“Maybe some people go into leadership kicking and screaming and other people go into it riding a wave that has kind of carried them through life. And with no hubris, I am among the latter. And I’m really grateful for that,” said Dr. Aisha Francis, Educational Leader and Advocate.
When imposter syndrome shows up to steal your joy, do you wonder why? Although there are many reasons, we often internalize the myth that we can become leaders alone. But as you advance in your career, leadership becomes the product of grooming, not just training. And for women, particularly women of color, sponsors become important. So, as you level-up professionally, remember that high achievers, from athletes to Nobel laureates, work with coaches and mentors.
Aisha became the CEO of her organization during the pandemic. So how do you bring your professional best and gain momentum in a time of crisis?
Think of Leadership as a Way of Being
Aisha explained, “I thought that leadership was just what people did.” She was surrounded by leaders growing up, “I had the chance to see what leadership looks like outside of the context of work. It was the way that you showed up in the world. Because I grew up in Black Nashville and saw it in my community. I didn’t even know what my Grandfather did for a long time. But I knew he was a leader, because he ran stuff,” she said.
We often forget about the influence leaders have in all spheres of our lives. And the many opportunities we have to engage with it. She planned to be in a leadership role from the start of her career journey, before she knew what it would look like.
Embrace Help and Be Coachable
Our culture tends to treat leadership like a solo sport. But the best in their fields, don’t make it to the top alone. And while women remain underrepresented in leadership, it’s a fraction of that for women of color. So, the path to senior leadership often requires sponsorship. But even if you lack the relationship capital to find sponsors, you can help even the playing field with a mentor, executive coach, strong personal brand or network.
Aisha valued feedback from experts early in her life. So, she’s built a supportive network for each stage of her career. She said, “And that was a learned behavior. I was part of lots of competitions for civic organizations growing up and recited poetry. And when you do those things, you have coaches that help you. So, in these groups that I was a part of for school, if we had to give a speech, they would bring in a speech coach. And I picked those things up.”
Expect to Commit and Recommit to Your Role
Even the most secure leaders experience moments of doubt. And it doesn’t take a major industry pivot, like the delivery of education being flipped on its head, to prompt those internal questions. Am I in the right place? Aisha said, “Do I need to recommit? Yeah. All the time. And not because I’m forcing myself to but there are a lot of problems with higher education right now. They were there before but Covid has exacerbated them.” Significantly.
It Helps If You’re Passionate About it
She explained, “I am working with a population that is extremely low income and vulnerable in lots of ways. And I will think, ‘there are a lot of other colleges why do I do this to myself?’ But this is the area that excites me. And it’s the type of mission I’m the most committed to because I’m drawn to the underdog. And I don’t actually want institutions like this to always be to be fairly characterized as an underdog. There’s something about it that gets under my skin.” Amen.
Continue Your Learning Journey
One of the challenges of leadership is that everyone looks to you for the answers. Aisha takes steps to keep learning and growing while establishing herself in a new role. She said, “I make it very clear that I don’t have all the answers and I am in continual learning mode. I’m a generalist and treat the folks who are on my leadership team as the subject matter experts. There are some things on which I’m a subject matter expert but most of them have nothing to do with leading a Technical College. And in some ways, that’s an advantage.” She incorporates her strengths into how she leads.
And Remember to Lean Into Your Strengths
Aisha said, “I am very good at learning very quickly. And at synthesizing complex information and sharing that in concise way. I know that that’s a strength.” She received excellent advice from a workshop she attended. “It might have been through The Partnership. But as people of color and women, we spend all this time trying to shore up areas where we’re weak.” An important observation.
She added, “And in this particular workshop, it was about leaning into your strengths. It’s not to ignore the deficit areas but why do we spend so much time focused on that? Like, if I don’t enjoy X, whatever X is, why am I going to make myself do it? What do I have to prove? Go do Y and you will have a much higher chance of soaring than you will beating your head against the wall, if you’re not great at X.”
