When it comes to professional success, landing the job is just the first step, says LaTonya Wilkins.
A Consortium alum from Indiana University Kelley School of Business, Wilkins is a professional speaker, facilitator and coach, helping diverse teams work better together. In her experience as a talent management leader, she noticed the urgent need for greater emphasis on professional development in the workplace.
Some employers, she says, have a knack for providing critical, short-sighted feedback, which often has a negative effect on employee performance and morale. “People go into the workforce, and hear ‘you have to be more polished, you have to speak differently, you have to smile more, you have to manage that relationship better, you need to say these things,’ and the next person says something different. It’s overwhelming,” Wilkins says. “In many cases, the feedback is more about the person giving it than [the one] receiving it.”
She believes coaching offers a better, more productive alternative. “Coaching is more empowering. It’s about understanding what intrinsically drives or motivates someone,” says Wilkins. “How can the employee use their talents in the best ways within their organization in order to be successful? What roadblocks are employees facing, and how can they remove them? Research has shown that relationship-based development is extremely valuable to all parties.”
Because people from underrepresented groups often face more difficulties in the workplace than their non-minority peers, she believes they need more access to this type of professional development. Yet, Wilkins notes, while “coaching is one of the most effective ways to develop employees, it’s often reserved for the highest ranks in an organization.”
An unpleasant coaching experience and a passion for learning and helping others grow are what turned Wilkins on to coaching as she saw a need for better services for people like herself.
“My coach couldn’t relate to me, so I saw a big void. I saw that we needed more coaching for people who were in the minority,” says Wilkins. “One of my mentors always said I would make a great coach, so I finally gave in and took my first professional coaching class. Over time, I started talking to tech companies, hearing their stories about spending millions and not getting any diversity results, and I saw that a lot of their problems could be resolved through coaching.”
With hopes of helping people feel more empowered in the workplace, she started her first business LaTonya Wilkins Coaching and Speaking after becoming a certified coach. She offers both one-on-one and group coaching within organizations, a large part of which is focused on leadership, teams and entrepreneurs. Wilkins also engages in change coaching through her second business, The Change Coaches, LLC, which she launched in February 2019. In this role, she provides coaching, speaking and workshops around organizational change with an emphasis on culture, leadership, human resources, diversity, equity and inclusion. This is in addition to working as director of talent management for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Gies College of Business and serving as board president of True Star Media & Foundation.
Al Dea, a Consortium alum from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, shares this spark for coaching — especially for people from underrepresented groups. He says his own history has shaped his belief that “everyone, regardless of their background, deserves the right to have the job or career that suits their interests, needs or level of engagement.”
“As the son of two immigrant parents who came from humble backgrounds but who worked hard, invested in education and developed successful careers, I became acutely aware that not everyone has access to role models to even fathom an opportunity for a graduate education or a chance to become a leader or manager of a business,” says Dea. “As a result, I have always been deeply motivated to not only take advantage of the resources and opportunities that I have been given but to also inspire others by sharing my resources and privilege and opening access to others as much as I can.”
So in addition to serving as senior manager of product marketing at Salesforce, Dea is a career and leadership coach and has advised hundreds of professionals through his coaching and writings.
He began his career as a consultant at Deloitte, where he says he realized that “simply working hard is not enough.”
“In addition to delivering sustained high performance, you need to actively manage your career in order to define and achieve your own version of career success,” says Dea. “While I initially struggled to do this, I was fortunate to get good counsel from mentors and colleagues on how to do career development and how to achieve career goals. [This] enabled me to do well while I was there, and much of what I learned has continued to serve me well as I grow in my career.”
However, while at Deloitte, he soon realized he had greater aspirations. Not yet sure exactly what path he wanted to take, Dea knew that no matter what, he wanted to be a leader and use what he had gained from those who helped him to help others.
“One of the things I’ve always believed is that one of my goals as a human being is to understand my talents and strengths and to use them not just for myself but for the benefit of others,” he says. “I realized that I had the expertise on how to develop a career; the skills to listen, guide and be a thought partner; and the drive to make a difference in the lives of others — all of which led me to formally start [doing] career and leadership coaching.”
