LaTonya Wilkins, Founder of The Change Coaches, Latonya, and her team, build cultures of belonging through customized coaching and consulting services.
A sought-after keynote speaker, she has inspired audiences all over the world, and was featured on a list of most inclusive HR influences in 2019. Her book, Leading Below the Surface, features her revolutionary signature concept of ‘Below the Surface Leadership.’ About creating psychologically safe relationships across differences, and empowering underrepresented employees to feel valued, heard, and engaged.
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“It’s not diversity and inclusion. It has never been anything separate. If an organization is trying to make it separate, I question what they’re trying to do there. It’s really a part of culture. It’s really a part of how you develop people. It’s really part of structures and systems on how you run your organization?”
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Why You Should Lead Below The Surface
Daniel: But one thing I can say I know about you since you listened to the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast is that you’re a Ruckus Maker, an out of the box leader making change happen in education. Whoa, do I have a Ruckus Maker for you today? A new colleague and friend of mine, LaTonya Wilkins, is certainly causing a ruckus in our conversation. She’s going to challenge you to do things that you’re not going to be potentially ready to do. I encourage you to step into the space and apply some of the wisdom that she shares with you in today’s episode. One of those things being, throw out the agenda. Whoa, what’s that all about? You’re going to hear it in the conversation today. She’s also going to challenge a number of leadership archetypes and share why she hates diversity, equity and inclusion. You want to hear every minute of this episode, believe me. Hey, it’s Danny, and welcome to the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast. Like I said, a show for Ruckus makers. I want to take a second to say thanks. This show has experienced incredible success, and the majority of the reason is because of you, the loyal listener who has subscribed, who has shared with his or her friends, who has left a rating and review and loyally listened. Time and time out. That means so much to me. It’s actually hard for me to express myself with words. So thank you. Thank you for listening to all these hundreds of episodes and for all these years since 2015. And with that being said, let’s get in a message from our show sponsors and we’ll be over to the conversation right after this. Learn how to develop your skills to identify challenges, incorporate and support innovation and plan and drive school improvement in Leading Schools. Strategy and Innovation. A Certificate in School Management and Leadership Course from Harvard Leading School Strategy and Innovation runs from October 12th to November 9th, 2020 to apply by September 30th. Enroll by October 6th. Get started at betterleadersbetterschools.com/Harvard. Are you automatically tracking online student participation data during COVID? Innovative school leaders across the country have started tracking online student participation using Teacher FX because it’s one of the most powerful ways to improve student outcomes during COVID, especially for English learners and students of color. Learn more about teacher facts and get a special offer at TeachFx.com/BLBS. All students have an opportunity to succeed with Organized Binder, who equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning, whether that’s in a distance, hybrid or traditional educational setting. Learn more at organizedbinder.com.
Daniel: I am excited to have the founder of the Change Coaches, LaTonya Wilkins on today’s show. Now LaTonya and her team build cultures of belonging through customized coaching and consulting services. She’s a sought after keynote speaker, and has inspired audiences all over the world. It was featured on a list of most inclusive Our Influences in 2019. Her book, Lead and Below the Surface, features her revolutionary signature concept of Below the Surface leadership about creating psychologically safe relationships across differences and empowering underrepresented employees to feel valued, heard and engaged. Welcome to the show.
LaTonya: I’m so excited to be here, Danny.
Daniel: I know my cheeks are red. I’m blushing, so I’m excited you’re here, too. If you can’t tell, we’re going to jump right into a topic. This is going to blow people’s minds. But you say you hate diversity, equity and inclusion.
LaTonya: I do. Yeah, I do. Before I started Change Coaches, I spent a great deal of time in corporations. When I was doing that, I was mainly leading leadership development, development and talent teams. What I found is when we worked with diversity, equity and inclusion, which was pretty much all the time, we would partner with them. We’d make sure that they had the tools that they needed for that department. But that unit really never helped us. They didn’t help someone like me and they didn’t help other people similar to me. If you’re looking at me, I’m different and they’re intersectional. A lot of the times what I found is when I heard diversity, equity and inclusion, it was more of a bragging right for a company and more of a surface thing for a company to say that they did it more so than the actual work that was happening and employees agreeing that that work was going on. I’ve always hated it because I think it’s code for what I call surface leadership and surface organizational culture where, “Hey, we care about these things. But if you ask five people who are “diverse” what their experiences are, most of them will say that they don’t feel that the company actually cares about diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Daniel: One way to be reflected back, would you agree? It’s like a checkbox. “Hey, we did it. We could put it on the website, say we care versus the real work. Tell me a little bit more , middle aged white guy. I have different experiences than you. Can you give me more about why it didn’t work for you? What were some of the misses?
