Leading with an Equity Lens: Four Lessons from My Time as an Interim CEO

December 13, 2022 Micah Gilmer

In June of this year, I wrapped up a sixteen month stint as interim CEO at the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. It was a time full of ups and downs, but I am grateful for what I was able to accomplish with their incredible team of leaders. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my decision to take on the interim role, the factors that contributed to my success in the position, and what these lessons mean  for my work and life moving forward. Here are a few I am taking with me:

1. Find your leadership voice.

Like many people, I have spent much of my career trying to imitate the approach to work of my peers. It started with learning from Frontline founder and one of my best friends, Marcus Littles. He has one of the most unique communication and leadership styles you will ever encounter. While I’ve learned a ton from him, and continue to, I eventually figured that I needed to find a style that fit my personality, strengths, and weaknesses. Similarly, many of us hold onto ideas from our parents, loved ones, or younger selves about what work “should” look like for us. We are trying to manifest things on our real or imagined vision board that no longer fit what we actually want. This wishful thinking can prevent us from seeing ourselves fully, and envisioning what “success” looks like in light of who we really are.

In my interim role, I entered an organization in transition. We did a complete staff reorganization, and nearly half of our staff departed at some point in my tenure. I had to work closely with a very newly formed management team to navigate all of this rapid change. As a result, I quickly built relationships of deep trust with my MT colleagues. This required unflinching honesty about my own strengths and limitations. Working with people who did not know me was a big change after seventeen years at Frontline with a mostly consistent leadership core. It was an invaluable learning exercise for me. As a result, I have a deeper understanding of the things I naturally gravitate to in my work and the things I’m not as good at.

Seeing a new team react to my leadership style was helpful in building my ability to articulate the assumptions that underpin my approach. For example, I have a natural tendency toward micro-management that I identified with the help of my Frontline colleagues and coaching from folks like Jose Acevedo early on in my leadership journey. As a result, I chose an approach of deep trust and full delegation. This looks like working to build agreement and alignment on the purpose and desired outcomes of work with my team, and then trusting them to execute and ask for help when they need it. For most organizations where surveillance is routine and trust is low, this is a pretty radical departure. I have learned to better communicate why I choose to empower and trust staff. It’s helped my teammates understand that I truly would like to be called on for support when needed, but trust them to know and articulate their needs.

2. Interrogate your own behavior.

It’s a thin line between introspection and self-hate :-). I often deliberately avoid re-interrogating a decision or action because I have seen myself descend into a spiral of self-loathing when I screw something up. However, there are moments in leadership that require a deep level of self-reflection and “navel gazing.” This is particularly important to do when you “surprise yourself” with a decision or a behavior.

A critical moment of self-reflection for me surrounded the decision to take on the interim CEO role. On the surface, my reasons for embracing the opportunity were obvious. I LOVE the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. I have known the organization over three different CEOs, and their former deputy director Gladys Washington was a great mentor and supporter of Frontline and me in our early journey. I have served on the board of directors since 2018, and have seen the organization embark on a journey toward more fully embodying its racial equity values.. Through several transitions off many other boards, it was the one board service obligation I kept.

I was also excited about the possibility of working with the organization’s leadership team. As a board member, I had witnessed firsthand Elena Conley’s deep grasp of racial equity and power building. I had experienced Jennifer Barksdale’s expert leadership of issues from investment strategy to budgeting to helping grantees manage natural disasters and COVID response. I have known Dwayne Patterson for years, and saw firsthand his rapid rise as a leader. I felt like the MRBF team was both a high performing group and that I had something unique to contribute to bring the group to a greater level of impact.

All of those things were true but beneath the surface, I knew there were some reasons I hadn’t fully examined. As a result, last summer I increased the frequency of sessions with my therapist, and engaged the help of Russ Finkelstein as a coach. With the help of those two thought partners and some deep introspection, I arrived at some less comfortable reasons for my choice.

I am neuro-atypical. While I had already sporadically identified that way, my experience over the past months has led me to center that reality in my thinking about myself. I struggle with depression, particularly in the winter months, and exhibit many of the symptoms of adult ADHD. As a result, I tend to gravitate toward challenging work that holds my interests, engages my intellect, and distracts me from my depressive experiences.

I was also burned out. I didn’t want that to be true. I LOVE the people I work with at Frontline. Our team are some of the most thoughtful and engaging people I have ever been around, and I literally can talk to any of those folks for hours on end. My management team colleagues are fantastic to work with in leading the firm, and Melissa and Marcus are two of my dearest friends. I LOVE the work we do at Frontline. It checks all the boxes for me: challenging, meaningful, impactful, and done with the dopest collection of individuals I have ever been a part of.

