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7 Questions with Desiree S. Coleman
helps you in your leadership.
7 Questions with Desiree S. Coleman
Name: Desiree S. Coleman
Current title: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion leader
Current organisation: A Fortune 50 financial services company
Desiree S. Coleman advances equity and empowers women through speaking, writing and consulting. As a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leader at a Fortune 50 company, her superpower is helping organizations redefine and reimagine their DEI practices, while operationalizing their values.
Drawing on her experiences in the corporate, government and nonprofit arenas, she also coaches, mentors and invests in women leaders. Through the online community she founded, Queen Within, she curates women’s wellness and empowerment events, counting her daughters as her inspiration.
Desiree holds a Master of Public Administration from Syracuse University, is a Loyola Academy trustee and is the recipient of the 2019 Rising Star in D&I Award from Investment News. She was also named Hive’s 2020 Top Diversity and Inclusion Leaders of North America and received the Diverse Business Leaders award from the St. Louis Business Journal. Connect with her on social media: @desireescoleman.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
My biggest challenge is the tension between leaning into my values, making transformative change in my work and also finding space for the people who matter most to me.
As a mom, family comes first. And my daughters are my “why”. They inspire me to be the best human being that I can be. They fuel me to strive for social change and they focus me on my long-term goals.
I could never be satisfied being “successful” professionally if it came at the expense of not excelling with them personally. A Maya Angelou quote puts that into view for me. She said, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
On any work assignment, I want to leave things better than I found them. I want to create space for other people, enhance progress, and advance my organizational mission. That requires collaboration, innovation and ingenuity and that’s what I bring to my work each day. I try to lead with excellence, kindness and treating people the way I want to be treated. That requires me to carve out intentional space to spend time with my girls, making time to play, travel (post-COVID) and just be together.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
My journey to corporate leadership had twists and turns. I studied international business in undergrad, focusing on business and Spanish language. After graduating from the AmeriCorps program and having the opportunity to volunteer in the Appalachian region, on a Native American reservation, and in impoverished schools, I knew that I needed to marry my personal passion of bettering the world with my professional goals. So, I pursued a Master of Public Administration. I landed in Washington, DC and participated in a management fellowship program. I eventually landed a role as the Director of Education and Workforce Development at the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. I ran an $11 million budget with the staff of 10 and transformed the way the kids accessed school and work. From there, I did a cross country move and changed sectors to work at United Way in high net worth donor relations. Then, I parlayed that experience into a role leading Community Relations at my current employer. As a Fortune 50 company, we have a large footprint and I led the strategic planning effort to create a strategy that was responsive to community needs. Then, I was asked to step into my current role leading diversity, equity, and inclusion for the 20,000 employees in my line of business.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I set my alarm to wake up to music to set a calm tone for the day. Before starting my day, I like to do some stretches and meditation to get grounded and focus. And because I practice a Christian faith tradition, I’ll also mix prayer in there too. From there, I wake my daughters up and then I start getting ready. I will undoubtedly return just a few minutes later to wake them up again… I’m rarely successful on the first try. We do this charade until about the third time when they finally get going. After breakfast, I drive them to school.
On the ride to school, we talk about current events, what’s on their mind, funny videos we saw, and everything in between. I always ask them if they’re going to have a good day at school and I remind them that it’s their choice how they approach their day. On the drive back home, I usually listen to an audio book. I have a rotating queue of audiobooks on race, gender, history and faith, so I try to squeeze in time here and there to finish books.
I’m working remotely, so when I get home, I start my workday. I try to log on before most people have started working so that I can clear out my email because once the meetings start, it’s off to the races. After work, I log off and respond to personal emails and check social media.
When my girls get home from school in the evening, I pause whatever I’m doing to give them my attention. We’ll talk about their day and how school went. They’ll get started on homework. I’m really trying to focus on mind, body, and spirit wellness and eating well. So, I’ve started a vegan journey. So, after I get them situated on their homework, I make dinner. While I’m making dinner I’m usually listening to a podcast.
We always sit down at the table and have dinner together. Then, I start the night time routine with the girls. I tuck them in (usually twice at their request) and we say our prayers.
After that, I finally have a moment to myself to check in with family and friends usually via text but sometimes for a phone call. Then, I will shower and get ready for bed and do it all over again.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
What's the best advice you've ever gotten?
Do it afraid!
The absence of fear is not the signal that you should proceed. There may always be a nagging feeling in your stomach or reticence that you can’t achieve a certain goal. But I believe it’s important to muster courage to achieve our dreams. Courage is when you stare fear in the face, acknowledging what you’re feeling and then choosing to act anyway. Courage is necessary to get beyond where you’ve previously been.
I think it’s important to note that the sum of who we are includes things outside of work. So a recent significant leadership lesson stems out of the online community @queenwithinyou that I founded to focus on women’s empowerment.
