She has been included as one of 100 Global Thought Leaders on Diversity and Inclusion by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) and was named one of the top twenty influential diversity leaders in the US by Diversity Woman Magazine. Her award-winning diversity leadership research is recognised in academic journals internationally. Lenora recently keynoted at the Inclusion Conferences in Cape Town, South Africa and in Tel Aviv, Israel to share best practices with leaders within business, government, education and NGO communities.
Billings-Harris co-authored TRAILBLAZERS: How Top Business Leaders are Accelerating Results through Inclusion and Diversity, and is the author of The Diversity Advantage: A Guide to Making Diversity Work, 3rd Ed. She is often an expert guest on TV and radio around the globe. She serves on the adjunct faculty of the business schools of Averett University and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Lenora is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), a past president of the National Speakers Association, and is the 2014 president of the Global Speakers Federation.
Before launching her business in 1986, she held management positions at two Fortune 100 companies and managed executive development seminars for the Graduate School of Business, University of Michigan.
What do you think the challenges are in building a more harmonious South Africa?
Lenora tells us that in her opinion, South Africa is challenged by the need to suffer its own pain instead of benefiting from other people’s experience. “Even though other countries have preceded them on their journey to true democracy, South Africa has to pave its own trail. This is not unusual, but my hope is that the journey will soon pick up its pace,” says Lenora. The good news, she says, is that there are so many people in various walks of life that want to assist in building a country that is economically strong and values all of its citizens regardless of colour, age, faith, etc.
Lenora continues by saying that the challenge and the opportunity is for South Africans to create a culture of inclusion. A way of being where all individuals are valued. “This is much easier said than done. However, the more people speak up and speak out in a way that seeks understanding, rather than dictating one right way, the sooner the country will grow and heal,” Lenora explains.
How do you and your organisation engage this process of change?
For Lenora, diversity and inclusion is a full-time focus, not just one topic among many. Whether through keynotes, workshops, or organisational consulting, Lenora partners with clients and communities to help them build effective relationships that leverage diversity in order to increase inclusion, employee engagement, customer satisfaction and bottom-line results. She creates a safe environment in which people can discuss sensitive topics such as racism, sexism, colourism, homophobia and other isms.
How do you see the way forward?
Lenora notes that the first step starts with willingness. Individuals must be willing to become more mindful of their own conscious and unconscious biases. Then be willing to change their behaviour in a way that creates a more open mind and willingness to work with and communicate with people different from themselves.
“Each of us sees the world through our own lenses. In other words, we all have our own point of view. We tend to think our point of view is the right one rather than just a point of view. Be willing to listen to others,” says Lenora.
Lenora continues, “Next, realise that there are mentors and sponsors all around you that want to help you succeed. Sponsors open doors for you when you’re not aware they are doing it because they see your potential before you do.” She urges South Africans to take advantage of those opportunities to stretch their thinking, grow and find solutions to the challenges we face in South Africa, whether they’re big or small.
Can you briefly name a few of the opportunities you had while growing up?
“Many of my opportunities in life came about due to sponsors that I did not know I had at the time. I am so grateful for their belief in my abilities,” says Lenora.
She mentions that one of the first people who come to mind is her third-grade teacher, Miss Jacobson, who believed in her potential and pushed her to do better and better. Lenora continues by saying, “Although education was always a strong value within my family, attending university was not in my vision during my younger years. No one in my immediate family had ever attended university.”
Lenora was surrounded by students who saw no choice but to go to university, which opened her eyes to the possibility. From then, Lenora studied hard to get good grades so she would be accepted to the university of her choice. She notes that education changed her life.
Any words of advice to those who feel as if all hope is lost?
Lenora concludes by saying, “As long as there is life, there is hope. Each time I see a baby smile, it reminds me of my responsibility to do what I can to make this place a better world one person at a time. Never give up hope, work hard, surround yourself with people from whom you can learn, and who can lift you up. Then always look for ways to pay it forward.”