How I went from benched at 26 to boss at 30

I titled this article ‘True tales of a racialized woman executive’ for two reasons.

First, because I’ve spent the last few months reading nothing but books by women of colour about their leadership journeys and I’m feeling ready to share space with these powerhouse storytellers. (Like Minda Harts who wrote this book, and Deepa Purushothaman who wrote this book, for example).

Second, because today is launch day for my new group coaching experience for racialized women leaders!

A limited number of spots for The Circle: Women of Colour in Leadership are now on sale, and I know I can’t be out there launching a coaching circle grounded in lived experience without sharing more of my story.

[UPDATE: The Circle is now available to groups and organizations with three or more women of colour in, or interested in, leadership at any level!]

What are you still doing here?

I will start with a simplified telling of the story of how I ended up having my first experience as a racialized woman executive at age 30. 

It was 2006 and I was in my mid-twenties when I joined the branch of the federal government where I would eventually take on my first stint as an executive leader. My rise was anything but smooth. I spent my first year working there sidelined and swimming in self-doubt.

The Director who had offered me the role moved to another federal department soon after I joined his team as an entry-level policy analyst. The woman selected to lead in the interim had zero interest in taking time to see my value, and my manager wasn’t the type to do anything about it. Not only was I given little to do compared to the two other people hired at the same time as me, I was actually physically isolated from the team having been tricked by a colleague into moving into an office that no one else wanted. I sat far away from the rest of our 20 person team, and few people ever had a reason to come see me. 

My rise was anything but smooth. I spent my first year working there sidelined and swimming in self-doubt.

I still remember how slowly the hours would pass by as I swung back and forth mentally between wondering if I should (again) ask for more to do and assuming I was unqualified for anything more challenging than what I was being given.

I’ll never forget the moment on New Year’s Eve day when our next level manager, the Director General, spotted me at my desk around 2:30 pm and asked me what I was still doing at the office. Didn’t I know that everyone else had gone home?

True tales of a racialized woman executive

A board game features the words lead, team, and succeed.
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Eventually, a new Director was hired and I was finally given a chance to contribute. After months of being ignored I could not have been more driven to please. I worked hard for that new director, and when she eventually moved on, I worked hard for the next one too. (There was a lot of movement in our part of the branch at that time.)

By 2009, I had become a senior policy analyst. I sat near my colleagues. I felt valued. 

Then, I had a rare opportunity. I moved to another team within the same branch that had a Director who was racialized. She was Indigenous, to be specific. While we didn’t get to work together for very long, I still treasure the months I spent on her team. I have been among the most senior woman of colour at several organizations I’ve worked at since then, and, similarly I’ve had several people of colour tell me how much it has meant to them to see a racialized person at those levels. 

When my new Director received a promotion to another part of our branch I was thrilled for her but sad for me. What didn’t occur to me was to be scared. I should have been. 

This was the moment when it became crystal clear to me that the devaluing I had experienced several years prior would not be an isolated incident in my career journey. 

My next Director was determined to dim my brightness from day one.

Within our first few meetings together she told me that I was too young and inexperienced to be at the level I was, and certainly not ready to step into a permanent manager-level role. I was acting as an interim manager at the time. While being a people manager was fairly new to me, the feedback I’d been getting from colleagues and my team members was that I was rising well to the challenge. 

This was the moment when it became crystal clear to me that the devaluing I had experienced several years prior would not be an isolated incident in my career journey. 

My new Director told me that when she ran a competition to permanently staff the manager role I was acting in I should apply to it ‘for practice;’ but, not think I would have a real shot at getting the job. 

In the months that followed, her tactics of second guessing me and reminding me of my place played on repeat. I was not her only target; but, as a racialized woman who had spent several years overworking myself in a classic ‘model minority’ approach to finding belonging, the impact was severe.

I almost bailed.

Had it not been for several very supportive colleagues, and a senior manager the next level up (a new Director General) that I had started to form a mentorship relationship with, I would have.

I hung on.

I felt the self-doubt start to slowly creep back in.

I hung on.

What happened next is as fairy tale a woman-of-colour-in-leadership story as you can get.

And, it is a testament to what can happen when there is a critical mass of people in an organization actively committed to supporting women of colour to be leaders. 

Eventually, the bully trying to dim my brightness moved on. 

This created a multi-month interim Director opportunity.

The Director General (the one with whom I’d begun to develop a mentorship relationship) asked me to take on the interim role. 

Scared to fail but more scared to never be asked again

I can’t say that I felt ready, in 2010, at the age of 30, to be a Director.

