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Creating Belonging & Psychological Safety at Work w/LaTonya Wilkins Ep#161

By Anthony Taylor - March 21, 2022

SME Strategy is a strategy consulting company that specializes in aligning teams around their vision, mission, values, goals and action plans. Learn more about how we can help align your team with our strategic planning and implementation services.



Untitled design - 2021-12-27T131748.040  Anthony: Welcome folks, to this episode of the Strategy & Leadership Podcast. My guest today is LaTonya Wilkins. LaTonya, what's happening today?

Untitled design - 2022-03-17T110846.929  LaTonya: Hey, it's a nice sunny day in Chicago. So I'm trying to enjoy that.

Anthony: Excellent. I got a trip to Chicago in about six weeks. I'm super excited, and the White Sox are playing in Atlanta. So I don't know how I'm going to deal with that. But that's another story. So for our listeners, LaTonya is the founder of Change Coaches, and the author of a best selling book Leading Below the Surface. LaTonya, tell our listeners a little bit about who you are, what you do, and what's exciting for you right now.

LaTonya: Yeah, so lots of exciting things in the world. So, as you said, Anthony, I run a company called Change Coaches. We work with leaders around the world to create cultures of belonging. We also work with them to create other large scale culture change.

I wrote a book called Living Below the Surface: How to Build Real (and Psychologically Safe) Relationships with People Who Are Different from You. Drafted last October, the audio book drops this year, so it's cool, everything's done now. It's been really exciting, because I've just been very busy with keynotes - the book is really resonating. It's very exciting. I've been able to help people change their cultures for real. So that's just been such an honor, and a privilege. And it's something that I am grateful for every day that I get to change the world in this way.

Anthony: Awesome. I love that. So as I was looking at your LinkedIn, which I encourage everybody to connect with, you've made a career out of learning and development, and really focusing on the people development side. So before I ask you about the belonging piece because I'm super curious about that, can you tell me what are some of those big things that you learned in your journey? Obviously, some of them are in the book, but what are some of those, like two or three big 'aha's that guide everything that you do?

LaTonya: Yeah so I think you're asking me environmentally what I've learned in my career, what's happened, and also individually, personally.

So number one is organizations don't care about belonging enough. There's actually a disconnect between organizations and employees when it comes to belonging. So employers think all these other things are really important to employees, or they put them higher up on the totem pole, such as remote work. While that's important, the number one thing that employees want, and this was even founded and reiterated by McKinsey, is that they want to belong at work. So it's not just progressive companies that should be focused on this. Everybody should be focused on it. It's a necessary leadership skill, and it's a leadership skill of the future.

Number two, what I learned is that diversity and inclusion and belonging should not be separate from leadership, it should be together. I learned that because I led leadership development programs in corporations, before I went on my own. I also did a ton of research. After doing a ton of research, and even coaching leaders, this is gonna sound crazy, but a lot of leaders are confused.

They're confused because they have this leadership agenda that the company wants them to follow, they have their personal leadership agenda, and then they have DEI over here. They're don't really know how to blend or mash those together. So we blame the leaders, but the organizations need to be looking at themselves.

The third thing that I learned is that everybody deserves to belong, and everybody can find a culture where they belong. The work is not necessarily easy, but I do this work one-on-one with executives today. If you're someone out there, that's like, "Yeah, I don't feel like I belong, I don't feel like I'm psychologically safe at work", know that you can. You can do that. But it takes some time and effort.


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Anthony: I appreciate that. It's one of those things. I had never heard about psychological safety until about like three years ago. The more I understand it, the more I understand the diversity and inclusion and the equity piece of all of that. You realize how they're not separate parts. I think one thing that I really take away is that leadership skills for the future that are probably too late, you know, they're for the future but they probably should have been 5, 10, 15 years ago, if people were really on top of it. How do you see the field growing? What are you seeing with teams to kind of pull that out a little bit longer?

LaTonya: Yeah. So I've been on both sides of it. I don't want to say this in a judgmental way, but it's when I was leading leadership development teams and larger companies. We basically did these leadership development programs, and you would go through a couple trainings and then you'd be done. But there's actually also research that says that if you pair the power of coaching with every single training, or every single workshop or learning experience you do, there's like a 50% increase in retention, a 50% increase in effectiveness, and a 50% increase in actions. So that's what I'm seeing evolve.

