Neil chats with Ayana Coston Jordan of Ayana Coaches, LLC in this inaugural episode of Leadership Range. Neil and Ayana discuss inclusion and isolation, what it is, the root of it, who it impacts, how, and what it means for growth. Check the links in the show notes to connect with both Ayana and Neil!
Neil: I am Neil Edwards, and this is The Leadership Range, where we elevate the voices of Black and brown coaches and allies and have soulful conversations about all things at the intersections of leadership, team and relationships, well-being and inclusion. Today’s guest is Ayana Jordan. We are going to talk about inclusion and isolation in leadership roles. Ayana is an expert Human Resources professional and coach and has 20 years of leader level work and real lived experience. Listen as she breaks it down and offers her jewels of wisdom. Let the conversation begin. Welcome, Ayana. Good to have you here. Thank you.
Ayana: Thank you for having me, and I appreciate such an exciting introduction.
Neil: So, you know, I invited you to be a guest here. And let’s just start with what made you say yes to this, like, why now do you want to put your voice out into the world?
Ayana: Well, firstly, I wanted to say yes simply because you asked, and I’ll be very honest when I say I’m very thoughtful about the people I decide to have conversations with and spend time with, when it comes to sharing my thoughts around coaching, HR, anything, inclusion and diversity. So I said yes because you specifically asked and your social media presence, your openness about coaching, openness about your personal life, your family, your coaching business, internal as a coach, all of those things allowed me to say yes because I personally trusted that you would hold a safe space and that this work matters to you. So really, truly, that’s why I said yes.
Neil: Wow. Well, it’s an honor to have you, and thank you for those kind words. So, you know, my, my philosophy is everyone is a leader, and you’ve been in corporate America for almost 20 years, right? Like, can you share with our listeners a little bit about your own leadership journey and the range of your leadership and how it’s evolved over your time as a professional?
Ayana: Wow, that makes me smile to hear it’s been almost 20 years, which is true. I actually got into the leadership and development space in HR in college. I decided to go the non traditional route, and I didn’t want to get a job at a mall or I didn’t want to get a job doing anything other than trying to understand what the corporate space was about. So to be very transparent, especially with this audience, back in the day, I’ll say, when I was in college, there was a program out called INROADS. Neil, are you familiar with that INROADS program?
Neil: I am.
Ayana: Right, so here I am wet behind the ears, a young lady from North Philadelphia, grew up in the inner city, with the lack of people in my family who really had professional corporate jobs, but most of my family worked in a hospital or in non-corporate settings, so I was very interested when INROADS approached me. So here I am, 18 or 19 years old at the time, which is why you can say I’ve been in HR almost 20 years, because I really started at 19 or 20, to be very honest. And I got into a position with Aetna, US healthcare in Pennsylvania, and it changed my life. I’ll just be very clear to say working for Aetna changed my life. And then later on getting an opportunity to work for Lockheed Martin, two companies that I respect very much and, for me, opened the doors to me finding myself as an individual contributor and as a leader. Within Lockheed Martin, I joined a program called their HR leadership development program, and I was also able to help bring INROADS students in. You know, over the years INROADS has changed and has morphed in, you know, they’re not as popular I would say as they were 18 or 19 years ago, but I bring that up to say INROADS’ philosophy was around bringing inclusion into the workplace, bringing students of color from underrepresented areas into spaces that they didn’t belong. So I really appreciate you asking me this question because I haven’t thought about how their commitment to inclusion got me in the corporate world. So many years ago, right? So long story short, I started my career as an HR professional, and I grew up in a space within Lockheed Martin and other organizations where I was an HR generalist, and as a generalist I got to support leaders who were trying to be their best leaders to their employees and to help people communicate effectively. And throughout my life as an HR person, I accidentally fell into the coaching space when one of my leaders at another company said that I was coaching, and that organization sponsored me to go through coaching school, and here I am today as the owner and founder of Ayana Coaches LLC, where I get to do work that I love every day – coaching leaders, individuals and even other coaches to really live out their dreams.
Neil: Wow. You know, what I love about that story is that from the very beginning, when you entered INROADS–and I don’t remember exactly how you said it, but you started pulling others into it as well, and that’s what coaches do. Coaches really try to elevate other human beings, you know? So you’ve always been a coach in my mind, just based on that story that you shared with me. So, you know, thank you for being a leader from the beginning and elevating the voices of Black and brown people. I love that. So Ayana, we talked about this, we thought about two topics for our conversation today, and I’m going to pick one, okay? Maybe you will come back and we’ll have a conversation about the second one. So the topic, what we’re going to talk about today is inclusion and isolation in leadership roles. The other topic, just to lure you back into another episode, is the lack of inclusion at the leadership level and stories of failed inclusion attempts. So we’re going to talk about that one for another time, but for today, inclusion and isolation in leadership roles. So tell us a little bit about what exactly that means from your perspective.
