Dr. Ted Sun of Transcontinental University: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Ted Sun.
The abundance of passion, integrity, and innovation is how many have described Dr. Sun after working with him over the past 2 decades. Leveraging his two doctorate degrees, one in psychology and another in business management, Dr. Sun is the founder and President at Transcontinental University in Ohio and Transcontinental Institute of Higher Education in the European Union. This university is a revolution in professional development, that takes the best practices from consulting and education to fundamentally improve leadership teams. Especially in the DE&I space, its programs enable lasting systemic results unlike anything else in the marketplace.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I came to the US at the age of 10 with my parents, and without a single word of English in my vocabulary. We didn’t have anything when we landed, and lived in the slums of Brooklyn, NY. While my parents were working mostly, I was forced to develop street smarts the hard way. Everyday, I walked to school and was picked on by various neighborhood kids from different ethnic groups. In school, I got into a number of fights while trying to figure out who I was in the midst of many immigrants and being one of only two Chinese kids in the school.
At 13, my parents moved us to Columbus, Ohio, where I learned that I didn’t have to use a dirty word in every sentence. While being good in maths and sciences with horrible dislike for reading, I graduated from The Ohio State University with a Bachelor’s of science in Mechanical Engineering with honors. I continued my studies to finish my MBA in 2000 at OSU, my first doctorate in Management in 2004, and my second doctorate in Psychology in 2011.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Soul’s Code by James Hillman taught me a lot about who I was and the spiritual journey to finding my purpose. This was one of the required readings in my first doctorate. It taught me a lot about finding one’s calling no matter what life presented. The book illustrated many powerful and successful people who found their calling. Growing up, I was a bit lost from the amount of discrimination I had experienced. As an engineer, I initially wanted to solve the world’s most challenging problems. Later in my engineering career, I learned that I needed a solid team to do that, which is what drove me to get the MBA. Once I got the MBA, I wanted to be a great manager that led a team to solve the world’s most challenging problems. I quickly realized that the MBA wasn’t enough, which is what led me to pursue my first doctorate in Management. Within the first few courses, I realized my passion for teaching and the desire to change the world in education. It also showed me what I didn’t know, that I didn’t know. That led me to completing a second doctorate in Psychology. The Soul’s Code guided me to find my calling/purpose for life. As I found more clarity in this calling, each step I took was shaped strategically towards that purpose, which led to eventually creating my own university with the first ever Executive MBA in Inclusive Leadership.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Learning is the responsibility of the individual. Books, courses, videos only present new information, nothing more. Take time to apply each and every day to feel alive, achieve success, and be humbled.
This quote reflects everything that I do, whether I’m leading a consulting project or an academic degree. Countless people are paying money and spending time on new information, but most are never taught how to learn to improve themselves systemically. As a result, we have a world full of people running around with hollow certificates. I am frustrated and sad to see the amount of people with certificates on various topics who are harming others with the lack of actual knowledge or skills that makes a positive difference. There’s ample science to help those in the education industry to transform their approach, but very few take the time to do it. Even at the university level, where they are implementing neuroscience of learning as a piece of content, the approach to transferring that information never changes. Great content simply becomes forgotten information.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is a balance between stakeholder needs and helping people, teams, and organizations realize their potential through empowered approaches. Leadership is never a duality such as a bottle is half empty or half full, but getting rid of the plastic that limits the boundaries of the water inside. It’s about always expanding the potential of people as they know it, not just reaching it and being satisfied. Leadership is applying systems thinking to create a better game that everyone wins, within the multiple intelligences of the individual, the dynamics of team projects, and the sustained successes of learning at the organizational level.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I tend to take stress at different levels of intelligence. Before a high stakes meeting, talk, or decision, I start at the life purpose level (spiritual intelligence). I reflect on questions like: How does this event fit within my purpose in life? What can it teach me? Is who I am enough to achieve success? This often sets me to see that, no matter what happens, if it’s meant to be, it will happen. And maybe it may not at the time frame that I wish it to be from a mental perspective, but it will if it’s meant to…
Then I go to the emotional side and explore the emotions I’m feeling. With any high stakes event, multiple emotions are flowing through from negative ones, such as anxiety and nervousness, to positive ones, such as excitement and inspiration. Recognizing the emotions and finding a productive way to channel those emotions is key to minimizing negative stressors. I often start high stakes meetings or talks with an emotional target in mind. This emotional target is something I would want everyone involved to feel as they’re logically going through the thoughts. Emotions are what people make decisions on, for the most part, and too many people get trapped with their logic. Leveraging my own emotions to create a team emotional state is a very powerful way to maximize control and reduce stress.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Our crisis comes from a system of events that drove the current reality. First, let’s start with capitalism — this is our society.
