The following is a conversation between LaTonya Wilkins, founder and CEO of Change Coaches & author of Leading Below the Surface: How to Build Real (and Psychologically Safe) Relationships with People Who Are Different from You, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: The issue of surfaceness and traditional leadership standards has long hindered the creation of truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments in the workplace. A fresh perspective emerges when real-life experiences are combined with insights from organizational cultural research, social psychology, and neuroscience.

Such a fresh perspective is offered by my next guest. She is LaTonya Wilkins, founder and CEO of Change Coaches and author of Leading Below the Surface: How to Build Real (and Psychologically Safe) Relationships with People Who Are Different from You. Welcome to The Business of Giving, LaTonya.

LaTonya Wilkins Founder & CEO of Change Coaches

LaTonya: Thank you. I’m happy to be here, Denver.

Denver: Great title. What do you mean by “Leading Below the Surface”? And was there a pivotal moment or experience that inspired you to write this book?

LaTonya: Oh my gosh, you just came in hot. Those are two big questions.

Denver: Let’s get to it.

LaTonya: Yeah. So, I’ll start with the pivotal experience. So, I spent a lot of time in corporate, leading leadership development teams, also leading talent teams, and working for Fortune 500 companies. And I always felt like I didn’t fit in. I always felt like there’s this surfaceness in everything that I did. It was really like not doing REAL leadership development, but it was like “don’t rock the boat” type of leadership development.

And so, I felt like I wasn’t really doing any justice to any of the folks that actually work with me. So that was kind of the corporate career side of this. Meanwhile, in my life, someone who’s always really inspired me was my grandma, Ruthie. She lived to 93, and she always had this amazing way of working with people who were different from her, connecting with people who were different from her.

She had this… it was like the pseudo-midwestern/southern accent because she grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and then she spent the rest of her life in Iowa. And it was just like this way of working with people and talking to people that wasn’t taught in corporate. Again, we really complicated it, and it was very surface.

So, that’s where Leading Below the Surface came from. It was a culmination of my personal experiences, seeing other leaders in my life that hadn’t been through leadership development and in corporate… my corporate experience. And so, what is it?

Well, there are three prongs of Below the Surface Leadership: Psychological Safety, which we’ll talk about, REAL leadership, and Empathy. So, bringing those three into your leadership, while challenging dominant leadership standards, is leading below the surface.

People tend to feel more psychologically safe as they amass more power.

Denver: Let’s talk about psychological safety, because I talk to a lot of non-profit CEOs, and I got to tell you, LaTonya, they’re really well-meaning, sincere, earnest, and they create environments where there is psychological safety if you ask them.

But then I speak to the employees who work there, and they’re saying, “Oh, no, no, no, no. I wouldn’t dare say that at a meeting, at an all-hands meeting.” Where is that cognitive dissonance? Where are leaders missing the point? They think they have a psychologically-safe environment, but nobody who works there feels that way.

LaTonya: Yeah, it’s really interesting. We just launched a new leadership and team effectiveness assessment that measures psychological safety, not just from the leader’s perspective, but also from the team’s perspective. And one of the reasons why we launched this is exactly what you said, Denver.

People tend to feel more psychologically safe as they amass more power. And so, that’s what you’re seeing there. The higher up you are, the more senior your title is. Not always. I mean, if you are an individual from an under-recognized background, this doesn’t always work this way.

But if you look at the research in general, psychological safety does increase at that level. I think the other issue is, going back to surface, people understand what that means on a surface level, but they don’t really know what it means on a real level, how to create it.

And, to create real psychological safety, you really have to get very, very, very deep in your structures and systems in the organization, which is really uncomfortable because a lot of leaders think, “Hey, I’m going to get my team together; we’re going to talk about psychological safety. It’s going to work.” But guess what? That’s not how it works.

There’s a lot of emotions, there’s a lot of feelings around it, there’s a lot of nuances. And so, really understanding that this isn’t just, “Oh, I’m going to innovate with my team.” It goes beyond that. It’s structures and systems that get in the way of psychological safety in all functions in the organization.

Denver: And you really can’t innovate in an organization unless you have that psychological safety.

LaTonya: No.

