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“Leadership is a contact sport”, With Lisa Fain and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Build trusting relationships across differences. I sometimes ask workshop participants to write down the names of the 10 people they most trust for advice. They are not allowed to include people they are related to. Once they write down these names, I ask them to make a mark next to the names of people who […]

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Build trusting relationships across differences. I sometimes ask workshop participants to write down the names of the 10 people they most trust for advice. They are not allowed to include people they are related to. Once they write down these names, I ask them to make a mark next to the names of people who have a different identity in some substantial way: gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, etc. People are often shocked at how homogenous their list is. The point is this: many of us are living lives where we don’t have meaningful relationships with people who are different from us. It is too easy to distance ourselves from others’ problems if we are disconnected from others. It is only by building trusting relationships with others that we can bridge our differences. This requires intentionality.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Fain the CEO of the Center for Mentoring Excellence and the founder of Vista Coaching. She is the co-author of the recently released book, Bridging Differences for Better Mentoring.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Lisa! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in a suburb of Syracuse, NY in the 70s and 80s. I am the youngest of 2. My dad practiced law and my mom got her Ph. D. when I was in middle school and then started her own business based on her passion for mentoring and leadership development. This became the Center for Mentoring Excellence and is the company I now lead.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. I read it in college and still remember it well. I had just switched my major to Social Policy after jumping around and not really resonating with what I was learning, I felt like I had come home to a field that was meant for me. This heartbreaking book taught me about the importance of our policies on making a difference in peoples’ lives and spurred in me a desire to make a change in the world.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

The best advice I’ve ever received was on the night before my wedding: “The Main Thing is to Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing.” It is great advice in life and in work. It is so easy to get swept away in the small stuff; if you lose sight of your purpose and your goals, you end up chasing things that don’t matter.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I don’t have a set definition, but I have two leadership principles I swear by:

  1. From Marshall Goldsmith, “Leadership is a contact sport.” Leaders must lead by interacting with people, by walking the talk, modeling values, and showing the way.
  2. The other is that leaders invest in others. They invest time in developing other people and they invest social capital in creating relationships so that they can teach others to lead as well.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Time outside does wonders for stress — a good run, a walk, hiking. Also, I find it helpful to visualize whatever it is I’m about to do. I try to think through what my top objectives are. I often ask myself what are the top three things I want my audience to walk away with and then I focus on those.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is, of course, a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

Yes. Thank you for asking this important question. The best way I can describe it is that white people in this country have kept the curtains closed on systemic racism and inequality for so long. We (white people) have benefitted from a system built on inequality and because our society is still so segregated, so many of us can go a lifetime without a meaningful interaction with a black person. When it has gotten too painful to face the inhumanity of this reality, we have closed the curtains (or turned off the news) and gone about our business. With the murder of George Floyd, we could no longer close the curtains — we had to face the reality that there is something so wrong about our society. It has sparked a long-overdue and necessary awakening that systemic racism is problematic for everyone and it is everyone’s responsibility to dismantle it.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

I got into this work after practicing management-side employment law for over a decade. I was working in-house for a company that had just emerged from start-up mode and was looking to create fair and holistic policies and practices as it grew. I stumbled into DEI work, upon realizing that this needed to be a priority for any burgeoning company. I moved into the DEI role, building and leading the function for 6+ years. Now, I work with organizations to help them create more diverse and inclusive organizations through mentoring.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Here are three reasons:

Achieve better financial performance.

Studies show that diverse teams outperform monocultural teams when differences are acknowledged and leveraged and that organizations with diverse leaders perform better as well.

Create more innovative solutions.

Diverse backgrounds yield more diverse perspectives, which leads to more innovative solutions. The marketplace is also more diverse, so more diverse perspectives at the leadership level helps you better understand with your prospective consumers.

Attract and retain top talent.

People want to work for places where they can see themselves succeed. As the best and brightest talent makes decisions about where they want to work and whether they want to remain in an organization, they will be less likely to join or to stay if there is no-one in leadership who looks like them.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

Take ownership.

This is the step upon which everything else depends. In order to create an inclusive and equitable society, everyone must take ownership of the responsibility to do something.

Seek and receive feedback.

We go through our days making assumptions that others receive our behavior and our actions as we intend. We tell ourselves that so long as we have the intention to be fair and inclusive, we are doing well. But, it is the impact of our actions, not the intent that truly matters. How do you know the impact of your actions and behaviors? You ask! Let those around you know that you are looking to learn more about how to show up inclusively and that you are open to feedback about your actions. Then, when you receive feedback, really listen. Ask questions to get to deeper understanding. This will help you alter your behavior so the impact matches your good intentions.

Get curious.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, one white male thought leader whom I follow and respect posted to his community “I have come to realize, when it comes to racism, I don’t know jack.” There is so much for all of us, regardless of race to learn, and getting educated is paramount to equity. Here are a few suggestions: read books about racism, listen to podcasts about diversity (and with hosts from a myriad of identity groups), populate your social media feed with diverse voices.

Build trusting relationships across differences.

I sometimes ask workshop participants to write down the names of the 10 people they most trust for advice. They are not allowed to include people they are related to. Once they write down these names, I ask them to make a mark next to the names of people who have a different identity in some substantial way: gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, etc. People are often shocked at how homogenous their list is. The point is this: many of us are living lives where we don’t have meaningful relationships with people who are different from us. It is too easy to distance ourselves from others’ problems if we are disconnected from others. It is only by building trusting relationships with others that we can bridge our differences. This requires intentionality.

Engage.

Change rides on engagement. After you have taken ownership, created self-awareness, and built relationships across difference, it is time to act. Use your voice to speak up and speak out. As a dear friend recently reminded me — do this boldly, and where it counts: with your elected officials, at the dinner table, with groups of friends. Share that this is an issue you care about and are committed to creating change. When you hear a comment that is ignorant, uninformed, or hateful, use your voice to educate. And significantly, because this is a journey that will take time — teach your children to do the same.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I am optimistic that things will get steadily better and that an equitable and inclusive society is possible. I think there can be great progress year over year, but I think it is a stretch to say we can completely dismantle and overcome the effects of systemic racism in my lifetime. It has been 400 years of oppression and has caused deep-seated bias and inequity. It will take time and persistence. It will take education and a willingness to learn.

It will require a lot of difficult moments… but it can happen.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I admire her courage, her stamina, her intellect, and her conviction. I am so grateful that she has been a champion for women throughout her career and a role model for so many people.

How can our readers follow you online?

Personal LinkedIn

Personal Twitter

Center for Mentoring Excellence LinkedIn

Center for Mentoring Excellence Twitter

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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