Episode 09: This week we’re talking to Carol Vernon
We talked about:
Carol Vernon is a certified executive coach and principal of Communication Matters, an executive coaching firm that helps leaders and teams elevate their executive presence and communication skills in order to grow their impact. Carol was inspired to start Communication Matters after years of observing that doing your job well isn’t enough. Without executive presence and the ability to communicate effectively with diverse stakeholders, leaders can’t achieve their full potential or achieve the results they seek. Previously, Carol was the senior communications director at the National Cable and Television Association, as well as acting executive director of the cable industry’s education foundation, with both people management and budget responsibilities. Prior to that she worked on Capitol Hill and on more than a dozen political campaigns.
This week we’re talking to Tip Fallon.
We talked about:
• the masks many people feel forced to wear or personas they assume in the workplace.
• Why we need to do some preventative work to make things easier for people with targeted identities.
• How we are the product of the history that has created systems of oppression, as well as creating history ourselves
Tip Fallon is a coach and consultant who is passionate about working with people to reach their potential. He integrates both a strategic and analytical approach to solving problems with a human-centered focus, tending to people's motivations, group dynamics, and organizational culture. He brings over 15 years of change leadership experience and a background in business and engineering, nonprofit management, and a decade of coaching and consulting to clients in US-based and global organizations. He has served projects with organizations such as Annie E. Casey Foundation, American Institutes for Research, and the Nature Conservancy.
The project Tip mentioned at the end of the interview has launched. Learn more about All In Consulting here.
Carol Hamilton: I’m very excited to welcome our guest today, Tip Fallon! Tip is a coach and consultant who is passionate about working with people to reach their potential. He integrates both a strategic, and an analytical approach to solving problems with a human centered focus, tending to people's motivations, group dynamics and organizational culture. He brings over 15 years of change leadership experience and a background in business and engineering, nonprofit management, and a decade of coaching and consulting clients in the US and abroad. Tip is also a passionate advocate for improving the organization development (OD) and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) fields. He teaches in OD and DEI programs at American University and Georgetown University. He convenes nationwide groups of practitioners in both fields to collaborate and advance their practitioner skills. He also serves as an executive committee member on the board of the NTL Institute, a global network of organization development consultants and coaches committed to social justice. He holds a bachelor's in mechanical engineering and a master's in organization development and is also a certified professional diversity coach.
Welcome Tip, thank you for being a guest on the Mission: Impact podcast. We're excited to have a conversation today. Just so people have a little more sense of how you're coming to this work, what drew you to do the work that you do?
Tip Fallon: Oh, that's a great question. I'd say a few threads that come to mind. But one is just my personal experience of growing up in a community in a neighborhood where we observed those with more privilege and access and resources in the community versus those with less, both at the very local level but also at a global level. My mom and family on her side, the family lives in a more rural part of Thailand, so just at that global level, from a very early age I was really noticing the inequality that exists and how communities and people are really impacted by that. Not only that individual lack of access, but the loss to the greater society when such great talent and passion, those people don't have access to bring their fullest gifts to the rest of the world. So I'd say that's probably the underlying driving draw for me to be doing this work.
Carol: One of the things that you've written about is the sense that when you're working in a system - I have to stop myself and qualify some organization development jargon along the way - systems are, any human system when you're working in an organization, a network, a group of people coming together. You see effects, and one of the things that we've talked about before and you've talked about is the sense of people not being able to show up as their whole selves and what gets lost in organizations when people have to put on masks and and that's at so many different levels, but certainly when folks have targeted identities, identities that aren't accepted in the in the dominant culture, and I'm curious, how have you seen that show up?