Ayana: You know, Neil, thanks for asking that, and the way I’d love to sum up this podcast is really what we talk about is isolated inclusion. And I’m so grateful for your first prompting question about, you know, how did my journey start, ’cause I hadn’t been thinking about INROADS as I thought about recording this, but that’s a great example and a great segue, actually, into what it means to be in isolated inclusion, because when I really think about the purpose of what INROADS was almost 20 years ago when I went through the program, INROADS was a nonprofit organization that knew that minorities, brown people, Asian people, Latina folks, people who were non-white employees, we needed a seat at the table, and there was a huge research done to say that there was not a lot of us, right? So one of the biggest things that I remember is feeling like I was so grateful for having that opportunity but being the only 19 or 20 year old brown person in sight when I walked into my first first role, and so while you’re so privileged to be there, something that I think we should talk about today is how at points it feels lonely when there’s not a lot of people like you. And so, Neil, although we hired a couple of INROADS students, in human resources I was probably the only one at that time, so I guess I can remember from my first experience being both grateful and a little bit nervous and scared that I felt like people were looking at me differently because I was young and also because I was a Black woman.
Neil: Okay, now I get it. So just to share, you know, I spent a lot of years in client service, in management consulting with some pretty large firms, and in 2015, it was December 2015–and I’m gonna age myself a little bit–but I counted about six other black men that I had worked with internally or as clients in management or hired roles between the late 90s and 2015.
Neil: Yeah. So, yeah, inclusion and isolation for me as well.
Ayana: Yeah, I just love and I appreciate that. And I’ll say to you, as a Black male, when I see you, I see a Black male. But when I get to know you, I understand that there’s more depth to where you come from as a person not born in the United States. But when I see people of color in corporate America, whether man or female, it’s like the secret nod we do, like, “Hey, what’s up? How are you?” Like, “I want to talk to you,” and as I’ve grown up in the world of coaching, even being in different ICF events, I don’t often see a lot of Black males, and when I do I get so excited that it’s like I run up to them so that we can get to know each other. And over the years I’ve seen many more African American women or people of color, you know, within those events, so that’s a great conversation when you talk about isolated inclusion because there’s this level of excitement that if you’re not identifying as a brown person or minority, you might not even understand. And I often wonder and think, “What if it was all of us and one or two of others that are non-minorities? How would they feel?” Because I constantly feel like that’s a feeling that I’ve experienced every day since my first job.
Neil: Yeah. It’s so common, you know, it’s like breathing air, at least in my experience, because, you know, I’ve been in corporate America for a long time. And you mentioned ICF, the International Coach Federation which we both belong to as professionals in the vocation. I went to a global leadership forum a number of years ago. I was on a board for ICF as well, and I attended this global leadership forum, and there were over 200 participants in this forum from ICF chapters all over the world. And there were–I think there were three or four Black people.
Ayana: Yeah. Remember that feeling? How did that feel?
Neil: I remember looking up, and I said to my friend sitting next to me, a white colleague, I said, “Wow, where are all of the black coaches?” But, you know, I’m aware of it. And sometimes I just, you know, I go about my business, and I do what I do, but periodically you just look up and you realize, “Wow, I am isolated here. I’m included and I am isolated.” I love how you frame this. So what do you think might be driving this at the root? What creates this situation that seems persistent, particularly in corporate America?
Ayana: So what might be driving it? So that it we’re talking about for our listeners is what might be driving isolated inclusion. And I’ll start with saying I think it’s a truly a lack of privilege and a lack of thoughtfulness, and by privilege I mean it’s easy for anybody, ourselves included, not to really stop and think about, “Do we have enough representation here?” And when you’re sometimes at a privileged space or role, it’s not top of mind for you to say, “Let me take a look around and make sure that ideas are represented, and beyond ideas that genders are represented, that sexual preferences are represented, that ages are represented, and more importantly, color is represented.” And I think when you’re at privilege, you don’t have to be thoughtful, and I think when you’ve never been one in the room you don’t have to be as thoughtful. So I think driving at the root of this is people surviving without us or doing business as normal without us. And then you have things like the most recent Black Lives Matter, for instance, that make people wake up and shake them up and say, “Oh, man, you know, look at what happened to Breonna Taylor or George Floyd or Mr. Arbery,” like, what happened to all these people, and it makes you say, “Oh, we need to have more diversity. We need to be more inclusive on our teams. Oh, and we need more Black people,” or “Oh, we need more minorities,” or “Oh, we need more of something.” So I think it’s just–if I give nothing else to our listeners here, it’s to stop and be thoughtful, especially when you have privilege, because I think that’s the root of why you have isolated inclusion. Until somebody steps up and says “We need an INROADS because there’s not enough brown people,” until someone steps up and looks at their senior leadership team and notices that it’s been a certain way for so long, until somebody has the courage to do or say something about it, I think we’re going to be stuck in that root.
