Change from the Inside Out: Coaching as a Tool for Advancing Racial Equity

How can mid-level leaders identify what is within their power to change when they don’t hold the top position? How can they develop their own management skills to lead with equity at the center?

The status quo in most institutions’ leadership and organizational development efforts is that all too often “executive coaching” is reserved for top leaders and periodic, one-off trainings for everyone else. This makes the coaching initiative being pioneered by NAS and Barr Foundation all the more visionary and cutting edge, with its focus on making coaching more broadly accessible and its strategic targeting of mid-level and emerging leaders within arts organizations.

Coaching is a deep investment of time and money, which is why it’s been a privilege only those in top organizational positions could enjoy, or those who by luck or by pluck pursued their own coaching opportunities for personal and professional development. Yet coaching could be such a powerful lever for change, through unlocking individual leadership potential and unearthing possibilities for new solutions, that organizations would be wise to consider the insights and data NAS is collecting as this initiative unfolds.

But what exactly is coaching, and what is the coaching process? As shared by NAS Director Sunny Widmann, coaching is: A thought provoking and co-creative process where you and a coach embark on a journey of self-discovery to inspire you and maximize your personal and professional potential. The co-creative process itself helps to develop and create new knowledge by tapping into the innate wisdom of the client as well as the coach’s partnership in guiding and drawing out the expertise of those they serve.

Being someone situated myself in the middle levels of a large institution, I especially appreciated that the initiative is focused on mid-level and emerging leadership. This is strategic in so many ways. As shared in research featured at one of last year’s conference sessions, very often, BIPOC middle managers are the “catalyst class” for driving change in the public sector. Meanwhile, glass ceilings and white patriarchal supremacy also mean that very few BIPOC, women, and transgender leaders ever reach the top echelons of mainstream organizations.

Yet despite the challenges (or maybe because of them), mid-level leaders are also well-situated to champion equity and change, operating from that in-between space within organizations from which to take a systemic view and to build more decentralized, democratized influence. But as fascinating and full of potential as it can be, this undertaking also leaves people feeling over stretched, under supported and isolated while navigating complex and political dynamics.

“Managing up, sideways, and down—it’s a precarious situation to be in,” as Deryn Dudley, Ph.D., director of Learning, Evaluation and Engagement at NAS and a coach herself, put it.

The initiative trains and certifies coaches from the arts and cultural field, to support practitioners in the field with advanced skills such as change management, having difficult and courageous conversations, greater self-awareness, personal growth, and leadership style development. To learn more about the program or apply to be matched with a coach, visit NAS Leadership Coaching.