Tip: One way it shows up in a pretty pervasive way - and by that I mean that so much of it is internalized in us - so just for example, even in nonprofit organizations who may be providing social services or direct support in the community in in one sense, but they sit within a larger society right? So in this larger society, if we talk about whether it's patriarchy, or racism, or xenophobia, or any of those things, but even sometimes just the capitalist mindset and the individualistic mindset that promotes a belief of scarcity, that there's only so many grants, only so many dollars, only so many resources to go around. Then when you layer that to the structural beliefs that there is one ‘white and right’ way to be successful, or smart, or have the best ideas, or whatever it is; it just gets very competitive. So I think a lot of times we default to 'let me wear the mask because, as I know, at least I may be able to survive in this space, and maybe be able to foster some relationships with that and get my agenda across,' and what I find is sometimes, that mask, there's a permeable boundary between the mask and us, sometimes it seeps into us at an unconscious level, and we end up - myself and others - sometimes perpetuating some of the mask wearing in our organizations. So for me, a big piece of work is in some of our training, we use the term use-of-self but just [asking], how am I showing up? Not just what are my intentions, but what are the impacts that I'm having on my peers, my colleagues, those who might come to my nonprofit for services, on funders, on the community at large?
Carol: Can you give me an example of when - you talked about how we internalize all of those beliefs, the cultural assumptions in how we're supposed to show up, you know, what the word professional means, all of those things. Can you give me an example of that?
Tip: I'll try to think of a very concise yet relatable example. so this one organization that I worked for, there was a black woman, and she just felt like she wanted more out of her role. She said, ‘I started in this position, but I've got these ideas about programming, about strategy,’ and she was in more of an admin or executive assistant role, and through some of the team development work there was, just a sense of, ‘well, she doesn't have the degrees,’ or just culturally and visually, how she showed up wearing her hair, with more natural styles. Even using age, there was still a little bit of othering that happened. So even in that culture - and this is just my assessment and analysis, some of the people in positions of decision-making power were people of color, or black women there as well - but there's a generational divide as well. So even there, there's a little bit of tension, just generationally.
This is a big generalization but sometimes those who are younger coming into the workforce now, have a little bit more latitude and say, ‘hey, I want to wear my hair or keep my skin, or even my clothing and appearance, or even my language in a style that seems authentic and natural to me.’ and it's 2020, like, we shouldn't be afraid to talk about this. So, ‘hey, supervisor, can you call some of this stuff out? Because I don't really feel included.’ Then in this example, but also I see this broadly, a supervisor - and sometimes they are the older generation - might say, ‘hey, I've gotta negotiate my boundaries with these funders or these community partners are XYZ and I'm trying to toe that line. And, we're going to get more bees with honey, if you will, so let's not rock the boat’ or whatever the addages are. So in that example there was some of that language of saying, ‘hey, that's that a little bit much for the appetite and the culture of that organization.’ so what we see in that situation is, is someone who says, ‘hey, this is what being authentic means to me, and because I don't feel I can be authentic, you the organization are not getting my best thinking, you're not getting my ideas about what's happening within this organization that I only have a purview about.’ and the system is losing out, the clients and beneficiaries are losing out as well.
Then you have others in the organization who are essentially, trying to survive in a way, are like, ‘these masks are also a survival tool.’ We need them to survive. So my sense is that if I were to go to the next question, my mind is: ‘what do we do with that?’ So another thing that draws me to the work is finding space of connection, of asking ‘what are our shared goals?’ and helping us to get out of either-or thinking. So for me, it's how do we soften for a second and talk about: what would an ideal look like with some of the best of both worlds in there?
Carol: I think one of the things that we bring as consultants - which is so hard for organizations to do in our ‘always urgent, hurry up, gotta be busy. Never enough time.’ culture is just that sense of slowing down and taking a step back and thinking about ‘where's that common ground,’ or ‘where's that middle ground?’ between, ‘you've got to totally code switch, and blend in with the white dominant culture’ or you're completely showing up in that authentic way. Is there a middle ground, or is it one or the other we need to do? Even having a chance to have that conversation and think about it differently can be so challenging, that time factor. How have you seen that show up in your work?
