[Video] Coaching Black Americans: When Do Differences Make a Difference?

[Video] Coaching Black Americans: When Do Differences Make a Difference?

By | February 11, 2019

Black Americans face a unique set of challenges in the workplace. In this video from the 2018 AIIR Coaching Summit, Dr. Greg Pennington discusses those challenges, how coaches can empower black Americans in the executive suite, and how similar approaches can apply to other dimensions of differences. Here are five key ideas that can be used as a framework when considering how differences make a difference.

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1. Differences Matter

As humans, we are fundamentally wired to collect data, put it into categories, analyze that data, and then do something in reaction to it. And so one of the worst things you can do is dismiss those differences as unimportant. Whether it’s race, gender, or any category of difference, being different shows up because we naturally process it. The race card is always there whether you bring it up or not.

2. Categories of Difference Have Assumptions Attached to Them

The truth is that rumors of inferiority persist. It isn’t that categories themselves are problematic – it’s that, broadly speaking, if the category itself is one of a deficit or a deficiency, then there is a real problem. Sometimes these differences aren’t referenced directly but they come out in the language that is used to describe people or situations.

3. Integrating Multiple Dimensions of Differences Takes Effort and Denying Key Dimensions Has Consequences

In The Souls of Black Folks, W. E. B. DuBois explained the fundamental idea of double consciousness and the fact that those that are different are always thinking about how others see them. They may not be comfortable bringing their “whole selves” to an organization. It is important to be aware of this effort and the questions that are being asked internally about what is acceptable in any given situation.

4. We Want to Feel Connected AND We Want to Know What to Do

Good coaches know that affinity and connection are important parts of the coaching relationship. And while affinity and connection are good, black executives are often really just looking for help navigating situations. They’re looking for more “how-to’s” than hugs. You can certainly accelerate a relationship with a common cause or sense of identity, but the most critical piece of the relationship is tangible, concrete ideas that set the executive up for success.

5. We Want to Embrace Similarities While Also Leveraging Our Differences

Simply put, similarities matter and so do differences. It’s important to remember that in any coaching relationship.

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To learn more about AIIR’s Executive Coaching services, visit: https://aiirconsulting.com/executive-coaching/

Full Transcript


How do you like your coffee? And what does that have to do with coaching black Americans? Obviously a metaphor. So if I’m looking for coffee, there’s some intended impact and effect that I expect from the coffee. I mean it’s something that I’m looking for that’s gonna get me stirred up, and there’s something about the robustness of coffee in its intended form, even the color literally black coffee.

Now what are you looking for, and what do you get if you add a little cream? It kind of, obviously, dilute the color, move it down a notch so from the robustness to a little bit more mild flavoring. Maybe you add one or two sugars, and that, of course, sweetens the intake. You might be one of those that likes a little bit of whipped cream on it, you know, just to tickle the intrigue even more so. But some of you might actually drop a few cubes of ice in it, so then you end up with this really kind of contradictory thing called iced tea.

Well, I don’t want to overwork the metaphor right now. Let me give you a little bit of background about why even ask the question about coaching black American executives. And I have to tell you that, first of all, I believe that differences make a difference. Some of you might actually believe that ultimately, we’re gonna be all recognized as a part of the same race, the human race. I saw in the airport, they said one race, meaning mankind. And don’t know what that does to you if you don’t happen to be in that man category.

So some of you might believe that differences do make a difference, and some of you may not. Some of you may be like the person that interrupted me years ago when I started out talking about diversity. And they said, “I don’t even know why we’re talking about diversity, ’cause after a few minutes of hearing you talk, I don’t even notice that you’re black.

Now you may have the super power of whitewashing me. I don’t have, nor do I choose to use the super power of becoming the invisible man. So I do believe differences make a difference. But it’s a valid question to ask that if fundamentally, as an executive, my charge is to be as effective as possible, utilizing all my resources, driving an organization to results and managing those resources.  So legitimate question, “What difference does it make that you are different or that I am different?”

