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Teresa Hopke of Talking Talent -North America: “Get commitment from the top”

Get commitment from the top — get all leaders aligned around the reality of the data. Help them internalize it. Bring it to life through story. Help them own it and make a commitment around how they will help facilitate change. Get everyone on board with the plan — providing a clear roadmap for the path forward. As part of […]

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Get commitment from the top — get all leaders aligned around the reality of the data. Help them internalize it. Bring it to life through story. Help them own it and make a commitment around how they will help facilitate change. Get everyone on board with the plan — providing a clear roadmap for the path forward.


As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Teresa Hopke.

Teresa Hopke is CEO, Talking Talent -North America, a global coaching firm that inspires inclusive cultures that allow people and organizations to thrive. It works with organizations globally to create company-wide behavior shifts that accelerate business performance. A working mother of four, Teresa is committed to creating a more inclusive world for her children and the organizations she serves.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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 small town in Northern Minnesota — just south of the Canadian border. There was German, Norwegian, and Swedish heritage primarily and there wasn’t a lot of visible diversity beyond those core ethnicities. For the first part of my childhood, I watched my mom work really hard to raise me and my sister as a single mother. My grandparents were an integral part of my upbringing and I spent a lot of time at their farm where they also role modeled hard work. That value of hard work also came through in all of the years I spent as a figure skater growing up. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. for practices before school during the week and spent countless hours on the ice each weekend — falling and getting back up again in order to be competitive. I am a first-generation college graduate in my family and the first to have a corporate job.

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?

It is a recent one, but Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead is such a powerful book. Overall, it is a call to action for all leaders to be more human, more vulnerable, more empathetic, and more inclusive. It isn’t a diversity and inclusion book per se, but her message is really about how to show up as your whole self as a leader, and how to support and encourage those on your team to do the same through the superpowers of empathy and vulnerability. In the end, that’s what inclusion is all about.

I believe the more we can normalize the language and approach to embedding diversity and inclusion into the organization by talking about vulnerability, empathy, support, compassion — the more leaders will be open to fully embracing the idea of building a more inclusive culture. Because after all, who can argue that building more curiosity, compassion, empathy and understanding into an organization isn’t beneficial for all involved? Brene has a simplistic, down-to-earth way of helping leaders understand what true leadership looks like when we are willing to set aside the armor and just show up — fully human and fully ourselves. If we can teach all leaders — all people really — to do that, our organizations and the world will be a better place no doubt.

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

I grew up living by the quote “How high I am, how much I see, how far I reach depends on me”. I really believed it back then and it reminded me that I had the strength within me to achieve whatever I wanted as long as I worked hard enough. I carried that with me into my athletics, academics, and career pursuits. Despite this being so core to who I was and how I lived growing up, it couldn’t be further from the truth for me today.

As an adult, I have come to realize that how high I am, how much I see, how far I reach is largely dependent on who I surround myself with and who I rely on to support me along the way. I am always better, more effective, always happier when I partner with others rather than trying to go it alone. Asking for help, accepting help, relying on others and realizing that I am part of something bigger — these are all things that now guide who I am and how I live.

I’ve also come to realize that while I value a strong work ethic and will always do what it takes to get a job done well, it is equally important to resist the need to constantly be working. Downtime, recovery, rejuvenation are all things that I now value equally with hard work, and that I know can also help me go far — and those things ARE dependent on me.

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

For me leadership is about creating conditions that allow people to be their best. It’s about using your voice to advocate for others, about setting a path and vision forward that people are excited to follow. It is about unearthing the potential in people and then empowering them to see that potential in themselves. Anyone can be a leader — you don’t need a title to assume the role of leadership. You just need a passion and desire to inspire others and help them be their best in order to achieve a common goal.

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?

Every time I present or participate in a meeting, I remind myself going into it that

  1. I deserve to be in the room amongst these people.
  2. The more willing I am to put my armor away and show up fully human, the more effective I’m going to be.
  3. I am here for a reason — someone needs to hear what I’m going to share in this moment so no matter what anyone else thinks, I’m going to show up for that one person and walk away knowing I made an impact.

The other thing I rely heavily on is perspective. I try to keep perspective about what is really important and not create conditions around situations that are bigger than what is actual. The way I see it, the only high stakes meetings or presentations there are the ones that I create in my mind. While some meetings are more important and some people I interact with or present to have different levels of leadership responsibility, in the end, they are all just people.

If we can strip away everything else and just connect with people on that really human level, then what we often find is that most people aren’t that scary after all. Most people soften up if you can connect with them in a meaningful way. So my number one focus is always to tap into my humanness and find a way to make a connection with whomever I am meeting with or presenting to. Once I’m able to do that, the rest of the “high stakes” situation seems to fall into place.

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?

A huge topic indeed! There are so many factors that led to today’s boiling point — which is why the self-reckoning is in no way easy. There are deep-seated, systemic, complex issues that need to be solved for and most people, organizations, and institutions don’t seem to have the time, energy or interest in doing the heavy lifting it will take to undo this crisis.

The good news is that many organizations are now stepping up to the plate and publicly declaring their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, the declaration alone is not enough and to date, not enough of them have been willing to see their commitment through in a way that will really have an impact. However, a commitment is a start and it is our job at Talking Talent to help organizations understand what they need to do now that they’ve made that commitment — help them take the next steps to do the heavy lifting.