LaTonya: A couple of my identities for those that can’t see me. I’m a black woman, I identify as a woman. I am queer. Identify as queer. I am married to a woman. I actually am. I have other visible identities where I don’t look like other black women in the organization and my own unique person like we all are. I think what happens is people from these schemas of what it’s supposed to be and that’s the misses. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for it to be intersectional, to be an intersectional employee and be accepted for your identities. There wasn’t psychological safety around that. Even in one organization we had employee resource groups and they were trying to be better. But the issue with those employee resource groups is that it’s part of the black way. I was part of the LGBTQ one as part of the women’s groups, but whenever I go to those, it was almost like, which door should I go in today? When I entered that door, I left my other identities at the front door of those within those organizations. The one thing is there’s not a lot of room for intersectional identities, there’s not a lot of psychological safety when you look different and when people experience you differently. I would say that’s the second and the third. It’s still extremely stereotypical where diversity and inclusion really means, “Okay, let’s go hire some black people or let’s go hire some brown people.” But when you actually get inside, there’s nothing’s different. It’s just that you brought these people in. But the workplace is no different than it was before.
Daniel: I’ve heard that on the podcast before and in some respects. Some people now identify this as an issue. They make some key hires, but they haven’t thought through them. Now what? Because nothing else has changed within the organization. I think it’d be great. I’d love to invite you to tell me a bit about how you are changing the game when it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion? It’s a big question, but maybe what excites you most about that work and how you’re changing it?
LaTonya: A couple of things change. Coaches, we call ourselves a leadership development and culture firm, so that’s the first thing that’s changing the game. It’s not diversity and inclusion has never been anything separate and I don’t. And if an organization is trying to make it separate, I question what they’re trying to do there, it’s really a part of culture, it’s really a part of how you develop people. It’s really part of structures and systems like how do you run your organization? Like what do your hiring processes look like? So that’s the difference is like again, we call ourselves a different type of firm, we call yourself a culture firm and all those things are under the big structure of culture. Another way that I’m changing it is so one of the stories I talk about a lot is my grandmother and she we had her till she was 93. Such a big light. She migrated from Jackson, Mississippi, to the to Des Moines, Iowa, where I grew up because of Jim Crow laws, my mother refusing to drink from a colored fountain. The reason why I’m telling you the story about my grandmother, it was magical who she was, because even though she had all those situations happen to her, all those challenges, all that adversity, she was still amazing at building real relationships with people who are different from her. She was good at that. I learned that through her. A lot of people in my family learned that through her. And guess what? That’s what organizations skip. They want to give you a checklist. They want to give you checkboxes, but then they want to say, “Okay, we have to get our structures and systems in place. Yeah, those things are important and you have to build real relationships with people who are different from you.” You can’t do really one without the other and be successful. And that’s the magic sauce that’s missing from all of this stuff.
Daniel: I love school leaders and I’m in a bunch of Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter chats and see what people talk about. It’s interesting that leaders or organizations want to skip that piece in. I’d love to hear why you think that is. Is it because it’s hard, because it’s messy, or because it takes long, that it can’t be necessarily just a checklist like, yeah, why did they skip?
LaTonya: There’s a couple that I’ll address today.When you talk about school leaders, I think the issue is with school leaders having real empathy instead of sympathy. There’s a huge difference between those two kinds. Empathy is meeting people at the level that they are walking a day in their shoes. Sympathies like, “Oh my gosh, I feel sorry for these people. I got to improve this school for them.” So there’s a big difference. I think that the first difference is that people kind of get on the sympathy train where they’re trying to fix things or save things when sometimes you just need to be in it. I think the second piece is fear. There’s a study that was done, Danny, a few years ago that said that the average American only has one. They only have one friend of a different race, which is really interesting. Obviously, people of color, we have multiple friends of different races. My wife is Latina. I think with people of color, we tend to have more people in our communities that are different races. But I think with that fear, that is the world unfortunately, as you become more fearful and people are afraid because they don’t want to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing, but it’s not even about that. Again, it’s just going back to the empathy piece and just sitting there, getting to know people, listening to them, accessing their experiences, accessing empathy for them, doing some real listening with them. Yeah, those are the two things that are holding us back.
