You know, I’ve got to be honest. It really warms my heart to see so many folks like me on the line, which is not something I often experience. So I’ll tell you just being very open that it’s meaningful to me to speak to leaders of color in the community, women folks from underrepresented backgrounds. And I hope I can speak openly and honestly, on our recorded Zoom in a manner that can connect.
Curtis, I just asked if you give me some time checks in the chat, you know, so I can see what’s going on. I had three things in mind for our time today. One is to cover what I think you need to know from the text, the academics of it all.
Second is real talk, you know, putting into application these principles and concepts based off of my experiences. And then third, most importantly, I want to hear from all of you and hopefully have a pretty active, you want to, I’m pretty loose. If you want to stop me in the middle of what I’m saying don’t hesitate to do so. I can dive in and I can go a little more into my background as we talk.
Point one here. What I think you need to know, right? The key here, bad news is good news, if you do something about it. I absolutely love that. And I picked this concept to talk about because so often you get people that are afraid to confront challenges or who want to paper over significant problems that they might see or don’t want to get blamed for things that might not be going well.
And if you’re not able in your org to create a culture where people feel very comfortable seeing and speaking when something’s not right, or even worse, if you’ve got folks that can’t recognize that something’s not right, you’ve got a pretty significant set of issues.
So this concept, I think, is just critical to good leadership and this idea of porpoising, which my takeaway is kind of how you go about getting new support, is just digging in and talking to as many stakeholders as possible, I think is a really important takeaway here. And maybe that’s really it for the academic piece.
I’m going to go straight into real talk and how I think I can be helpful to you. And then we can interweave these concepts.
Point one: do not sit behind your desk and be comfortable behind a computer. Get out there and talk to people. If there’s anything that I do poorly in this new role, it’s not being out in front of people as much as I should.
Some of that is just the sheer fact that I stepped into a storied organization, an incredible CEO who was in the role for 23 years before me and taking over an org in the middle of COVID with an entirely new set of tools operationally and culturally, has required me to spend more time inward than even I anticipated.
And that’s no good. I mean, you’ve got to be out in front of your stakeholders, your line level employees and junior staff, or however you refer to them based off of title, your board members. Your senior execs. I know many of you are at a middle management level, but you got to get out and talk to people.
Here’s how I’ve gone about porpoising in my real life at SVLG. One is that we have scheduled skip level check-ins. So at least once a quarter — we’re about 35 people — at least once a quarter, I try to talk to every non-leadership member of the team. We have a 30 minute check-in and I try to spend at least the first 10, 15 minutes of it, not about work.
The question I ask is, how are you doing as a human and what are we doing to get you where you need to be or where you want to be when you grow up? And we, we just talk, right? And it comes down to building trust, which is really the theme I hope to convey to you all today.
With those skip level check-ins at first, I wasn’t getting much. But now I get some, you know, I almost have to sift through it because people get the CEO on the line and okay, I’m ready to go. Right. And sometimes that’s legitimate and sometimes it’s griping, which isn’t as legitimate. But putting that into your schedule on how you interact and how you stay in front of the people beneath you if you have a hierarchy.
And on that topic of hierarchy, we do not have a rigid culture. I really try to have a culture where people can get to me and speak to me each week. I do office hours for one hour. Sometimes I sit there with nobody on the phone and I just do work. And sometimes there are a lot of people and we talk about gun control, we talk about DEI. We talk about anything but work. Unless people have work issues, they want to handle in a public setting. But one hour a week without fail, office hours with the CEO. Show up. Whatever you want to talk about. Culture, right? This is the last piece of your culture module. And I think when I talk about how you get to a place where people are comfortable sharing mistakes or sharing potential failures, I try to model that and do that myself.
Look at what I just said three minutes ago. I do it subconsciously. What did I say? I’m doing a really bad job of getting out, right? That’s the way I talk to my board. If I’m not doing something well, I don’t need to candy-coat it for anybody. And I’d rather tell you I’m not doing it well than have you tell me.
Right. So I try to embody that very directly with my team, speaking to where I believe I’m falling short, to try and create a culture where people are comfortable speaking up and sharing when things aren’t going well. And I think that that can be a challenge for folks. And I think often, especially with individuals from communities of color, those of us who are underrepresented minorities, you’ve got to watch your back often.
And you are often not rewarded for stepping out and saying X, Y, Z under my watch is not going great. Right. And I don’t, I don’t know, 20 years ago. No, it’s not true. Actually. I’ve always kind of been like this. Because my career started on Capitol Hill. I worked for Senator Feinstein. I did that for six years.
I went back to grad school. I went to business school and I did investment banking over a decade in the corporate space before I got recruited for this role. But this was just beat into me because in these environments, if you got up there and tried to BS your way through something, it could really turn out badly.
Like, you know, and not, not fun, right? These are really serious executives that you’re dealing with. So I kind of was, it was beat into me at an early age to take responsibility. And if you didn’t take responsibility, you’d end up worse off. But I think often we are punished. And so here what I’m telling you, but also don’t be stupid, right?
Understand your culture, you know better than me, the culture that you’re in. Maybe it starts with just your direct reports, right? A very small culture change that you’re trying to create. Where you tell them, hey guys, I really want us to be open and forward thinking and taking a look at what’s working and what’s not working. I want us to take pauses.
That’s productive coaching language you can use, you can say, hey, I got a coaching moment for you, or, hey, I just want to take a pause and you might be able to model it yourself. You know, I thought I didn’t do a good job on X, Y, Z in leading you to this point. Do you think there were any things that you may have been able to do better?