The self-doubt stirred up by not one but two leaders within four years who refused to see my value was a factor. I also knew there were some unique circumstances that put several other more seasoned candidates out of the running for the opportunity. I was the first choice(ish.)

Another barrier to ‘yes’ for me was the broader context of my life.  

I was a ‘first’ in my mixed race family. First to go to university. First to attempt movement on a corporate ladder. My experience growing up mixed race in Canada gave me white adjacency. However, as the daughter of a white parent who grew up poor in Canada and a mixed race parent (with Indigenous, Black, and some European roots) who grew up poor in Ecuador, I lacked access to community members who could help me make sense of the challenges and opportunities I was confronting in the workplace. 

I was also carrying a lot of trauma. For example, in the four years since I’d joined that branch in government I’d helped one family member navigate the justice system, and, another try to leave an abusive relationship. While my parents worked hard to inch toward the middle class, our lives were percolated by experiences reflecting the privilege we didn’t come from. 

In spite of all of this, I also knew that the opportunity to try on such an executive role would be unlikely to materialize again anytime soon. 

I was a ‘first’ in my mixed race family. First to go to university. First to attempt movement on a corporate ladder . . . I lacked access to community members who could help me make sense of the challenges and opportunities I was confronting in the workplace. 

My positive relationship with my Director General included space for very honest dialogue. She knew I had fears, and we also talked about the reality that there would be some folks who would doubt her choice of me as interim Director. 

By this point it had become clear to me that to whom I reported made all the difference in whether my career path was filled with disaster or development. 

I remember reaching out to another younger executive for advice on whether to take the opportunity. I recall him saying something along the lines of, ‘I think you’ll be great but if you don’t feel ready I’m sure there will be other opportunities for you to take on executive roles in the future.’

I was far less sure of this. More than that, I suspected that even if such opportunities did emerge it would be unlikely that I’d have the support around me that I did in that unique moment of my career journey. 

I said yes.

My full potential

I’ll save the highs and lows of my first experience as a racialized woman executive for another time. 

What I will say here is that no one will ever be able to take from me the shine I picked up from the months I spent as interim Director of a 25 person team steering a significant portion of the federal government’s $2B Indigenous health policy agenda. 

I have held other executive roles since then. 

I have had other people try to dim my brightness since then. 

The way I show up to such moments is undeniably shaped by that time when I was supported and valued at my full potential.   

The Circle: Women of Colour in Leadership

In the almost fifteen years since I first became a racialized woman executive, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of my leadership journey than I had at the time. 

One of the things I’ve recognized is that of the two leaders who were my greatest champions during those years, one was an Indigenous woman and the other was not racialized but had immigrated to Canada as a child and understood what it meant to be the ‘other.’

With this realization, I was pushed to be honest with myself that I failed to live up to their example during my years as an emerging leader. I was too focused on my own experience, and too caught up in my own cycles of doubt to be an intentional ally to other women or people of colour. 

The impact we as women of colour can have on one another’s leadership journeys is a topic both Minda Harts and Deepa Purushothaman write about in their books. So few of us get a seat at the leadership table, or successfully build our own tables. How might those of us who do be as intentional as possible about helping others who haven’t yet?

One of the things I’ve recognized is that of the two leaders who were my greatest champions during those years, one was an Indigenous woman and the other was not racialized but had immigrated to Canada as a child and understood what it meant to be the ‘other.’

When I was still working in institutional leadership roles, this insight led me to put more intention into lifting up other women of colour as a mentor, coach, or friend.

Now, as a consultant with my own business, it has led me to launching The Circle, a group coaching experience for racialized women leaders. 

If you’re a woman of colour reading this, I hope you’ll consider joining The Circle. As a nine-week cohort experience with a mix of group and individual coaching, it offers a space to gather with peers, tools to clarify who you are as a leader, and guidance to identify strategies unique to your lived experience as you take the next steps in your leadership journey.

Nothing like this existed back when I was navigating my first experience in a formal executive leadership role. If it had of I would have benefited tremendously from it.

Click here to learn more about The Circle: Women of Colour in Leadership.

[UPDATE]

I am thrilled to share that the first cohort of The Circle: Women of Colour in Leadership was a tremendous success!

I invited participants to complete pre- and post-experience surveys and was humbled by the results:

  • 100% would recommend The Circle to other women of colour.
  • 100% reported an increase in their feeling that they had the strategies and resources needed to thrive as women of colour in (or interested in) leadership at any level.
  • 100% are very likely to consider working with me again based on their experience as a participant in The Circle: Women of Colour in Leadership.

The Circle: Women of Colour in Leadership is now on sale to groups and organizations everywhere!

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