Supporting Racial Equity and Inclusion: The Role of Coaches

By Jordan Stark
Partner, Next Step Partners

We’ve devoted our careers to helping leaders grow, both through executive coaching and leadership development programs. Over the past year, amidst the national conversation about the struggle for racial justice, we’ve asked ourselves what are our individual roles, and more specifically, what is our role as coaches in making a difference?

We are clear that we need to do our best work in supporting the psychological safety and growth of leaders of color. We also realize that in working with senior leaders, we have a unique opportunity to challenge thinking and biases that may unknowingly perpetuate inequity and exclusive (versus inclusive) environments. And while we are a diverse firm of individuals with different life experiences and perspectives, we need to learn more and we need to get better.

To this end, we recently convened an internal Racial Equity and Inclusion Learning Summit to help us better understand how coaches can make a difference.

We designed the summit to help us address the following questions:

  • What work do we each need to do to become aware of the impact of our own experiences and those of others? What biases do we hold? What can we see and not see?
  • How can coaches help leaders of color feel more seen, heard, and supported in their own leadership experience and professional development? How can we support organizations in making room to address the systemic challenges that leaders of color come up against?
  • How can coaches help white leaders understand that inclusion is an essential leadership challenge and priority, not a “one-and-done” class they take? How can coaches help leaders become more inclusive in their actions and behaviors?

Here’s how we structured the day:

1. We started with Tonya Echols, who helped us understand what it means to be a diversity-informed coach. She introduced us to the Intercultural Development Inventory to identify where each of us are on our own journeys and the distinctions between Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance and Adaptation.

2. We then talked with a panel of our own coaches who were gracious and open, sharing their lived experiences as Black and Asian-American professionals and the work they do with leaders of color and white leaders.

3. Finally, Germaine Hunter, Global VP of Inclusion and Diversity at Clorox, spoke about the work and the progress Clorox has made, and the challenges still ahead. He also shared his perspective on how coaches can help.

The flow of the day was designed to help us look at ourselves, listen to our colleagues and then broaden out to the work happening in organizations. It was an inspiring day of learning.

Here are our top 5 take-aways that apply not only to coaches, but also to leaders:

  1. Start with yourself. We all need to do the work of understanding our own biases and limitations – we can’t coach or understand what we can’t acknowledge.
  2. Curiosity and empathy are key. Empathy is the vital foundation for inclusive leadership. We heard this from all of our speakers. We need to be curious and compassionate about people’s lived experiences, and acknowledge – not minimize – the challenges they have faced in dealing with systemic barriers. This is essential for psychological safety, as well as a leader’s growth and development.
  3. Take a holistic approach. When managers and coaches enter into the learning process with the goal of better understanding a leader holistically, and how their life experiences have affected their leadership style, a deeper development path becomes possible both for the leader and their manager.
  4. Inclusion is better for business. Inclusive leadership not only fosters a greater sense of belonging, connection and safety at work, it also leads to better business outcomes. Communicating this to leaders beginning their inclusive leadership journey can be a helpful place to start.
  5. Senior Leaders need to go first. When senior leaders are committed to building inclusive and diverse cultures in their organizations, real change happens, and it still takes time and commitment. We believe this deeply which is why the partners at NSP have approached this work with humility and determination.

This was the first in a series of learning sessions on racial equity and inclusion. We learned so much from our speakers and colleagues. We also believe that true leadership is inclusive.  Inclusion isn’t an add-on or a side note.  It needs to be part of the essence of what it means to be a leader. We are working on explicitly including this in all of our leadership development processes and will continue to look hard at ourselves, to ask how we can be better, to learn and grow, and to strive to make a difference in important ways – big and small – every day.



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