mp_503 c.marie taylor

Be Mindful of Power with C.Marie Taylor

This week, Equity Through Action President C.Marie Taylor talks about the challenges of entrenched power in non-profit boards and offers solutions toward resolving conflict, overcoming obstacles, and generating action.

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When we started this season, we told you we would be talking to a mix of our favorite leaders in our field who are facing our challenges and barriers to moving their missions forward. This week on the show, we’re talking to someone we can only rightly characterize as a leader of leaders.

C.Marie Taylor is a role model and mentor to us, a leader herself with a distinguished CV as executive director of respected non-profits. In 2018, she started her own consulting practice, Equity Through Action, leveraging her skills as a leader and communicator to build her own team dedicated to helping clients transform their environments into safe, inclusive, and people-focused spaces.

Anyone in agency space will know: accomplishing anything near that sort of goal requires a leader unafraid to speak truth — sometimes uncomfortable truth — to entrenched power. And that is not just C.Marie’s great gift, it is her passion.

This week, we’ll be specifically tackling the challenges of entrenched power in non-profit boards and offer solutions toward resolving conflict, overcoming obstacles, and generating action. We’re thrilled that C.Marie has so generously given of her time and expertise to join us for this conversation.

Episode Transcript

Carrie Fox: Hi, there and welcome to the Mission Forward Podcast, where each week we bring you a thought-provoking and perspective-shifting conversation on the power of communications to advance social change. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm and certified B corporation. This season, we are talking with an impressive mix of nonprofit and foundation leaders, along with a few of the consultants I admire most. Together, we are taking on some of the most common challenge points and barriers to moving missions forward. Today’s guest is back on the show after having joined us on season two. C. Marie Taylor is a role model and a mentor. I like to say that right at the top because she’s one of those folks who has taught me so much and who lives through her convictions in a way that I think so many people can learn from. C. Marie moved away from her role as a longtime ED in some very well respected nonprofits to start her own consulting practice called Equity Through Action. There, she leads leaders through active coaching, equity training, leadership development, and recruitment focused on building equity into the types of organizations where she once worked. I invited C. Marie back on the show to take on a topic that has bugged me, maybe more than bugged me, but has been on my mind for a long time, and I know it’s been on hers too. I’m curious to know, why is there such a problem with power hoarding on nonprofit boards? That’s just a little bit of a question, but we’re going to try to dig into it as much as we can today. C. Marie, thank you for being here.

C.Marie Taylor: Thanks for having me. I’m so glad to be back. I love talking about power, power hoarding, power sharing nonprofit boards. As a 25 year old veteran of working in nonprofits, I have a lot to share in the next few minutes.

Carrie Fox: I know. I know you do. Well, let’s do a check in first. I want you to reintroduce yourself for those who haven’t yet heard your season two show, and I will hope that they go back and listen to that after they listen to this. But talk a little bit about your journey from a nonprofit executive director to now launching and running this amazingly successful and so badly needed Equity Through Action.

C.Marie Taylor: The journey of starting our own for-profit company really centers around what I call it the five P’s, that’s people, policies, practices, purpose, and power, right? And in the 25 years of running nonprofits, it was all about those five P’s and how they show up. What we’re doing at Equity Through Action is talking about those five P’s through an equity lens, right? I’m so excited to do that through the coaching, through the training, through the technical assistance and getting people to think about those five P’s of people, power, practices, purpose, and power through a different way. That’s the short version of how we try to show up in the workplace.

