Tracy J. Edmonds is a mom, coach, and consultant with TJE Coaching & Consulting and the author of Wild Hair, a fabulous book about how authenticity is the key to disrupting bias and enabling greater connections at work.
She is a former Chief Diversity Officer for a Fortune 500 company, and in her words, Tracy is “unlearning” much of what she learned during her 31 years in the corporate setting as she pivots to provide support for women and organizations in her new coaching and consultancy role.We wanted to unpack some of the key takeaways that Tracy shared with us during Episode 11 of the Parity Podcast.
Cathy: I love your description that you are a recovering corporate soldier as you rethink authenticity. It’s hard to be yourself when you look around, and very few, or maybe no one looks like you. Before we jump into your advice, I want to make sure that we’re all level set on what we mean by authenticity. How do you think about authenticity?
Tracy: One of the most important aspects of authenticity is being genuine, real, and true to yourself. What is authentic for one person may be totally inauthentic for another.
Just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, authenticity is a very personal thing. This is particularly important for us to remember as women and women of color because none of our walks are exactly the same. There are many similarities in terms of the journey that we experience in our careers and in our lives, but we each have different lived experiences.
Certain aspects of my lived experience, for example, make me different from another Black woman. Being true to yourself is a unique exploration of our individuality.
Cathy: That’s such a great reminder that we are all different. And it also raises the question of how do we figure out who we are. What advice do you have for people who are trying to discover their authentic self?
Tracy: Too often we are defined by the expectations of others in the various roles we play as a mom, spouse, employee, etc. We are naturally pulled in different directions and this challenges us as we put on different hats. Discovering who we are authentically is really about a journey and taking time to focus in on ourselves. I’ve discovered that there are four principles of authenticity: self-honesty, courage,confidence, and resilience. We need to discover each of these elements through self-assessment so that we can step into our fear -and through it –as we seek to have a healthy respect for our abilities and stay the course. The greatest challenge to our authenticity is being bombarded with things that have very different expectations of us than we have of ourselves.
Cathy: Your book, Wild Hair, really resonated with me. Your honesty and story-telling are empowering. What motivated you to write your book?
Tracy: I’ve always been interested in writing a book. As a child, I read and journaled a lot. The power of words was always important and known to me. So I kind of grew up thinking that one day I’d write a book but it didn’t become clear what that book would be about until I had made this 31-year corporate journey. I realized that I had been successful in many ways, but challenged in so many other ways, and that I wanted to pay it forward so that I could take that learning and share it with other women on their journey.
Cathy: In your book, you talk about your “wild hair moment.” Can you share that story with us?
Tracy: I had many moments in my career where I had what I like to call dissonance, and by that I mean a disagreement between who I was or who Iwanted to be authentically as opposed to what was expected of me. My hair is an example of this dissonance. I had been relaxing my hair since the age of 12. My mother came up in a generation where it was understood that if your appearance was closer to white person, i.e. straight hair, you were more likely to be accepted. And so for many years, I followed this routine. However, I reached a point in my life where I simply didn’t have the time to take care of my hair in that way but I was still slow to make this change.
For about five years, I put off wearing my natural hair, because I was not sure that I would be accepted for who I was. And this bothered me. It came to a head when, as the Chief Diversity Officer, I was telling everyone to be themselves but Ifelt out of integrity with myself. So I made the decision to stop relaxing my hair -I had a true wild hair moment -and I went to work with my natural, “wild hair.” This decision was freeing for me personally, but additionally, it was freeing for other women.
Cathy: I love that origin story for your book title. Tracy, let’s shift gears and talk about motherhood. We have heard from so many women about their struggles of being a mother while also being the contributor at work that they want to be. We alsoexplored unconscious bias that mothers have to navigate and were startled to learn that 50% of our coworkers think that we’re less committed to work after having children. The data shows that in fact, we become more ambitious as a group after having children. How can understanding our own authenticity help us as we struggle through this very challenging season of life?
Tracy: My husband and I have 5 kids together so I know firsthand the challenge. I recently coached a woman who was getting ready to have ababy at a time when she was rising within her organization. Her challenge was: Do I just take four weeks and come right back to work, or do I spend more time at home with my new baby?
In my coaching of her, we focused on her authentic self. What does she value? How does she see herself in the world? Through this self-exploration, it became very clear that bonding with her child was a priority for her. She did the work and had a very open conversation with her manager, who was a man, about her desire to spendtime with her family.
She stayed true to herself and her values, and she was also able to maintain her standing at work. The first step, though, is figuring out what you want.
Cathy: Your story also helps allies see how impactful they can be in the lives of mothers. I also want to ask you about vulnerability which you discuss in your book. Can you help us understand how vulnerability and authenticity overlap?
Tracy: Absolutely. The best way to explain this is through a story. When I was the CDO, I saw anemployee who appeared to be struggling with alcoholism. I was able to recognize the signs because I grew up with alcoholic parents.I decided to approach this employee and share my story with her –I made a deliberate decision to be vulnerable with her because I think I could make a difference in her life. I framed the conversation, not so much about what went on in my household, but around her situation.
It can be risky to be vulnerable, particularly for people who are underrepresented. You should only be vulnerable if your vulnerability adds value, you tell your story within context, and you own your universal truth so that if the story is retold, you won’t be embarrassed or harmed. In this situation, my vulnerability helped this employee receive the help that she needed.
Cathy: Your story really helps us see how vulnerabilitycan make impact when done the right way. I also appreciated your advice about TMI that you shared in the podcast episode, but let’s move onto one last question. A podcast listener recently asked how do you know when it’s time to leave a job? She said thatshe has been trying to change her organization’s culture but doesn’t feel likely she’s making impact. How would you answer her question?
Tracy: You know, that’s a tough question. And I have two angles for your listener to consider. One is the very personal one around values alignment. I walked away from a high-level position and what supported me in my decision to walk away from my job was that I wanted to grow.
And clearly, you know, I loved my organization. I’d been there for 31 years and the people were wonderful. But what I valued for myself was the ability to be the best me I could be. And I couldn’t do that there any longer. So that was my main reason for walking away.
So the personal piece of advice I would give is when there not values alignment, and it doesn’t have to be something like a breach of integrity, it doesn’t have to be something that great. When what you value and want for yourself no longer intersects with the organization, then it may be time to move on.
The other thing I would say, because the question was centered around culture change, is that changing a culture not easy in the execution and takes time. The organization won’t get it right all the time, but if the organization is getting it wrong more often than getting it right, thenit may be time to think about a change.
Cathy: Tracy, thank you so much for collaborating with the Parity Podcast. I hope that we can find ways to work together in the future.If you would like to hear more advice from Tracy, please check out Episode 11of the Parity Podcast.
MAKE A DIFFERENCE.