7 Questions with Katie Belanger on Leadership Development

by Elizabeth Rowe (She/Her)

Leadership Development - Katie Belanger

Tips for Leadership Development with Katie Belanger 

Katie has over 20 years of experience in leadership development,  social justice and political work. Throughout these years, she has worked with nonprofits and for-profit organizations, boards and staff teams, as well as coalitions and campaigns to align around a shared mission, build robust implementation plans to engage leaders, foster leadership development and deliver real success to the communities they serve. In 2015, Katie launched her own company, Katie B. Strategies, LLC, which is a woman-owned business committed to equity and representation. Katie B. Strategies exists to bring individuals and teams together to design actionable change. This week, we asked her questions about her experience and career.  You can also check out our podcast interview with her here

Over the 20 years of your work in social justice and political work, what made you more politically minded? What got you started in the field?

It's a really interesting question because it was all an accident. You know, I actually had these dreams of being a professional musician and was training to be a professional flutist and had dreams of being in orchestras and all sorts of things. And I actually decided that that life was gonna be a little too competitive for me, but then somehow found my way into politics. So it's the greatest irony of my life. I'm not a musician because it was too competitive, but then I got into politics.
I was just sort of looking for my next path and I ended up stumbling upon an internship program when I was in college. In the interview, I connected with the interviewer very deeply because I was just wrapping up a class with a professor who had run for congress against our then-congresswoman Tammy Baldwin. We were talking about how this particular professor was a very challenging individual and we really bonded over that. And so I did not even know that Tammy's congressional office was an option for this internship, but I got placed there and loved every minute of it and ended up getting onto her campaign after that and just never looked back in terms of politics in my career.

In your work in both the nonprofit and for-profit organizations and coalitions, how has that diversity of experience really shaped your approach? What is your thought process behind what it means to create positive change?

Working with so many different kinds of organizations and people has done two things for me. One, I've learned how to adapt and really think about how every client is both a unicorn and similar. So, every client is working in their own environment, reality, landscape, and challenges. They need to feel heard, respected and valued wherever they are, for whatever they're doing. And also, there's some universal truth. People need to spend meaningful time together. They need help to communicate intentionally and effectively and in ways that center their values and the impact that they wanna have in the world. And so I think I've really brought those two things together. It's both knowing that people just really need help and they need help talking to each other and centering values. You have to adapt to every single group of people and the unique intricacies of their world.

As you were working with these similar unicorns, are there any common principles or strategies that you have found to be more universally applicable across the different sectors, topics, issues, or individuals you're working with?

I would say one of the most common themes is that people struggle with how to communicate with each other. Folks need a lot of help to figure out how to tackle the toughest of conversations. How to deliver feedback, how to create a space where folks can be honest and vulnerable with each other, and how they can take a chance to innovate and create new opportunities for their work. It’s about seeing that every challenge encountered is actually an opportunity to make a change, either in how they do the work or in the impact of their work.

When working with a patchwork of individuals who all have different communications styles that are constantly changing, it’s important to keep a continued open dialogue about what that looks like. 

Absolutely. I would also say I really saw that the communication needs took center stage at the outset of the pandemic when folks were moving to working from home.Folks were terrified of what was going on in the world. Understandably so, I think folks needed a lot more support to shift how they were communicating to honor the humanity of each other. I think we had a moment as a society where we realized we are all vulnerable, we are all scared, and nobody knows exactly what the path forward is. Folks actually started to reach out for more help than I've seen in the past, which, the circumstances were obviously challenging, but that was the opportunity where folks took the time to think about how we can do this work differently and how we can be more real with each other. I've seen that play out time and time again with my clients, and it's one of the most beautiful parts of my work.

I think the three hallmarks of the strongest leaders that I've seen are honesty, transparency, and integrity. Those are often the hardest things when you're a leader because I think the way that we traditionally look at leaders can be a very isolating experience for folks. I work with, and I've been an executive director of nonprofits before, and those are some of the most terrifying positions to be in. This is because you have to have all the answers, or you at least feel like you have to have all the answers and you have to be on for everybody, whether it's your board, your staff, the community you're serving, the media, etc. So I think that part can be challenging.. Part of what I bring to my work is to model that behavior for the people that I am working with and the clients that I'm serving. The more that I demonstrate honesty, vulnerability, and integrity, the more folks can match that and feel safer in doing it. And I think that's key.

Are there ways in which you coach folks that allow for that vulnerability? Are there other ways that you support leaders in feeling confident, comfortable, honest, transparent and have integrity?

One of the things that I say to my clients a lot is that it's our responsibility as leaders to be kind, not nice. we're very vested in being nice. And that often that's a fine and great intention, but I think a lot of times when we try to be nice, what we end up doing is not addressing the elephant in the room or not speaking directly about something. Or this can come out in passive-aggressive ways or muddled communication. So I work with folks, and particularly when I'm trying to support someone in how to manage a team or manage change, we can't just be nice and make everyone always feel great, because that's not necessarily giving people a chance to understand, contribute, or change course. The kindest thing you can do for people is tell them that something's not going how you want it to. When you tell somebody that there's an opportunity for them to do better at their job or with their work, that's actually giving someone the chance to make a different choice, to learn and grow and to adapt. And that's how we as individuals and as teams and organizations can get better at our work.

How do you make a career in this space? Whether it's advocacy, policy, nonprofits, community change, etc. What inspired you to launch your own business, Katie B. Strategies back in 2015? And how has that journey been for you?