In 2019, I started dreaming about how to bring women from around the globe together for a space of positivity, empowerment and wellness. I knew it was a heavy lift but I mapped out a plan & identified gaps in my knowledge. In 2020, I formed a team, learned how to shoot video, cut/edit video, developed a media plan & tapped into social media influencers. I also honed skills in grantwriting, foundation donations, & corporate partnerships. The process definitely stretched me and I learned a lot.
Because this event was outside of my day to day skill domain, it caused me to doubt abilities. However, partners, collaborators and philanthropy organizations, like the Missouri Foundation for Health, same alongside me- helping me and investing in my vision to prioritize health and wellbeing – especially for women of color.
We hosted the event on December 13, 2020. And in the end, over 1000 women from 30 states and Canada, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Australia, Nigeria, and participated! My team successfully pulled off an interactive women’s empowerment & virtual wellness experience and I couldn’t have been more pleased with the results. Although there were many points along the way when I felt unsure, I kept pushing. And the result was a dynamic event that helped participants nourish the mind, body, & spirit. The overall experience reminded me that courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is feeling fear and then making the decision to do it afraid! As leaders, we all need to tap into courage continuously and choose to push past fear.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
The New Jim Crow is a prolific book by Michelle Alexander. Through data, she shows how mass incarceration is an evolved form of degradation and control, similar to the Jim Crow era rules of the 1900’s. She discusses the ways in which the school to prison pipeline, disparities in prison sentencing guidelines and the over-policing of communities of color have led to the mass incarceration of communities of color. Some would argue that these systems produce devastating outcomes for communities of color because ‘the systems are broken’. However, Alexander argues that the systems are not broken. On the contrary, she believes that the data shows that these systems are performing exactly as they were designed to perform, albeit discriminatory. She says, “We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up and locked out or headed for prison before they are old enough to vote. We could seek for them the same opportunities we seek for our own children; we could treat them like one of “us.” We could do that. Or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegates them to a permanent second-class status for life. That is the path we have chosen, and it leads to a familiar place.”
Systems level change and achieving racial equity are inextricably connected. One comprehensive document that outlines racial equity is the Ferguson Commission Report. The report highlights the way that systems level change and racial equity go hand in hand. It says,
“We have not moved beyond race. St. Louis does not have a proud history on this topic, and we are still suffering the consequences of decisions made by our predecessors. However, it’s important to understand that racial inequity in our region is not the same as individual racism. We are not pointing fingers and calling individual people racist. We are not even suggesting that institutions or existing systems intend to be racist. What we are pointing out is that the data suggests, time and again, that our institutions and existing systems are not equal, and that this has racial repercussions. Black people in the region feel those repercussions when it comes to law enforcement, the justice system, housing, health, education, and income.”
Housing, law enforcement, income, health, education, and justice systems reveal widening racial disparities that allow you predict an individual‘s life outcomes based on their race. This shows that racial equity has not been achieved. We can do better. We need systems that works for everyone. We have to prioritize new and evolved systems that work for everyone. The book compels me to ask my colleagues and fellow leaders, “What can you do from your position of leadership, place of influence or in your personal circle to advance racial equity?”
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
Building relationships is critical to growing your leadership effectiveness in a large enterprise. For my work in diversity, equity and inclusion, that looks like establishing a rapport, getting to know other people and understanding what drives them. It’s being curious about their life experiences and probing to learn what’s on their mind. If you approach relationships putting the other person first, you are bound to make authentic connections.
In reflection, relationships have actually been the currency that has fueled my career. I have been able to accomplish so much by working through other people and collaborating with folks. I am authentically a people person so I actually really enjoy building a rapport with partners from many sectors by being interested in who they are as a person. It’s been a win-win because it has super charged my work.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
I once had the opportunity to present to a CEO and his leadership team. I had been leading an effort to mobilize partners from across various business units and roll out a new process that was going to transform and catalyze our impact. There was a junior associate who was a rockstar and had been working with me on the project. She had created this really amazing framework to describe our progress.
Earlier in my career, when I was in her shoes as a junior associate, there were times when my superiors would ask me to lead an effort and once it gained traction, they would swoop in, take all the credit and leave me feeling deflated. While I understand hierarchy and the need for deference at times, I could never understand how a true leader could make themselves feel big by making others feel small.
When the moment for the presentation arrived – I passed the mic – and asked the junior associate to present her work. She crushed it and I didn’t lose one thing by positioning her as a leader and giving her a moment to shine. Instead, it was a transformative moment for me to be the type of leader that I wished that I would have had the opportunity to have. I always try to give credit where credit is due, say people’s names when they’re not in the room and open doors for others. These are practices that I try to live by.