This summer, True North EDI’s Cardozie Jones and Erin Dunlevy offered complimentary coaching sessions to 20 emerging and established leaders across different sectors. We recognize that access to our services isn’t a given, so we are committed to doing what we can to break down some of those barriers when possible. And we are deep believers in the spirit of interdependence and learned so much from this opportunity. We got a crash course in the challenges leaders are facing right now, in this moment. We were able to practice our own skills as coaches, and we got to spend time with passionate, interesting, and committed leaders from all walks of life and experience. Feeling deeply moved by this experience, we want to share six major themes and lessons that emerged during our time.

1. Know your piece of the mission

Let’s face it- “getting clear on your why” is now an industry cliché. It’s overused and oftentimes underdeveloped. But the fact is, without a clear, human-centered purpose in our EDI work, we run the risk of enacting a few unconnected, superficial DEI-themed tasks, hoping they’ll make some lasting impact. In order to lead our coaching clients to a deeper understanding of their why in this work, we like to ask them a series of questions about what the future of their industry will look, feel and sound like when equity is achieved. How will your organization contribute to the world you want to see? Can the mission of your organization be achieved without an equity lens? And finally, (and most importantly) what is your individual piece of the why? If, for example, your community based organization (CBO) is looking to build a future in which all children have access to high quality arts education, what internal practices no longer serve that vision? By identifying what we’ve inherited internally that does not align with what we’re trying to achieve externally, we can see more clearly our role in reimagining the policies and practices that don’t serve us or the future we’re trying to live into.

2. There’s a difference between boundaries and walls

There is no question about it: boundaries are important. Many leaders we coach struggle with expectations around their own accessibility, and what so-called boundaries they are allowed to “put up.” But in professional communities and relationships, some rhetoric around boundaries can serve to lock ourselves and others behind impenetrable walls where truly seeing one another is impossible. In the case of leaders who hope to inspire and be part of spaces where collaboration leads to growth and innovation, a reframing of how we think about boundaries can take us further toward creating healthy and humane relationships. Sometimes, what we are referring to as boundaries are actually Rules of Engagement we are demanding others comply with—virtual force fields that only we have the agency to lower and raise. In our experience, meaningful boundaries are those that outline the needs of not only the individual but of the collective. We recommend to leaders that rather than focusing solely on what boundaries they want to express, they should create intentional opportunities to make visible the needs of those they lead and support. The outcome of practices like this typically lead to community agreements and a deeper understanding of what it looks like to support those with whom we are in professional relationships regardless of their position. Notions of boundaries might remain important, but rather than keeping us apart from one another, they serve as practice to bring us closer.

3. Emotions can be challenging, but they aren’t the enemy

One of the most important takeaways from a coaching relationship, (speaking as both a coach and a frequent coachee) is a set of accessible tools for managing situations that activate high emotions. Advice like, “Don’t take anything personally” is unhelpful at best, and insulting at worst, especially when we consider the well-documented gender and racial bias data revealing whose emotions are often policed in professional spaces. The fact is that each of us brings a unique set of lived experiences that shape how we experience and respond to tension, conflict, urgency and stress in the workplace. A clear understanding of what activates me and what options I have in those moments puts me back in the driver’s seat of my neurological responses to stressful situations and allows me to move forward in alignment with my values. At TNEDI, one of our tried and true tools, the D.I.V.E. protocol, organizes an accessible set of small actions many of us already take implicitly, and allows us to integrate those actions in a more explicit and immediate way. Take a beat and describe to yourself what’s happening in the moment—the actions and words present. Then, interpret the situation as honestly as you can. This will require some empathy, for yourself and others. Identify the values at play. What matters most to you at this moment? What matters to the people involved in the situation? Where is there alignment there? Finally, evaluate your options. Do you need support? Intervention? Or possibly just a moment to breathe and return to the situation later? Fundamentally, D.I.V.E. allows us to slow down, assess what’s happening from a values perspective and move forward in alignment with those values.

4. Put your values where your mouth is

One area that consistently comes up for me as a coach draws me back to an experience I had as vice-president of a board of directors for a theater company. There were a lot of difficult conversations that were my responsibility to initiate, and I found that when I felt lost, a best practice was to draw from the values of the organization to guide me. A lot of the work we do as Consultants is devoted to the articulation or clarification of an organization’s core values. One of the most meaningful ways that organizational values can manifest is when leaders intentionally and explicitly invoke those values in how they show up and engage those within and connected to the organization. During my time on the board of this theater company, one of our core values was, “Yes, and…” For those of you who aren’t familiar with what is commonly known as the first rule of improvisation, the “Yes, and…” principle asks us to take the ideas of others, accept them as the reality, and add to them. But “Yes, and…” is most commonly employed in improvisational comedy, and we know that when entering into hard conversations, nothing feels funny. While leaders typically hold more positional power than those they lead, that doesn’t mean they can’t employ practices that seek to engage people as whole and complex, with valid experiences and perspectives. The organizational value of “Yes, and…” required me to show up and listen first. It prompted me, rather than to debate, convince, or argue, to find ground from which we could move forward in a generative way that we designed together.

5. The work is not yours alone

We are no strangers to writing about the tensions, even polarization that accompanies conversations and experience of DEI work. Over the years, we’ve partnered with and coached so many leaders who are operating off “DEI fumes” — they know they have to keep going, but they’re not sure if it’s making an impact or if true change is even possible. As consultants, the ability to name desired outcomes and assess for impact is a substantial (and inherently imperfect) part of our work. But as coaches, our job is to find ways of making visible the truth of what’s in our way, and the possibilities that exist within our sphere of impact. There are no saviors in our work, but leaders often feel the weight of carrying entire DEI processes on their back (among other things). But this work isn’t designed for the individual. The tide of systemic oppression can’t be changed by a single person, no matter how powerful. So we encourage leaders to be honest about what is within their control—practices, decisions, funds, etc—and what isn’t, like getting everyone to buy-in or the elimination. As champions for justice, we have been programmed to ask, “what can I do?” But we don’t often take the honest time to ask, “what can’t I?” This isn’t about washing our hands of responsibility, or disavowing ourselves of culpability, but rather the need for honesty as a mechanism for meaningful work to happen. It’s about making visible what gaps exist in our capacity, knowledge, or skill, and creating pathways to close those gaps by trusting and leveraging the passion and expertise of those with whom we are in community.

6. Just ask

The landscape of work, and what we value (or don’t value) about work is rapidly changing. We’re noticing that differences in values around work are acutely felt both intergenerationally and across lines of identity experience. If we don’t have good tools for understanding needs and coming to agreements around ways of being in a relationship at work, the results are constantly frustrating. For this reason, we have a coaching module we informally refer to as “just ask”, which is about making a needs and agreements conversation a regular, informal part of our work relationships. If, for example, your team is bringing diverse values around meetings (times, lateness, virtual vs. in-person, formal vs. informal agendas, etc.), you might engage them in the following “just ask” protocol:

    1. Here’s what’s worked for me in the past when it comes to meetings. What’s worked well for you?
    2. What I value in meetings is… what do you value most?
    3. Here are some things that don’t work as well for me….what doesn’t work for you?
    4. What do we need from each other in order to make this work?
    5. Can we agree to…?
    6. What should we do as a team if our agreements aren’t met?

Our coaching practice is continuing to grow and we love sharing what we’re learning. Stay tuned for more and reach out if you or someone you know would like to set up a free consultation to explore how a True North EDI coach could help you develop a practice that inspires you and others.