- We have a medical system that’s driven by capitalism, so focuses at treating symptoms only with medications. Never addressing the root issue to create healthier people (less profitable) is the root cause for much of the pandemic. We often do not find the root cause of problems and want the quick fix. In the case of the pandemic, testing for the virus was a major problem, since we could not manufacture enough test kits for months.
- To add to the issue, our education system does not develop leaders who seek to prevent problems. Most teach people how to solve problems, which requires problems to happen first. For example, most business schools give students cases on a piece of paper. People solve problems in theory, while no one in the real world would hand you a problem on a piece of paper. Problem solving is profitable and secures jobs.
- The pandemic kept many people inside with limited contact. People were dying to get out of the house. With all the caged energy, both emotionally and psychologically, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis simply lit the fuel on that caged energy. It gave people something to be passionate about and get out of the house for something they believe in. In the midst of that is a highly polarized election.
- Adding more fuel to the fire: the media is another entity within the capitalistic system that seeks to get as much attention as possible. It’s coverage made every aspect of the news much worse than it is, such as the amount of violence at Black Lives Matter protects, or police shootings.
- ESG scores are being considered for all companies in order to stay on the stock market. This is another huge game changer that’s highly profitable, but only touches a few high level metrics, rather than many systemic metrics. This drove companies to take action on race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. Unfortunately, most people in this field mean well, but they don’t have many examples or experiences in inclusive leadership. As a result, they make mistakes such as what Coca Cola did with their “be less white” diversity training.
- The final system that’s creating the problem is the number of organizations selling surface level training in the DEI field. Countless organizations are using an approach that rarely produces sustained changes. Whether it’s once a year diversity videos or a few months course, one-time events make little impact on systemic racism. On top of that, systemic racism isn’t just about the people that need development, but also needs changes in the system, such as the performance management system.
Many people are asking for systemic change, but most simply don’t know what it is. No one consciously develops systems thinking for any of this to happen. Most are stuck playing a game that they will never win; what we need is for more leaders to know how to create a system that allows all to thrive in businesses.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I’ve been working with diversity and inclusion for well over a decade. From a diversity perspective, my values research has been published in various mediums, from a book to various academic journals. Diversity is about seeking a deeper understanding of people from a values and beliefs perspective, not just at the surface behaviorist level. I’ve also launched various educational programs to reach disadvantaged populations, like in developing nations like Ghana, Africa, or Myanmar, Asia. This required cost adjustments to make it accessible and curriculum adjustments to meet the unique needs of a given group. We are currently working with a few organizations on their DEI initiatives by developing a truly shared values system, developing their leaders with systemic thought, and designing inclusive processes from inclusive meeting agendas/management to performance management systems. For many organizations, those in charge of diversity, equity, and inclusion are simply operating with quotas and certification training. One could only celebrate the diversity hotline magnet that was visible in all of its physical locations. Yet, 0 calls were received after a few months.
Sadly enough, many people taking on this new role are struggling to understand how to address systemic racism and creating an inclusive culture. Our work leads directly towards systems and processes that address this. In one organization, they didn’t have any metrics for inclusion. We helped them create a metric — ideas per employee — and then guided them through an inclusive approach to innovation. By the end of three months, they achieved 1.254 ideas per employee, which meant that all of their employees were engaging in innovation creation. Inclusion was now a fabric of the innovation process. This showed them what inclusive leadership looks like from a systemic perspective and they began to apply it to other systems, such as performance management and hiring systems.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
All organizations want to be innovative. This comes from the diversity of ideas that comes from executive teams who have different experiences, values, and beliefs. If an executive team is too similar in their thinking, the in-breeding of ideas could easily miss many opportunities that may be out there. The executive team would simply be blind to perceiving these opportunities. I have seen many organizations with all kinds of executive teams. Often, the most effective and innovative executive teams, who are capable of leading a diverse workforce, are those with different perspectives, backgrounds, cultures, gender, etc.