Tip: One thing that I'll share for the listeners - and I want to caveat that these are thoughts that sometimes I practice when I'm being my best self - but the inquiry that I offer to leaders, and to myself, is that we say we don't have time to to find a middle ground, we don't have time to do some deeper coaching, I don't have time to do one-on-ones, I don't have time to think about ‘how am I perpetuating a high quantity but low quality culture,’ we don't have time for all those things; but we have time to spend about 30, 40, 50, 60% of our week solving the problems that were created by our lack of thinking about those things. So, if that's how we're spending a lot of our time, then at least to me, I think the logical solution is to muster up some of that internal discipline and say, ‘I'm tired of this cycle,’ because it's not like this is a cycle. This is a process, or a pattern at this point. These are often not isolated incidents.
So I'd offer a couple things: first and foremost is compassion, and understanding the system, and I think admitting to ourselves that we live in a very oppressive hierarchical system where we have to do a lot of things to survive and keep some of our basic needs met. So A is just offering compassion to ourselves that we don't have an ideal choice set in front of us. Holding that compassion, but then also just thinking: where can we make a little bit of time to deepen the inquiry into what you and I sometimes call the double-loop learning. So not just solving the thing in front of us but trying to get to the root. Let's solve the pattern right after the fourth, I don't know, 20-something black woman leaves this position after 17, 18 months in a row. I'm like, ‘Okay, now it's clearly a pattern.’ Let's not just throw this position description back out there on the web, but let's look at the system. How did this happen, how did we get here? Then try to work upstream. How do we do the preventative work so we can actually reduce turnover, reduce burnout a little bit, and do better work and feel - like you said - more whole in the work.
Carol: The nonprofit sector certainly mirrors the rest of the culture in terms of who shows up in what levels of leadership and on boards and there have been calls from major institutions in the sector for years to work on the issue, and yet the needle hasn't really moved much in terms of diversifying and I think a lot of it has to do with this notion, especially in predominantly white organizations [that] it's just about diversity, it's about numbers, [the attitude is] let's get at least one person, one person of color, one person with some diversity factor beyond white and men and women, but then that underlying factor of how is the culture supporting that person to be able to be successful and really contribute in a meaningful way? Have you seen how organizations, any places where organizations have taken steps and been able to do some meaningful work in changing that dynamic?
Tip: Short answer, yes. So some pockets of that and, in short, they seem more like the exception than the norm when I think about the nonprofit sector in aggregate, so much of it is is down to the individual level, right, so much a bit of what I see is frontline managers, mid level managers, or EDIs/CEOs who, it's just in their blood, if you will, they just have a drive and they show up to work and say ‘I'm going to look out for my people, especially those with marginalized identities no matter what, and often that means a lot more labor for them, But that's where I see a lot of it. One of the trends, for example, of trying to challenge even the underlying ideologies of our current nonprofit sector is when we see foundations, they may have different terms for it, but doing the spin down strategies, so if we have a cycle where the very rich set up our endowments, foundations and give whatever it is 4% or something that a year out, where we're still perpetuating a very highly dependent relationship. So when we say, ‘hey, let's interrupt this entire cycle, and take ourselves out of that.’ What would that look like to me? That's a great model or symbol of just starting where you are, if you're adding a foundation, what structures and ideologies are you perpetuating? I think the bottom line question is just: what are you willing to give? What are you willing to commit to with respect to how you use your privilege in the system to interrupt the system?
Carol: Trying to do those things, any either organizational culture change, or - and we're talking organizations embedded in systems that have been built, not for millennia, just for the last couple hundred years - in terms of the nonprofit sector - certainly in terms of race, structural racism, etc. it goes way further back than that, but one thing that you wrote recently that I thought was such an interesting perspective is, ‘if you've ever thought an organization or culture is dysfunctional, I invite you to consider that it is functioning perfectly as it's designed.’ Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that and how you’ve seen that show up?
