If I could be you, if you could be me for just one hour
If we could find a way to get inside each other’s mind
If you could see you through my eyes instead of your ego
I believe you’d be surprised to see that you’d been blind
That’s from the start of Joe South’s 1970 hit song Walk a Mile in My Shoes, later immortalized by Elvis Presley as a cover. The song is about discrimination and empathy, and it resonates strongly today with comments made by Bernard J. Tyson, Chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, who was interviewed by Fortune Magazine’s Ellen McGirt at Dreamforce ‘18.
Kaiser Permanente is one of the nation’s largest nonprofit health plans, serving 12.2 million members. Tyson has worked at the organization for 34 years, becoming CEO in 2013 and Chairman in 2014. He also joined the board of Salesforce in 2017.
During the interview, Tyson discussed the importance of distinguishing between equity and equality, and how important it is for people to recognize differences between people if you want to serve them better.
“Treating people equally is just table stakes, right?” he said. “But that’s not the real issue here. It’s equity. Because equal means everybody gets the same. Equity means everybody gets what they need.”
Tyson got an early understanding of these issues after seeing how his chronically ill mother experienced the U.S. healthcare system compared to others who were less fortunate.
“Because the doctor was always there for her — and the doctor was always there for us — then I assumed that everybody had that. Then I discovered that that’s not the case, which led me to one of my passions, which is disparities of care and the inequity of the healthcare system in our country, where people are not getting equal access and equitable care.”
Kaiser Permanente recently invested $200 million through its Thriving Communities Fund to help address housing stability and homelessness in the U.S. This was based on the belief that improving health outcomes starts with providing extra support to those stuck in cycles of poverty — often due to a lack of access to credit, health services, and other support — and communities lacking social support services.
“We are very clear that we believe in total health,” Tyson said. “And we think that total health and how we all ought to think about health today is not just from a medical standpoint. It’s about all the pieces that makes up a person’s life: where you live, how you eat. Do you exist in communities where there’s recreation? Are you safe? Are you employed?”
He stressed that the fund was an investment program, and added that he believed public-private partnerships are a good mechanism for business to provide social support.
“This is not a giveaway program, a social program,” Tyson said. “Some of the investments have a return that we then can return back into the communities.”
Tyson is also passionate about changing the mental maps that individuals use — knowingly or not — to interpret the world around them. These are regularly inaccurate or incomplete, which can lead to racial discrimination and other problems.
At Dreamforce ‘18, Bernard J Tyson spoke at the Equality Summit, sharing his views on the difference between equality and equity.
He described his own experience of failing to gel with an older, white senior colleague who acknowledged that he didn’t know how to relate to him as an African American executive.
“What he painted for me was a picture of when a person just doesn’t have a roadmap for relating to someone. And that roadmap that you’re on has a set of theories and hypotheses based on some history that doesn’t reflect the person who’s in front of me,” he said.
“Then you have this individual like Bernard Tyson who shows up. He’s qualified to run a hospital, and you don’t have a mental map about how to relate to that person.”
Kaiser Permanente is making an awareness of individuals’ needs and differences — which Tyson refers to as “nuances” — part of its service delivery model.
“What we pay attention to as an organization … is what I call the nuances,” he said. “It is the nuances that make all the difference in the world.
“That’s why we have, for example, blood pressure checks in local barbershops. That’s a community setting that we can go in with credibility and teach African American men, for example, about prostate cancer testing and things that you may not be as comfortable with in another environment.”
Tyson also believes it’s vital for leaders to promote openness and a culture of free speech within their organizations.
“I tell people all the time when they come into my office or the boardroom that, ‘You have a freedom to speak what is on your mind,’” he said.
“I promote that with my leadership team. Sometimes, they speak up too much, but I respect it, and it’s a great way to have transparency and an authentic relationship.”
He added that CEOs and other leaders should also be prepared to speak up on social issues — especially today, when society and the economy are changing so quickly.
“I don’t put myself out there on every issue,” he said. “That’s not what my board expects of me. That’s not what the organization has hired me to do.
“But I think to sit silent in the 21st century — in which the narratives are moving very quickly and opinions are being formed and policy is being made, to sit on an island and not speak up and speak out in the interest of stakeholders who depend on major companies across the nation — I think we’re missing our obligation.
“These are issues of the 21st century that are now on our collective watch. And the question is, what are we going to do about it?”
Watch the full interview with Bernard J. Tyson at Dreamforce ‘18 here.