in the university environment, naturally curious people are comfortable with some change, not a lot. But naturally curious people are comfortable with with change. But to your point in scaling that. And managing that is incredibly difficult. incredibly difficult. The flip side, but some of you may know this, but in Silicon Valley, there’s a major major layoff right now going on all across the industry, that type of change is incredibly hard too  because you’re losing your job, you’re losing your identity for some people, and that’s incredibly, incredibly hard that I’m going through right now. Big time. Meaning it might mean I have well 11,000 My co workers at Meta, and I don’t know I think it’s like 5000 at Microsoft, there’s 10s of 1000s of this is happening as we as I speak. So thank you.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  59:20

So, we’ve come to time. But I do have one last question. I’d like to ask you. You’ve mentioned a few times tonight that you originally want to be a doctor. We’re in a medical school. You talked about our friend over here. Siri, yes, Siri. So what why? Why did you change?

Dr Robert Traynham  59:40

So I’ll be very brief with this. So you can tell this is very this was still it’s very important to me. So as a kid, I had achilles tendinitis. It’s a medical thing with how you grow really fast and your Achilles your bones grow faster than your muscles or your tissues. So I spent a lot of time with orthopaedic surgeons. And so I’ve just fascinated with Medicine, fascinated with medicine, I loved love being in the doctor’s office, not because I was in pain, I love just everything about it. So I was a pre med major in college for two semesters. And it may be really, really short with this unless you want to go further. But my this was  in the winter of 1993. Bill Clinton was just inaugurated President, my college professor at the time gave us an assignment where the best please write a memo to the president elect about in the first 100 days in office, how you would change the country. And I didn’t give it a lot of thought because I was a pre med major. So I wrote the memo, like the night before, she said the best one would be sent to the White House. So I didn’t give it a lot of thought I wrote it the night before. And a couple of days later, she made the announcement that my letter was going to be sent to the White House. Great, but I didn’t think much of it. And so a couple of months later, I got a call from the White House intern office, saying congratulations, we’d love for you to intern in the White House. And I said thank you very much, but I’m not interested. I actually want to be a doctor. And she said, We know that. But we would love you to intern in the White House medical office that’s like, Oh, that’s cool. I’ll do that. So I was so excited. And my parents came, my dad came home. And he I told him and he’s like, we can’t afford this. And I said, Okay, I’m a pretty cheerful optimistic guy. You could probably tell. I said, Okay, we wont do it. And then my mom’s like, No, we will do this, we’ll figure out a way. So fast forward, got to the White House. I was in the White House medical office for about a month and a half and loved every single moment of it. I just I loved it. I loved when the President would I would never meet him, but I would see his white hair. He would come in, they would take his blood. They would give him his allergy shots. And I just I loved every minute of it. And so I was asking questions. This is Robert Traynham, I ask questions. This is what I do. And so the White House, my my supervisor, the White House doctor called me in one day. And he said, “Robert, this is not working out.” I’m 18 years old. He said,” I really think this is not the right thing for you.” And I’m like, Okay, I’m 18 years old, and one of us will say to my to my boss. “So I want you to go across the street.” This was in the White House. There’s the White House. And there’s the old executive office with the old executive across the street, once you go across the street, and “I want you to sit down with the person, my colleague by the name of DD Myers.” DD Myers, at the time was the White House press secretary. I didn’t know that at the time because I was an idiot. So he said “I’m sorry that this didn’t work out. But perhaps maybe my colleague can help you out.” I went over to DD Myers office, I was thinking that I was getting fired and I thought she was the HR person. Nope, sorry, Debbie. And so I sat outside of her office, I knew she was important, because people were coming out in and out. I could see behind the door there was like all these banks of televisions, I knew she was important. I don’t know, she was the White House press secretary. So later on that afternoon, I was sitting there, which felt like hours, but I was sitting there for probably like 45 minutes, and she calls me. And she says, “I hear you’re pretty good.” Okay, I’m just sitting there, you know, she has this huge office, huge desk, and I’m on the other side of it. And I’m looking at it like, okay, and she said, “I want you to start tomorrow, Traynham in the White House Press Office. You get here at four o’clock in the morning.” This is 1993. “You get to the photocopier you clip because it’s called the clips. You clip all the newspapers, anything that mentioned President Clinton, I want you to highlight it, and I want you to photograph it and you need to make 75 copies. And they need to be on this desk by five o’clock in the morning.” Okay. I had no idea what this any this meant. So I remember walking home to the dormitory, George Washington University. I was staying on campus and I call my dad on the payphone. And I said, Dad, “I think I got promoted.” He goes “What? You’re an intern.” And I said, “Well, I think I got promoted to do the President’s clips.” He goes, “what is what is the President’s clips? Like?” I had no idea what this was. Anyway, I went to the White House Press Office did that for the remainder of the of the semester, loved every single moment of it. Loved it. And the feedback that I got was like, you asked really good questions around the presidential podium and where he should stand and I’m like, I didn’t even realise that was a thing. But I did ask those questions. And I actually made some recommendations. Kid, 18 years old, I was doing this stuff. So I went back to college that fall and I changed my major from pre med to political science. My parents who are watching were absolutely devastated. You would have thought that it was bad. It was really it was not a good time in my in my household. So I transferred in from MD to political science. My parents are still regretting that decision.

Professor Neil Vargesson FRSE  1:05:05

Well, I think Medicine’s loss was public communications game. Thank you very much.

Dr Robert Traynham  1:05:10

Thank you. Thank you appreciate it.

Sir John Ball FRSE  1:05:23

Was that was an hour that really flew by and I’m sure that we all took things from it. I certainly will about how we interact in our jobs and with people. So for me think again, Robert, and also Neil, for joining us. Thank you. Thank you all for coming online and your parents. Greetings from Scotland.

Dr Robert Traynham  1:05:57

Thanks very much.

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