Daniel: Do you have, like an empathy exercise that’s a go to for you or sort of like an empathy tool that you’d like to offer to the Ruckus Maker listening. So they’re hearing this like, okay, I want to walk shoes.
LaTonya: Below the surface, I talk about listening. I talk about two different ways of listening that can help you access empathy. And why I talk about that really resonates with a lot of folks, especially leaders is what I call personal belonging, listening. School leaders, instead of going, I’m sure you’re used to going into a meeting with an agenda, making sure that you have control of it, making sure that you stay on schedule, making sure that everybody is in their right spots. But instead of doing that I know this is going to make you anxious, but throw out that agenda and instead listen to the room, listen through multiple senses, through your eyes, through your ears. There are other things, other ways. And what I mean by listening is listening also through observing and like I said, through your eyes and your ears. When you’re listening through observing, you can access empathy because you could see a lot of different things. You could see a lot more. If you’re standing up on top of the house and looking down, there’s a lot more you could see than when you’re in the house. And so some of the things that you could see is who’s talking the most, who seems out of sorts, who’s quiet, you know, who has the power in the room, who do people seem to defer to? And if you could do that, then you’re going to have a newfound sense of empathy and just mainly also just awareness around what’s going on with your team.You can’t do that if you go in with an agenda. Try to contrast that with the traditional ways where we try to have empathy and it’s you go into a meeting or you do a one on one with someone and you try to you’re trying to listen to them. A way you could do it. People suck at it, but that’s a way that you could do it. What you’re not getting there is you’re not able to observe what’s really going on in the room. Someone might answer a question and say it’s because they think they know how they’re feeling, but when you observe, that’s so much more powerful.
Daniel: That makes a lot of sense. I can see from the Ruckus Maker that it could be potentially scary, but I’ll challenge him or her to push through that to lean into the tension of it. If you here’s the thing, it’s like if you create the space where you can observe and it’s not so top down checklist, agenda driven, like what might you be able to create? It’s an opportunity. It invites possibility. And so I really, really appreciate what you’ve been sharing there. Probably a relative, maybe brother or sister, certainly a cousin of empathy is like this idea. You’ve mentioned psychological safety a bit, and that’s something I’m thinking a lot about because I think that’s a key ingredient to relationships, to empathy, to build trust and high performing teams and culture. What would you tell the speaker? Listening when it comes to psychological safety, if it’s a blind spot for them, what are some moves that they might be able to make to increase that in their organization?
LaTonya: One of the things I talk a lot about is just knowing you’re always on a continuum of psychological safety and you could always take a step forward or take a step back. It’s focusing on taking the steps forward. For those of you that aren’t familiar with psychological safety, what it is that people can make mistakes at work without being punished. People can bring themselves, entire selves, to work without being punished. People can bring different ideas to the table without being punished or ridiculed. So that’s what that is. Some ways that you could do that is one of the one of the exercises that I like to do or I like to tell leaders to do is, again, next time you’re in a meeting, in a team meeting, maybe even go around and discuss things that make your team feel safe at work and just a very simple activity. Just “Hey, I’d like to talk about this today. This is what makes me feel safe?” When when my board asked me for my opinion. And I feel like it’s in a way that’s not accusatory. I feel safe. But ask your team. And if they can’t come up with the answer to that, maybe have them think about the last time that they felt safe at work and what that what that looked like or what that situation was. Another way is just continuing. Even when you have just ongoing team meetings, kind of have a little spot in there or a placeholder in there every single time where you could explore how can we make sure that we can all speak safely today? And I’ll bring our safe opinions. What agreements do we need to have and then setting that up front. Those are two ways that you could do it. I want to stress one thing. You only have psychological safety if you do these tactics, but also if you’re showing your team over time that you are actually not punishing them and you’re not going to punish them and that you’re lifting them up. You can’t try to do these activities and then change your mind down the road. It’s really got to you’ve got to also set that example.
