Igniting Insights: Leadership & Creativity with Sonya Jackson

Today we feature our next installment in our blog series - "Igniting Insights: Interviews on Profession & Purpose.” Our journeys are filled with diverse and inspiring travelers from around the country. In this series, we sit down with entrepreneurs, experts and creatives who have joined our journeys and get insider insights. In this installment, Sonya Jackson chats about leadership and creativity in both corporate America and beyond.

You spent more than two decades working for multinational companies and traveling around the world. What do you see as the top leadership challenges for large global corporations? 

The first that comes to mind is being nimble. Being able to keep up with the times. Big companies don’t move quickly and they need to learn how to adapt if they want to compete.

Diversity is a second challenge. You don’t want an echo chamber around you. You want people who bring different perspectives and different ideas. And lastly, but related, is culture. Information is often at the top - and it doesn’t trickle down to the middle managers. When that happens there can be a lack of alignment and employees get discouraged or feel undervalued. And we all know that issues like retention and productivity are driven by happy employees… so companies have to work on culture.

 

You continue to consult with executives, how do you advise them on culture?

When I was a leader for large companies, I realized that a significant amount of our time is spent at work. So the people you work with become your de facto family. You get involved in one another’s lives… the celebrations, the changes, etc. Companies that want to impact culture realize they need to give employees the opportunity to enhance those connections.

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Culture is enhanced when people get out of the office to be more social and see a different side of life. It’s easier to rally around the task when you’ve experienced human connection with your colleagues.

Culture is enhanced when people get out of the office to be more social and see a different side of life. It’s easier to rally around the task when you’ve experienced human connection with your colleagues. I also would encourage top executives to get out of their bubble. For example, I have taken executives to Stroger (Cook County) Hospital to connect them to people whose experiences were different from them - and help them understand that we have people from all walks of life working at our company.

 

As an executive woman of color, how has the landscape of diversity and inclusion changed? (What’s improved and what are the challenges?)

In the 25 plus years I spent in the corporate world, I’ve seen progress but not as much as I’d like to see. The companies that nail it understand that people are coming from diverse backgrounds, diverse ethnicities and different experiences and they contribute in different ways. Companies who get it put opportunities in place to help their people and their company realize the potential that comes from diversity. The reality is that there’s still a long way to go. If you look at the makeup of board rooms, the c-suite, even the director levels at large companies, they are still not particularly diverse. We still have issues around gender, race, pay gaps - there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. The companies that are not just thinking and talking about it but are walking the talk not just giving lip service but creating real change on this issue - those are the companies that will be the most successful.

 

You left corporate America to launch your own company focused on leadership and creativity. Tell us about a few of your current projects.

I became drawn to storytelling and opportunities to help tell stories for people who look like me or have similar experiences to mine.

Growing up and also in the corporate world I was often the only person of color or the only woman in the room. My experience growing growing up in Iowa was similar and I didn’t see a lot of images that looked like. I hope part of my legacy is to leave stories that are rich and textured that are inclusive of that haven’t typically been represented in the majority of literature and media.

I write fiction and nonfiction stories and I’m producing the first feature length documentary about Harold Washington, the nation’s 2nd African American mayor and Chicago’s only elected African American mayor.

 

How has travel inspired your personal leadership and creativity?

As a storyteller, I find myself inspired by the stories I come back with when I travel and one that comes to mind happened in South Africa. I was creating an HIV awareness program for British Petroleum after we discovered that a percentage of BP employees in southern Africa who were HIV positive. That was a watershed moment for us as corporate leaders, so I went to the country to help architect and launch the program. Now I’m an African American woman, five feet tall, the youngest in my family, and until I was 30 years old I didn’t wear adult clothes because I was so petite… so I’ve had to be scrappy.

leadership is learning to listen and adapt - not only to the people that you’re working with, but to the situation, the cultures, the places where you find yourself

The first night, I walked into a dinner with leaders from 11 countries and at that point in my career I probably felt I had something to prove. So I was snapping and talking and doing the thing that I do, and an African colleague pulled me aside and said, “Here, in this country, if my son is getting married I don’t stand up and announce it. I tell one person, and they tell another and ultimately it works its way around the room without me ever having to say something.”

He was telling me, you don’t need to come in so hot... it isn’t necessary or appropriate. I learned that an important aspect of leadership is learning to listen and adapt - not only to the people that you’re working with, but to the situation, the cultures, the places where you find yourself. That was a powerful lesson that came out of my travel and it has served me well for many years now.