My leadership journey started at home

My leadership journey started at home

Note: This article was first published at SmartBrief on Leadership.

Leaders come in different shapes, sizes and from different places. Not everyone came into the workplace, took a few management and leadership training programs, and then overcame the organizational quagmire to get ahead. Leaders also are not always located at the top of the organization. Having an executive title doesn’t necessarily qualify you to be a good leader.

Good leaders come from a multitude of places. Where you sit in your company, agency, firm, department or community does not dictate whether you can be a leader or not. I say this because I had the opportunity to learn about leadership early in my life. The best leaders that I have ever known were my parents.

You may read this and think, “How can someone who has spent over 30 years in corporate America and has seen literally hundreds of leaders come and go throughout her career say that the best leaders she knew were her parents? After all, she’s from a small steel mill town where her father was a teacher, principal, and administrator, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who didn’t even have a job.”

These things are all true. Throughout my career, I have worked with hundreds of leaders, some of them have been role models and mentors from whom I have learned much. However, my most impactful leadership lessons I learned from my parents.

My father was one of the first African American teachers and principals in western Pennsylvania during the late 1950s and 1960s, when civil rights was still in its infancy. It was a time characterized by major campaigns of civil resistance, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, producing crisis situations and dialogues between activists and government authorities.

His passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion was channeled through a fierce discipline and strong work ethic. He didn’t allow himself to be distracted, and he moved forward with his goals to strive for equal rights for himself, his students, and those teachers and administrators of color who were to come after him.

As the CEO of our family, he fought for the rights of his “employees” to make sure that the world we went out into was one where we were prepared to fight and endure any aspects of disparity that we encountered. Because his children went to a neighboring school district and not his own, he initiated meetings with our teachers, coaches, and any other administrators who he felt were not approaching their responsibility as leaders in an equitable fashion.

I never once saw my father raise his voice in any of these discussions, but he was very direct and clear in his expectations as it pertained to his children. He demonstrated some of the strongest traits of leadership: Inner strength and patience, self-confidence, a strong desire to drive change.

My mother was not a corporate executive. She did not start her own company. But she was one of the most formidable forces I have ever known. She was the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer, and the chief HR officer of one of the toughest organizations across many decades: our family household.

During those hard days when my father would come home and be tired from the continuous battle against inequities throughout the day, she would comfort him. She would also provide counsel and tell him that it was going to be all right. She would energize him because she knew that when he left the house the next day, he needed to be armed and ready to fight yet again.

As the CFO, she made sure that the organization had sufficient funds to operate. My father came home and gave the check to my mother. She made sure it was spread out so she could pay the bills, put food on the table, and clothes on our backs. As the CHRO, she made sure that all employees were working together well. She conducted ongoing performance reviews of her five children on a daily basis, providing creative and effective “feedback” to ensure optimal performance.

My mother led with skills of empathy, results orientation, and efficiency while creating an environment of psychological safety for all of us.

So, you can see, I may have come from a small town, but I was surrounded by leaders who were role models for the type of person I aspired to be. They both exemplified very critical leadership skills: empathy, results orientation, efficiency, Inner strength and patience, self-confidence, a strong desire to drive change.

What it means to lead D&I

As leader of a global diversity and inclusion organization, the attributes demonstrated by my father and mother are extremely important. It’s important to have inner strength to be able to push the D&I agenda forward in organizations in the face of adversity and competing priorities.

Many times, a heavy hand wrapped around a bullhorn in loud protest is not always the answer. Often, it is best to listen with empathy and to seek to understand the adversity and the obstacle, and then whittle away at it until everyone is working together to drive change.

Patience is critical because, when we talk about global diversity and inclusion, we are talking about changing cultures and behaviors. Organizational change does not happen overnight. It takes perseverance to plot a course and every day, stay the course until your results are achieved.

Self-confidence is important because not everyone is going to believe in your vision as a D&I leader. There are always those who will question you and pick apart your ideas and solutions, but if you have confidence, you will be able to continue to move your vision forward.

Finally, both my parents had an abundance of faith which they instilled in me. Faith is a very important foundation for the work in diversity, equity, and inclusion — faith that your journey will end in success. Because it’s not about you. It’s about the employees who are counting on you to create a culture where all can feel valued, engaged, and empowered to succeed.

Learning from the past to impact our future

Learning from the past to impact our future

On May 25, 2020, many people’s paradigms shifted. For many, there was a realization that many people did not have the same experiences as they had. They realized that in some communities, life had handed down some harsh realities that seemed unfair and unjust.  

For others, it was not something new. It was simply a replay of events that had plagued family members, friends, and colleagues in their community for decades and in some cases for centuries. The inequities they had been experiencing were exposed, raw and unfiltered for the world to see.  

While this singular event involved the death of George Floyd, an African American man at the hands of a police officer, it was just a punctuation on events happening across various groups of people worldwide:  The xenophobia and hate crimes inflicted on Asians, the homophobia against the LGBTQ+ community, the disparity and violence against women, the indifference shown to persons with disabilities and Native American and Indigeneous peoples, the isolation of those of different faiths.

Over the last year, we have seen the conversations of diversity and inclusion move from the water coolers, cafeteria tables, and back stairwells, to the offices, conference rooms, and the board rooms. 

Our company is a microcosm of the world around us. The convergence of different beliefs, ideals, and value systems is at an all-time high and the “employee awakening” that has happened forces us to look at ourselves and make change…sustaining, long lasting change.

I believe we have taken a hard look over the past year at our organization, what we were doing well and where we needed to improve and this has shaped our future work in diversity and inclusion.

We had just rolled out the new evolution of the company’s GD&I strategy in January 2020 and were implementing the priorities outlined in the strategy: increasing the representation of employees within the organization, ensuring accountability to drive an inclusive culture, continuing to leverage diversity & inclusion to ensure business value and working to transform the external environment, culture, and business landscape.  The events of last year helped to confirm our belief that diversity and inclusion would be growing in importance over the next few years.

Our company has made continuing strides to ensure we are prepared for the future.  We have taken a close look at the past year and have grown.  

We counteracted the distancing across borders, organizations, and individuals with a focus on inclusion, leveraging the pulse surveys to determine where we needed to focus our efforts for ongoing change.   We introduced Bold, Inclusive Conversations to management teams and employees to ensure that we had a framework for engaging in productive dialogue on issues impacting the workplace.  

We have made collective statements of solidarity and made efforts to learn more about diversity, equity, and inclusion.  We have become allies to all, joined Employee Business Resource Groups, and worked to understand those who look different from us.

Our leaders focused on capabilities to help them to lead in a much more dynamic work environment with more engaged and empowered employees.

We re-emphasized the need to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion were foundational cornerstones of the company.  We knew that our investors, shareholders, employees were demanding more from companies in the way of social and people responsibility.  

Moving to a virtual environment enabled us to participate in diversity and inclusion events from all over the globe.  We saw employees engaging in webinars, Webex meetings, Microsoft team events, and Zoom calls to learn more about diversity and inclusion.  

We know that this past year has been an unprecedented time of change, but we have taken a hard look at ourselves. We are learning from the past year to mobilize the organization, prolong the passion, and ensure lasting change.