Daniel: I’m hearing the modeling piece and then the commitment, if you want to create this for your team, which leads to a better culture, which leads to better results for our students and that kind of thing, then you have to align your actions with your words. That’s absolutely cool. I’m really enjoying our conversation with time. You want to pause here just for a second to get some messages in from our show sponsors. When we get back, I love to ask you about the difference between niceness and kindness. Learn how to successfully drive school change and help your diverse stakeholders establish priorities and improve practice in leading schools. Strategy and Innovation. A Certificate in School Management and Leadership Course from Harvard. Topics include vision and goal setting, root cause analysis, organizational alignment, innovation and more leading schools. Strategy and innovation runs from October 12th to November 9th, 2020 to apply by September 30th. Enroll by October 6th. Get started at betterleadersbetterschools.com/Harvard. During COVID. Every teacher is a new teacher. That’s why innovative school leaders are turning to Teach FX whose virtual PD is equipping thousands of teachers with the skills they need to create engaging, equitable and rigorous virtual or blended classes. To learn more about Teacher FX and get a special offer visit teachfx.com/BLBS. Today’s show is brought to you by Organized Binder. Organized binder develops the skills and habits all students need for success during these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings, organized binder equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines so that all students have an opportunity to succeed, whether at home or in the classroom. Learn more at OrganizeBinder.com. We’re back with LaTonya Wilkins, who is the founder of the Change Coaches and author of Leading Below the Surface. I mentioned before the break, I’d love to ask you about the difference between niceness and kindness. I would just shout out to Lauren. So if Lauren’s listening, I’ll be visiting his school, doing training. It’s going to be awesome. And his AP said, everybody thinks Lauren’s just a really nice guy and that he’s a pushover. But his AP, Marcella, knows that there’s some things that he really has strong beliefs about. And it’s like, don’t mess with that stuff, or you’ll see a different side of him. I want to give that a little bit of context and shots. Because I love him. But yeah, what would you say? What’s the difference between niceness and kindness?
LaTonya: It’s so important because I’ve heard a lot of similar things. When I was, especially in the corporate world and even for my executives today, where they say, “Oh yeah, I don’t think they’re going to succeed because they’re too nice.” I always dig into that. And there’s something that I call the dominant leadership standard in leading below the surface, which is that we have outdated concepts of what that leader’s leadership should look like and organizational values should look like, like competition over collaboration. It doesn’t work anymore in the future of work, it’s not going to work. So throw that out, throw all that out, throw that dominant leadership standard out. And so this actually reminds me of that. The way that I talk about niceness and the way I think about niceness is that you are kind of a pushover. You are someone that is accommodating. You’re someone that is basically kind of fake, really. It’s not, it’s not a real thing. It’s just you’re being nice because you just want to protect yourself against any other behavior. It’s fake. I’m sorry. It is very fake. It’s not real is what I meant to say with kindness. Kindness is actually part of the future of work. It’s part of the opposite of the dominant leadership standard. There’s a lot of misconceptions around kindness. But what kindness is, is grace. Kindness is altruism. Kindness. Actually, if you look at the science of kindness, if you’re kind, you actually experience less stress. If you’re kind of people, you’re actually going to both people are going to release oxytocin, which actually makes you bond a little bit more. When does kindness become like niceness? Where kindness becomes niceness, when it becomes fake or like again, when you’re when you’re like sometimes we get nice because we feel like there’s no way out of a situation, right? Or we feel like someone is taking over. And so it’s like our defense mechanism, right? Or we feel like we don’t really even know we don’t know how a meeting with someone is going to be. We’re trying to be very nice. We’re trying to be we’re trying to protect parts of ourselves. Think about niceness. If you have to think about it and you’re feeling like you’re shielding parts of yourself and you’re trying to just be accommodating and get through something. You’re probably being nice if you are being real and you are leading with grace and you are really trying to connect with someone, then that’s kindness. There’s again, kindness is a good thing and kindness is the future of work.
Daniel: I’m resonating with what you’re saying about over accommodating. What school leaders might suffer or be challenged by is like, I think educators, they have huge hearts. That’s a big reason why they became educators. On top of that, Imany people have this, but for sure, educators, they want to be liked, right? They don’t want anybody not to like them so hard. Conversations can be difficult and maybe that’s where the over accommodation comes in. I wonder too if I don’t know if you’d agree and please correct me if I’m wrong, but so if you’re doing something that seems nice or kind or whatever, but then you kind of feel bad for actually doing it, you know what I mean? Like, Oh, what? You beat yourself up. Or that maybe that was the nice versus the kind. Is there anything else you want to add about like stereotypes of leadership archetypes?