Tip: My sense is when most folks hear that, even if they're hearing it for the first time - and I don't credit myself for that, I've heard that from a few different angles, from our OD training and so forth - but I think a lot of people, especially marginalized identities, just see more of a nod of acknowledgement, like ‘yes, that's good verbiage to describe what we're living in and existing in,’ and for people who can see the systems yet, I don't know what to say to elaborate on that, except I think for me, what's helpful is just a framing - not only of responsibility, but of opportunity, and in one of the posts I wrote a little bit later, [I said] that organizations and cultures are not things that fell from the sky, so we need to remember that people - maybe not us, but to your point, people maybe generations ago, made some decisions, and many of them very oppressive decisions towards entire groups of races of people that created a lot of these structures and organizations and hierarchies that we're living in. So then for today, what are our decisions? What are the ramifications, not just today, but to borrow from indigenous, mindsets and ideology, multiple generations down the line? Because we're creating cultures today that will last well beyond the 5, 6, 10pm that a lot of people work. So it's both I think, a comeback to compassion for ourselves that we didn't make a lot of choices like we are products of history in a way of what we're living in, but we are also the creators of history. We're creating the history that those people will live in in the future if that makes sense. So it's an invitation to be intentional about the cultures we're creating both actively, but also passively, when we show up. So where were those choice points, and I think at the end of the day, we’re just hoping to find peace, [at least] for me and I know for others who have to make a lot of compromises in terms of their values and how they'd like to show up. It's just what's in our locus of control that we can change, [and] sometimes we talk about culture or systems, and it's big, it's complex. [You think] ‘how could we ever change this stuff?’ For me, the micro stuff matters a lot to write those moments where we feel seen and heard and validated by a colleague, by a partner. I think those things really fill the tank. I think they give people hope in humanity, that no matter what happens during the day, if you've got a really good connection with someone, that can keep our tank full as well. So just being intentional from the very micro, how are we listening to one another, to the macro ‘what policies are we putting in place,’ ‘what are we not challenging,’ and what are the ramifications of those decisions?
Carol: What's one of those micro moments for you recently?
Tip: Good question. One micro moment for me that I try to practice when I'm being more intentional is this concept of ‘to whom do we give our time’ and as a consultant, and as somebody who - basically just go down the column of privileged identities - I hear sometimes from clients like, ‘oh, you must be so busy, I know your time is very valuable,’ all these things, and after I get my ego tickled, then there's this question of, ‘hey, so I don't want to take up a lot of your time.’ and I hear a lot of that, and not so many words. So for me, I was just chatting with a client and an ED about just being a thought partner and how to go about something on a piece of work that I may not even be bidding on or even be providing for them. So for me systematically, I know [that] as a woman of color, trying to navigate that space - how time is just such a luxury for me having a lot of privilege, like I know, that's one small thing. [I know that] I can give whatever it is two, three hours to to just make space for her really just to air out her thoughts and be heard and get some clarity. The feedback that I got was just like, ‘hey, I really appreciated that.’
Then working with her, I see that that’s a behavior that she manifests with her team - and just in a work-life balance or, for example, really holding to 40 hours. I know I’m elaborating a little bit on this, but as in how do I practice it, I think about ‘who do I give my time to?’ and trying to be more intentional with that, but then at the organizational level, how do we treat people's time as well. So this ED, who I'm thinking of, has a younger staff working for her and I think some of the mindset there is when you work for an organization like this doing a lot of direct support with their clientele. It can be really, really long, strenuous hours and sometimes there's an unspoken expectation that work is almost non-stop, and so for this ED having the courage and insight to say ‘Hey, no, if you're not being paid these times, I do not expect you to work. I expect you to have work life balance.’ They even structure things that are just team-building things. I forget how they bill or codify those hours, but they're structured as “non-productive” tasks to just tend to the human needs that we have. So I think that's also a great micro-way to show people that, hey, you can show up and yes, we have a lot of work to do. It's very, very important, and its deeply impacting people's lives and your life. Right, how are we treating each other in this journey? Like, can we slow down, listen, connect with one another, at least some of the time if we're going to be this busy and this hyper productive?