Denver: Because psychological safety is going to be the container where you can challenge the status quo and make breakthroughs, but if you don’t feel like you have it, you’re kind of stuck in place.

LaTonya: Right, right, yeah. And it’s really interesting because it’s innovation. I think, safety, just in general, like we’ve been doing a lot of work in the healthcare industry, and that’s kind of where the concept was born, you know. Can a junior surgeon speak up? And Amy Edmondson wrote my Forward, and she was talking about this.

But what if you’re having heart surgery, and a junior surgeon sees something going wrong, and they can’t say anything because they’re going to be penalized or ridiculed? And so, it’s such a broader concept. Again, I think we get caught up in like, “Ooh, creative, fun.” But there’s all the other serious repercussions if you don’t have a safe environment.

Denver: You know, the second prong you talked about was REAL leadership as opposed to, let’s say, that traditional leadership that holds things in place. Tell us a little bit about REAL leadership and what it is made up of.

LaTonya: Yeah. Yeah. So, before I ventured out on my own… so I went from corporate, and then I went to the University of Illinois at the Gies College of Business. I led culture there, and I also started teaching. And when I started teaching, I became fascinated with leadership archetypes because I’d been through a lot of corporate assessments that assessed what archetype I was… you know, the colors, the Myers-Briggs, all that stuff.

And it was really interesting because I saw a big gap, and I saw that you could be a strategic leader or charismatic leader… it was really about you. But there weren’t a lot of archetypes around how we treat people below the surface, and that had never been anything that was deemed important.

So, I did a lot of research, and I came up with that archetype based on my research and based on what’s important in the workplace today. And REAL leadership is an acronym. So, R is you are relatable; so you’re relatable to people who are different from you. E is equitable. You create equitable spaces; you share power; you also go against the status quo.

Aware, you’re aware of who you are; you’re aware of what’s going on in your organization. And then you’re Loyal. And loyal doesn’t mean accepting mediocrity. It’s very related to psychological safety. It’s integral to that, being loyal through the mistakes and seeing things through.

Denver: And you know, when you want to improve a culture, one of the things you really do, the default is training sessions. We’re going to have unconscious bias training; we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. That’s how we’re going to break through.

You advocate, though, for flipping that on its head and maybe focusing on listening sessions. Tell us a little bit about why you think that’s a better way to go.

LaTonya: Oh, yeah, for sure.

Denver: You didn’t know where that question was going, did you?

LaTonya: No, I didn’t. I didn’t. Yeah, so you know, it’s interesting. We do a lot of workshops, but the way that we do them is a little bit different. You’re right. We turn them over. It’s like an unworkshop; we’re doing live coaching, live listening within that. We also recommend that we do listening sessions. And the listening sessions are mainly to hear from employees about issues that they’re facing.

And these are under-recognized groups. I know some of you are thinking it’s all just the stereotypical groups, but guess what, Denver! We’ve done listening sessions for like part-time employees, versus full-time employees, people that have been at the company less than two years, versus more than five years.

You know, sometimes, we overthink this, and we’re like, “Why do we only care about this group?” Well, it’s not just that group. It’s like intersections. And that’s intersectionality of these groups. And so, yeah, that’s important, really hearing. We’ve also found that’s what’s aligned with the research and the practice that we have as well, coaching within the workshops.

And instead of giving everyone the answers, we coach them. When they ask us, “Hey, how do I do this?” We coach them real time. “Well, what do you think?” We also break people into coaching groups. So, yes, it’s so much more than just workshops. People don’t like being told what to do.

Denver: No, no, no, no.

LaTonya: It’s very publicized. Yeah. So, “do not do that.” That’s like the worst thing you can do.

…the reason why I wrote Leading Below the Surface is I think people on the other end that are part of the dominant group, they don’t really know how to connect truly with people who are different from them. And it really starts with that relational leadership, being able to do that.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Talk a little bit about the unique challenges that the underrepresented employees face. You work with them very specifically. Probably a lot of people don’t even appreciate some of those challenges. What would some of them be?

LaTonya: Yeah. So, you know, sometimes I talk about under-recognized. You know, I was reading an article yesterday on LinkedIn. It was fascinating… you probably don’t know where I’m going with this, but it kind of relates to this… but it was about drinking in the workplace and how drinking in the workplace is so unhealthy.