The key, of course, is knowing how to work with the diversity of ideas from different people. This is a skill that can be developed over time. What cannot be trained are the values, passions, and life experiences that offer unique perspectives. This is why a diverse executive team can be extremely powerful, especially in the global economy.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
This is a huge challenge, especially as we look at the society perspective. In many of my conversations and presentations, I speak to the need to move humanity forward from a peaceful perspective. I have developed the approach below, which is being used in consulting and educational engagements. The first three steps are individual level developments, while the final two are organizational systems.
Step 1 — Self-awareness: Knowing one’s core values and beliefs is the starting point to leading an inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society. Without self-awareness, it’s easy to get pulled into a group and lose your own identity. As a species, we want to know that we matter, that our ideas are heard, and that each individual has value that others appreciate. I’ve asked executives from all around the world to write down their top 5 values as a development activity. It always takes 5 to 10 minutes for most to write down those 5 words in order of priority. Those who are confident in who they are do it in less than a minute. They know who they are and can sustain leadership regardless of situations. More importantly, when they know that their voice is heard, their confidence allows them to be inclusive. As long as the individual still has a need to be heard by others, being inclusive is only a shadow to speaking at others.
Step 2 — Healthy perceptions: The starting point of decisions is the perception of reality. To create any type of equity, one must have a healthy perception that does not place people into simple buckets with abundant assumptions about that group. For example, an analysis of one company’s performance reviews noted that numerous females in the organization were not interested in advancement to the highest levels of the organization. When asked if it was explicitly stated, most managers could not recall. This is a clear form of unconscious bias created from perceptions of females. After working with the management over a few months, they learned to not note these preferences unless the employee specifically stated it. The result was only 1 female employee explicitly stating this. This illustrated the unconscious bias that many managers had that assumed certain characteristics of female employees. The development of healthy perceptions is part of our belief systems. Our beliefs about gender, race, nationality, culture, education, etc. are loaded with numerous assumptions that are often false. Before any thinking happens about a given situation, healthy perceptions require us to not make assumptions about any individual and create equity in the approach.
Step 3 — Balanced thought process capable of integrating systemic perspectives: Once a leader can perceive people with an open mind, systemic thought process is part of the development. Human beings have multiple intelligences, including analytical intelligence (IQ), emotional intelligence (EQ), spiritual intelligence (SQ), and a few others. Often, people make decisions about a situation based on their emotions and use logic to justify the decision. This is performed by what’s called the left-brain interpreter, whose function is to make us feel like we are in control of our decisions and they make logical sense. Even in the most absurd of decisions, a person is capable of making up the “right” reasons for a decision. Neuroscience has proven this with various experiments. The key to being inclusive requires a solid understanding of how the intelligences work together within the individual and how the brain integrates multiple perspectives of any given situation and forecasts future outcomes using multiple perspectives. For example, the current reality of quotas in organizations to create representativeness alone is challenging. When looking at it from a systemic perspective, one has to consider a few key points. Why would a certain minority want to go work at an employer when they don’t have anyone that looks like them, thinks like them, and makes different choices? If an individual gets hired to meet a quota, how will the individual fit in, when many of the existing employees see the new employee being paid more than what they are being paid? How will the new employee be included in many decisions and daily tasks? Questions about development, mentoring, and promotion further complicate matters. A leader who’s capable of systemic integration would be able to see the various challenges and mitigate problems before they occur. That leader would create the inclusive and equitable processes and systems in daily practices because it is the right thing to do.
The above three steps require individual development that takes at least 6 months to a few years to master. These steps cannot be trained in some generic courses. This is one of the reasons for creating an entire MBA curriculum around inclusive leadership.
Step 4 — Inclusive decision-making system: The 4th and 5th steps in creating an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society looks at the system, or the rules of the game. Business and life is much like an infinite game. There are no endpoints in the infinite game, but a continuous cycle of learning when done properly. Most games in business are designed for control. This is where systemic racism resides — in the game that’s created by those in power. Within our society, the minute a child enters into the school system, they are trained to conform to authority. Early on, the teachers determine the worth of the child based on grades. In college, the professors do the same with greater authority over our youth. All of the training from kindergarten to university creates a subservient employee who does not know what it’s like to be included. In the game of business, the workplace could be a game where everyone is rewarded from personalized emotional pay. This game can inspire every person to be their best and provide equitable support at the individual level so everyone has the same chance to succeed.
