Leaders will be nothing without a team that trusts them. Tene Knibbs attests to this fact as she shares how her own leadership journey molded her as a person. Together with Jeffrey Edwards, Tene reminisces on her time in Chile as a young, black woman who learned how to lead by connecting with the people around her. She explains why every leader must know how to be flexible, adapt to cultural differences, and understand people dynamics to solve problems within a team. Tene also calls on people to embrace their passion to emerge to the call of leadership.
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Tene Knibbs On Her Life-Changing Leadership Journey
I am thrilled to be a part of your day and always enjoy bringing people into The Leader’s Chair. Our special guest is an International Specialist and Business Consultant with Deloitte. She has led large transformation projects for clients in countries such as the US, Chile, Uganda, and even in her home country of Canada. She’s based in Ottawa. She is a person with inquisitive nature and a caring spirit. She is ready to tackle strategic issues. She also is a mentor and coaches leaders at all levels and helps them realize their true potential. When you see her you’ll think, “How does she pack all this in her life with everything else that she’s doing?” She is a star in her work and also in my life because she’s a cousin. I get to even bring in family. It’s a pleasure and honor to introduce you to our special guest, Tene Knibbs.
Thank you for having me and thank you for that impressive introduction. I haven’t heard it quite like that. I need you taking me through the day and introduce me to other meetings. That was wonderful.
It’s great to share the truth with the world. You’ve been a witness to the work you’ve done and the stories you’ve shared with me and other family members with regards to the extent of the geography you’ve covered as a consultant in the business. Give a slight idea of where did this all start for you? When did you decide that, “One day I’m going to be an international business consultant and get out there in the world and make a difference?”
I was thinking back to high school. I always had this curiosity about different languages, different people, where they come from. I remember in my Advanced Geography classes, I was talking about something with the teacher. I said, “Do you know what I want to be when I grow up? An international business consultant.” I had no idea what consulting was. I didn’t know about Deloitte, the big four or anything. All I knew was I want to travel the world. I want to experience new cultures and see different people, but I also want to solve problems and help organizations solve their problems.
I don’t know where that came from in high school and why I thought that, but that’s always what I thought of. I didn’t start out in my career in consulting. I feel like it’s a full circle and a coincidence that I thought about that way back then in high school, and I am where I am now. That wasn’t the path that I took. It wasn’t a straight path to where I am. I’m grateful that the road led me to where I am now, and that proclamation in Geography class in grade ten came true.
You’ve covered continents with the work that you’ve done. The consulting world is a large world. What would you say is your specialty or the lane in which you operate?
I am an accountant by profession. I am a CPA. I did start out my career working within finance and the federal government. As I transitioned to consulting, that’s where I started to grow up is looking at business problems from my CFO lane or finance lane, but the lane that I’ve grown into is solving business problems for clients particularly in the public sector. I do specialize in the public sector and thinking about things from how do you take advantage of automation? How do you do that from the perspective of your workforce? You’re going to be merging automation with the human workforce. How do you bring that together as an example?
I’m thinking about how do clients think about where they are today, where they want to be tomorrow, and how do they bridge that gap? I focused on that intersection between those two pieces. I’m helping clients think about and imagining that future, and also making it a reality. That’s how I boil it down. I might do that in finance and other areas, but it’s more around the big thinking, moving forward, learning from the past, and strategizing how you get there.
When you are going out there in the world and working with the clients that you do, what are some of the common issues you see when you enter into these organizations? They’re sharing with you what their issues are, the challenges they’re having and either the implementation of ideas or coming up with a strategy for putting their ideas in motion.
One thing that becomes interesting to me is the client will call us for a certain problem that they think they have. As we start to understand and unpack that with them, what they have described to us are symptoms of an underlying issue. The number one thing that we see when we go into these organizations is listening, asking questions, understanding, and getting to the root cause. That isn’t what they told us the problem was. Even understanding what is it that you’re trying to solve for is the number one piece. The other piece I find interesting and part of those initial steps in terms of understanding where to go next is it’s not so much the technical issues that are the challenge. It’s the people dynamics.
