October 28, 2021 Melissa DeShields & Lucecita Castillo

Melissa DeShields is the CEO and Lucecita Castillo is the Lead People and Culture at Frontline Solutions, a Black-owned consulting firm dedicated to making the world more just for all.

Whether or not we recognize it as leaders, so much of an employee’s experience at a company is defined by its organizational culture. The old adage that culture eats strategy is in fact true. Folks have tried to separate and even prioritize them differently by talking about “hard” skills like strategy and “soft” skills having to do with people and their behaviors and beliefs. But anyone who has ever been a manager knows that categorizing the skills that folks need to lead as soft is a misnomer and that culture and strategy are inextricably linked.

Frontline is a black-owned and led consulting firm. By design, our culture challenges notions of what it’s like to work for a “management consulting or professional services firm,” as portrayed, for example, in the Showtime series, “House of Lies,” starring Don Cheadle. We’ve never believed in the 60-hour work week, or tying performance or productivity to worth or value. We refuse to run our staff into the ground for the company’s profit. We know that our people are our most precious and important asset. We also know that most folks, including us, have been conditioned to believe that institutional structures can only survive through rigid hierarchy and impersonal bureaucracy–tenets that we do not subscribe to. So, without disciplined interrogation, we risk replicating that model. In order to create a different model, we must commit to a daily practice of questioning our own socialization, unlearning what we’ve been taught, and decentering whiteness. We value different lived experiences and want our staff to apply those experiences and bring their fullest selves to the organization’s work. We strive to create an environment where folks feel that their team has their back, where we trust and take care of one another.

Two and a half years ago, when Melissa stepped into the role of CEO at Frontline, her assignment was to build the infrastructure necessary for the firm not just to exist beyond the involvement of the founders but to thrive. It was clear that this meant we needed to invest in our people and culture. When we had six employees–three of whom were partners–our culture was relatively easy to maintain. But as our organization grew to 17 full-time folks, and dozens of part-time staff, we saw that there were more opportunities for connection and affirmation. In the interest of longevity, we wanted to ensure that the firm’s values, relationships, and stories were held collectively and embedded in our DNA. We knew that Frontline’s magic is not just about what we do, but also about who we are.

The business model of consulting firms revolves around billing clients for our labor. For most of our existence it would have been financially irresponsible to create an executive-level position that would not accrue billable hours. But, our business has grown, and we now have a small reserve. And, getting to the next level of growth will require intentionality around nurturing our most important assets. We’ve decided to invest that reserve in our people and our values by bringing additional capacity on to safeguard and develop our culture.

But, what should this role or roles look like? To answer this question, we turned to our staff, bringing on Lucecita Castillo for a three-month, participatory consultancy. Lucecita designed an engagement process that was open, inclusive, emergent, and organic. She interviewed each staff member about what type of support was actually desired and needed. She also observed meetings and reviewed materials related to our work and culture.

We discovered that there is a collective appreciation for the culture and people at Frontline. Staff prize that people and relationships are prioritized over tasks, and that trust is a foundational tenet of our culture. Frontline cultivates authentic leadership. But that also requires healing from previous toxic workplaces. Many of our staff join us after working in environments where they have been targeted, harassed, or forced to edit themselves–all of which can contribute to self-doubt. We learned that there was a need for someone to support staff in unlearning, to pour into them not just as employees, but as human beings.

We don’t buy into the hierarchy that is implied by the title of “Chief People Officer” or the compartmentalization implied by “Chief Diversity Officer.” Our own respective experiences working in other organizations have shown us how individuals in such roles can quickly become the default “culture police.” We wanted an individual to help facilitate a process through which all of our people can help maintain the culture.

So we created the Lead, People and Culture position. This individual would build on what has already been done to invest in staff. They would focus on designing and implementing structures and practices that support our people, maximize their potential, and contribute to their growth and joy, collectively and individually.

Lucecita was a natural fit for the job as a Black Latine woman who has been around the block, loves Black and brown folks, and has experience implementing people-focused practices. She has been doing culture and people work informally since the 90s where as a middle school teacher, she was called on by administration to connect with parents and stakeholders in culturally responsive ways. That lens, while not her primary role until she served as a Chief Equity Officer later in her career, is what anchors her leadership and work. Whether working as an Executive Director, consultant, teacher or recruiter, her focus has always been on how people are doing, and how they are being cared for.. Her work at Frontline is multi-functional and mission-critical. She supports staff through coaching and assists them in following-up on their long-term goals. She helps us think about how we can glean knowledge and cycle that learning back to all areas of the organization. Where folks have contributed to knowledge in the organization, she encourages us to recognize and celebrate it. Lucecita identifies what competencies allow people to thrive at Frontline and what learning opportunities are needed. She also helps folks navigate conflict and supports them in the entire employment process, from onboarding to off-boarding. And, it is her job to support all of us, including the partners, in our efforts to decolonize our own processes and systems, and to replace them with new ones that serve all of us.

One of our primary lines of business is in diversity, equity, and inclusion. We use our Equity Footprint framework to help clients integrate equity into every domain of their organizations. We are able to support clients in this difficult, sometimes messy work because we are continuously working on it in our own organization. Although we are a Black-led institution, we don’t give ourselves an automatic pass when it comes to equity. We can unconsciously perpetuate white supremacy even in our Black and brown bodies. We want to be whole and healthy, and to push ourselves to eliminate barriers rather than erect or bolster them.

People are the nucleus of Frontline’s success, and we want to do right by them. Creating the Lead, People and Culture role is just one way to strengthen and sustain a culture that allows Black and brown folks to thrive.