Neil: Well, you know what, what comes up for me is I listen to this and all of the opportunities to include brown people or include women or, you know, go through the dimensions of diversity here, the question that comes up for me is not just include them but then what? You know, not just being physically present, but how how do these voices enter the conversation? That’s what’s stirring in me right now as I listen to it, not just the numbers game that’s been played for so many years. I’m wondering who is impacted by inside organizations in this space of inclusion and isolation when this is true? When inclusion and isolation is true in an organization, what does it do inside the organization? Who’s impacted and how?
Ayana: Wow, powerful question. Who’s impacted, honestly, I think are many of the minority employees as first and foremost, in my opinion. But honestly, the whole staff, the whole team, and even our stakeholders and customers are impacted because lack of inclusion to me equals lack of creativity. Lack of creativity equals lack of different and new solutions, and lack of solutions equals lack of growth. So I think we can only grow and go so far when you don’t have true inclusive, diverse workforces. So everybody is impacted, and even more, I’ll say this for any people in organizations who are out there saying, “I want to be more inclusive, I want to be more diverse.” Take a good look at what’s on the inside, because it’s impacting who decides to sign up for your organization. And as I’ve grown more courageous and bold and thought about my career and companies I applied to, if I don’t see enough of people that look like me, I don’t want to go because I’ve had over 15 years of being the only one isolated, and it doesn’t feel good. But I’ve also had several years and companies that are progressive, large organizations that do government contracting, where I know what it feels like to not be isolated and not be the only one, and now that I’ve had a taste of that I never want to go back to being the only one. So I invite all organizations, all companies, all people who have leadership, influence, to don’t brag about that diversity position that you have open, to not brag about “we want to have more of people” if you’re only going to bring in one person, because numbers matter and nobody wants to be lonely.
Neil: Yeah, the numbers matter. And, you know, as you spoke about growth, a couple of things came to mind for me. One, the growth of the organization, you know? Businesses in this market economy are looking to grow and to make money and to see the numbers go up, create new products and services. But I also thought about the people, because you mentioned everybody, not just Black and brown people, but the majority white as well. When I heard growth I thought, “Organizations lose and individuals lose the richness of being steeped in diverse cultures with the creativity and the different points of view that come with it.” I feel like it enriches everybody’s lives, the experience of a human being. So that’s what came up for me. What were you gonna say?
Ayana: I was gonna say it does, and I have a wonderful client who I work with today who’s also a coach and he always says, “Ayana, I like different, I like difference,” and I think everybody is impacted if we are not allowed an opportunity to be around different because we don’t grow, we don’t learn, we can’t expand our own palette of what’s possible. So different matters, and everybody’s impacted, because who doesn’t want to go to an organization and grow and learn and make even lifetime friends from people that we work with?
Neil: Right. You know, one of the approaches that I use in my coaching is organization and relationship systems coaching, and the operative part in there for this conversation is relationships across differences, and one of one of the notions that we hold up and hold up as true is that there is joy in the difference. There is joy in the difference. And another one is curiosity casts out fear. And these are the types of things that allow us to operate across those differences and to enjoy the richness that exists in relationships where difference exists. So that’s beautiful, beautiful. So if you’re if you’re coaching a leader who is experiencing isolation, what are some of the things that you might work with them on as a coach?
Ayana: I think the very first thing that we do as coaches, which is why I love this profession, is something called clarity, and I just actually did this today with a client. It’s “Let’s get clear on what it is that you’re really wanting or let’s get clear on what it is that you’re really experiencing.” So the first thing that I would do with this leader who might be experiencing isolation, sometimes they don’t even really know that’s what’s wrong. They bring something else to the table. And as we dig and we talk more, they sometimes come to the conclusion that “I’m so grateful to have this opportunity,” just like I was, “but I don’t feel like there’s someone who I can really rely on that’s championing who I am.” Even if they look different than me, I got here, but I don’t feel supported. You ever felt like that, Neil, where you got somewhere, but you didn’t feel the support once you got there?