So let me tell you. I wanted to answer that question and not just base it on my own personal hunch. So I had an opportunity to look at some senior executives after working with hundreds over the years and a few subsets of whom were black executives. And I wanted to get from them examples of stories that they would share when they thought they were their most effective and stories when they were least effective.

You know what were you doing? What were you thinking? What was the outcome of that? What would you say attributed to you being successful? What would you say attributed to you being less successful? So I took t hose stories and did thematic kind of analysis of that. And what I want to share with you are some assumptions that I came away with that really frame my approach to coaching this particular population and offer them to you as at least something to provoke your thinking about what you might be aware of, what might lie beneath that difference and really to offer to you at least a couple of questions that I have used that I think help pull those dynamics or differences out a little bit more.

And as a bit of a preview, I do wanna share with you a snippet of one of the stories, which was from a person who is a black American, ended up being CEO of a Fortune 100 company here in the U.S. This was after graduating from an Ivy League school, after attending Wharton Business School, after working at Boston Consulting Group, after serving as the CFO of this particular company. After being told you need some operational experience, so he ran one of the businesses. And then after – what they say, well, you might still benefit from going to that Harvard Executive Ad Seminar.

So once they told him that, he stepped out in the hallway and said, “What does a black man have to do to become CEO here?” Of course, somebody was listening. And then the murmurs that persisted afterwards included things like, “Oh, my goodness. What’s wrong with him? Are we gonna inherit all of that kind of reaction? Is it just gonna be about race?”

So I had an opportunity to talk with him about it, and one snippet of the story and reaction he shared really struck me and kind of weaves through all these other five points. So he said, “Look, you don’t get here without knowing that there is a black tax that you have to pay. It’s just on that day, I got beside myself and forgot to not say it out loud.” Okay?

So let me give you some more of those basic assumptions, you know, what I think you should look for — what might be a little bit — and certainly from these stories that is — if you peeled it back a little bit, you might uncover. And then in the end, at least offer to you question you might ask in your role as a coach or even your role as a leader for black American executives.

Key Assumptions 1 – Race Matters – What difference does it make that you are…”

Race matters. I mean I think we’re fundamentally wired to collect data to put it into categories, to analyze that data and then to do something reaction to it.

So this group, I mean without a doubt, they said, “Of course race matters.” Now on the surface, you might not hear them say that.

What was interesting in the stories too was this frustration of acknowledging that for the most part effective leaders that they worked with had some real fundamental core management skills of being able to see patterns. I could tell this division is not performing the same as this division. I can tell — so the pattern recognition about behavior and performance in the organization, leaders have that as a core skill. This group was frustrated that the same skill for some reason or another when you presented a question about race just went out the window.

So if I brought up the question about I don’t know this may have something to do with race. The worst thing you could say is, “What does that have to do with anything?” To dismiss it. So the very first one given to you is that understanding that race matters.

Sometimes we used to talk about, particularly in the U.S., about playing the race card. As a sidebar, I have had colleagues from other parts of the world who would say, “This is a peculiar problem for the U.S., race. Person happened to be from India that comes to mind. And I said, “Well, if I change if from race and said Colonialism or the caste system, would it make any difference?” And at least they paused to think for a moment.

The fundamental thing that I want you to get from this is that being different shows up, because we naturally process it. And if you’re tuning your ears to listening, there are just tons of opportunities that are out there. So some of the stories began included things like, “You know, I’m not sure if I fit in here. I’m not sure if I’m the right person to come here. I’m not sure if this company’s ready for me. I’m not sure…” So that questioning opening about I’m not sure, and you sitting there in front of someone who looks for all intents and purposes to be sort of in the female category, or for all intents and purposes seems to be sort of in the tall category, sort of in the person of color category. So I’d just invite you to take the risk of saying, “Hmm, why would you say that?” That’s a safe one.