But, over a decade and a half of gravitating toward any new challenge, supporting our staff team, and making difficult leadership decisions had taken its toll. Worse still, despite the financial stability and success Frontline has experienced over the past several years, I was unable to get out of “survival mode” thinking where every problem felt like a crisis. I needed to take a step back. Moving to part-time while I took on the interim CEO role was a convenient way to do that, even while I was not fully conscious of that reality when I made the decision.

Reckoning with these less-comfortable reasons for my choice was critical for me moving forward. As I have fully re-integrated into the leadership team at Frontline over the past months, I have shared with my colleagues the conclusions I came to. As a result, they have been able to more fully support me, and we have co-designed a role for me that is manageable given my capacity and allows me to use my unique gifts.

3. Above all else, preserve your capacity to lead good decisions

I occasionally see viral LinkedIn posts from tech bro start-up CEOs bragging about working 100 hours a week. While I never took things to such extremes, I often felt the need to “do more” than I was capable of. My primary aspiration was to squeeze a few more drops of productivity out of my body. For me, this came from a place of self-hatred. I did not believe I was intrinsically worthy, and so, naturally, my value was defined by what I could do. With the help of great colleagues, coaches, and clinicians, I have radically transformed my views. The science on sleep deprivation, overwork and decision-making is clear. ALL human beings make poorer decisions when they are not rested. It may be the case that you are CEO of an organization or a company that doesn’t have any significant decisions to make. You might feel having an extra FTE (full-time equivalent employee) on your leadership team (or, more likely, your sales team) is better than having a CEO that makes good decisions. I haven’t gotten to know every team out there, but I can’t think of a single organization I know well that doesn’t need a CEO at their decisive peak performance.

This overwork-induced nosedive in leadership performance is even more pronounced for those that are seeking to lead with an equity lens. If you are trying to disrupt the norm of hierarchical, top-down decision-making, you will need even more capacity for thoughtfulness. Often, my job as CEO at MRBF was not to make courageous solo decisions, but to create a courageous process for collective decision-making. This involved radical vulnerability in sharing my “draft thinking” with colleagues, knowing that these first ideas needed holes poked in them. It involved designing and/or facilitating spaces where staff could give input to inform the choices moving forward. And it required ceding my power and precious ideas about my own brilliance to the input of the group. Facilitative leadership is the only way I know to do collective decision-making. And it requires thought. Not just time pondering the “big issues,” but time thinking about the best process to solicit the team’s input, build alignment, and move with decisive action. This must be done with special attention to team members who have less positional authority and/or hold identities that have been historically marginalized. And while coffee makes you alert, it does not increase your empathy or thoughtfulness. For those, you need rest.

4. The answer is not always more “you”. Step up and step back.

I am really grateful to have served the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in this time of transition. And I am also really grateful that I was clear from the beginning that this was a short-term project for me. My reasons for not considering a long-term CEO role were numerous. First and foremost, with the help of coaching, I became clear that my work at Frontline was not complete. I am thrilled to be back continuing to build out the team at Frontline, and supporting the next generation of leadership to take the organization into the future. Secondly, I felt that to do the job of repair needed, to make the difficult decisions required, and to push my colleagues on the board appropriately, I couldn’t be “angling for” the long-term gig. I am sure if I had those aspirations in my head I wouldn’t have taken some of the decisive actions I am most proud of. But perhaps most importantly, I am clear that I was simply not the best leader to take the organization forward. I feel like I was a great fit for a time of transition and transformation, and I’m proud of what we accomplished together during my tenure. And I think we got the right fit in Flozell Daniels to take the organization on the next leg of the journey.

While I’m not leaving Frontline anytime soon, I am also excited about the new opportunities Frontline having “less of me” for a while has opened up. We recently launched a search for a new Lead for our consulting practice, a job I informally held at Frontline for many years. Perhaps because I was also attempting to do 1 or 2 other jobs at the same time, it was a job that I did inconsistently. Me being mostly removed from the Frontline team for a season has opened up some new possibilities to get the exact right person in that role. Less “me” has helped me be more of my full self, and is creating a new and exciting future for this team and organization that I care so deeply about.

Leading with an equity lens requires a deep commitment to what we already know about leadership, coupled with a radical re-imagining of how we share power, get input, and move forward together. I can’t wait to continue building that new vision with my incredible colleagues at Frontline. Our most brilliant and bold work is still ahead of us!