To become a successful leader, developing an executive presence is essential. To develop an executive presence, employees must have the tools and support to build the soft skills needed to influence others. According to a survey by Working Mother Media, 50% of women of color say that they are considering leaving their companies due to bias and a lack professional development support from their employers.
Ainka Gonzalez, Associate Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion Center of Excellence, Merck, is familiar with these challenges. In fact, it’s what led her to join Paradigm for Parity’s leadership coaching pilot program, aimed at helping women gain the tools to advance in their industries.
In part 3 of our gender equity series, Ainka shares how coaching taught her to own her executive presence in addition to learning various communications skills. She also learned how to strengthen her self-confidence and celebrate her wins.
In this Q&A, Ainka discusses:
- How leadership coaching helped change her professional life
- Why she plans on continuing to meet with her exective coach
- Her recommendations for other women of color in the corporate world.
Q: Tell us about your professional background.
A: I work at Merck in the Global Diversity and Inclusion Center of Excellence as the Associate Director of Business Integration and External Partner Engagement. Prior to this role, I’ve worn many different hats — I worked with the government, consulting, and in nonprofit leadership. My focus has always been on public health throughout my professional life. At Merck, this means I have a very different background than most of my colleagues, which I believe is incredibly valuable. It means that I can contribute to our work from a unique perspective.
Q: How have you benefited from Paradigm for Parity’s pilot program?
A: I am still benefiting from the program and will continue to do so because I am going to keep working with my coach. It’s a testament to how amazing the experience really is. The program was incredibly effective in addressing our strengths and weaknesses as women who come from different places and have diverse backgrounds.
With my coach specifically, I felt empowered to be fully transparent and honest about what I needed help with and got feedback that was straightforward and compassionate. My coach was perfect for me, she is very understanding. She helps me see how I can improve my performance in my current role, fine-tune my interpersonal communication skills, and ultimately – advance my career. Because I come from such a unique professional background, my coach has been instrumental in guiding me through how to leverage my skills from my former roles and past experiences into my role at Merck.
With my coach specifically, I felt empowered to be fully transparent and honest about what I needed help with and got feedback that was straightforward and compassionate.
Q: What do you enjoy most about leadership coaching sessions?
A: I like to think of my coaching sessions like yoga where I can focus on my breathing, take what I need from the sessions, and leave what I don’t. More specifically, during coaching sessions, there is an inhale moment and an exhale moment. But unlike breathing, the exhale comes first. I like to think of the exhale as the opportunity to debrief on different obstacles that I had to navigate through the week leading up to training. My coach does an excellent job of creating an environment where I feel comfortable sharing my difficulties at work, so this exhale moment is something I am grateful for. Following the exhale, comes the inhale — the moment when I am rejuvenated by my coach’s ability to inspire me to put my best foot forward with what’s ahead.
These sessions are a time to acknowledge that life happens outside of work and navigate how to attempt to create a balance between life and work. I believe that there is no such thing as balance because true balance is like perfection but trying to troubleshoot how to work toward balance is another one of my greatest takeaways from my coaching experience.
Q: Do you have any specific takeaways from coaching on how to be an effective communicator?
A: Yes, one of my weaknesses is that I don’t like to go back and watch myself, whether that is in an on-camera interview or a meeting recording — I can’t stand to see and hear myself talk. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned is the importance of stopping, going back, and watching what I have done, learning from my mistakes, and noting where I contributed in a valuable way.
For example, by going back and re-watching recorded meetings and interviews, I’ve learned that I close my eyes a lot when I speak, and I often speak too quickly and don’t complete all my thoughts. Now that I’ve forced myself to rewatch these recordings and reflect, I know to slow down when I’m speaking so that I can get everything across that I intend to communicate and to prepare talking points in advance so that I can articulate cohesive information with my teams. This is all part of me defining what I want my executive presence to be and how I want my team and colleagues to perceive me as their leader.
Q: How does your coach define executive presence?
A: My coach likes to develop my executive presence by pulling my existing strengths out of me more so that I can allow them to dominate my presence over my weaknesses. My coach likes to teach me to transcend the cliché practices of holding your chest high and showing off your resume and instead, pushes me to showcase my strengths and competencies and how I can translate them into my current corporate environment.
Q: Why do you think women of color, specifically, could benefit from coaching?
A: There are so many additional factors that we, as women, are dealing with in addition to our careers — family responsibilities, caretaking, and how we view certain aspects of the workplace, among others. This additional weight on our shoulders can be minimized by the right leadership coaching. And often, women of color can feel limited in their choices and options in their professional roles. By working with a coach, women of color can be empowered to broaden their scope of what is available to them professionally. One thing that really stuck with me is when the program leaders told us, “We’re navigating to the c-suite,” which is really empowering — the idea that our coaches believe that there is space for women of color in the c-suite is not something we are used to hearing.
By working with a coach, women of color can be empowered to broaden their scope of what is available to them professionally.
Being encouraged and coached to celebrate my wins and successes as a woman of color has also been incredibly valuable. As women, we’re constantly in the mental state of being ‘onto the next’ and we need to do a better job of slowing down and acknowledging and celebrating our wins. Because if we don’t acknowledge our wins and professional accomplishments, we will shortchange ourselves and that will negatively affect our executive presence.
Q: Do you feel like you’ve been able to put what you’ve learned into practice at Merck?
A: I feel like I am constantly putting into practice the lessons I’ve learned every day. Whether it be making sure I am staying true to myself when communicating or completing the invitations my coach has given me — she doesn’t like to call the at-home exercises she gives me assignments, she invites me to do them — I feel empowered to tackle the challenges my profession throws at me and show up stronger to do so.
Although Ainka has completed the pilot program, she is choosing to continue to meet with her coach and encourages others to pursue executive leadership training as well. Not only has Paradigm for Parity taught Ainka the various soft skills to build her executive presence to leverage her strengths and transcend her weaknesses, but it has instilled a new confidence in her to pursue any challenge or professional aspiration that she wants — a tool all women deserve to have under their belt.