And, at first, it was like you had to do it, but now people, you know, they want to be healthy; they want to be with their families; they don’t want to do this after work. And it was talking a lot about how people who drink and attend these events still do better, and they do better because they’re in those spaces. 

They’re recognized, right? They’re acknowledged. And so, yeah, those are the employees that really need this the most. Like where they really need the culture to change for them to feel like they want to stay. And what their challenges are is, again… they’re not really being seen and valued for who they are.

They’re not feeling safe, based on the organizational norms and standards. And then from the other side, the reason why I wrote Leading Below the Surface is I think people on the other end… that are part of the dominant group, they don’t really know how to connect truly with people who are different from them.

And it really starts with that relational leadership, being able to do that. Yeah, you need the structures and systems and the organization as well around that. But, yeah, so that’s kind of the problem that, you know, people that are under-recognized are facing. And under-recognized, it could be anything.

You know, could be related to, like I said, drinking/ non-drinking, could be racially related, could be LGBTQ+, all those things.

Denver: Well, I go so far back, LaTonya. I can remember when drinking in the workplace was a noontime activity, you know? It was the old three martini “Mad Men” lunch, you know, and that’s what everybody did… you know, especially on Fridays, which is truly incredible when you stop and think about it.

But no more incredible than I remember I used to fly to LA in the late ‘80s and everybody would be smoking on the plane from Row 26 back, and you kind of go back and you say, That was insane!

LaTonya: Wow.

Denver: If you were in Row 25, you know… but the whole plane. 

So, talk a little bit about that relationship-based leadership, because we don’t hear a lot about that. You know, often when you’re talking about leadership… these books, you’re talking about the leader and what the leader has to do. And what I found so refreshing about your book is that, no, it’s really that relationship that you need to build. Talk about that and how someone can become a relationship-based leader.

LaTonya: Yeah, it really comes back to two of the fundamentals I talked about. One is the REAL leadership, and the second is empathy. And, you know, why don’t I go into empathy because I talked a little bit about REAL leadership, and I talk about accessing empathy in two different ways through listening.

One is person-to-person listening, kind of like a conversation like we’re having. Really listening to each other, playing things back. But then there’s person-to-belonging listening… and that’s being able to just take a step back instead of trying to steer the ship as a leader.  Just look around, you know. See what’s happening with your team before you jump in.

It’s interesting when leaders ask me to come in and do team coaching. Before I will agree to that, I say, You know… have you actually just observed your team? You know, without talking?  “No. Why would I do that? I got to keep us on schedule.” So, that’s a start. It’s being able to, you know, truly listen and empathize with different experiences, person to person and as a team, and see how those team interactions might be oppressing some people, right?

Like for example, you know, sometimes we talk a lot about this, but if you’re a dominant person, and you like having those ideas and you go to your team and you say, “Hey, give me the ideas; we’re doing rapid fire.” What about your introverts, right?

And so, being able to just take a step back and even have someone else on your team run these activities, and just take a look at and observe who’s fitting in, who’s not. And that’s where the relationships come in, acknowledging that and acknowledging that everybody’s different and, you know, coming back to them with that REAL leadership approach.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. You’re really a facilitator in a lot of ways, and you have to take a look, see who’s not participating and who you can bring out and into the conversation, and do things of that nature. You know, you have talked about the shortcomings of DEI initiatives and in the book, LaTonya, you introduce this concept of DEI 2.0. Tell us about it.

LaTonya: Yeah, so that’s all about “below the surface leadership.” I’m sure you’ve seen that there’s been this DEI backlash, I mean, anybody that’s listening to this. And all organizations describe it in a different way. I was on with a client the other day, and he was describing it as, you know, “people feel like these initiatives are not targeted towards them; they’re getting a little annoyed, like they’re getting a little angry.”

And, it’s really, again, not about that. It’s about, you know, leading below the surface. It’s about connecting with people who are different from you. It’s not about having the pressure to memorize a bunch of stuff from training, you know, that we just talked about. It’s not that. It’s about how you show up.

I talk about a concept in my book that’s called “sharing your slips.” So, it was fascinating because I was in a discussion with another group coach the other day, and we were talking about psychological safety and how the people who need to be inclusive the most need to have psychological safety while they’re going through this process.

