Walking the Walk: Inside Our Team’s Values Excavation

This is the first in a 2-part series on the Leverage to Lead team undergoing our own values excavation. Read about why we needed to do it, how it went, and what’s changed for us since.

Since 2020, Leverage to Lead has tripled in size. Our team now includes Jennifer McClanahan-Flint, MJ Mathis, Joy Turner, Aubrey Jones, Kim Ho, Dione Lee, and Quise Rodriguez. Along with all that exciting growth came shifting dynamics, unspoken cultural norms, practices, expectations, and more negotiation of relationships, structures, and responsibilities. 

This June, we realized that the Leverage to Lead team needed to turn inward and face a task we require of any organization that works with us: a values excavation. We needed to get clear about our team’s purpose, goals, and values. And we needed to take an honest look at how we were living up to our values, or not. 

With the help of Alison Park at Blink Consulting, we came together seeking clarity, which came, eventually, but not without some difficult conversations, bracing feedback, hard questions, fear, frustration, and confusion. Here’s a spoiler alert: these were two of the hardest meetings we have ever been through together. 

We stretched ourselves emotionally. 

We said things we were afraid to say. 

We disagreed with each other. 

As we recalled the story for this article, we realized that some parts were missing from our memory, (luckily, Joy took really good notes) indicating that we were tunneling in and a little overwhelmed with the experience.

We want to share that experience with you over the next two newsletters, even though it was messy, vulnerable, and hard. Because we believe, with more certainty than ever, that values work is the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

 

The Value of Growing Pains

The summer George Floyd was murdered, Leverage to Lead received more calls from organizations than we could handle. At that time, the team was just Jennifer and MJ, who created, facilitated, and managed all the DEI work for every client. To meet the surge in demand from companies seeking deep and lasting transformation, we brought on Joy as a Leadership Coach and Facilitator and Kim as an HR Consultant. Then, to fulfill our goal of serving as a recruiting, networking, and talent advisement source, we added Aubrey to the team. And now that the team was a team, we asked Kim to head our internal HR department as well as consulting with clients. 

In what seemed like a blink of a few years, Jennifer went from being a solo practitioner to a CEO. Her unexpected journey didn’t have a roadmap for the organization’s growth. Instead, she sought expansion in ways that felt right but were tied to a long-term strategy.

“The dynamics of the team were shifting,” recalls MJ. “We were bumping up against the challenges that come when more people are involved in the work.”

Jennifer adds that the process of building the team had not been formalized. “We’ve seen many organizations face these same dilemmas during growth and expansion. People were onboarding in very different ways. Which somewhat made sense because people do very distinct work and not everyone works together in the same ways. But not having a clear onboarding system mattered a lot because Quise was about to join our team. We couldn’t move forward without stopping to work on our values. Everything else needed to be paused.”

Lack of procedural and structural clarity confused the day-to-day work. For Joy, it meant knowing there was a company culture, but never having it articulated. “It didn’t feel organizational, it felt interpersonal. At first, I assumed I could observe and learn. But I wasn’t sure of the expectations.”

In light of these challenges and frustrations, and with Aubrey and Kim adding a two whole new departments and set of services to the company, the team needed to get clear on individual and shared values if they wanted more cohesion, less friction, and real relationships that would help them do hard work with clients.

 

The First Meeting

Everyone remembers a different version of that first meeting. For Jennifer, the team was inexplicably quiet, while she expected the conversation to come rather easily to a group of DEI practitioners. When people began naming their frustrations, Jennifer felt “baffled, surprised, taken off guard. The frustrations and responsibility were all coming straight at me. I know the buck stops here, but in the moment, I was thinking, we’re all participating in this!”

“What I was expecting,” Jennifer continues, “was for everyone to come together to figure it out. And that’s not what happened. I saw us building something new together. But they saw a lack of leadership and structure. The dissonance was really frustrating. It was a big challenge to actually see the organization the way others were seeing it, not just the way I wanted to see it.”

No one else remembers the first meeting as quiet. Joy recalls the facilitator’s toughest question: What would you like to start doing, stop doing, and continue doing? “These may sound like general, organizational questions,” Joy reflects, “but ANY answer has a clear direction: criticism at Jennifer because she is the boss. So, even giving the simplest feedback, such as, ‘We need to be clearer about when a conversation’s purpose is brainstorming and when it’s decision making,’ felt super uncomfortable.”

Aubrey shared in the discomfort. “During the first conversation, I wondered if we were ever going to get to our values without imploding. Knowing what we do with our clients, I anticipated some discomfort and difficulty, but there was far more of both than I ever thought.” 

The tension and heightened emotions of the meeting demanded everyone’s vulnerability and humanity, and all our reactions indicate how risky that feels, even with people you know and respect. None of us can say we enjoyed that first meeting, but we knew that the process mattered as much as the outcome. 

 

So, this is What Our Clients Go Through

One thing we all agree on is that our empathy for our clients grew during this experience. 

We thought about our clients often while sitting with our discomfort and vulnerability, searching for the courage to show up, give hard feedback, listen deeply, and hold space for everyone’s full humanity. 

We came to appreciate how scary it can feel to do this work with your supervisor in the room, with your direct reports in the room, with people who you don’t want to let down, offend, or ruin relationships with. 

We sat with the uncertainty of not yet knowing the impact of our words or the outcome of the meeting.

We experienced the cognitive dissonance that comes with hearing viewpoints that challenged the way we understood ourselves, our work, and how others perceive the way we show up.

We heard our inner protestations, “But I’m a good person!” or “ I’m good at my job!” trying to deflect from really listening to difficult feedback.

We felt the importance of fully acknowledging and being accountable for past behaviors, despite how desperately we wanted to just “move on.”

We finished the first session knowing that between now and the next one, we would have to find a way to process our emotions and keep showing up for work and for our clients. 

In our next newsletter, we’ll share what happened in our second meeting, how we used the Leverage to Lead framework to help get us through the values work, what we learned about psychological safety, and much more. 

If you or your organization are ready to talk about your own values excavation, contact any member of our team.

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