That's basically the intersection of what we do. The nucleus of what we do is actually take advantage of that power of coaching. We're all credential coaches, and instead of just taking leaders through workshops, we take them through the customized experiences. Coaching is a part of that. They're learning - instead of learning over like a month, they're learning over six months, or they're learning over a year, and they're making a transformation.

We talk a lot about organizational transformations, but we don't talk about leadership transformations, like internally, personally. That's what we do - that's basically our secret sauce.

Anthony: Yeah. And if I just under make sure I understand that, when you say the balance between training and coaching - the level of team and then the level of individual, is that the distinction?

LaTonya: Yeah, there's level of team, there's level of individual, and there's also the depth. Everybody listening, you probably remember you all worked for a company where you had to do like a compliance training online, right? Or you had to do something online.

So that's another piece that we have to talk about. We're talking depth, we're not just talking about, you know, how to be a better leader, five skills you need. We're going deep, we're going into embodiment of that stuff. So that's the change that I'm seeing.

Anthony: Yeah, we're in a similar space, but at a different level. Where we really work is that a leadership team alignment, so making sure that the leadership team has that piece, and to your earlier point around saying, "hey, how do I fit in with that bigger picture?" Having that at the top down, so the organizational journey, the team journey, and then the individual journey. I think that's one thing that I haven't heard a lot of is about the individual manager or leader. Their progression, both in terms of depth and breadth to be able to do that. And to make sure that they're not like, "hey, we did a team building workshop three years ago, you should be fine", but that it's an ongoing journey.

I recently read on your LinkedIn that you had led a workshop with a group and they said, "Oh my gosh, this is making me change my career", or considering that. So maybe you can talk me through and talk our listeners through a little bit around what that individual journey looks like? What are some of the things that either you've experienced in your journey as a leader or with your clients that you've seen from beginning to end?

LaTonya: Yeah, so we could go back to the LinkedIn post, and I could talk about how we got there. So this was a client where we did a series of strategy sessions. We did them below the surface. What that means is that, instead of just having coming in there and doing strategy, I asked them before they came to the session, I listened to all their voices, I heard all their voices. I brought everything that they said into the fold. I asked them about more than strategy, right? Because sometimes you go into these like whatever, what's the strategic plan. But I asked them about power dynamics and fears. And like, if this didn't work, what would happen? So that's exactly how I facilitated it, I made sure that power was neutralized in the room, that people had a voice, and that I was acknowledging their fears, instead of just trying to push them forward into productivity, which we do a lot of.

Everybody has neurodiversity. Everybody doesn't think that way. So when you're doing that, it's really not actually very effective. Like I said, I worked for a lot of companies where this was the way of work because everything needed to be done fast. There's a lot of self awareness that comes into the room when we're doing these things. That's where that post came from. There's also just a lot of psychological safety. When there's a lot of psychological safety, people are going to have more clarity, they're going to voice their thoughts more. They're going to voice their fears more. Everybody at work is just going to be more productive overall. So yeah, so that's how that looks with that post you're referring to.

Anthony: Awesome, I love that. Well again, if we take that self awareness piece, one of the things in our pre talk, you're saying, "when I did that assessment, I was able to identify that strategic thinking was up there". Then once you're able to identify that, the whole world changed for you, because your own self awareness became clear. But I think that you found the spot where you belong in the world.

That might be a reach there, but I find like understanding oneself is being so, so critical, being able to understand how you fit in, where you want to fit in the rest of the world, systems, structures and teams that you work in. So from your perspective, how does individual belonging and individual awareness play into the ability to develop oneself as a leader within a system?

LaTonya: Yeah. If you belong, if you feel like you have a sense of belonging, then you probably have a sense of psychological safety. If you have that, then you're going to take more risks, you're going to do your best work, you're going to go outside the box, you're going to share things that are uncomfortable to share - that you may think you shouldn't share, but you're going to do it anyways.