Both Dea and Wilkins, desiring flexibility in their careers, decided to pursue an MBA — but ended up gaining much more.
Wilkins says she gained the know-how to speak the corporate language, while Dea developed his leadership skills — which aided them in their coaching. As members of The Consortium, they also benefited from the mentorship that comes from being part of the organization’s vast alumni network. And, for Wilkins, the experience helped her land a job at GE following graduation.
Dea says the MBA experience also gave him the ability to manage his career, an area in which he now strives to help others — those who may not have the same access to opportunities as he has had. “When you go to business school and go through the recruiting process, you aren’t just learning how to find a job, you’re learning how to manage your own career development for the rest of your life,” he says.
“In addition to having a meaningful and rewarding career with roles and opportunities that stretch me and help me actualize my potential, [that experience has] also helped me realize that not everyone is as fortunate as me or my classmates at UNC — or any other student who graduates with an advanced degree from a top-tier institution,” Dea adds. “The decisions I made were good ones, and certainly my performance and the ability to execute was important, but so was the counsel and advice I got which helped me make decisions. But going through that, I realized that not everyone had access to it.”
In addition to informing his coaching, Dea’s business school experience motivated him to leverage the power of technology to share the knowledge he had acquired through his MBA. Through his first website MBASchooled, he tells the stories of the MBA experience and provides information on what it’s like to go to business school for current and prospective MBAs.
Furthermore, Dea soon recognized the need for a similar resource focused on general career advice. This led him to start CareerSchooled, a blog that provides career guidance “so that all people [can] get access to insights to help build and accelerate their careers,” he says.
Beyond using his educational and professional experiences to help others through his personal pursuits, Dea helps his direct reports at Salesforce manage their careers. He ensures that everyone on his team has a career development plan as well as the learning and training resources to achieve their goals — which he hopes will have long-lasting effects.
“I’ve realized over the years that when I am at my best, I have an ability to not only bring out the best in others but to also encourage, motivate and inspire them to do the same thing; it’s a domino effect,” Dea says. “Through coaching and leadership development, I hope to not only bring out the best in individuals but to also help them unlock their strengths and the goodness inside of them, and then have them do that for others.”
Wilkins, on the other hand, uses her MBA acumen to drive organizational change. Having been on both sides of the table — previously working in many human resource and talent management roles and, now, working with organizations — she says this is a “natural place” for her.
“I understand it from both sides, from an organizational perspective as a talent executive and from the leadership perspective, because I’ve lived it and see it,” says Wilkins.
Where she believes she has the most impact is in working directly with the C-suite. “When you’re coaching someone who is a vice president and has oversight over hundreds of people or … a big piece of the company, their changes are going to be felt for miles throughout the organization,” she says.
Even when she is working with individual employees, Wilkins says it’s important to also work with their managers as there can often be a disconnect between the two. But she emphasizes the importance of doing this in a non-threatening way.
From the outside, Wilkins says many of her clients seem to be excelling but, in actuality, are struggling. Her approach is to work with both the employee and leadership to get them back on the right track.
“The manager is key to reinforcing productive behaviors and being an active champion,” she says. “They typically enjoy the process, and they grow as well.”
But while individuals from underrepresented groups may have the most to gain from coaching, Wilkins says they are often the ones with the greatest misconceptions about what coaching actually is.
“They think coaching is advising — someone telling them what to do next — but it’s not,” she says. “It’s more of an empowering process so they can grow on their own. It’s helping them gain better habits, helping them be more confident. It’s helping them fit in better. It’s helping them focus on what’s important. I’m not telling them how to do that, they’re learning how to do it through the coaching process.”
Wilkins’ hope and ultimate goal is for coaching to become a field for everyone — not just those who have traditionally had access.
“I want to see organizations be able to reach underrepresented groups,” she says. “I want to see companies be able to attract and retain underrepresented groups, I want to see people feel included and respected in the workplace, I want teams to work better together, and I want to see equity — especially when [it comes] to corporate executives and boards.”