Whether you’re planning a system, putting in robotic process automation or whatever it is, the biggest challenge that I see that I help my clients work through is how do people get aligned? How do leaders bring their team along? How do you help people understand that have been doing their job the same way for twenty years? How do you get them to see things differently? It always comes back to the people dynamics, the organizational change, and how do you help people get ready for that? How do you listen to them? How do you make sure that their challenges and apprehensions are acknowledged? How do you bring them along that journey with them with you?
In your interactions across your projects, what are some ways in which you do help the managers, supervisors, or even the sponsors of those programs to change the way they approach the situation? I often encounter where it’s commonly known that, “We need to bring this in and transition people to this new model.” It’s all well and good, but when they get down to try and do it, there seems to be a lot of resistance. What are some ways that you’ve been able to approach it that have led to successful outcomes in your experience?
One of the key things is to make sure that you understand where that stakeholder or that business partner or whoever is coming from. What’s their point of view? What is their interest? What are they going to get out of that change or that transformation? You need to see it from their eyes and let them understand what’s in it for them. That’s a big piece of it. I also think there’s a little bit of a scare factor sometimes where you want to impress upon what’s the risk of not changing because there is sometimes a cost and a risk to that.
I think helping them to understand that. The benefit of being consulted through your third party with no interest in what’s going on there other than to help the client succeed, you can be a good sounding board and you can be a mirror to hold up to in a sense to the organization to say, “This is all that you told me, let me play that back to you. Let me see if I got this right. Is this what you’re telling me? Do you see this from this perspective?” Providing that outsider perspective also helps to break down a little bit of those walls and vulnerability part to come out and you start to see that resistance breakdown into, “I’m a little bit scared.” As we started to understand and unpack what is causing that resistance, you start to be able to see people as humans and be able to speak in the way that they need to hear it and bring them along that journey.It's not so much of the technical issues that are the challenge. It's the people dynamics. Click To Tweet
What are some of the ways in which you’ve helped people through those transitions and those moments of vulnerability where they’re looking for guidance and assistance?
One thing that I’ve learned over my time with Deloitte management consulting is how important connecting with people is. We come in and assigned to do this big project and it’s a thing in people’s minds, but that thing is happening to people. What I try to do as I start to get to know who I’m working with is to get to know people on a more personal level. Beyond the project or the immediate task at hand, what is their day-to-day like? What is keeping them up at night? What is it that they’re worried about? How can we support beyond the bounds of this and the confines of the immediate project? How do we help to support the bigger picture in their mind and those other worries and preoccupations? When you start to relate to people on that level, they start to be responsive and understand that you’re there to support them. It’s not only with that one particular piece, but you’re there along with them for the ride, their day-to-day, and their future. That’s helpful.
Having that empathy for what they’re going through and being present. Seeing the task is more than simply an assignment or consulting project. Understanding that there are people involved who are impacted, and being sensitive to that. It’s part of the dynamic that you bring to the game here.
It’s even further highlighted with this pandemic that we’re going through. Everybody’s sitting at home. Those lines between home and work are completely blurred. I’m sitting here at my kitchen isle. This is where I live, relax, have lunch or do podcast. Everything is happening all at once. People are even relating to that. We get on calls and say, “Both of your kids are in the background. What are their names?” It’s connecting on a personal level because we’re all experiencing life and work all at once. It’s even highlighted during this pandemic time.
I remember there was a time you had the experience in Chile. We share this way back when you put your hand up and you say, “I’m going to Chile.” I’m curious if you can share what the motivation was behind that project for you? It was international you. You don’t speak Spanish. How is it that this person from Canada puts her hands, “I’m ready to go to Chile?”
I don’t know where that came from but I’ve always wanted to experience life in another country. I’m Canadian-born with parents from Jamaica. I never experienced life outside of Canada at that point in time. It’s something that I wanted to experience. I had a curiosity about other people, other places, and how people work and live. I was fortunate enough to work in an organization that did have a presence in other countries. I was able to be tethered to that opportunity in Chile, which turned out to be the right time of my life.
Interestingly enough, I speak a little tiny bit of Spanish but I did not speak Chilean. There’s a distinction. It was a big culture shock, but I rose to the occasion because I wanted that particular experience of diving into something that I didn’t know for many dimensions, from a cultural perspective, language perspective, personal life perspective, professional life perspective, everything was different. I was craving for some change, and that was the one that worked for me.
