By Eva D. Coleman
L. Michelle Smith knows strategy. From Fortune-ranked companies to small businesses, she’s served as the adviser, motivator, and guide for leaders; helping them build brands and get the most from teams that support them. While being a driven leader is admirable, COVID-19 takes even the best navigators on a detour into territories unknown. Leadership in the coronavirus era is remarkably different, yet some things are the same. Self-care riding alongside you is important. In looking for direction, during the pandemics of COVID-19 and racial unrest, it’s important to understand that leaders are people too. “Most folks are just trying to keep it together from a personal perspective,” Smith said. Survival is keenly related to the order of things, and the longtime expert on the intersection of technology and culture provides methodology in lining things up.
“The hierarchy that I provide starts with self,” Smith said. “It prioritizes mind, body, and spirit first; and that’s even before we get to the whole life; and then under that, we have career.” The self-care doctrine begins with gaining an understanding that making “self” a priority is not selfish at all, but vital to sustainability in all priorities of life. “You have to start with yourself, and what I’m finding is a lot of leaders, especially women, lead themselves at the end; and so, they’re empty,” the Texas Christian University graduate said. “What can you do for your family and kids if you’re empty? How can you be your best performing self in your career?”
Asking those questions while attempting to keep your engine running are compounded when dealing with multiple societal issues. “What we’re finding too is, we are being inundated with bad news every day,” she continued. “There are some glimmers of hope there, that’s for sure, but it’s very easy to get inundated and overwhelmed with the challenges that our society is facing and also we as Black people.” Smith has consulted a multitude of leaders across a diverse spectrum; however, she prioritizes familiar groups of which she can also relate to their life experiences.
“While I will serve and support anyone, I have a sweet spot in my heart for Black women and women of color and women in general,” Smith said. Her company, no silos communications llc (NSC), provides many services that propel women forward. Her passion for seeing women succeed is so evident, that some of her sessions are offered for free. She’s observed historical roles of women often carried over into their ascent to leadership. “If we have the means to let go of something, meaning offload or delegate something that is making us burn the candle on both ends, we most certainly should,” Smith said.
“Many women guilt themselves into thinking because they saw their moms make three meals a day, clean the house themselves, that even though they are an executive at a Fortune 500 company, with the means to actually get help to do those things, that they shouldn’t.” Leading during this era is categorically different; so much so that she has given it a name. “I call it the ‘Three Beasts of the Apocalypse’,” she said. “One being COVID-19, the other one being this civil rights movement that is supposed to be the biggest one in humankind, in history, and then, of course, a catastrophic failure in leadership at the highest levels of our country.” The racial incidents that have resulted in recent protests have existed and been commonplace for Black people, which Smith says is “generational trauma” that yields other questions.
“This is our life, but now suddenly we see the whole world coming to our side, and even that is a little off-putting,” she said. “It’s a glimmer of hope, but then you have to wonder, ‘Why is everybody waking up now?’” The result is added pressure for Black leaders to respond. “These are things that we already know about, were already weighing on us, but now, we’re burdened with trying to have to explain it on behalf of our companies,” Smith said. “But this movement is bigger than just police and we understand it to be about systemic racism, and when that’s the issue, you compound what goes on at work and when you just live your life.” While many companies have newly created positions of diversity officers added to their ranks, the core issue remains.
“We have companies that have shunned the word ‘Black’ to begin with until now,” Smith said. “We’re seeing it in statements, but we have companies that have shunned the word ‘racism’ in lieu of fancier words… ‘macroaggressions’ or ‘implicit’ or ‘unconscious bias.’ They might say ‘conscious bias’, but you rarely hear it. But the thing about unconscious bias is this, we all have it.” For the long-time member of the National Association of Black Journalists, the wordplay is no match for change that needs to take place. “So here we are trying to use ‘inclusion’ as a way to stifle out something that’s very, very real, and that’s racism.”
Smith questions the reality of how the burden for ‘see something, say something’ remains and can be riddled with consequences. “Why is it always incumbent upon Black people to call it out, and then when we do, we’re made uncomfortable?” She added, “We’re maybe even pushed out. It’s a very, very interesting situation, because all of a sudden, there’s this great awakening of really, a lot of good-hearted people that are speaking up on social media and they’re marching in the streets, but the question remains, ‘What happens next?’”
As leaders grapple with uncertainty in their own lives, executive coach Smith helps them redirect their focus. “Well, I encourage them to read the tea leaves. There are some things that we know to be true. What we do is we first take stock of the things we know,” Smith said. “When you’re in a situation of uncertainty, what you have to do is assess what could happen, know what is happening, and plan accordingly.” As a trainer in helping others create extensive plans, she emphasizes the value of simplicity in approach. “And sometimes the plan isn’t this strategic thing with goals, strategies, and tactics,” Smith said. “Sometimes it’s a list. Sometimes it’s just a checklist of things that you know to be true, and that will allow you to kind of have some control over what could be next.” As society attempts to wrap its arms around a longstanding issue that has been avoided, for Smith, the leader of this charge is clear.
“We can raise our voices, but the way racism is set up, there’s the oppressed and there’s the oppressor; and the oppressed are in no position to right the ship,” she explained. With her sincere love for women leaders, she encourages women to lead their own lives first before attempting to lead someone else, resoundingly saying, “Especially in a world that has deprioritized it.” Smith is sharing her expertise on a number of levels. She’s an adjunct professor of strategic communications at the TCU Bob Schieffer College of Communications where she also sits on the Board of Visitors, and she is also a member of the International Coaching Federation and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Smith’s new book, No Thanks, 7 Ways to Say I’ll Just Include Myself: A Guide to Rockstar Leadership for Women of Color in the Workplace, was released August 2020 and is currently available at various retailers and online. To learn more, visit lmichellesmith.com.
TIPS FROM L. MICHELLE SMITH: Six Ways Black People Can Lead During COVID-19 and The New Civil Rights Movement
• Ensure that your priorities are in order: Self, Home, and Career
• Even if you aren’t impacted directly, know that COVID-19 and systemic racism impact you daily. Both can be invisible killers—of our bodies, our careers, our livelihoods.
• Corporate Professionals & Small Business Owners: Ask for what you want now. This is a key moment in time. It won’t always be here.
• Corporate Professionals: Beware of being too eager to speak on behalf of your company during this time. Are they really doing the best they can for you in your career and your other Black colleagues?
• Part of self-care is resisting the urge to explain everything to allies and others; or even taking in the news 24/7.
• Find your own way to impact change. Not everyone will be able to get in the streets and march. What can you do?