Our team collaborated in a big and unconventional way to bring you our story in this month’s blog. You will read how we’ve grown and experimented, had breakdowns and recovered, and how we’ve been intentional about building community that lasts.
In fact, this blog, itself, was an exercise in walking our talk about team culture, belongingness, and equity. We were able to get vulnerable and open up with each other - so we could open up a window to you, too.
We don't pretend we have this work all figured out. Our hope is that you can see what the unglamorous work of growing in our antiracist practices looks like in the thick of everyday challenges.
"In January of this year, Leading Elephants changed overnight into a team that was only 50% white. Having a diverse team was deeply aligned with our values, and also critical to serving our clients’ needs (requests for multicultural coaches and consultants abound!). But we knew at our core that diversity would mean little without “walking our talk” on building a workplace of inclusion and belonging.
We did intense planning to set up each team member with meaningful work and to provide clarity on roles, goals and expectations. We brought onboarding into 1:1s and took time in team meetings to share work products from current and past projects as we worked to make implicit “Leading Elephant ways” (where there were some) more explicit! (That one is a constant work in progress!)"
"We also invested time in our team meetings understanding each other as humans and what makes us tick. Lakita led us in a reflection Who Am I that we later used as a foundation for uncovering our personal values. We shared moments, beliefs and stories that formed each of our individual “Equity Whys.” We modeled the “My Name” activity shared by the National Seed Project based on the writing of Sandra Cisneros. We explored our Languages of Appreciation together and learned how we each feel valued by one another.
I treasure the rich “ahas” I had as I came to see in technicolor that the things I found extraordinary about these beautiful human beings (their wisdom, boldness, creativity, visual design, ability to pull just the right quote at the right time …) were gorgeous legacies of their cultures and lived experiences. I saw how the oral tradition of storytelling from elders who were denied higher education opportunities provided a deeper understanding “who you are and what you come from” than the rugged culture of individualism I was raised with. They shared with me how the Black culture can affirm one another with “I see you” when society is willfully blind to their success and brilliance. As elementary as this sounds, I came to appreciate Black beauty, Black joy and “Black girl magic” in ways I had heard but never really understood."
“And while I felt connected and sufficiently onboarded, breakdowns did happen. I’m no stranger to this kind of thing. I’ve worked within organizations that were unabashedly steeped in white dominant culture norms and those with well-meaning people who just missed the mark on building real, authentic relationships (particularly across lines of difference such as race). But after onboarding, I was convinced that Leading Elephants was “too far along on their journey” for breakdowns to happen. So when I began to experience miscommunications and missteps, I was afraid I’d entered more of the same…that is until my coworkers and I did something that I hadn’t experienced before."
"We dug into some tougher conversations. The appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson happened at a moment where our white leaders were both on vacation, and our BIPOC team members recognized they had no guidance on “how we speak publicly (e.g. in our social media) about issues of race?” Then, the racially-motivated murder of ten African Americans in Buffalo NY happened so quickly after that we had just hours to decide “who we were” - how did we care for our team and help our communities? One of our deepest team moments came in the aftermath as we processed together questions of “when we speak up,” “how we speak up” and “how do we care for each other” when the unimaginable strikes way too close to home.
Then as we modeled a protocol we were using with a client to “Name Our Top 3” my ears perked up when both BIPOC team members mentioned “autonomy / independence” as a critical value to them - and neither white team member did. “What were they signaling?” I wondered. “What lived experiences led to that being something that was top of mind?” “How were we at Leading Elephants contributing to that narrative?”
"We took the time to pause and communicate deeply and openly. I was encouraged to open up about the things that felt “off” to me - the things that tend to build - and we were able to reset.
The conversation Michelle just mentioned still brings me immense joy and satisfaction as a pivotal moment in our relationship building as a team. We reflected on:
How much is needed or expected?
What cultural differences influence how we see autonomy in the workplace?
How could our approach to autonomy, authority, and flexibility affect our work and what did that mean for the team?
My coworkers and I were amazed at the assumptions we held and had not communicated. Personally, I had more clarity (and by nature of the conversation) felt more connected after that. As I reflected on this, I realized feeling a sense of belongingness and being more effective in the tactical parts of my role could enhance each other more than I had given credit. I hadn't considered how collaborating with others to consistently interrogate my assumptions, our team processes, and our company culture, allowed me to bring more of myself to work.
Since that conversation, we have had more miscommunications and more conversations - and I expect that won’t change. We are human after all. What I do expect (and appreciate) is that we will continue to talk and to grow and to build courageously, together.”
"And I learned more deeply about how our lived experiences played into fierce desires for collaborative family-like atmospheres for some, and space and autonomy for others. Understanding how “belonging” looks different for each of us is an ongoing exploration for us in our work together, and with clients!"
"At the same time as the organic learning and reset conversations were taking place that Michelle and Jess described, we were trying to find doable ways of growing as a team. One of the things that helped us was that we created a dedicated sacred team time for us to come together every week. That gave us a container that we could count on, but we knew we needed to fill it with meaningful substance or it would feel like a waste of time.
As we tried on different ways of planning, we realized that we didn’t have the bandwidth to create a separate track of detailed team experiences, but we could pull from the work we were doing with our clients. Sometimes, that meant that we did a test drive of an exercise or a tool, and then we debriefed as a team. At other times, we created an informal consultancy to advise on support for a client, and then we zoomed out to talk about what that meant for us and our learnings. Sometimes, a small observation or question about another’s cultural background was a rich learning moment, and we scrapped whatever pre-programmed learning to discuss together. We found that we had invested enough in building relationships that we didn’t have to wait for the perfect circumstances to learn together. We could trust in the container that we had. But we did have to be willing to seize the moments that did arise and use those to share authentically."
And the journey continues...
So here we are… a team that is imperfect but not striving for perfection. We understand that we will never arrive at the finish line called Team Culture where we get everything right. Instead, it’s a winding road of lessons to be picked and savored (and there are fun times to be had as well) as we go. While we do these things for ourselves, we’ll continue to share what we discover with you. And we’d love to learn from your stories and experiences, too. We hope when you read this, you see us for who we are: your co-conspirators in creating teams where everyone thrives. And even when it gets messy sometimes, we continue on…