Neil: [jokingly] No, never. Of course. Like, where? Where is my support? Where are my people? Like, you know, I need help.
Ayana: Yeah, you know? It’s just that whole conversation about even equity and equality and which comes first, and, you know, you can invite me to the ball game, you can invite me to the boardroom, but if my seat or my position is already at a disadvantage, I’m not going to enjoy the game if I can’t see it. And so I think as I’m talking to and coaching our leaders who are saying that they’re feeling some sort of isolation, we start with clarifying what’s really going on for you, and then our second step, a real tangible step, is “What are you really wanting?” And we go through the process of naming it, and we go through the process of–in our coaching school that Neil and I went to it’s called CTI. We learn about fulfillment. So we talk about what would fulfillment look like for you if you weren’t feeling this way, and we also do some process coaching around “What is the impact of this currently today that you’re facing and that you may have faced in the future?” And sometimes it takes many conversations and many sessions for people to really have a breakthrough, and the best gift I can give any client is the space for them–for the first time, some of them–to have a conversation about really what’s bugging them and to tell their stories. So I know as coaches we ask people to bottom line and get to the point, but when a leader is in isolation I don’t do that. I say, “Share what you need to share, let me hear and understand it, and I’m going to intrude with you and ask you to reflect on how you felt throughout this story.” And sometimes, Neil, even in today’s coaching session that I did with the leader in this exact position, they can then have closure because they felt like they’ve processed what’s really going on, and then we set goals around where they want to move forward. Sometimes they stay in those positions and they ask for more support. Other times they start taking a look around – where would they feel less isolated?
Neil: What’s really going on? Yeah, that’s the question. What’s really going on? I love that. You know, for listeners, there’s so many beautiful ways that coaches ask questions to draw out that clarity, and one of the things I love about coaching is coaches get to bring their own personality into the conversation. I know that, you know, sometimes I ask–when someone’s really in that rainy, muddy quagmire of confusion and they don’t have clarity, I might ask something like, “What are you longing for?” And it really draws deeply on a person’s mind or their heart or their spirit, whatever they need, so that they can find the answer for themselves. So awesome, thank you for that tip. So for our listeners, leaders at all levels who don’t have a coach, they don’t have an Ayana working with them in this place of inclusion, and who might be feeling some isolation, and they’re in that space, what might they do on their own to avoid it or to bounce back, you know? Have a little bit of resilience from that isolation? What would you advise, one or two quick tips?
Ayana: Yeah, I think I don’t know that you can ever avoid it, but I’ll go back to naming what’s going on for you and finding a group of people that you can relate to both in and outside of your organization. They might not be in a leadership role, because more often than none there’s not a lot of people in leadership roles which is why you’re isolated when you’re a minority–sometimes in some companies, not all. So understanding that, finding some folks outside of your organization that can mentor you and be of support is my number one thing. And then how do you bounce back from isolation? I think you start the conversation and you start talking to people, because sometimes people don’t even know we feel like that. And so one of the biggest tips and things that I’ve learned is I had to have an honest conversation with several organizations around why I did not want the leadership role in diversity and inclusion because I didn’t want to be the only one and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into that. That conversation opened up the doors for more discussion. So talk about it. Tell people what’s going on for you and see who listens.
Neil: Yeah, pigeonholing and isolation. I think that’s another unique combination that we could have a deeper conversation about at some point. So many great topics for the future.
Ayana: Yeah, so many.
Neil: Yeah. So how can people get in touch with you, Ayana, if they want to work with you?
Ayana: Absolutely, they can find me on LinkedIn under Ayana Jordan. That’s A-Y-A-N-A, last name is J-O-R-D-A-N. And they can also send me an email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Neil: All right, thank you for that. And we’ll make sure we get your contact information attached and linked to this episode so people can find it easily if they want to get in contact with you. Ayana, thank you so much for being here today. That was a beautiful conversation, and we had some great tips for our listeners.
Ayana: And thank you for having me and for opening up the door to talk about isolation and inclusion in the same sentence. Thank you.
Neil: You’re very welcome. Bye for now.
Ayana: Bye for now.
Neil: Inclusion and isolation in leadership roles often comes as a package driven by lack of thoughtfulness and the absence of support. Thank you so much, Ayana, for bringing your wisdom to the conversation, and thank you all for tuning into The Leadership Range. You can listen to new episodes every Monday wherever you listen to podcasts, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn.com/newards07. If you have a topic suggestion, send it to me at Neil@neiledwardscoaching.com. That’s Neil@neiledwardscoaching.com. I look forward to you listening to the conversation next week.