Carol: I think there's so much in the sector that you talked about, the scarcity mentality earlier, and that time scarcity, or it's such a huge cause. We have to martyr ourselves to the cause, or just give all and, the folks who were serving have it so much harder than us. But that sense of I think it's, as self care as a real thing, not self care, as going get a pedicure where people can, can start to put in those boundaries.
And what's so important is, as you said, is to make it explicit, and not have it be implied, and then, of course - [and this part] is even harder for many executive directors - to not only say it, but do it themselves and model it so that their staff knows that's really allowed. Those micro-moments, it just made me think about a conversation I had earlier today where I was doing, what in our work as a pretty simple thing of talking to a number of people getting ready to do a facilitation around a leadership transition; and the woman at the end of the call said, ‘oh, I feel better after talking to you.’ It wasn't like I did anything special, I asked her a couple questions that probably were out of her day-to-day and made her think about things in a different way. Just having the time to talk through them having the time, that full attention just makes a difference. It was interesting to hear her say that.
So, making changes in any of these things, and when you talked about where you've seen it being done well, it's embodied in an enlightened leader, which unfortunately isn't very replicable. It can be really overwhelming to think, how do we even start to make our cultures or organizational cultures healthier? You know, does it have to start at the top? Are there things that individual staff, and volunteer board members can do to start walking the organization towards a healthier, more inclusive culture?
Tip: I just see so many many examples of that. One of the caveats, if you will, is that even when I talk about nonprofits, that’s no monolith, right? There are so many sizes, types, cultures within nonprofits, large, small, based on the geographic region, and the demographics within the organization. So yeah, I've seen so many things. What excites me about the work is, to use some of your example, sometimes there's so much power in just asking different questions. Whether that comes from an external, or somebody who's internal. What if we did explore this? I think so much of why cultures feel stuck, like there's so much inertia in them, and sometimes it's just a function of time. Like, ‘well, it's always been this way, this is the way it is.’ all it takes is just a small thing like, ‘well, what if we tried this?’ some of my questions are, when someone has an idea like that, what's the best case scenario? What's the worst case scenario? What's a more likely middle ground that may emerge, and taking that small risk? So yeah, whether it's a small staff-level implementation of a leader who says, ‘hey, I want to spend an hour every other week just connecting,’ or [if it’s] more organic, if you will.
I've seen a lot of groups - organically or more fluidly - connect with one another based on shared interests. Sometimes those things get formalized, sometimes they don't. I think just talking about policy, for example, if you're on a board, if you're an ED, I really recommend a policy audit once in a while and looking - starting with your bylaws - to HR and employee manuals, and just looking at it from that lens of equity, like, who gets privileged in these processes? How do we make all of our decision-making processes more accessible?
So one example on a board I was working with around pay and they said, we want to hire this position. It's not going to be full time, but we wanted to negotiate the pay in this range. So we think about well, who are we excluding from that by default? I mean, even for volunteer-type boards and organizations, right? It's You know, we're usually talking about people who have some disposable or discretionary time or financial stability to step into these roles and different organizations, so if we have the assets, how can we use that to pay people for their labor, whether it's on a board or leading an internal initiative or an ERG (employee resource group) like that. So how do we make those structures and policies as equitable and accessible as possible? Look at those policies, look at who gets a privileged look at who gets implicitly excluded when you're searching for positions and things like that.
Carol: I think it can be challenging when you're in that dominant privileged position to even see how those things are impacting others because it works for you. Right, the system was built for you. And so then, that comment you made at the beginning or through that, that the cultures are all created by human decisions. When you're someone who benefits from that, and the culture is built for your person, it's hard to see that it’s just the way it is. So I think sometimes that's where the value of bringing an external person to help you walk through and point out how some of those policies might impact folks where you might have a blind spot.