Carrie Fox: You know and our listeners know that on this season’s show, we are digging into the power of communications. What I mean by that, because you and I both love talking about power, we’re talking about the inherent power that we hold as leaders and as communicators, what we do with that power, and why disrupting some of the norms that we have long held inside of our organizations can lead to far greater outcomes and can lead us toward that path toward equity and justice. But the reason why you and I are talking today is because I have seen far too many times over my years as a consultant, and I know you have experienced this, unfortunately, firsthand, is the issues of nonprofit leaders, board members holding power in a way that actually negatively impacts an organization’s ability to do their work and advance their mission. I might just start with a big question of how have you experienced this over time, and then let’s break it down a little bit. My hope, I’ll say this to folks who are listening, is we’re going to start first with what we’re seeing that are some challenges, but we promise that we will land on our vision for the way that nonprofit boards and leaders can work together. Because I do think there’s a lot of opportunity here for folks who are listening who sit on boards, folks who chair boards, or someone who’s a leader in an organization trying to figure out how to work with their board, that there can be a path forward that makes that power dynamic more effective rather than toxic.

C.Marie Taylor: I think there’s a couple ways that power is showing up in organizations and particularly even when you think about it through a comms lens, right? I think it shows up in how we’re paying attention to who’s speaking. I think it shows up in decision-making power. I think it shows up in how privilege is used when making decisions. I think it shows up in whether we choose to engage or disengage, particularly with leaders of color. I think those are ways that I have seen firsthand of how power actually has shown up and how we can actually look at it differently.

Carrie Fox: I have been on several boards over my career. I don’t know that I’ve ever been through a true board training that addresses issues of power. I’m curious if there even is one or how much focus is put on that process of for someone who is entering into a board position, how to enter into that board position.

C.Marie Taylor: I have been on a million boards as well, and there isn’t a training talking about power. And that could be transformative if you walked in and said, "Let’s talk about power and expectations and alignment." Because if we could align our expectations with what the board actually could and should be doing, that might help the distribution of power. The thing that I would take away from what you’re talking about where I think we have this misalignment is around our expectations, our roles. And if you want to go a level deep, because we don’t have that much time, our bias and our emotional intelligence, right? And even another step is how we’re socialized. We’re socialized to being on these boards and they think, "Oh, I’m going to give my expertise and I’m going to do all these things," and we’re not listening. We’re not using our emotional intelligence. We’re not examining our bias and how we’re showing up, right? I’ve said a lot, so I’m going to stop there and let that sink in.

Carrie Fox: It resonates a lot, because in recent years, and even more specifically in recent months, we have seen some very effective high profile leaders, black women, step down from their roles, naming and citing the boards as the reason why they couldn’t stay in that situation. I wonder if that’s even enough of a call, and I worry it’s not, for anything to change.

C.Marie Taylor: I feel like it’s not enough of a call for it to change because there’s not enough value proposition for black women, right? I’m going to drill down and use myself as an example. I have left several nonprofits, right? And part of that work is because of board frustration, right? I’ll be completely transparent. I think it’s universal. Until there’s a different value proposition of the CEO, the executive director, whatever the person’s title is, right, around how they should be able to be free to run that organization, it’s going to keep happening, right? Boards, until they stop and think, "Well, how am I valuing this person? What barriers am I putting in their way? How, am I enabling the work to get done," it’s going to keep happening, right?

Carrie Fox: Right.

C.Marie Taylor: I think it’s something we really, really have to examine. And if you look at what’s happening, people keep talking about the Great Resignation, I’d love for someone to statistically look at the number of black women who are leaving nonprofits, right? Because we’re tired. We’re Fannie Lou Hamer tired.

Carrie Fox: Right. I was listening in on a conversation a couple weeks ago with an organization that we just recently started working with. They invited us into a board meeting as we’re getting to know the organization. The organization is led by a brilliant black woman, a PhD, who is really fairly new to the organization, but she is taking this organization where they have long needed to be. She’s delivering her remarks, and one of the board members interrupts her and says, "Sweetie, we’re going to stop you right there." I could have just jumped through the screen. I couldn’t even believe the lack of respect that I was seeing right in front of me in front of an entire boardroom. My fear or maybe the reality, C. Marie, is that it doesn’t feel uncommon. In those moments, I wondered, I want to be so deeply in support of this leader, and I need to figure out how to do it in a way, right, that maybe also can address this dynamic. And that’s a difficult situation to be in, right? Again, for those folks who are listening who are on boards who see these massive microaggressions happening, there’s a lot that we need to break down and address on how that power is held at the top.