The other thing I want to tell you is that this group said, “Look, we have a whole lot of experience answering the question. We recognize and appreciate that people who are not from categories or difference don’t really have a whole lot of experience or comfort in asking it.”

So the race card is always there, both for you as a coach and for that executive. Race card is always there maybe face down. Trust this datapoint that says that it’s probably easier for you to raise it than it is for them. And you’re gonna raise it in a way that’s gonna bumble and so forth, but there’s something — a big payoff about that.

So the question about race matters, “What difference does it make that you are?” That’s slightly more direct. Before there is that just listen. Okay? I’m not sure if I belong. What makes you say that? And just pull it out from that perspective. So race matters.

Key Assumptions 2 – Rumors of Inferiority Persist — What are you trying to prove?

Rumors of inferiority persist. Now if we do categorize people in different groups, that in and of itself can be arguably pretty objective. Okay. I have people sitting on the right side of me, people sitting on the left side of me, so categories in and of themselves is not the problem. It’s what do I attribute as a value to those categories? And then broadly speaking, if the categorization turns out to be one of a deficit or a deficiency, then we’re headed down a path that might be a little bit more problematic than we intend.

These rumors of inferiority persist, ’cause I think there’s a particular example about a deficit, particularly for persons of color, particularly in the U.S. in corporate settings. And it all hinges around this notion or this belief that fundamentally, people of color are not as intellectually gifted as others.

Now, as a psychologist, I went through graduate school, and there’s tons of data that would lead you to come to that assumption. There’s representation in corporations that would say, “Must be some reason why we don’t have more of them at that level.” So I’m not arguing the point about the data. We’re arguing the point about the about the attribution. Particularly for persons of color, there’s a question about ‘Are you capable of fulfilling this role?’ stands out.

What was also interesting from the stories is that dialogues shifted from ‘How smart are you?’ to ‘Are you strategic enough?’ which is arguably a euphemism for the same thing. Okay?

What makes it even more challenging to uproot is that these stories included snippets that have these types of comments in them. ‘They told me I was actually pretty smart’. ‘Actually pretty smart’. They told me, ‘You’re not like other folks in this role’.

What do you mean ‘other folks in this role’? Okay.  ‘They told me they weren’t sure they were gonna accept somebody in this role and then they remembered that you’d gone to an Ivy League school.’ Oh, that’s different. Okay.

What’s even more challenging is that if you grew up in that environment of being told, ‘You’re smarter than I thought.’ or ‘You’re smarter than the rest of them.’ or ‘I’m not sure that you belong’ or ‘We’re gonna give you the interim role rather than the permanent role.’ If you grew up in that environment, this is what these executives are also admitting to. How much of that rumoring of inferiority starts with me? And one other example — and this is work with a white executive who was really frustrated about being able to get feedback to his direct report who was black, ’cause he was frustrated that this person always chose to use a 50 cent word when a five cent word would do. Okay?

So if you talked to that person of color reporting to them, there’s underlying current here of ‘What are you trying to prove?’ Do I really belong? And I really would ask you to consider that as a question both to the person you’re coaching but also to yourself. What am I trying to prove?

But there’s something about those rumors of inferiority that they would wrestle with throughout. The other one I’ll quickly share with you is someone who was a senior executive, tried to get into the executive suite, and his biggest challenge was do I give up my identity to go to that next level?

And that really overlaps this part, this third one, Warring souls at peace. Hopefully, you are all familiar with W.E.B. Dubois. If not, please do read early 1903 or so, The Souls of Black Folks, where he talked about there’s this fundamental challenge in the U.S. of color. And there’s this double consciousness that negros, we called them that — called us at the time, but this double consciousness of having to see yourself through the eyes of others. So this one came out in the stories in the guise of just how black can I be in this setting.

And part of the interesting stories it answers were I can be black when they ask me to be black. So when the discussion goes to, “Uh, you’re black. What do you think about it?” But a very different receptivity and openness to that color versus someone saying, “Look, we have an issue here. Invite me to be black, and I will do it. Don’t invite me to be black, you have resist it a little bit.”

