This interview is the sixteenth in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership.
Miecha Forbes, Vice President, People, Culture and Values, Koya Leadership Partners
Unapologetic. Unafraid. Authentically me.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
This is one of the hardest questions for me. I was trying to find something that was succinct and actually captured what has been a career-long journey for me. There have definitely been so many lessons along the way. (Miecha Forbes pictured at right.)
One thing came to mind that may sound silly. I usually give a copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss as a gift for graduations. There is something about taking a moment to honor the transitions and changes in your life. My headline would be a book title: Oh, The Places You’ve Been. So much of what I’ve done personally and professionally I bring and carry with me; it’s never too far away from who I am, how I operate and make decisions — for good or bad.
The other thing that popped into my mind (as a sports fanatic) and that represents where I am in my journey now is “The Main Event.” I’ve been training, preparing, and practicing my craft. I’m at a point where I’m making the decisions I want to make and influencing policies and practices in my firm within my scope of influence. I’ve been preparing for this for a very long time.
What are some of your career highlights?
I would include my venturing into education reform and leaving education reform as two of the biggest highlights so far. Venturing in I was full of passion and excitement. I remember my favorite question during the interview process: If this were a chapter in a book, what would it be called? My answer was “The Marriage.” I had deep human resource experience and a passion for education. It was my personal mission to change education and this role was a marriage of the two. Continuing with that analogy, it was a beautiful marriage but not always easy. I learned a lot about myself. I learned how decisions were made at the macro and micro levels, who really had power in certain organizations, and where the power to change and make change resided. For good and bad, that is a lesson that definitely sticks with me. I was surprised at times how some decisions were really made. It was eye opening to see how decisions were made and also, on the positive side, to see that there are so many passionate people like myself who cared so deeply about education. They woke up thinking about it…went to sleep thinking about it. That stayed with me. My educational journey has shaped my life. My desire to change the system came from personal education experience. It was amazing to work alongside those types of people.
Leaving education reform was the acceptance that I could make change without having to be in an education reform organization. I thought I had to be in it — at the table, sleeves rolled up, fighting the good fight. I realized that given my personal style and how I handled the ups, downs, and emotional magnitude of education work, it was better to be tangential rather than in it. I was more effective in a different place. It was a tough lesson to admit, but when I did, it was empowering and also a relief.
I moved from education reform to Koya where I was in consulting and all my clients were initially education organizations. It was affirming to see that I could make change and influence these organizations in a different way at a different scale. My voice was heard differently, or I felt more control of my voice in that space than when I was inside education reform organizations. Those definitely were two really pivotal moments in my career so far that shaped me.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
I learned early on that I’m a builder; I like to be in organizations when they are in building mode. Some may call it a startup junkie or a perpetual builder. As I’ve gotten older, I think more like a sustainer. For a long time, I was interested in creating something: healthy practices and procedures to deliver great work. I was at organizations during times of significant growth and I was the first in my role. I loved building from what I knew, adding a creative spin, and rolling it out. That was invigorating to me. Building is a challenge I like.
Another challenge I like is helping a group of decision makers understand and see differently from the way they think. Today I call it challenging bias, but I didn’t know what it was back then. For instance, when a hiring manager says a candidate may not be the “right fit,” I ask them to tell me more about what they mean by that. I force them to think maybe that’s not the most appropriate way to view a candidate or that they shouldn’t be making a decision about this candidate’s career based on this information they are prioritizing. I felt like that was the work for me where I found the most gratification: in moments when a hiring manager said, “I looked at this candidate differently because you helped me see that I might have been misguided or shortsighted in how I initially viewed their candidacy.” Prioritizing pedigree, where they went to school, or the fact that someone they knew called to say the candidate was great carries a lot of weight in organizations that move really fast and are results-driven.
I enjoy illuminating for someone a different way of seeing things — particularly people. Often people would see me and paint a picture of where I went to school. I would help them see that a lot of their assumptions were just that: assumptions. This helped to open the gates for me to become more of an activist with diversity, equity, and inclusion. It created a spark in me that it’s not just important to do, but it IS the work. I can carve out space in my everyday work that is about diversity, equity, and inclusion and I didn’t think that earlier in my career.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
It’s hard to narrow down to one book. Is the book a leadership book or something that personally changed me to act differently? In terms of leadership style, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni (actually anything by Lencioni) was critical for my understanding and helped me to diagnose some things I was seeing around me and counteract and address those common dysfunctions. It changed the way I operated with managers and how to speak to the issues that were happening. I read it back in 2007 and it was a game changer.
