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The Rungs of Learning with Kennethia Ishman, Operations Executive and All Star Human Being

Kennethia Ishman never stops learning. In fact, when she and I worked together in our coaching relationship, she once asked me for podcast recommendations so she could listen to them while she was on the treadmill.

Lean Six Sigma black belt, former junior Olympian and tutor to the UW track team and business process leader, Kennethia Ishman sets the bar high and there's no end in sight.

What learnings have you taken from your high school athletic career to your professional life?

I played a variety of sports year round and all through high school but I was recruited by colleges for volleyball and track and I went to the Junior Olympics for track. The main thing I learned is “how you practice is how you perform”. As an athlete you watch and study films afterwards to see how you performed well and how you could improve and I apply that to most projects or anything I do or lead. I always evaluate what went well and what are the opportunities to improve for the next time.

Also, as an athlete, you always want to study ahead and learn your competition. That helped me understand that I need to develop a strategy and game plan for how I approach my work and athletics so that I can apply it to the next event or project.

Lastly, I was a captain most of the time as an athlete and I think being that role model and leader that brought everyone else along shaped my management style. I was so focused on wanting to win as a team.

What is some advice you got early in your career that stuck with you to this day?

Don’t be afraid to take risks and it’s okay to challenge the norm. I was a natural influencer and was encouraged to use my voice to advocate for change even when I was in high school. My teachers, captains (in athletics) and my mentors reinforced this message along the way. And when I started my career, I heard that from others who wanted me to be a part of their team and come build programs for their organization.

I often tell others that “if you don’t try something new and fail, you’ll never know. And, you can always go back to what you know if it doesn’t work out.”

What attracted to you the field of continuous improvement?

When I was working for a health and wellness company early in my career, I was bored and was looking for something new to take on. I learned my employer had a Lean Six Sigma green belt program and I always had a desire to fix problems, so this seemed right up my alley. I noticed there were some issues in our internal customer service team, so I applied for the program by submitting a project to improve the customer onboarding experience. The opportunity would not only help service my customers better, but I’d gain some skills in the process and take the take my knowledge set to a new level.

What’s the worst job you’ve had and what did you learn from it?

This is a hard question for me to answer. I’m that person who stays at a job for a long time and learns from it no matter the circumstances.

But if I had to pick one, it would be my first job right out of college after I got my Master’s degree. The job and the organization had a lot of frustrations and challenges. There was a lot of leadership turnover (two CEOS and two interim CEOS during the four years I was there) so I learned a lot about change management.

I was also pretty young in my career and, being black and female, it was the first time I dealt with a lot of racism. People were coming up to me to find out why I was sitting at the table. When I was sitting on boards and committees, they’d ask for my business card and, when they saw my credentials, then they would talk to me like a regular person and stop mansplaining me.

The good parts about working there was It was a nonprofit and here is where I learned my scrappiness and how to roll up my sleeves and be a team player. Our resources were limited so it was all about getting it done.

Speaking of racism and inclusion, how can organizations create a culture of support for women of color?

Before organization and leaders look at how to support women of color, they need to look at how they support women in general. Then, go one step deeper and look at women of color and the challenges that come along with that.

Leaders need to go back all the way to the beginning and look at those who are not in the organization because of their hiring practices. Once they come on board, how are women of color being promoted, invested in and what is being done to prepare them to lead and how are pay equity gaps addressed.

Part of this requires a commitment to solve problems which might mean being willing to air the dirty laundry that exists within the organization. It’s not about shame and blame but about awareness and action.

All of this needs to happen from the top down and the CEO needs to be responsible for implementing change – not the DEI department or HR. The top executives need to open up their network to find mentors and provide a safe place for someone to go to and talk through stuff that’s not going to impact their career.

Can you describe an impactful mentor you’ve had and what you learned?

There was a man who was my mentor from grad school through 2018 when he passed from a medical condition. He always used to tell me that I have the biggest heart and compassion for people. That drew me to the underserved and underrepresented population, but he knew my goals and aspirations for my lifestyle. He told me I might need to change sectors (from nonprofit to business) to achieve my lifestyle goals and staying in the nonprofit world wouldn’t help me get there. At least for now. He advised that I could give back by getting on boards but, with my long term goals in mind, I needed to step out and into something new.

How did working with a coach contribute to your growth as a leader?

If I didn’t stop to work with a coach and invest in myself, I probably would not have moved forward in a productive way. Working with a coach truly allowed me to refocus on what was important to me, what I wanted to do with my career and life and then create a plan to get there with deadlines.

The use of a 360-feedback instrument with my coach helped me clarify the leader I wanted to be and validated who I was at my core. Working with a coach also helped me develop an elevator speech about what I want and put me back in the position of power to make my choices. I hadn’t felt like I’d been there in a long time, and it helped me decide when another opportunity came around, what I wanted to do and what was best for me.

What podcasts are you listening to today to support your development?

It varies but right now it’s Masters of Scale, HBRs podcast Women at Work, and Trust and Believe with Shaun T, which is about mental health and wellness.

What are you focused on learning these days?

Besides learning my new job, I’m focused my learning on my own self-care. I’ve spent so much energy and time over the years learning the technologies for my jobs and now I’m working on living a balanced life and setting boundaries. Believe it or not, the first time ever I don’t have my work email on my cell phone.

Once I settle into my new role, I want to focus on getting my black belt in Lean Six Sigma.

Kennethia is currently a Business Process Manager with King County where she can fulfill her goal of giving back to her community.

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