One of the challenges that leaders shared with me over the years, especially the emerging leaders where they’re going into new assignments and they are in their first big project. There’s that feeling of, “I’m not sure if I’m ready for everything that’s going to come here.” There’s anxiety, self-doubt, and almost like that imposter syndrome that might come to play. Describe what the experience was for you coming from a different country, young woman, different cultural background as well, and having to build a certain alliance and lead people who may see you as outside of the realm of their experience and understanding.
It was scary. I was nervous and apprehensive. I also had a false sense of security. I had been at my firm for a couple of years. I was a manager when I went down to Chile. Here I am a manager from Canada, I’m going to go there and do well. I remember the first meeting with clients and colleagues and I did not understand one thing. The only thing I understood at the end of the meeting was, “Tonight we are going to do X.” I didn’t know what to tap in the two hours proceeding that. Your question was, how did it feel? It was humbling.
I had to take off that veneer of, “I came here to do certain things and get this accomplished. I’m going to tackle it and it’s going to go exactly as I expected. I had to humble myself, slow down, learn how to ask for help in every dimension whether it’s within the office or outside of that. I also had to bring confidence that while I might not know the language well or I might not know how to navigate, I do bring a lot of different skills, knowledge and experiences that I can share.
Balancing that learning while I can contribute in a certain way was something I had to learn quickly, and be comfortable with because it was uncomfortable. I had to ramp up slowly over time. I was grateful that my colleagues were accepting and understanding as well. It helped that the Chilean culture is warm and welcoming. The people embraced me right from day one. They were willing and curious about me, asking me questions, and bringing me home for dinner with their families. That made all the difference. It was a challenge, but it was easier by those that I was surrounded by.
What was that timeframe for you to feel that you had arrived and you were comfortable in the role that you’re in? I can imagine that the learning curve was sharp and at the same time, there were still things that had to get done and the projects didn’t just pause. What was that when you think of that timeframe of acclimation for you? What were you thinking around yourself, about the decision you made, and also maybe some of those supports and people that were in your network who was helping you out during that time?
It is a cycle. You get there and you’re excited. Especially when it was served in Canada and the seasons are reversed. It was 30 degrees when I got down there and palm trees and I was like, “This is great.” I was on a high when I first got there, and then after a couple of months reality sinks like, “This is my life and this is where I am.” The people in my close-knit circle isn’t there. I have to rebuild that and all of that. I’m learning a new language. It was probably six months in where I was seeing all that work, but it was where we won a big project that we were reviewing a number of processes for one of the government ministries down there.
I was the leader. I had people on my team. It involved working along with the CFO, with our client, and their team in corporate services. I had to travel around Chile doing workshops and data gathering with different organizations as part of the work. That’s when I had a moment in one of our trips saying, “I’m enjoying this.” I got in a plane, went to another city, led a workshop with people in rural areas and Chile that was speaking real Chilean Spanish. It’s different than what I had heard and that’s when I thought, “I’m here. I’m doing it. I’m making it work.”Leaders need to see it from the eyes of their team and let them understand what's in it for them. Click To Tweet
I can only imagine that experience. Through it all, you made it through. How long were you down in Chile?
I went down for a two-year assignment. That was my original plan. I ended up staying for the third year. I was having so much fun. Why stop now? I did stay on for another year. I transitioned back to Canada probably in 2016.
If you look back on the experiences of leading that new level for you and having not only the staff but also an expanded level of responsibility and scope of responsibility. What were some of the takeaways that you had from that experience?
The personal takeaway is how resilient and adaptable I am. There were some moments where I thought, “I could go home. It’s okay. I’ve been here for a couple of months. It didn’t work out.” There are those moments that it was tough. Having stayed there for three years, coming away with the experiences that I had professionally and personally, the network that I made, the people that I met, and the friendships and relationships that I came away with, I learned about my resilience and my adaptability in that circumstance. I also learn how people’s relationships are integral to your experience. If I think about my circle of friends, I had a lot of friends from Chile who were local, but I also had a good network of friends who are ex-pats who were experiencing the same thing as me as well.