Courageous Conversations about Race by Glenn Singleton changed me as person enough that it influenced the way I carry myself in this work. (It’s interesting neither one of those books moved me to tears like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I read as a youngster.) Not that kind of impact, but at the moment in time when I read it, it helped me to see myself in a different way and really helped me to embrace certain things about myself. I developed a way of operating that made me feel more confident in the way I interacted with others. I’m big on storytelling and learning through storytelling. Courageous Conversations helped me do that and validate things in my heart, mind, and spirit.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
I’d have to say that this is not one incident, but there have been multiple times when I felt conflicted as head of recruiting and as a Black woman. As head of recruiting I may have felt and understood why a manager would make a certain decision, why a certain person would get promoted, but sometimes I would be conflicted since the African American woman in me would feel it was based on shortsightedness and a lack of willingness to nurture potential talent. It was a struggle to see people get passed over who were similar to me — other women, other people of color — get passed over because they didn’t demonstrate certain criteria for promotion or get hired into a role. They didn’t have the opportunities, but you need proof that the person can do the job because the stakes are high and the pace is fast. There is an emphasis on proven ability in this area as opposed to potential. Very few people are willing to take a chance on potential, often at the expense of emerging leaders of color. I would sit and listen to people say that a candidate can’t see at the 50,000-foot level or think strategically. Yet when that person tries to share their expertise they are shut down. It’s a vicious cycle. I said women, but men of color too — they are so few and far between. They are caught in a cycle of being told that they are not strategic enough, they don’t get promoted or have opportunities to blossom at that level, and then they lose their confidence. It was distressing and disappointing.
As a Black woman it is incredibly challenging to see that happen. My personal value is to take a chance on potential. Setting aside the competency rubric and stepping away from what the formal process pieces say (LinkedIn profiles and resumes) and basing a decision on what I need in this role and how the candidate will impact the community, students, and families in the way that the organization needs. Too often that conversation wasn’t had. If I stand up for this person, then I become the recruiter who cannot separate her personal identity from this process and stick to processes to hire candidates. I felt like I would have more power if I wasn’t a person of color to encourage those candidates. I’ve learned hard lessons of when to fight and when to acquiesce.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
(Chuckling.) I love Aunt Maxine! When I think about reclaiming my time I see it two-fold. One aspect is about continuing to speak on something even when you have a lot of detractors or naysayers. Continuing down that path is reclaiming my time even when others want me to move on. Sometimes I need to know when to fight hard for that emerging leader rather than giving up too early. I have earned the right to be completely honest without thinking my personal background influences that. I continue to push when others feel it’s time to move on. On a big issue or in a micro level meeting, this can come to a head. It can be tough for women in general, but for Black women it can feel loaded. People will react to you in a way like Mrs. Waters — attacking her character. You must press on in the name of what you believe in.
The other way reclaiming my time comes to life for me is taking back time from stuff that is not necessarily something I should do. Many times, as a Black woman, I felt like I needed to go above and beyond to show that I was a good teammate and good sport. I would be the first to show up and step up. Reclaiming time is recognizing that there are people who can step up other than you. Reclaiming the best use of your time…in one sense you’ve paid your dues, and the other is that you don’t always have to prove that you are a good teammate. I sometimes still do that: prove I am on board because I don’t want to be perceived as the angry Black woman. As a leader, you need to reclaim time to be doing that which can’t be done by everyone. Some activities may not be the best way for me to spend my time. It takes a long time to get there, but I don’t need to prove that I play nicely in the sandbox. I grapple with how I spend my time on the things that are really crucial, which kind of goes back to asking for help. There’s a whole pathology around that for Black women that would be an entirely separate interview!
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
I probably don’t do enough but I am starting to be more intentional about it, partly as a parent of kids who span different age groups. I can’t carve out a lot of time for spa days as much as I’d like to. What I’ve started doing lately is find quiet time in my day when I can turn off — usually late at night. I am a night owl. In quiet moments, I watch something that makes me laugh and am able to turn off my brain.
Prayer and meditation is very therapeutic and I can do that anywhere. Music is incredible therapy for me as well and always has been. Oftentimes, my kids joke when they get in the car if the music turns on and is blasting, it’s because mom was “having a drive.” This is my time and my moment.
I hate that lately I don’t have as much time to connect with my girlfriends and sorority sisters. I have the greatest group of sister friends who really get me and challenge me to see things in a way that still honors who I am. They are really good accountability partners and fact check things in my world. They are really good for laughter, which is therapeutic.
I wish I could say I have these grandiose moments and take myself on trips. I had a baby at 40 so I’m not back there yet. I travel and have a husband that travels. I need to steal away the moments for myself, for my sanity. That’s my self-care: staying true to myself.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
I think (and I get to share some of this with people in a coaching capacity) sit and be still. Let the voices quiet down, think about what makes you happy, what gives you energy, and find where those intersect. It’s hard to sustain oneself in the nonprofit space, but when you’re working at the intersection of passion and skills is when you find your purpose. That’s where you are supposed to be and that gives added energy. Recognize what you should be doing.
For those who have found their purpose, my biggest advice is about finding your voice. You don’t find it, however, until you use it. There may be misperceptions and assumptions (about what you say) yet sometimes you have to take those chances to see the power of your voice. As a natural-born introvert, I often stayed quiet thinking it was better to do so. Then someone else would say what I wanted to say and get promoted or get the credit. You’re going to fail and find lessons in the failure and you have to be okay with that.
Speak up. Understand your influence and your scope of responsibilities. Lean in and use your voice. Not using it is not going to serve any one.