Ezra’s Black Coaches On Building Relationships And Shifting Perceptions
In celebration of Black History Month, Ezra's coaching talent manager sat down with some of our incredible Black coaches to hear their experience working as a Black minority in a white-dominated field. By highlighting some of the issues they’ve experienced along the way, we hope to learn from them to create a future where diversity and inclusion is the norm, not the exception.
When I asked Pamelia Robinson to tell me about starting her career as an executive coach, she acknowledged that it was, at times, an uphill battle.
Not because she didn’t have the credentials or experience to provide guidance to business leaders; all told, Pamelia has more than 30 years of varied experience in the business world.
The challenge was that Pamelia is Black.
Although there are more Black leadership coaches now than ever before, they are still a minority in the profession. And, as Pamelia told me, that meant getting past her own anxiety about how clients would react to her.
“One of my fears, when I started to work as a coach, was that if someone sees my face they might not want to work with me,” she said. “They might not look any further to see my credentials or my bio. I have faced a lot of racism in my career. Some of it was covert, some of it was open. Some of it wasn’t racism but sexism because we are women coming into a male-dominated field.”
However, through her business career, Pamelia had developed a keen understanding of the power of relationships and how even the smallest gesture can overcome initial hesitancy. “I know from experience that if you can find one thing that connects you with your client, then the door opens just a crack and you can make a connection.”
During Black History Month, I contacted a number of Ezra’s Black coaches to reflect on their experiences, both as people and as professionals. Their experiences as Black people are all unique, but they’ve all been subjected – at one time or another – to the same structures, systems and pervasive culture definitions.
It’s not surprising that most of our Black coaches do not necessarily want to be defined by the color of their skin. They want to be seen and judged as “coaches” first and foremost. But their experiences in a profession that has been dominated by mostly white, mostly male coaches are particularly poignant in an era of heightened awareness about systemic racism.
The fact is that most of our Black coaches were forging their own paths in this profession long before the world’s attention was drawn to a new debate about racism. Coaches like Sunmbo Durosola, who left a successful career in human resources and coaching in Nigeria and relocated to Alberta, Canada more than a decade ago.
Sunmbo told me that the most important qualities he can bring to his work as a coach are the same ones he used to build a new life in Canada, and they continue to serve him well in building relationships with coaching clients.
“Imagine that you come from Africa, where you are successful and on top of your game,” he said. “And then you drop everything and immigrate to Canada. The first thing you would have to do is to forget everything you know and start over again. And that requires humility, curiosity and commitment. Those are the qualities I use as a coach to build relationships with my clients.
“What I do is to show up, strike up a conversation and educate people who are curious to know who I am. It’s a path of education that allows me to close the gap between who they think we are, and who we really are. And they will see that we are really the same.”
I heard many of the same themes from Marcia Buxton, an executive coach in London, UK, who said there is still a challenge when she first meets a prospective client to get beyond certain expectations. “There is a natural, almost automatic assumption that coaches will be white and male. But that has never stopped me from connecting with my clients.”
Marcia said the global reckoning about systemic racism has sparked interest in many organizations to engage with Black coaches and other human resource professionals.
“All of a sudden, people realized we’re here, and they’re interested in what we have to say because of the heightened recognition of systemic racism. People want help. They want help for their boards, or their chairmen, or other leaders to deal with their own racism. I’m not going to say it’s not a challenge. And it’s disappointing sometimes. But it’s an opportunity to open minds.”
Can all minds be opened? Marcia told me about how she was called to a meeting with a prospective client organization to discuss a coaching engagement for an up-and-coming leader who also happened to be Black.
“When I first met this manager, he didn’t ask me about the coaching assignment, he asked about my hair,” she said. “He said he really wanted to meet me and see me in person. That is the kind of bias that we have to deal with. People bring up things like your hair to diminish you, even if they don’t know they’re doing it.”
The experience has been similar for Tangi James-Boone, an experienced executive coach working in Philadelphia, PA. As has been the case with many other Ezra coaches, Tangi has struggled with the assumptions that some people make about what a coach looks and sounds like.
However, Tangi learned early in life that kindness and openness can go a long way to bridging the divide between preconceptions and reality.
“My father was a minister and we grew up around the church in what I think was a rather sheltered life,” she said. “My mom always told us we didn’t have a lot of things, but we had a lot of love. I really didn’t experience much racism or trauma until I was in my 20s. I was always taught that if you did what you were supposed to do and treated people like you want to be treated, then you’d be okay. It hit me hard when I learned that it doesn’t always work that way.”
In her coaching practice, Tangi said she has worked to retain those values she gained earlier in her life to remain open and authentic with her clients.
“Like any good leader, a coach needs to listen and have the courage to ask the hard questions, and to not hold judgment about the responses,” she said. “If you want to understand someone who is different from you, you have to ask questions and be open to the answers they give you. That’s what I strive to do every day in my coaching.”
These stories are particularly important during this, Black History Month. This is our opportunity to not only celebrate the experiences of Black people everywhere, but also to emphasize that we all want to be defined not by who we appear to be, or how others sought to define us before we were born, but who we have become despite those preconceptions.
Our mission at Ezra is to make coaching available to everyone, regardless of gender, age, race, sexuality, or identity, through our coaching app. We’re proud of our global coaching bench, but we know that we can always do better. We’re constantly recruiting to make sure our coaches represent the rich diversity of our society too. Find out more about how to join us as a coach here.