C.Marie Taylor: And interrupted immediately, particularly if you’re a board member, right. Part of your work is… Your number one job is to protect that leader, to support that leader, to be an advocate for that organization and that leader, because that leader is holding up the rest of the work. That’s your only job is to be the advocate for that organization and that leader. In that moment, how can you be an advocate, right? Which means you have to be like, "Oh, hold on. We’re going to stop right now because sweetie doesn’t work for me. It’s not landing well for me. I’m clutching my…" I use humor a lot. Here’s what I do. I literally clutch my imaginary pearls and say, "So, Fred, Jamal, whoever said it, that’s not landing well for me, and here’s why it’s not landing for me." Right? And then take it back, "Our role is to be an advocate. And in this moment, it doesn’t feel like that." We have to as board members take the leap support and the risk to make sure that if we see something that is just blatant, right, we’ve got to stop it right there. Otherwise, it continues.

Carrie Fox: That skill of see it and say it is something that folks really need, I think, to practice and to learn. Because again, it’s in the face of addressing something with someone who clearly holds a lot of power and a lot of weight inside the organization. But to your point, nothing will ever change if we don’t stop it right there when we see it.

C.Marie Taylor: Yeah. I know people like to remember acronyms. I have a couple of acronyms that I shared with folks, right? One of the ones I use is CIAO and that stands for commitment, investment, accountability, and ownership, right? Let’s say goodbye to the old way that we’re working and hello to a new way. What’s our commitment around supporting this ED, right? What is our investment in this work? How are we holding ourselves accountable and our fellow board members? And what’s the ownership in the role? And ownership is personal and professional. What classes are you taking? What books are you reading? How are you practicing being a disruptor? Right? Let’s use the CIAO method. The other one I talk about is the ARM method. Let’s acknowledge, reframe, and model. Let’s acknowledge what just happened. Let’s reframe how we’re going to do the situation differently, and let’s model a different behavior.

Carrie Fox: Yeah.

C.Marie Taylor: Right?

Carrie Fox: Right?

C.Marie Taylor: And then the last one is, when there is a moment like that, let’s go back. Let’s start with why. Why did you think… Let’s use a different name. Cindy. You thought it was important to interrupt right now. Where did that come from? Let’s turn the table, then ask ourselves why.

Carrie Fox: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

C.Marie Taylor: Right?

Carrie Fox: Yeah. It’s one of those norms that I think we’ve just let go for too long, right? It’s bad behavior that’s become acceptable.

C.Marie Taylor: Yeah, right. We just have to stop the bad behavior. If this was a child and the child was doing bad behavior, we wouldn’t let them keep going. Why do we let adults continue with bad behavior?

Carrie Fox: I’m going to throw another one at you, a different kind of experience, and I see this one happening a lot too. And in some cases, I’m really glad I see it, but it’s the outcome that feels really difficult. I’ve seen a number of organizations in recent years really make a shift to think about what it means to share and distribute power. And starting first with the leader of the organization saying, "I realize that we have some norms here where decision making has been held at the top, in the executive boardroom off in a corner. And that doesn’t feel healthy to ensuring that we are all part of this shared vision for our future." We were working with a nonprofit executive director a couple years ago who started the process of shifting that. Decision making became not fully group decision making, but she really put a lot of the emphasis on her team to make those decisions. When she went to her board to say, "This I find very healthy. We are more productive than we’ve been. We’re shifting and really intentional about how we share that power and how we’re growing leaders in our organization," the board went nuts. They said, "You’ve lost control of the organization. This isn’t going to work here," and they fired her.

C.Marie Taylor: Oh my goodness!