LaTonya: There are so many things that drive me crazy. I have a good friend that is, and I’m sure she’s not listening to this, so I could share it. She is a chief people officer of a growing early stage startup. It’s one of those unicorn type companies. I asked if I could help her network for her or someone on her team. One of the words I saw was dominant leadership standard. I hate that she used this word. I am going to say something to her. But she said, we need someone that’s obsessed with customer results. And I’m like, nobody’s obsessed with anything. And is that something that is something we actually want to be like? It sounds extremely creepy. It sounds extremely like a masculine type thing. It sounds like what? Obsessed, like, unhealthy. The dominant leadership standard. Words like that. Another one that I get asked, I get challenged a lot because I think people are afraid to let this go. Why some of your vocabulary now and take me like I know you’re going to be pissed. I know you’re going to challenge me but that is the dominant leadership standard. The whole premise of a meritocracy assumes that there’s equity in the world, that there’s equity in education, that there’s equity in schools, and that has not happened. If you have a meritocracy, which is basically survival of the fittest, or people that perform the best will go the furthest in the organization. When you look at and you consider the fact that the vast majority of organizations are not equitable, that’s why people like me have been very, very busy that a meritocracy cannot exist. So take that out. It just doesn’t exist. It just can’t exist in the conditions that we live in today.
Daniel: It’s just idealized. It’s almost like a unicorn in terms of like it doesn’t exist. It’s an idealized form of what we would want to have happen. But it ignores the reality and the challenges that we currently wrestle with.
Daniel: Interesting. I highly recommend that people check out your book for sure. Leading below the surface. I’m very excited to let the Ruckus Maker listening know that you have a 30 day below the surface leadership challenge. Sorry for my ignorance. Is that something people can just join? It starts like 30 days from when they join this type of thing or. Tell us a little bit more about the challenge.
LaTonya: So we have a couple of resources. If you’re interested in some of the things I’m talking about today, you can go to leadingbelowthesurface.com. We have a 30 day below the surface challenge and there’s three prongs up below the surface leadership that I talk a lot about. Real leadership, relatable, equitable, aware and loyal. Again, that’s relatable, equitable where loyal and that’s an acronym get I challenged all of those those leadership archetypes that’s the archetype we talk about a lead surface. I also talk the second prong is empathy and the third prong is building psychological safety. You’ll be in a 38 challenge where you’re able to to work on all three of those concepts over 30 days. We also have an LA Ship challenge and we run that during certain months, like we ran it during Pride Month, we ran it during during also Black History Month at other months. If you’re curious about how to be a better ally to people and what that looks like in the real way, not in the way that’s like, “Oh, I did this action. I am so cool now in a real way and get it getting below the surface way”. Then that’s another resource that you might want to check out.
Daniel: If you could put a message on all school marquees for just one day, what would your message read?
LaTonya: It’s time that we all challenge how we think about leadership. Schools are changing, the world changing, everything’s changing. As leaders, we have to change with the world. I see so many of us that are coasting and we think that what we’re going to do is going to work. But no, we kind of have to flow with the river and a lot of even if it feels like something that goes against traditionally what you believe, be more open to observe it and explore it because that’s where the world is going.
Daniel: If you could build your dream school, you weren’t limited by any resources. Your only limitation was your imagination. How would LaTonya Wilkins build her dream school? What would be the three guiding principles?
LaTonya: It would definitely be outdoors, so it would be somewhere in the mountains. We wouldn’t meet every single day. We would meet maybe even once or twice a week. It would be more of a hybrid model. The principles, definitely diversity. It would be important to bring in different types of levels, equity, making sure that people everybody has access. The third would be futuristic, where we could. The school would be based on building the world that we want to live in in the future.
Daniel: Awesome. Well, we covered a lot of ground today at the time. If there was one thing you would want a Ruckus Maker to remember, what would that be?
LaTonya: Throw out that agenda. You’re not going to love me for that one. But throughout your agenda.
Daniel: Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker . If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel@betterleadersbetterschools.com or hit me up on Twitter at. @Alienearbud. If the Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast is helping you grow as a school leader then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode. Extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at @AlienEarbud and using the hashtag #BLBS. Level up your leadership. Betterleadersbetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”
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