My path to understanding allyship might be different than many professionals. I grew up in a racially diverse suburb of San Francisco with friends from various backgrounds. While we knew our racial or national identities were different, we didn't care. Most important to us was how to get the best kickball player on our team. We saw color, but we used it as an opportunity to learn from one another, much like the opportunity afforded organizations today.
Our community rarely discussed race and gender in a derogatory manner. Instead, we appreciated one another and our distinct contributions. We were each other's allies and champions. As a Black girl, I was encouraged by peers and adults alike to chase after my dreams, with the sky not being the limit but the jumping-off point.
I spent my college years in an era of Black consciousness and pride. We listened to songs like Public Enemy's, Fight the Power! And I had the privilege of hearing Nelson Mandela speak following his release from a 27-year imprisonment for fighting against Apartheid. It was a magical time to be young, gifted, and Black. I was pregnant with potential and starry-eyed about my future. This idealized bubble burst, however, the day I stepped into the workforce.
My first corporate role was as an administrative assistant at a container terminal. The year before getting that job, I had married, had a baby, and filed for divorce. So, although I came into the new role eager to learn and ambitious, I also went in a young Black single mother, working with a team of predominantly white, older men who did not demonstrate an appreciation for diversity. Despite my expressed interest in advancing into leadership, I was constantly told, either by word or action, that I wasn't good enough.
It was the first time I remember experiencing the combined effects of blatant racism and sexism. This experience I had no language for at the time is known as intersectionality. Rather than allies, many of the men seemed to be enemies.
There weren't any mentors with who I identified that I could turn to for support. No one ever said, "I want to be your ally!" The leaders did not recognize the opportunity to leverage my strengths and perspective. However, in all fairness, they were probably just as ignorant about professional development as I was.
Thankfully, that was over 20 years ago; a different time, a different world. Now, leaders are aware of the benefits of having a diverse workforce. Many genuinely want to solve the problem of systemic racism and sexism rather than (sometimes unknowingly) contributing to it.
Soon after George Floyd's murder, several colleagues and friends reached out to ask my thoughts on what they could do to support more Black professionals.
I advised they start by implementing the following five strategies:
- Have a recognizable "why." Get clear on your intention for doing this work. Once you're clear, review your rationale regularly to stay motivated and committed.
- Help your colleagues identify the skills needed for current and future success. They must gain a clear understanding of their strengths and development opportunities. One exercise your colleagues can do is schedule one-on-one meetings with significant stakeholders and ask what competencies they think your colleague could start, stop, and continue to be more effective in their role. For more ideas, reach out to other leaders or your HR business partner for their recommendations.
- Assist your colleagues in setting specific, realistic, and achievable development goals. Ensure the goals are not too many, too lofty, or too easy to achieve.
- Encourage your colleagues to craft a strategic, measurable, and actionable plan. A detailed development plan focused on your colleague's goals should target the specific steps they are committing to taking, how they will measure success, and when they will review progress and expect to achieve each goal.
- Make yourself accessible and hold your colleagues accountable. Schedule regular check-ins, be available for short coaching conversations, introduce them to others to increase their visibility, and challenge them to practice their emerging skills. And remember to celebrate their wins!
Envision the tremendous impact you could have on your organization as an ally. Picture how much more successful your company would be if every leader chose to be an ally. Being an ally only requires desire and commitment. The more allies we have, the better this world will be.
At Workplace Equity and Equality (WEE), our purpose is to share learning with organizations, individuals, institutions, and corporate executive coaches who are charged with supporting their employees and or clients with moving from and commitment and intent to action to create workplace equality and equality in a no shame no blame sustainable environment.
Our goal is to create a workplace that ensures that every employee experiences an ongoing return on their investment in the organization. Visit https://wee-consulting.org/.
Julianna Hynes, Ph.D., PCC, is a global leadership development and advancement strategist, coach, and author. She helps executives shift from autopilot to a more purposeful and deliberate mindset, enabling them to develop their leadership skills, better support their teams, build confidence, become more strategic, and position themselves for future success. She has worked with hundreds of women executives to help them overcome barriers to success and elevate their impact. Her specialties include executive presence, strategic thinking and planning, building relationships, and preparing for promotions.