In some ways, the unfortunate, challenging events of this past year have been a catalyst for that self-reckoning. As the wise saying goes, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Hopefully, we can collectively use this crisis to do difficult work and find the courage to then dig deep and make the changes needed to truly transform things for once and all.

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?

The way we work with clients to promote diversity and inclusion is comprehensive and focused on organization as well as behavior change. We don’t believe in raising awareness about bias but then not helping people take personal responsibility and action to address the bias. We take a coaching-led approach to our work in order to help people dig below and surface and wrestle with the complexities of these issues. Then we help equip them with tools, resources, nudge reminders, and support to help them make transformative changes that collectively will change the culture.

We also serve as truth-tellers to help organizations see their blind spots in an empathetic and supportive manner. For instance, we have a client who engaged us because they thought they should “walk the talk” around their commitment to an inclusive culture, however, they knew for sure that they were hitting the nail on the head and that we’d get confirmation of their already inclusive culture through the focus groups, interviews and survey that we conducted. To the contrary, what we found out is that the leadership team had huge blinders on and there were a lot of issues related to diversity and inclusion that needed immediate attention. We were able to use that data to paint a picture for the leadership team around the gap between their perceptions and the actual lived experiences of their employees and more importantly, help them determine the roadmap to address those gaps and improve the experience of their employees.

The goal is not to shame a client for what they aren’t doing right, but rather to help them figure out WHY the gaps exist and WHAT to do about it so that they can improve moving forward. We help clients adopt a growth mindset and coach leaders around how to build more inclusive cultures in an integrated way.

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?

Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is the best thing to do for the success of your business. There is a lot of data out there that shows the positive impact of diverse teams on innovation, agility, productivity, exceeding financial targets, meeting business outcomes, and being a high performing organization. From a practical point of view, it is becoming increasingly hard to ignore the fact that clients/customers don’t want to do business with people who they don’t identify with. Rarely is it acceptable to bring a team of all white men into a pitch for new business when the buyers around the table aren’t all white men. In addition, if an organization wants to bring the best and brightest ideas forward, a diversity of thought, opinion, experience, and perspective are necessary. A homogenous group of people isn’t going to get you that.

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.

  1. Understand the data — really understand the lived experiences of impacted populations. Compare and contrast that with the stories we believe are true and identify the gaps.
  2. Get commitment from the top — get all leaders aligned around the reality of the data. Help them internalize it. Bring it to life through story. Help them own it and make a commitment around how they will help facilitate change. Get everyone on board with the plan — providing a clear roadmap for the path forward.
  3. Upskill leadership competencies — don’t just tell leaders they need to be more inclusive, help them understand and build the core competencies that will lead to more inclusive behaviors. Most leaders want to be better, they just don’t know the extent of the problem or how to change. Teach them how to be curious, empathetic, compassionate, supportive of all employees. Help them create conditions that allow people to show up as their true selves and help them recognize the full potential of people. Coach them to overcome their own biases and influences and help them become better leaders in order to enable more inclusive cultures.
  4. Create shared understanding and language — help everyone in an organization be more mindful about their day-to-day actions and how those do or do not contribute to the inclusive culture you are striving for. Create conditions for people to connect with one another, to understand real, lived stories, to learn how to be more empathetic and intentional about supporting one another. Enable people to put their armor down, to set aside their shame, and to really grapple the full complexity of these issues in a meaningful way.
  5. Measure and hold people accountable — you can’t change what you do not measure. If we want people to buy in, we have to show the impact of these commitments. We have to hold people accountable when they don’t live by the core values and principles that the organizations and leaders have committed to.

If we can make this happen in workplaces, then we can begin to see the ripple effect outside of organizations which hopefully leads to a more inclusive, representative, equitable and I would argue empathetic society.

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

Yes. I am an optimist and believe that any issue can eventually be resolved. Yet, I’m also a realist and know that it is going to take a lot of work and time to get there. I believe we have to be honest with ourselves about that. I think we do a disservice to just be optimistic and say “this is just a rough period right now — things will get better.” How?

Things don’t just get better without a committed effort to making them better, not just lip service commitment. True commitment from the top-down, bottom-up, financially backed, baked into business objectives, and cross-functionally led. That is the way for change to happen. That is the way we get out of this “rough period”. So yes, I’m optimistic. Optimistic that organizations are going to step up to the plate and follow through on their public commitments, and that those collective efforts will slowly but surely lead us down the path of resolution.

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. 🙂

This is a tough one because so many people come to mind — Michelle Obama, Brene Brown, Glennon Doyle, the list goes on and on. I am a very curious person and love learning about people and getting inside their head to understand why they show up in the world the way they do. Because of that, I think if I had to pick just one person, I’d pick Oprah. I am so in awe of her lifelong quest to become a better version of herself. Her commitment to understanding herself and others, her service to the world, her depth of understanding about the root issues that have led to today’s “boiling point”, her willingness to be vulnerable and human in sharing her stories with others, her energy, her wide range of experiences interacting with people from all walks of life, and most of all her down-to-earth warmth and humanness all make her so admirable. I can’t imagine a breakfast or lunch being a long enough time for me to be able to ask her all of the questions I have for her, but I do know I’d walk away a better, more enlightened person who would be ready to spread her goodness to others.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can find me LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/teresahopke/

On Twitter@teresahopke

Talking Talent US LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/talking-talent-us

Or on our website www.talking-talent.com

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

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