Now, I have a client that is in the fast food business, and the think that they sell is chicken. You know where I’m going? I love chicken. But I tell him that you don’t not have permission to use me in any marketing campaigns. Okay.

I love chicken. I don’t like watermelon. What does it mean to talk right white, white right? There’s something about the identity that’s always this challenge in war and peace. And so, that’s what we talk about is war and souls at peace. How can I get to the point where I’m comfortable being as — I started to say being as black as I wanted to be, but how can I be comfortable enough to bring my whole self to this organization and to this environment? And so, everyone nods their heads about being authentic and being a whole self. But I just want you to appreciate that this is a group that says that to the degree I strongly identify with X, X being color at this moment, I’m trying to figure out how much of that you really want to accept. What are you hiding. That’s a little more psychological one. What are you leaving behind?  What part of you don’t I get to know?

Key Assumptions 4 [sic] – More “how to” suggestions than hugs. Who like you has done it in a way you could?

Now good coaches know that there’s some critical piece about coaching that’s around the affinity and the connectedness and, you know, to establishing a relationship and so forth. And if you don’t notice already, it is pretty common when coming to a gathering to people, and I see someone, a person of color, we do this little bit of a hug moment, right?

This one. Did you see that? This one. Okay? It’s like, ‘What’s up? This is okay? All right here? You with me?’ So some degree of affinity, it comes in different forms, and this is why we also raise the question of is it fundamentally more productive for a woman to coach a woman or a black to coach a black and so forth.

What’s very striking about it this group of executives is that look, affinity is good. Connection is good and so forth, but I’m trying to figure out how to navigate in this environment. So you can accelerate that relationship by having some common cause, some common identity. But they were absolutely clear about tell me what to do in terms of navigating.

This question really worked for me. You know, even with someone that’s saying I’m not sure they like me, if I can make it here and so forth, if I can get them to grab hold of who like you has done it in a way that you could. Okay. And that gives me a tangible, concrete kind of example of whatever the black tax is someone figured out how to pay it, and they figured out it was worth it, and they figured out the probability of being successful in that regard.


Key Assumptions 5 – Similarities and differences matter. How would you choose between two black Americans?

When I first did this one, the fifth one was “Race Doesn’t Matter,’ because I wanted to convey the point that if you worked through those first steps, you can get to a point where race doesn’t really matter. And then I had too many people say, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. Race doesn’t matter. Forget all the other stuff.” So I thought let me slow it down. Hold up just a little bit. So we do a little bit of a twist on it and acknowledge that my similarities do matter, and my differences do matter. You might say when, and the answer to that is sometimes. But I’ve gotta process that information in order to get to that point.

So I do want you to take that into account. And one of the things that, in terms of a question that goes with that, I worked with this guy who was a Cuban American at the time, and he said, “What’s wrong with me choosing a black American if both of them are equally qualified?”

And this question occurred to me. Well, I mean it’s fundamentally trying to get the right person in the job. So same exercise. How would you choose between two black Americans? So then it doesn’t become just a color issue, it becomes a underlying capability and competencies that are important to the job and to the role.

If you do believe race is important, makes a difference, and it happens with other groups, same exercise. I’m giving you the basis from my personal experience in these interviews. But this is an open question. Are there other categories of differences, dynamics or differences that you can tune yourself into even more and be more effective in unraveling those?

So back to my analogy. When I did this the last time, I thought oh, somebody who’s really analytical is gonna say, “Black coffee, but it’s in a white mug.” And then my counter was, “On a black basis.”

The similarity is when I go for something in the morning, I want it to stimulate me and get me started. The similarity is it could be Coca-Cola, it could be cocoa, it could be coffee. So there’s a similarity there. But there’s something very different about each of those. And so, the point I really wanna leave you with is that sometimes appreciating the difference is really worth the heat. Thank you.

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