As we’re screaming for an inclusive and equitable society, there are very limited examples for people to learn from. An inclusive decision-making system requires a consistent approach to gathering input from various stakeholders. For example, every organization has meetings. Meeting agendas are usually created ahead of time to keep organized; some are written while others are informal within the mind of the manager. Why isn’t the agenda creation an inclusive process? Very few people have even thought of this. Within an inclusive process, agendas are created by all those involved in the meeting. It would also require people to come to the meetings with contributing ideas. During the meeting, specific processes are in place so that every individual, no matter their race, gender, etc. has room to share their thoughts on all agenda items. This does not happen by some generic training or how good a manager is. A system can be implemented into an entire organization so that people are playing the game as it is designed to be inclusive.
Step 5 — Performance management system: The performance management system was designed to maximize performance for compensation. Unfortunately, the use of latent metrics once a year fails to develop desired behaviors that perpetuate success. Performance management systems can be designed to guide human behavior if timely feedback loops are present. For example, when team leaders gather input from their entire team before making a decision, they can be rewarded emotionally for being inclusive. This requires inclusive metrics, like ideas per employee on a weekly basis. Since human beings usually form habits in under a month (varies by frequency of action), creating metrics that guide people to behave in the desired way is a proactive approach to creating an inclusive climate. The same system would also have varying emotional “shocks” when people go outside of the desired behaviors. Equity can easily be created in this system only by looking at the individual’s performance. This way, individuals with greater need get the support they need to be successful from a learning system, and not be ignored or marginalized because of a demographic characteristic. A true performance management system always provides timely feedback and is highly integrated with a learning system that offers personalized support for success.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Yes, we are working to develop and make an impact. As more and more people learn what systems thinking is, they can develop the competency to design systems that are inclusive and equitable. With the first ever Executive MBA in Inclusive leadership that takes people through an entire 14 months of development, we hope to make that impact with key leaders in various industries from school districts to police departments, from small businesses to large corporations, from community organizations to governments. As a race, we cannot afford to not be inclusive and begin tribal warfare with one another based on false perceptions and limiting thought processes.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
This is a huge question that cannot be done with just one name. And depending on which part of the world, I have a few answers for this one.
- Dr. Jill Biden — a private meeting to discuss policies for higher education that would transform how we lead the world with a much more empowering system of higher education, than the current one dominated by tenured professors and political administrations. Dr. Biden’s influence on educational policy will carry significant weight. I would like to show her how to create a university based on inclusive education, not continue one based on conformity.
- Tim Cook — CEO of Apple — a meeting to discuss the systemic development of leaders who are capable of preventing problems. The integrative and inclusive education leverages Apple technology across the world. With the support of Apple, a larger global audience enables larger systemic impact for a better world.
- Sheryl Sandberg — COO of Facebook — a meeting to obtain the support of Facebook in two areas. First would be to help shape inclusive leadership in creating rewards for engagement. Since Facebook has a significant user population, getting their customer base to engage in a game where inclusive habits are developed by design is very doable. This way, Facebook users would play the game, get rewarded for being inclusive, and eventually we would develop inclusive habits for the millions of users, and they wouldn’t even know it happened. Secondly, I would discuss how facebook could help to build more meaningful relationships through communal learning, rather than countless meaningless friends. The conventional norm sees education as a very isolated activity that’s controlled by the teacher or professor and is guided with some information media. For the human brain to learn effectively, a communal and practical approach would get people to apply new information, which develops sustained knowledge and skills.
- Jack Ma — Founder of the Alibaba group — a meeting to discuss how to create a university that’s built to create leaders systemically. Being a self-made leader who has a passion to give back, Jack has already created his own university. I would love to help him design the university to be more empowering, leveraging the development of multiple intelligences.
How can our readers follow you online?
The easiest is with articles/podcasts on our university website: Executive Insights — Make Powerful Changes — Transcontinental University (tc-university.org)
Or LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr2tedsun/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!