There were two things that made me start my own consulting shop. One was burnout and one was bad strategic planning consultants. I started this company when I was coming out of a six-year tenure as the executive director of my state's LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. And it was a wonderful job and a wonderful opportunity to have a real impact. I left every single thing out on the field and was exhausted and really wanted to figure out how I could create a new balance in my life. I still want to have an impact, I still wanna do this work, but also that's not the role that's the best for me as a human. So that was one piece. The other piece was, like I said, the challenging strategic planning consultants as a nonprofit executive, and as the board chair of other organizations, I often was interviewing consultants to come in and support our organizations at capacity, do a planning project, and so on. I felt myself having to adapt our organizations to what the consultants' model was. I remember very clearly one particular strategic planning consultant. We ended up for about half an hour debating whether or not the organization I was with was in stage one or stage three of her planning process. And I just really walked away from that and other experiences saying, this is not the best use of my time and the best way that we can actually support our community. That at the end of the day, the more time that I spent with consultants who weren't giving me what support my team needed had a cost to it, and that cost was in delivering wins and improvements to the LGBTQ+community. That was the community I was serving the most at the time. So, I wanted to do it differently and I thought I could do it better. That really, I think, inspired the approach to how I do my consulting and how I support these organizations. They are all unique and special and it's my job to adapt to what their needs are.
The journey has been incredible. I am so fortunate to have worked with such amazing groups of people all across the country. I just have been really impressed and humbled to be able to support such innovative, passionate leaders and organizations doing incredibly difficult challenging work and to do it through some of the most difficult times that our country has seen in a long time.

The goal for Katie B. Strategies is to bring individuals, teams, and communities together to design around actionable change. Talk a little bit about what actionable change means to you, and how you help guide the folks that you work with in achieving it?

I think the first thing that I've really learned about my clients is that nobody comes to Katie B. Strategies because things are perfect, right? Either their strategic plan has sunset, their executive director left, or the legislature has started attacking their community, whatever it is, right? These folks are teams who need something, who need to fix something, who need to build something, who need to innovate. So I've come at this work as a partnership and really look for folks who can be honest about what the biggest challenges are to, like I said before, turn those challenges into opportunities. I think that's been one of the most interesting sorts of evolutions in the work because I've seen so many different kinds of scenarios at this particular stage that there's not much that surprises me anymore in terms of what issues my clients are dealing with, or the fact that once I get into the thick of it with a client, I'm gonna uncover something.

Organizational cultures are like onions. You peel back a layer, you find something underneath, you start working on that, and then you find something underneath that needs to be worked on. I think a lot of times, one of the things that I try to impart with my clients is that there are pieces of how we do the work that are just ongoing. You're never done working on your organizational culture. You're never done on your racial justice journey. You're never done figuring out how to be more impactful, intentional, and more equity-focused in your work.

Well, I think one trend that excites me is that more and more of the folks that I work with are understanding the connection between how white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism show up in their day-to-day work together. And I think that's been one of the biggest evolutions that I've been seeing across the board, regardless of what issue or constituency or state or level, whether it's a local, state national, or even international nonprofit. I think that's been really wonderful to see because I think folks are understanding more and more every day about how they are still complicit and really working to root those things out. That has also opened up the door for folks needing more support, more education, more training, more facilitation, you know, all of the support that goes into that kind of really deeply transformative work.

It's a lot for organizations to take on, and it can also be a lot for organizations to absorb. The last piece I'll say here is I think I've really figured out that I have to work with my clients to determine what they are actually capable of taking on. Because you can't change everything all at once and still do your mission and still do your work and still be a human who is healthy and has, you know, I don't even like to say work-life balance because it's not supposed to be 50-50, right? But to have a healthy relationship between your work and your personal life. So it's helping folks figure out that it is a journey and how to step up so that you can do all of the things at the same time and do it in a way that's also not gonna burn your team out or do it in such a way that's so aggressive that you actually end up causing harm, whether it's internally or externally.

Are there any specific lessons or insights that you have gained throughout your career that you would share in the area of social justice or political work as someone is either starting off, continuing their career, or maybe doing a little bit of a transition, any insights that you have for them?

One thing that someone said to me on my very first campaign which was sort of mind-blowing to me and continues to be just something that I as a human am working on, which is just accepting the fact that I'm going to make mistakes. We are human. Trying to avoid mistakes at all costs can actually create more mistakes, right? It's accepting the fact that we're human and we're learning and we're growing and there's gonna be something that happens at some point where something goes off the rails or it's not gonna come together the way that you want, and that there's no perfect solution to most of the problems that we encounter. I think what I've learned is that it's really important to be clear and grounded in the values. Who do I wanna be in this world? Not just what do I wanna do and accomplish, but who do I wanna be while I'm doing it? And what is my purpose and role? Because I'm also one person. I can't change all of the things. So what's the thing that I bring where I can have the greatest impact that's in alignment with my values, and that's gonna allow me to learn, grow, and adapt as I go. And I think that's the biggest lesson that I'd wanna impart to folks who are just starting out.

Are there any favorite podcasts, books, movies, TV shows that you're digging right now that you wanna impart upon our listeners?

The book that I'm reading right now was a recommendation from Joe Fuld, which is Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. And I am currently obsessed with it, and it's really bringing together a lot of the experiences and things that I've learned in real-time in my work and putting some new context with it. So there are three elements of culture. There's building safety, there's finding your purpose and there’s sharing vulnerability. I think those are things that have been baked into what I'm doing and it's bringing new life and sort of reinvigorating some of my passion. So I would really recommend that folks check out Culture Code.

Thanks Katie!   (check out the podcast here


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