So when you have that, the growth is radical, right, you can pretty much do anything. I talk about this a lot in the book, about the leaders I had. Before we knew what the word psychological safety was, they had a lot of it. They were people that were most looked up to, they were the people that were most promoted, they were the people that were most respected.

So the opposite of that, if you don't have it, you're gonna go through the motions. It's like what I talked about earlier, "oh gosh, I guess I have to do this team activity, even though I'm feeling really uncomfortable and my team doesn't really appreciate anything I say, I guess I'm just gonna go through the motions and do this". But if it's on the opposite end, and you do, you do have that sense of belonging, you do have that sense of psychological safety. That's when you're really going to be able to access that radical growth.

Anthony: That was an interesting point, - because I was reflecting on how can managers tell if there is psychological safety, like within the group? What can they do to foster it? But on the flip side, if you don't think that they have belonging, maybe they shouldn't be in your organization? Maybe they don't fit, that's like the culture fit piece. Then how do you foster belonging with the people that shouldn't be in the organization? So I guess how does a leader foster that belonging and make sure that people are in the right seat at the right time?

LaTonya: Yeah, it's interesting that you talked about culture fit, because I always talk about culture add so I'm on the other side of that coin. When you are hiring people - I have a concept called REAL leadership, relatable, equitable, aware and loyal. Loyal is what I'm going to talk about. So what I see is employers don't have loyalty to people who are different from them.

So what happens is, right now, Anthony, a lot of companies are hiring people different from them, they need to - they want to stay relevant. They want to make sure that they are able to connect with different markets. A lot of their potential clients won't do business with them if they don't look like them. So there's all these things that are happening.

But what happens when they're hiring, and I've seen this quite a bit, they're hiring people different from them. They might not communicate the same way the team does. Or they might have different types of boundaries. Or they might have fun differently, right. It's so easy for people to say, "well, they don't fit". But what about the add of that? What about instead of that, "hey, we don't have fun that way. We go golfing. But hey, she actually has a good idea. Like, maybe we could go do cooking together, we could go do something else together, we could do something active together". Or maybe "yeah, she's not a fast thinker and we're all fast thinkers, doesn't mean she doesn't fit. Maybe we need to change our team dynamic to be more inclusive towards different types of thinkers". That's how you create that culture of belonging - you have to really challenge yourselves.

I coach so many executive teams that are kind of caught in their own bias because they're all demographically the same. It's like what you said, there's like this fit that they have in mind, but if they have that fit in mind, then they're gonna exclude pretty much everyone they bring on that team that's different. Whether it's a different gender, race, whether it's neurodiversity, whatever it is. I think a lot of people jump to race, and they say that's where it starts. But also people think differently.

There's one team I coach, and there were a lot of talkers. And if you didn't talk a lot, then you are considered to not have anything to say. That's not a way to make people feel like they belong. So it's like really listening to your team. I talked about two different types of listening in the book - person to person listening, which is traditional active listening, and I talked about personal belonging listening.

Personal belonging listening is taking a step back and observing instead of trying to steer the ship, take a step back and observe and see who's talking the most, who's fitting in, especially when you hire a new team member, try to see if they're fitting in, if they're speaking up. If they're not, then observe that and go to them and try to figure out a way to make them speak up more or in different ways, so people can hear them.

So I know that was kind of a long response to that. But it's so important. If someone isn't fitting in, getting them out isn't the answer. You've got to listen better and figure out how to create a culture of belonging with that new person that you brought in, because you hired them for a reason.

Anthony: Yeah, well this is very fascinating for me because last year, we put on a diversity and inclusion conference. Part of that was being able to understand it, then there's facilitator me, who advises other people on talking about culture, not culture fit, but determining a set of behaviours that are consistent with us being able to accomplish our mission.

For example, we say, "communication looks good to us - being proactive or being coachable". From a person standpoint, it doesn't say you have to be black and coachable - it doesn't include race, background or ethnicity. Just these are the things we expect you to do, not your whole being. So I guess it's the balance that I'm reflecting on and challenging myself on. What are behaviours that we want to live distinct from culture? What does this person bring as a whole entity that complements us, and builds on us such that we aren't creating a homogeneous set of beings? Did I kind of explain that?


