On Inauguration Day 2021, we sat down for a conversation with two remarkable people from the a)plan coaching world: Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at Tides Foundation, Erwin Acox, and our very own Head of Strategy and Racial Equity, Brian Gadsden.
The result was a must-listen podcast episode, titled, Coaching & Racial Equity: Supporting Black Leaders in a Time of Critical Change. Brian and Erwin – an a)plan coach and coachee duo – led the discussion, which covered a lot of ground. From challenges, to opportunities, to healing, to leading authentically as Black leaders in America, the two offered some candid perspective around how they see the world today, and into the future.
With so much to unpack on this topic, and an overall optimistic tone from both of these podcast guests, we wanted to leave no stone unturned. So we asked Brian to grace us with an appearance on the a)plan blog. He kindly obliged, giving us his extended thoughts on how Black leaders can seize the moment in 2021 – and why this time, the opportunities are more important than ever.
The Perceived Risk of Showing Up Authentically for Black Leaders
Before diving into the opportunities, it’s important to first understand how and why many Black people today approach leadership a certain way. With 25 years of experience as a strategy consultant and coach focused on racial equity, Brian is no stranger to the challenges that come with this terrain.
Q: As a coach to many Black leaders, what are some of the toughest challenges you help clients understand and work through?
Brian: Many Black Leaders today feel stuck in the stories of how they get into their positions. Once we get into those positions, we feel like we need to constantly prove ourselves over and over again. We miss opportunities to step into our leadership roles and just lead. Showing up authentically as a Black leader presents risk. Many of us are conditioned to say what we need to say, instead of saying what we want to say. The former can be a dangerous cycle, while the latter is what we want – the privilege to show up authentically.
It’s a sentiment shared by Erwin, as explained on our podcast.
Erwin: It was challenging to show up as my real self (at Tides), because of the structures that were in place, the institution, and even the leadership at the time. I didn’t feel safe enough to show up as my real self, which I’ve since learned is such a critical part of growth.
Much of Brian’s work is centered around overcoming the stresses and fears of showing up as one’s true self. It’s not easy. But as Erwin points out, the good news is that a lot of that fear is baseless. Sometimes you just need to remind yourself: this is what you do! Leaning into that confidence is a core theme for Brian, and it’s something he hopes will become easier for all Black leaders over time.
The Current State of Opportunities for Black Leaders
This past year, Brian’s tone with his clients has changed a bit. With the ongoing civil unrest of 2020, we saw a generational wave of support for all People of Color throughout the US. Organizations, coworkers, friends, non-profits, and more have expressed desire to actually be the change. White people are more proactively affording opportunities to minorities, and as Brian says, it doesn’t just feel like lip service – the allyship feels real, and so too do the opportunities.
Q: How has your approach changed this past year when working with Black clients as an a)plan coach?
Brian: It feels like we are in a moment where we as Black people can believe that there is an actual change happening. We can really step into the invitations that many White people are extending to us. A lot of Black leaders have been conditioned to be wary of these moments. Even though we get jobs and opportunities, we tend to play it safe instead of leaning into leadership roles. Now is the time to lean in. As I like to tell my clients, it’s “Black People Time.”
Believing in the moment is a critical part of the equation for Brian. Because despite the perceived risks of stepping into opportunities and making your voice heard as a Black leader, real change won’t come without doing so. The opportunity of this moment is one thing. Stepping into it and taking advantage is another.
Brian: My commitment to all of my Black clients is to encourage them to see things through a fresh lens – to be open to these new possibilities.
For Erwin, much of his recent success at Tides is rooted in this notion of belief.
Erwin: The reason I enjoy working with my a)plan coach (Brian) is they believe in what’s possible. They don’t just look at what’s happening now to advise you going forward.
With Brian by his side, Erwin believed in what was possible and worked his way up the ranks at Tides, becoming the organization’s first Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion. But it wasn’t an easy journey. When Erwin was hired, he quickly realized his role was buried deep in the HR department. His path to Director status required him to articulate his disappointment over his marginalization and the deprioritization of his department’s importance.
Erwin’s rise started with understanding his highest aspirations, believing in what was possible, then voicing the importance of his mission to key people at Tides. Here we are today, and much of Erwin’s work can be tied to a subsequent organizational transformation – one that helped reduce attrition from 35% to nearly 0%.
The Key Role of Coaching for Black Leaders
For dozens of a)plan clients, coaching facilitates confidence. As Erwin can attest, personal growth requires the confidence to take action and believe in your mission. But confidence isn’t born overnight! Like any other skill, it takes practice, repetitions, and incremental improvement.
Q: Why should Black leaders consider coaching as a way to help make the most of 2021?
Brian: The coaching process provides consistent opportunities to practice leadership skills in a safe place. What does your real voice sound like? What are the things you’ve been hesitant to say? The coaching process offers a space to practice, get feedback, and boost confidence in order to impact the organization in real, positive ways. For most Black leaders, releasing those “default settings” takes time and effort, and having a collaborative partner through that process can be very beneficial.
What Brian hopes – and what he knows – is there is a path for Black leaders to feel more comfortable showing up as their true selves at work, the same way Erwin has at Tides. And there is no better time to follow that path than right now.
For those looking to make the most of this moment, remember that it doesn’t happen overnight. Twists and turns are inevitable. Handling the wheel takes patience and focus. But still, progress is always attainable. At a)plan coaching, we are proud to be in the passenger’s seat along the way, helping our clients get to their destinations with additional ease and grace.