That good complement of different types of people that were my support network was valuable to me. If I think about me coming from North America and going to South America and going to Chile, I learned about how to be respectful of cultural differences. That is quite important because I could have had a different experience and left quickly if I came and thought my way is the best way or the North American way is the best way and tried to impose that. It’s standing back and understanding, letting the culture envelop you, embrace that, understand, and put your own flavor on things while still having that cultural intelligence is important. That helped me in my experience and also helped us in the work that we did there as well.
I look back on the experience and also some of your other assignments where you’re at now. Being a woman, you’re also a person of color as well, and you’re young. You check off all these boxes. You look at this and any one of those can be seen as a barrier and a roadblock for acceptance, recognition and respect. What’s been your experience in any one of those areas when it comes to the work that you’ve done and being accepted in the leadership roles that you play?
That’s such a question that’s been highlighted over the events of 2020, especially around the increased focus and attention being brought to anti-black racism. These are the discussions that I’ve been having from a gender and race perspective. My experience has been interesting because I feel on the one hand that I’ve accomplished a lot. I’ve been able to get roles and experiences along with my peers and even maybe in other groups. I’ve also had this experience of feeling like I had to assimilate some ways as opposed to embracing all the things that make me. That includes being black, being a woman, and being an introvert, all these labels that we attach to ourselves.
It’s been such an interesting journey and to think you feel good, you accomplish things, have different experiences, work alongside different people but that feeling of otherness that’s come up in certain respects. I remember in a meeting with a group of leaders and they were waiting for the meeting to start and one leader asking me, “I’ve talked to you a couple of times but I don’t know much about you. Where are you from?” I’m like, “I was born in Canada. I’m Canadian.” He’s like, “Where are you really from?” It started to become awkward because what I knew the question was about was, “You’re black. You need to be from somewhere else.”
At that moment, what I felt was, “I’ve been working here for years. I work alongside these people every day, but still I’m seen as that black person that’s different.” Not that I think it’s a bad thing for us to see people for their uniqueness. Sometimes the biases, we wonder, how does that come into decision-making? How does it come into who gets leadership roles? Who gets paid? How much do they get? It starts to put that doubt in your mind in terms of if that person can see me that way, sitting at the table and we point out that I’m different in that way, did that decision come up when I didn’t get that job? Did that decision come up or did that thought come up when I didn’t get that raise?
In your bio, you mentioned that your coach and mentor leaders at all levels. What are some of the experiences where you’ve been called in to be a coach or a mentor to either colleagues or even in the client environment?
As part of my work, I find myself to be fortunate to be in a position where I lead teams and have people that work with me on projects. I do find myself in an informal sometimes with mentoring and coaching role, whether I’m helping the team members to think about, “We’re going into the session. I don’t know how to approach this particular topic. Can you help me work through that particular item?” Things like people are saying, “I don’t know if I want to be consulting anymore. Can you help me think about my career journey and what that might look like?”
I have those conversations. The other position I find myself sometimes with our clients as well, we get to know each other as I was talking about earlier on a more personal level. We start to get calls around, “I was wondering about this and we’re trying to do this in our organization, but I’m not sure how to navigate the situation internally. Can we have a chat about that?” I do find that I have opportunities to be that third-party, that listening ear, that person that can ask some questions and help our people work through some of the challenges that they’re working through.” Those are some of the examples where I do have that opportunity to provide some coaching and mentoring.
I think of you as that person that would be coming into that same Geography class and speaking to a group of students. How do you perceive yourself from a leadership perspective? Describe yourself as you are. With everything that you’ve accomplished, how would you describe the recognition of being the leader that you are?
You talked about this in an earlier episode about being authentic. To me, the incarnation of the leader that I’m most proud of is when I found my true authentic voice. I started to be more of myself and recognizing where my strength areas are in terms of not only what I’m good at, but what energizes me and what I’m passionate about. Focusing and harnessing those pieces and stopped worrying about things that aren’t in my wheelhouse. That’s okay because I work in a team and other people can provide that other support. When I became more aware of my own voice and my own authentic style is when I became the leader that I’m proud of.Don't focus on the things that you're not. Focus on the things that you are. Click To Tweet
Part of that is around my connection with people. I love people. I love talking to people, having good conversations, asking questions, challenging, laughing. That’s probably my number one thing that I love to do is to have a good time and enjoy humor quite a bit. Connecting on that authentic level of who I am and letting that person shine along with my technical skills. Everybody has that, but finding that piece that makes you, that’s where leaders shine the best. That’s where I found my leadership.