Carrie Fox: How are we working in alignment, the nonprofit team and their vision to move their work forward and the board that is there to help advance the work, it seems like many times the board is getting in the way of the work being done.

C.Marie Taylor: Yeah. There’s a huge misalignment, right? Boards need to do more self-reflective work to figure out different ways to do business, right? Just because traditionally nonprofit boards have worked kind of in this triangle where the power goes up and there’s no room at the top for other ways of thought. It needs to be flipped on its head. They should be the pillars of support upside down, right? If they do some self-reflective work and figure out, well, why don’t I want to try something different, right? How can we build relational power where there’s authentic connections between the people who are actually doing the work and the board? There’s another way. How can we look at the… If you think of a large organization, the different portions of the organization, right? Let’s take the comms people. Let’s take the fundraisers. Let’s take the programs people and relay the power dynamic to them because they’re doing the work, right?

Carrie Fox: Right.

C.Marie Taylor: And then also I think the other piece is, how do you respectfully acknowledge their experience and use that in terms of power transformation and letting them make the decision. And often when you do that, then you have this new innovative program. You could have this different experience that happens. It’s letting go of that fear, right? Because we’re so used to working with power over versus power with. How do you learn to use power with, which is leveraging, or power two, which is self-worth?

Carrie Fox: And that feels like such a powerful reframe of how leaders can work together. Is that part of the work that you all do in Equity Through Action? Do you see nonprofits and boards going through this together or not yet? Have they not gotten there yet?

C.Marie Taylor: We do do this work. It’s one of my favorite things to talk about is power. One of my favorite things is helping organizations get to this different view, right, where you’ve taken that triangle and you’ve flipped it upside down. It takes a long time to get there. Because traditionally when we walk into the room, they’re not ready to do that, right? Which is like, okay, that’s fine. Let’s talk about and acknowledge where we are as an organization and what opportunities we have to reframe, right? Which is why I walk with that kind of ARM model. Let’s acknowledge where we are. Let’s just take a pause. And once we’re able to help them align their expectations with the work and what really their role is, then we can get to that piece of them distributing power in a different way. It’s really helping them to be self-reflective, look at their bias, do some emotional intelligence work so that they can lead to a different way of work. It’s foundational, and it’s step by step. They have to be willing to learn a different way of working.

Carrie Fox: For organizations who are trying to rebuild their boards or diversify their boards, we see a lot of this happening. People realize that there’s work to be done in curating the board that can help them move to the future. But that can be very difficult when they’ve got still a certain board in place. Do you see anything or have you applied anything over your experience that has been beneficial to that process of cultivating a board that is not just diverse in nature, but that can be that type of board that is open to thinking about new ways of working?

C.Marie Taylor: I think ways that have been effective in ways that we try to work with our clients is to really start with the foundation, to go back and examine, why did that last executive director leave? Why did these things happen? Let’s really look at it. Let’s set up some common language, because everyone throws out diversity, equity, inclusion, but there’s no common understanding of what that means for the organization. We’re talking about communications. Let’s get our communications clear. What does diversity mean to this organization? How are we being inclusive, right? We got to start with making sure our messaging is all on the same page. And then we can redo our governance practices based on that common language. Then we can model new behavior because we’ve learned what that means for us as an organization. And it’s in bite size chunks, because people kind of get overwhelmed, right? If you do it in a step-by-step process, it seems to work more for organizations.

Carrie Fox: For folks who are listening who are… I’m going to throw this out to maybe both of us as we think through this in real time. Folks who are listening who are sitting on the board, they’re not the board chair, they’re not the board leadership, they’re on a board, and they want to do the very best they can as a board member. Have you found that there are good resources for those folks to tap into, to learn, to grow, and to be those kinds of champions that you talked about earlier, right? The folks who are going to help take the barriers away, or the folks who are going to help support that leader even in those difficult moments.