Tip: it's a great example. One thing I see organizations doing, especially those that are working around racial justice or community organizing, if it's a white led organization, they'll find a black, indigenous, and POC-led organization as a source for accountability. So getting that feedback, seeing more of that in organizations, that puts a litmus test on some of our areas where we don't have that awareness. We're just not seeing the water that we're in. I heard a quote at a conference the other day that was, ‘organizations often talk about adding color to the water, [about] diversifying, but few people want to talk about the water itself.’ So well, why don't we actually talk about this toxic water that we're already in.
Carol: That we are all in and is toxic to all of us. I think it's what's important with that accountability and I think too often has been taken for granted as ‘let's have a partnership and let's do community engagement.’ and to not acknowledge that sometimes if folks aren't intentional or careful about it, those can really become extractive relationships. So how is that organization community-based, Organizations led by people of color indigenous people being adequately compensated for the labor, the emotional labor that they're doing to help that predominantly white organization be mindful of those blind spots. So I think that’s a huge growing edge for the field.
Tip: There's the saying that racism is white people's problem right? Like that's where it should be solved, sexism is actually a men's issue that men actually need to work on, so yeah, it's the privileged groups’ [problem].
Carol: I'm sure people have been saying that for years, but I feel like it's only beginning to become acknowledged. Just barely breaking through, people realizing that.
Tip: That's a very, very complex piece of work, it's like - and I've met black people who say, ‘I choose to work with white people because they need it.’ [I’ve met] a black person that says ‘I don't trust white people to do their own work.’ ‘I want to be in there,’ and vice versa. Some people of color, black people, indigenous [people] are like, ‘nope, no way.’ There is no adequate compensation that can be provided for that level of labor. Even equity seems like a word that we can toss around, but what would it take for real equity and justice? Yeah, I think just a much bigger question. I think those are really great points of ‘yeah, how do we really be mindful, really be intentional?’ and what are the external structures and what's the internal work we need to do when our egos get in our way, when we get defensive, when we get fragile in those times, that's where the hard work is.
Carol: We've been talking about some heavy topics but I want to change up the pace of things a little bit. I have a box of icebreaker questions, and I've got one for you. I'm gonna play this at the end of each episode, just to ask one of these questions somewhat randomly and not necessarily related to everything we've been talking about, but maybe it is, we'll see. So if you could create one holiday, what would you create?
Tip: Hmm, wow, if I could create one holiday off the top of my head, I'd say mindfulness day.
Carol: How would we celebrate mindfulness day?
Tip: It'd be a day to not be “productive,” spending a little bit of time and self reflection and connecting with others. Just surfacing what's inside of us, all the stuff we carry around and giving that some space to breathe. People's practices will be different of course, but for me, some of the hope is ‘how can we dream the type of life and communities and systems we want to live in.’ Whether that's in a group or individually. I think just a day to be mindful, not only embracing the current moment, but really envisioning the best type of future that we could live in.
Carol: With that in mind, what are you excited about what's coming up for you that you're working?
Tip: One of one of the big, bigger things I'm working on is A collective is what we're calling it now of practitioners, consultants, I guess generally people who are passionate about creating more inclusive cultures and organizations. So right now there's a group of about 10 folks from across the country soon to be international and we are exploring, like, why aren't cultures actually changing? Why isn't a representative token DEI enough? What does it really take to generate buy-in and to provide effective strategies and interventions across those levels of organizations to shift not only numbers, but also the tenor, the deeper culture in an organization. I'm very excited about bringing together people who are passionate about this, who see the issue and who recognize that we need a deeper approach to doing this work. So I'm excited about moving forward.
Carol: All right, awesome. How can people get in touch with you or find out about the work that you do?
Tip: Sure, [my] Linkedin is Tip Fallon, that’s one place to find and follow me. [My] Twitter is @TipFallon, and my website where you can contact me is fallonconsulting.net.
Carol: Thank you so much. I appreciate having you on and I really enjoyed our conversation.
Tip: Likewise. Thank you.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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