Crashing A Women Of Color Awards Night Led To A Great Leadership Lesson

A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives. — Jackie Robinson

I was recently challenged — on a Zoom meeting of all places — to do one simple thing that can change someone else’s life. Forever.

Now I want to challenge you to do the same. And it won’t cost you a dime.

Most people retreat behind the wall of excuses, including, “I don’t have the resources / contacts / opportunities / time.” Fill in the blank.

I hope you won’t.

When you positively impact another life, something incredible happens. It has a multiplier effect.

Throw a rock in the pond and watch the ripples it creates in the water. Waves going out from the center.

One act. Lots of ripples.

And you’re the rock.

She Was Talking To Me And You

I recently attended the Women of Impact Awards Night sponsored by ICABA (The International Career and Business Alliance). A dozen accomplished women of color were honored. They were impressive. They came from diverse industries, with unique backgrounds and different personalities. Entrepreneurs. Doctors. Authors. A former WNBA star. An executive with the Federal Reserve.

One honoree, Denise Kaigler, conveyed a message that crystalized a recurring theme for the evening.

Playing it safe has a cost. To you. Your organization. Our society.

Opportunity has a face. And she has a name.

Denise is the CEO of MDK Brand Management, LLC, and joined us from her home in Boston. She has a resume that is both impressive and varied. Among other things, she held senior level positions in communications and branding at The Rockport Company, Reebok International / Adidas, Nintendo North America and Boston Scientific.

Denise thanked ICABA Founder, Jerome Hutchinson, and the ICABA organization for the award. She said she also wanted to acknowledge a woman named Leslie Mays for giving her a chance at Reebok.

She told all of us that we had an obligation to give chances to young women of color. She smiled when she said it. But I didn’t take it as a suggestion.

Yes, even me, the white guy in the bottom row on the Zoom screen.

An obligation. We have to do this.

It was clear there was a story behind that statement.

And I needed to hear that story.

Everybody Has A Story And This One Was Powerful

Several days after the ICABA event, I had a Zoom call with Denise. She discussed her background and her initial introduction to Leslie Mays.

After several positions in on-air reporting at television stations in Columbus, GA and Boston, MA, Denise was the Director of Communications at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston. She went to a fundraising event, but she wasn’t feeling well and left early. Several days after the event, she received a phone call from Leslie Mays, an HR executive at Reebok. Leslie said she was recommending Denise to the head of Reebok’s communications department for an open position, and invited her to interview.

Denise remembered their brief conversation at the fundraiser and remarked that she was surprised, since she knew she wasn’t at her best that evening.

Leslie responded, “I know. We all have bad days.”

She didn’t reach out to Denise because she had knocked her out with her professionalism and incredible personality. Denise was having an off day. She didn’t want to be there. She felt terrible. She was distracted.

But Leslie saw something. A spark. Someone who could connect with people while they were having an off day. And that was enough. She wanted to give Denise a chance.

After five rounds of interviews, Denise joined Reebok as an entry level media relations specialist. She performed well and received several promotions. Ultimately, she would be mentored by Reebok’s legendary CEO, Paul Fireman, in her C-suite role as Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer.

But if Leslie Mays doesn’t give her a chance, Denise never meets Paul Fireman. She doesn’t fly to Europe with Jay-Z. She doesn’t meet Muhammad Ali, Desmond Tutu or Robert Redford. She doesn’t get to whisper in Bill Clinton’s ear (that’s another story…). She doesn’t attend the reception at Prince’s home, Paisley Park.

More importantly, when Leslie makes that life-changing phone call to offer Denise a chance, it isn’t just the Director of Communications for the Boys and Girls Clubs on the other end of the phone.

It is the former college student who worked two part-time jobs and juggled Pell grants and scholarships to be able to afford tuition. Homework began after work at 10:00 p.m. On the good days.

It is the girl who was raised by a single mother and who got beat up regularly by a tough crowd at her grade school in Washington, DC.

It is the girl who got laughed at for having buck teeth and who wore glasses at a young age.

It is the girl who came to school with a patch over a lazy eye to correct her vision.

Everybody has a story.

So despite being sick, distracted, and far from her best, someone was reaching out to her.

To offer her a chance.

The girl with baggage.

The girl with scars.

The girl with dreams.

Denise’s current company, MDK Brand Management, offers consulting services focused on branding. She continues to work with companies on brand strategy and brand marketing. She also offers personal branding and career coaching to individuals.

One of her programs involves coaching young people — and their parents — in joint sessions, on discovering their gifts and planning their career journeys.

Denise is also working with ICABA to build up the ICABA Marketplace, where employers can post job openings to attract the bright and motivated professionals of color who are looking for opportunities.

Denise is paying it forward and providing tools and advice to the next generation.

Kids who don’t have the connections.

Kids who don’t have the grades.

Kids who don’t have the confidence.

Denise shares her wisdom and experience, from the perspective of someone who can relate to their backgrounds and challenges.

She does that by helping them create a plan.

She does that by giving them a chance.

You Can Create A Multiplier Effect

One of the very cool opportunities that leaders have is to impact others. Don’t feel that you have to wait until you reach a certain position, that’s just a title on an org chart. You don’t have to accumulate a certain number of years of experience before you can provide insights to others.

Now is the time.

And don’t think that this effort to impact others is one-sided.

Leslie Mays was so successful identifying young, talented people like Denise at Reebok, that she went on to executive positions at organizations like Mercer, Pfizer and Royal Dutch Shell. She is now the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

She gave people chances and they performed. They excelled. And her opportunities expanded.

Denise Kaigler is paying it forward. She’s developing the next generation of leaders, particularly young women of color.

The image of ripples in a pond may be a bit tame for what Denise has in mind. There is another image that comes from chaos theory, that a butterfly flapping its wings can make tiny changes in the atmosphere that can ultimately lead to a tornado.

Don’t cringe the next time you see a Monarch butterfly, BUT…

The next time you need to assign someone to a project, delegate a high visibility task, or hire someone for a new position, consider your candidates carefully.

Maybe the pedigree isn’t the usual one.

Maybe they look different than the others.

Maybe they have experiences that would never get captured on a resume.

They need hope.

They need a chance.

Start flapping your butterfly wings.

You can change a life. A team. Your organization. Our society. The future.

You never know how far it can go.

“There is no greater joy, nor greater reward than to make a fundamental difference in someone’s life.” – Mary Rose McGeady

2 thoughts on “Crashing A Women Of Color Awards Night Led To A Great Leadership Lesson”

    1. Patricia, thank you for the kind words, and by all means, do share it! I hope young people are encouraged – and those in positions of influence to choose to provide chances and support.

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