C.Marie Taylor: Oh gosh, there’s a wealth of resource. One of my favorite resources that I use probably daily is a website, an organization called Race Equity Tools. Almost any topic you can think of, they have information on. We use them a lot. We also work with organizations. If you’re on this board is to take a pause and really do some benchmarking, right? Notice who speaks up the most, who’s making the decisions, who’s disengaging around opportunities where power can be distributed differently. Do some I keep saying self-reflective work, but it has to be around just doing some benchmarking, and then deciding as a group how you’re going to make some changes. You have to pause, right?

Carrie Fox: It seems like that’s the most important thing in any situation when we come against issues of power, right? Pause and reflect. It seems to be the hardest thing for folks to do these days. We are running in this ridiculous speed, which is just reinforcing the issues that we’re facing.

C.Marie Taylor: It’s true. Part of that though, is part of the white supremacy culture of how we work, right? We have to unpack that and relearn something different. We talk about it every day at my organization, right? Like wait a minute, does it have to get done today? No, it doesn’t. Everyone’s going to be okay if it gets done tomorrow, right? Creating some grace in space for people to figure out how to work differently. And it’s no different for boards. Why is there always this rush to get this product out, right? Go back and asking why and examining the fear. I know I’ve thrown a lot of things out, so I’m going to try to summarize a couple things I think boards could do. One is look at and examine where your bias sits. We all have it. Two is research more about emotional intelligence and how it ties to race equity, gender equity. Because the better we are in controlling our emotional intelligence, the better we are at being actual allies and support to those leaders and those leaders of color, right? And then the third thing is examine where your fear is coming from and try to flip it on its head.

Carrie Fox: Well, that was an amazing summation of a lot that we’ve talked about today. And you’re right. This inner work that must be done at the top of any organization is the hardest work and is the longest journey to go on, because there is a lot to be unpacked and relearned along the process too. But that gets us to where I think we’re going to end today, which is the transformation that could be on the other side of that. What could be the future of how you work together? Does it really feel good to hold that power the way that you do or to control the power the way you do, or are you doing it because it’s the way it’s always been done? Are you doing it because that’s the way that you were taught to do it? What would it look like, what would it feel like if in fact you were in partnership in this work and in support of one another in this work?

C.Marie Taylor: How freeing could it be if you really respected people’s humanity? Because when it comes down to it, when I interrupt you, when I don’t believe you, when I don’t trust you, when I second guess you, when I call you sweetie, I’m not fully valuing your humanity, which means I lose and that person lose and the organization loses, right?

Carrie Fox: Right.

C.Marie Taylor: If you care about innovation, you care about the nonprofit showing up in a way that is relevant and responsive and big in front of the rest of the other nonprofits, then you have to respect the human that’s running the work. And think about how would you want to be treated. And if that person’s not being treated that way, then you got to do something different.

Carrie Fox: Yeah, there it is, right? There’s the entire conversation summed up is it starts with people first. It starts with truly valuing and caring for one another and supporting one another in our success versus breaking someone down, expecting that someone’s going to fail before you even give them a chance to thrive.

C.Marie Taylor: Yeah. And remembering that words are tools of thought, right? We’re going to project our values with our words, and then it’s going to reflect whether we want a new reality or keep the same one, right? If we just pause… I do this 24, 24, 24. Let me wait 24 seconds before I say something, right? Maybe I need to wait 24 minutes or 24 hours, because words are a tool of thought. Can we just reexamine and find a different way?

Carrie Fox: C. Marie, as always, you are full of practical wisdom that I’m going to go back and listen to this a few more times, because I am thinking to all of the moments in the past, what has this been, 22 minutes, that you have given very practical examples of how someone in any of these experiences could take action. I think that’s where it starts. And where I will end us is the action I hope you all take listening is to go over to Equity Through Action and see what C. Marie Taylor has built and is growing because she is, as I noted, a just incredible resource and role model and mentor and leader in this work. I appreciate so much the time that you spent with me today.

C.Marie Taylor: Well, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure as always.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.