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LaTonya: That makes a lot of sense. The one thing I will add, this is a great conversation, is that a lot of organizations - I was a culture leader for quite a while, we have these behaviours and competencies that we're holding people to. But when you're doing that, and you're doing it so actively, sometimes you don't even know what your culture really is - this is like an idealistic thing. But if you don't take a step back and observe and really connect, you don't really know what your culture is. You're trying to build something that's aspirational.

Yeah, it's important to have values. Anthony, it sounds like you do a lot of that work with companies. But when you're defining that, it's doing more than just doing it in a vacuum where you're talking to senior leaders, and you're all talking about what you want to be. Instead of just observing, and seeing how people respond to those words. For a culture to be strong, the values have to be shared. A lot of these times the values are not shared. So if you're talking about communication, "what kind of communication?" Let's make this so it's a shared value - maybe adapting to different types of communication or being inclusive about different types of communication.

But if you're doing these values, and you're putting them out there, and if they're not shared by your employees, they mean nothing.

Anthony: Yeah, I think that's just such a good perspective. When you're at the CEO level, regardless if you're a 20 person, 200 person, 2000 person company, the gap between your ideal and reality, that's why I really like the idea of below the surface. And I don't know if this is explicit with what you mean, but bottom up is, if there's such a disconnect between up here and down here, then you're going to have a problem because there's dissonance. Then there's what you say versus what you're acting. Then it just creates psychological safety going back to there, because there's two different messages and it's impossible to work with it.

LaTonya: Right, absolutely.

Anthony: Awesome. I'm so enjoying chatting with you because there's a lot of nuance to this, there's so many books, so many things, and being able to put it in place - you're gonna screw it up. I think what I've learned in my journey as a coach and leader is it's a daily practice of improving. I guess, LaTonya, going back to what you're saying. Being able to develop leaders to incrementally improve on an individual level, as well as a team is critical to being able to develop that psychological safety and belonging within the entire organization.

LaTonya: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, all that stuff is so important.

Anthony: So just as we finish up here, what do you want to leave our listeners with? What do you want them to consider? What do you want to challenge them with, as they move forward?

LaTonya: I'll go back to the p-to-b listening. I want to challenge all of you, instead of trying to steer the ship, or trying to create the culture you want or the ideals that you want, take a step back instead and listen, observe and see, see what your team really is. Because you're going to learn so much more from that, than you would through a bunch of focus groups trying to develop your values. Or if you want to do that, do it concurrently.

But that's the missing link a lot of the times - you're going to these focus groups, and you're telling people what to do. Or you're giving them words to react to, and that's too far. So before you do that, try to do the listening first. So that's my biggest challenge for everyone. It's really hard to listen, especially now with so much going on in the world. But it's probably the most important leadership skill we have that we have to craft.

Anthony: Awesome. Well folks, over the next couple of weeks, as you move forward with your team, be sure to develop that listening skill so that you can elevate your capacity to improve and drive your team. LaTonya, where can people get a hold of you and where can they get your book?

LaTonya: Yeah, so the book's available everywhere, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, wherever you buy books, it's probably sold. Then you can get ahold of me on LinkedIn, I'm most active there. Then Instagram @LaTonyacoaching.

Anthony: We absolutely will, you're one of the first people have dropped Instagram on here. I'm always curious to see - I'm waiting for "just check me out on TikTok and watch me do..

LaTonya: Oh, no. I will never do that.

Anthony: That's fair. Well LaTonya, thank you so much for chatting. It was really, really cool to hear your perspective on this. I think that's what's really great about other professionals in this space and US leaders, to challenge each other with our own biases of what we think good looks like. So thank you for making the time today.

LaTonya: Yeah, this was a great conversation. Thank you, Anthony.

Anthony: Awesome. Folks, my guest today LaTonya Wilkins, who is the founder of Change Coaches and the author of Leading Below the Surface. So be sure to check her out, and then pick up the book and take on that challenge to listen more as you develop and work with your team.

So thanks for listening. My name is Anthony Taylor. This has been the Strategy & Leadership Podcast and I'll see you next time.

Goodbye, everyone.


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