And you might be able to ease into language like this, but ultimately this bad news is good news, if you do something about it. This whole porpoising, getting in front of stakeholders, is about building trust, right? And building trust can be harder for us, real talk, often than it is sometimes for other folks.
And so when I think about how I’ve been able to build trust, there’s three things that come to mind. First is having allies, you know, knowing who are the people that you can be your complete authentic and true self with, right? Who can you speak your truth to knowing that they are going to hear you for who you are and not finish the call and pull out the sheet for HR and, you know, ding you in, however your org might work.
So really understanding who those allies are and trying to get allies at all levels. You better have some allies on your board if you’re in a senior role. And if you’re in management, you better have some allies below you who are willing to step up and fight for you. And so that allyship is very important. I’m glad to take questions about how, how you build allies.
I think next it’s critical to put points on the board. I was very fortunate when I came into this role that we were able to get some big wins very quickly. I’ll give you an example that we had our big year-end event. This was October, 2020, in the middle of COVID, like as COVID as you could get.
And we said, you know, who are the top three people in the world that we could bring, you know, via Zoom to speak in Silicon Valley? And I think we had, maybe the President, Dr. Fauci, and maybe Michelle Obama was the third person. Right. And the reaction from the team is, whew, all right, well no way we can get to any of those. So who’s next on the list. And my view was absolutely not, you know, let’s get out and let’s get to it. And if we don’t get these three, we go to the next one and the next one and the next one. October 29th. There I am with Dr. Fauci chatting away and what I thought was a very productive conversation.
And frankly, for the most nervous I’ve ever been for an interview in my life he’s an incredible human. You don’t even need, you just give him a couple lines and he just goes off and makes you look good. But showing that, hey, I’ve got a vision and if you take these steps and if you get behind this, you can do things you didn’t think might be possible, is a way that I’ve been able to build allyship. At least I hope.
I like to think of myself as kind of an amateur outdoor person. And if you’re climbing a mountain, if you have a good instruc, it’s not like I’ve done Everest or anything like that, but just little, little things I’ve done here and there. The idea to me that is fascinating is you can get to the top of the mountain, just one foot in front of the other and you stand up there and look down and say, how on earth did I get up here?
You know, how did I even find it within myself to get this high? To me, that is what makes incredible managers, and I’ve been fortunate to learn at the, at the hip, knee or want to call it from people like that. So if you take our senior senator, Senator Feinstein, obviously I’m biased and I am a huge fan of hers.
She’s been a wonderful mentor of mine. I just, I love her to death. If you take someone like that, I would work on projects that even me having a pretty high opinion of what I could do, she got an extra 50% ought of me that I didn’t even know I had in the tank. And at the end of the day, we’d sit there asking the goal of an accomplishment and I just could not believe what I was able to do.
And it was all from someone at the top who genuinely believed in me and really pushed harder and harder and harder. And so I think finding those wins, even if they’re small, look at your org, look at your key objectives over the next 3, 6, 9 months, whatever they might be and figure out where you have some low hanging fruit to get some points on the board. And I think that can go a long way to building allyship for all of you.
That covers kind of where I’ve tried to put these practices into play. What I want to make sure I’m speaking of openly to you all. And I don’t know who you all have in front of you, but I want to make sure I take this time to be of value to you is to think about as a leader of color, where you confront challenges that others don’t, or for women on the line, I like to think of myself as an ally. My wife is an accomplished executive, and I feel like her experiences combined with my lived experiences have given me a perspective. But I think you run into folks who are more skeptical. If I had to just boil it down as simply as I could.
Whether people don’t believe you’re qualified, whether you know, hey, you got the job. Or the only reason why you’re here is because of your, the way you look or race or gender, whatever it might be, or even things that are just subconscious, where you speak up. And someone else says the same exact idea. And it sounds better coming from somebody else’s mouth. And I don’t have good answers for you on all of that. What I committed here was to be open and vulnerable and try to speak to my experiences. I think what I’ve tried to do is, one, have an awareness, an understanding that what I say might, might be perceived differently in certain settings.
And I probably have defense mechanisms where I tout my credentials more than necessary, cause I think it’s important for me to provide the gravitas that might just be taken for granted with other people in the room, but may not be assumed of me.
I might close by saying, as I mentioned at the top and I have more content, but I really want to get this interactive to hear from you all, rather than sitting and lecturing, but where I sit and reflect, and again, I don’t have a great answer for you all, is how I would’ve acted 20 years ago. When I didn’t have the influence that I have now, I definitely think there are cases where I was spoken to in ways that I didn’t appreciate, or I saw things happen in the room that I wasn’t okay with. And I didn’t do anything about it.
That bothers me. On the other hand, I’m dense, but I’m not that dense. We have financial commitments. We have obligations on us and often we don’t have the risk, the ability to, to risk as much as others. And at that stage in my career, my risk profile and risk tolerance was pretty low.
What I commit to now is if I see an interaction of our team, if I see an interaction with the CEO, if you guys see me on interviews or anything like that, I hope what you see is someone who’s trying to be authentic. And speak truthfully. And that does give me a lot of peace, but it also comes with the way I’ve tried to present myself for roles like this, which is this is the skillset that I have. This is what we’re here to accomplish. This is the way we’re going about accomplishing it. We’re very open about where, where things go wrong and we try to fix them as soon as we can.
But if this doesn’t work, you know, maybe I’m not your guy, which is fine. And ultimately with your teams, that’s the hardest set of conversations that you sometimes do have to have that if you do have people that just can’t align or just can’t respect you for who you are, or for whatever reason don’t listen to you when you need to get things done, it might be time for hard conversations. And that’s a big difference versus for-profit corporate settings versus nonprofits that I’ve witnessed.