Letting others shine, that to me is a sign of a good leader. I don’t need to be in charge of everything or do everything or know everything. I don’t want to do all of those things. I want to facilitate others to be able to do those things as well. It’s making sure that I am bringing others along that I’m being one that’s supporting the team. That’s the way that I like to lead and has worked for me. Those are some of the things that I would say when I think about myself as a leader.
How does it feel to know that there are people looking up to you for guidance, for wisdom, for direction on a fairly regular basis?
It surprises me sometimes. I didn’t always see myself that way. Sometimes some days I don’t see that myself that way. It’s something that I feel quite proud of. I feel that it’s an honor and a privilege for people to have an example that they can find something in me that they want to connect to, that they appreciate, that they want to know more about. I find that’s a big responsibility as well. It makes me think about what example am I setting? What model am I setting for others around me? Also, my other peer leaders. What are we portraying as a team, as a cohort of leaders? What leaders are we? What am I bringing to that picture as well?
Any advice for that person who is on that leadership track, that emerging leader, and that may be thinking about that next step. What would you say to them as they continue to move forward? Along the way, they’re going to have their challenges, some doubts, and perhaps even some setbacks. What can you say to them?
I would say everybody experiences that set back. Everybody has that. There are a couple of things I would say. Number one is don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. It’s important to have that confidence to say, “I’m here today and tomorrow I want to be there. I need this to make it happen.” Ask for that. I spent a lot of time doubting myself or questioning or looking for validation from others in terms of, “Am I good enough to take on this role? Am I going to make it to this level?” What I would say to those that might be experiencing the same thoughts is focus on you, your strengths, what makes you happy, and what gives you purpose. Those things will feel you. Don’t focus on the things that you’re not, focused on the things that you are. That’s important.
The follow-up to that is on the business side, but also the community side. You likely would be approached from a community perspective, a role model, an example to other women and women of color to say, “There’s an example out there of someone who is a professional, who’s doing well, who is in a position of leadership.” How do you respond to that knowledge knowing that you’re also an icon to them in terms of an example of what’s possible for them?
It’s special. I didn’t always have those people to look up to that looked like me that walk the path that I did or my parents did. To see more of us, I look at my circle, my friends and you, we’re doing it. I’m proud of all my friends and some of my colleagues around that we now have more examples out there like us. There is much more of those references and those role models in our communities. To be seen as one of them or somebody as part of that circle makes me proud. I’m happy to see more pictures of diversity, different paths, different things and opportunities, and making it possible for others. That’s special.
Where do you see yourself five years from now? What’s the vision that you have in terms of that next level of performance of success or challenges?
One thing that I want to continue on that journey and I’m getting there now is I’ve done a lot of different types of work in a more technical landscape. What’s happening now that I like is that my personal passions are colliding with my professional expertise. As an example, I’m now our National Co-Leader at Deloitte for Canadian Black Professional Network. I’m passionate about making sure that we have opportunities for black professionals that are equivalent to our peers in other groups. The fact that that’s part of my work and what I do every day, I get to work on that and making the professional experience better for black professionals at Deloitte. It gives me such a sense of purpose and I’m no longer separating my personal and professional interests. Those things are coming together. I hope that continues in the future, that I start to continue to do work that fuels my passion. I’m able to put my professional expertise to work in those areas that are important and critical to our community development.
I look forward to the day where I’m sure you’ll come back and I’ll say, “Now we’re speaking to the CEO.” We can put this interview in a time capsule and say, “Remember when?” It has been great to have you here. I thank you for being a part of our episode and share from the heart as you do. I appreciate your insights as well and see that more opportunities are growing. You’re a role model for a lot of other professionals coming up in the world. All the best to you. Thank you for being a guest here in the show.
Thank you for having me. I enjoyed this conversation.
I’d like to thank you for being a part of the show and I look forward to the next time when we get together. Until then, be good and lead well.
About Tene Knibbs
Senior Manager, Finance & Performance Management Consulting at Deloitte Canada