And it’s like, instead of calling out, you’re calling in. And so, those types of things, sharing your slips, sharing anything that you do, but having that safety to do that, that’s what I’m talking about with DEI 2.0. It’s not the training, the training… go read a book, you know.  I’ll tell you some time, go read a book, and just highlight.

You know, there’s a lot of history, there’s a lot of things that you could get through books, but spending your time in action with your team; the knowledge can come in a book; the action comes with your team.

Coaching for development is what every leader needs. I think performance is one thing, but the development is what every leader needs, but not many get. And that is all around, you know, if they do an assessment, it’s all developmental.

Denver: Sure. You can put it in a video, say, watch the video, and then show up and talk about it, instead of having somebody standing in front of the room with a bunch of slides… doesn’t really serve any purpose, particularly in today’s world. There are other ways to get that information.

You talk a lot about organizational coaching, and you also make the distinction about coaching for performance versus coaching for development. What’s the difference?

LaTonya: Yeah, so that’s a complicated one because a lot of organizations have been built around the idea of: meritocracies are good. But when you’re thinking about performance coaching, again, it’s really not about that, it’s about the relational piece of that. So, not “Oh my gosh, you have to be the best. I’m going to compare you to your colleagues,” but: How can that person compete with themselves only?  and coaching around that.

Coaching for development is what every leader needs. I think performance is one thing, but the development is what every leader needs, but not many get. And that is all around, you know, if they do an assessment, it’s all developmental. It’s not, “Oh my gosh, you weren’t this style, you’re not going to succeed here.”

I mean, I actually worked for a company once, and this company, you had to have a certain Myers- Briggs prototype or you weren’t going to be high- potential. And so, it’s really, again, developmentally, what can they do to grow into their authentic leadership style? And what does that look like, and how does that relate to real?

So, that’s the difference between the two of those. Again, I think, organizations have focused too much on the former, which is performance, and not the latter. Those really need to come together and be synchronous.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it always sounds to me that development is sort of coaching for somebody to reach their full potential.

LaTonya: Right.

Denver: And performance is to reach the potential we would like you to have, you know, not your potential, but our standard in terms of what we’re looking for. And that doesn’t work with people. That’s why we all have unique gifts. And if you try to just plug into those with development, you’re going to be that much farther ahead of the game.

You also coach “the only ones” in organizations. Tell us what that is all about.

LaTonya: Yeah. Yeah. So, it’s really great because I’m very fortunate– a lot of my coaching clients are women CEOs and women in the C-suite. And so, they are the only ones. Some are women of color, some are not; but the ones that aren’t women of color, they are still the only one.

Denver: Only one. Yeah.

LaTonya: And so, yeah, it’s really interesting to do that because when I do executive coaching, I’m also doing alignments, meetings with their boss, who’s usually a man. And it’s very interesting to be in those dialogues and just hear that learning on the other end, on the boss’ end, just really absorbed and just hear the aha’s because it’s like you, Denver, we were talking about going to LA and smoking on the plane and like not understanding, you know, other people’s experiences, or maybe just not being aware.

And so, it’s so powerful to be in those sessions with these CEOs, like with these women doing amazing things, but then also seeing their boss, their board chairman, just also getting that knowledge and gaining that awareness within that coaching engagement; it’s just amazing.

I really enjoy that work because, again, it’s not right or wrong, it’s just about connecting with people who are different from you.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Give us an example maybe of a success story of somebody that you’ve had, anonymously obviously, that you’ve coached that was in a certain, you know, circumstance that you’ve been able to bring along and hopefully take them to a higher level or a different plane.

LaTonya: Yeah. So, there’s one person that, you know, they were the only woman on the team. They were brought in. It was a fast-growing tech company, and they were brought in because they were going to be the CMO. And, you know, the team was all guys, and they had these rituals that were just not going to work.

 I was doing some work with the team, and one of the guys came to me and he’s just like, “You know, she keeps telling me she doesn’t feel like I invite her to anything, but I invite her to all the meetings and, you know, I make sure that she’s in at everything.”

And I said to him, “You know, take a minute and think about the meetings that you have during the week that have the biggest impact, and just look around and see if she’s there.” And so, in our next coaching session, it was really powerful. He was like, “You know, LaTonya, I think you’re right.”

I was like, “I didn’t say anything. You did the work.” And he was like, “Yeah, you’re right. Because you know, what I was thinking about is me and the guys…. We just go to dinner on Wednesday. And I guess, she wasn’t there, and I realized she wasn’t invited.” And so, those are those informal spaces, again, that you create, and you don’t even know that they’re exclusive, right?

You have no idea because you’ve been entrenched in it in so long. So, I was able to work with this team to make their team practices more inclusive instead of, you know, the guys just going off and doing these activities… finding ways to be more inclusive of other women on the team. And they ended up actually bringing on another C-suite executive that was a woman.

And so, yeah, that was a success story, and there’s a lot more like that. There’s also those, Denver, that are really interesting where it’s generational, right? The CEO will be like, ” Wait, I don’t understand what people want. When I was coming up, I didn’t ask for any of this. I didn’t share any of this stuff, but it’s different.”

And so, yeah, I really enjoy that work because, again, it’s not right or wrong, it’s just about connecting with people who are different from you.

Denver: Yeah. And, you know, when you look at the four generations at work, if you could get them all working together and sharing their expertise, you have a really powerful force.

LaTonya: Right.

Denver: But I think because of our phones… as much as anything else… we all get into our own echo chambers, and with people who are sort of like us, and we really don’t understand what the other three generations are talking about, so we don’t take the advantage of those complimentary skills.

So, yeah, that’s interesting about the informal channels. You know, I’ve always found about 90% of what gets done in the workplaces is from informal channels, and it’s just not those deadly meetings that everybody’s at, you know. It’s those little side talks, and she was not included in that.

Do you have a philosophy of coaching, a coach’s stand, as they would call it, that you bring to your engagements?

LaTonya: Yeah, I mean, a lot of, again, what I do is I support people to create the environments that I talk about in Leading Below the Surface. I support women and also their teams to be able to create environments where everyone can thrive. And so, there’s always a piece of that.

You know, it’s interesting because it’s not just DEI, it is the future. I’ll say that again. It’s not just DEI, it is the future. I cannot tell you any leader that I’ve coached over the last year that is not concerned about this stuff because the workplace looks different. Now, we have people working hybrid. Now, we have people working remote.

Again, we have four generations. And just, a little plug, if you don’t watch the videos at Instagram, you should because it lightens up a little bit, and there’s a couple of accounts and I’m just like, Oh my gosh, it’s so exaggerated. But, again, it just lightens it up. So, that’s my philosophy, coaching to be a leader that’s needed today and in the future. And if that’s not on your radar, then you’re just kind of disconnected at this point.

Denver: Finally, LaTonya, if you had one tip for a leader who is trying to get prepared for the future, maybe two tips. One is watch the videos on Instagram, what would your second tip be?

LaTonya: Yeah, you know, again, one of the tips I give a lot is: remember it’s not right or wrong; it’s just different. And when I say this, it’s, instead of responding, just see how it’s making you feel. Just kind of get in touch with yourself. So, for example, if it’s Gen Z, they like to talk. They like to share.

Denver: Yep.

LaTonya: And other generations get really uncomfortable with that. And they’re like, “I would never share that. I can’t believe they shared that.” So, instead of saying that, just listen and note within yourself: what’s going on? Like, are you turning the conversation back on you? Like, on what you did? Like, oh my gosh, I could never get away with that. But try to just name that so then you can connect, and that’s not getting in your way. So, that’s the big advice I would give.

Denver: That’s great advice. Well, to dig deeper on all this, just pick up a copy of this book. It’s called, Leading Below the Surface: How to Build Real (and Psychologically Safe) Relationships with People Who Are Different from You. And, LaTonya, tell us about your website Change Coaches. What will visitors find on it?

LaTonya: Yeah. Yeah. So, we are a leadership development firm that creates impactful leadership development experiences, cultures of belonging, and psychologically safe teams. So, you’ll find a lot on there around that. And then our new leadership and team effectiveness assessment. So, check that out– measures real leadership, psychological safety, and belonging.

Denver: Great stuff. Well, LaTonya, thanks so much for being here today. It was a real delight to have you on the show.

LaTonya: Great. Thank you very much, Denver.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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