Build Your Dream Team
Aisha has a board of advisors for her organization. But, she also has what she calls her own ‘kitchen cabinet.’ She said, “I’ve thought for a long time about how to curate a support system with people who care about you. And, I’ve always wanted that, to be a diverse group. So, you know it’s not all people of color and it’s not all people who are PhD’s. So as opportunities come my way, I have folks I can reach out to.” How can you be intentional about choosing advisors?
Keep it Diverse and Pro-You
Aisha’s suggests you find people who are not directly affected by your decisions. She explained, “So, that you can bring opportunities to them and explore the options. And say, ‘hey there’s this idea I’m thinking about’ but they don’t have a dog in the hunt. Except that they care about you. Because otherwise, it puts too much pressure on people you’re super close to.” Wise.
She added, “I rely on the ability to have these folks to reach out to so, I always have four or five people on speed dial. And it’s an investment. It takes a lot of a lot of time and I do a lot of these calls on the weekends. But they’re are receptive to that and if they don’t hear from me, they’ll reach out. And I appreciate that.” Beautiful. How do can you manage the ongoing demands of leadership and family life? Especially now. Replenish your energy with self-care.
It’s Not Self-Care if You Don’t Enjoy It
Aisha said her self-care definition has evolved. And she’s intentional about doing what she enjoys. She said, “We have to take care of ourselves but if you don’t like running, why are you trying to be a runner? Go do the things that you like to do.” It’s easier to build habits you like. She explained, “I think of self-care now as doing all the things that I consider to be hobbies. It’s pursuing things that I love to do as an individual, once you take away all the trappings of Motherhood, being a spouse or my work position. It’s what’s restorative and makes me feel the most like myself,” she said.
We often forget who we are outside of our roles. She added, “I really like needlework and picked it up again in the pandemic. Usually, it’s reading but I was so stressed that I couldn’t even read. My attention span is all over the place and I had such little snatches of time I couldn’t even get into a short story!”
So, Prioritize What Helps You Reset
Aisha has also found a mix of activities that work for her lifestyle. She said, “When I need to get away, I do a lot of walking. And then there’s a whole host of body work, like acupuncture, massage and chiropractic care, because I hold tension in my back. I haven’t had a chance to do it as much of because of the pandemic. And when I’m not comfortable in my own body, I do yoga.”
She’s also clear about how she wants to spend her precious time. “I have locks so that’s very low maintenance and one of the reasons why I got this (hairstyle) is because I have two little kids. So, I don’t have the time to do my hair and make it look the way I want. I actually have the time. But I don’t want to spend time that way!” Beautiful. And she’s captured the delicate dance of blending Motherhood with a high passion career. “We have to make all these choices and tradeoffs. So, I use that time in other ways that are more fulfilling to me” she said.
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Thank you to the talented Dr. Aisha Francis!
As Chief Executive Officer at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology (BFIT), Aisha Francis, Ph.D., oversees the day-to-day operations of the college and plays a critical role in advancing its mission.
Dr. Francis is an award-winning nonprofit leader and educator with broad experience in strategic planning, philanthropy, board relations, marketing, and communications. She believes in the ability of effective organizations and well-supported individuals to transform underserved communities for the better, which is her life’s work. She enjoys serving as a strategist and implementing dynamic new programs at best-in-class organizations that improve access to and equity of educational and economic opportunities.
In her previous role as BFIT’s Chief of Staff, Dr. Francis built the college’s network of supporters through external and government relations and oversaw selected aspects of administrative operations. Prior to joining BFIT, she served as the Managing Director of Development for Harvard Medical School, raising funds to support medical student scholarships as well as diversity and inclusion programs. She previously spearheaded marketing and fundraising for Economic Mobility Pathways and held leadership positions at the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and Boston Medical Center.
Her background is in academia and she began her career as a college educator of English Literature and Women’s Studies. Dr. Francis has published original scholarship in these areas of study and pens opinion pieces and offers commentary on matters relevant to higher education.
Recognized by the Boston Business Journal as a 40 Under 40 leader to watch, Dr. Francis contributes to the civic health of Boston through volunteer work and advocacy. In 2020, Dr. Francis was appointed to the City of Boston’s Employment Commission, which oversees the Boston Residents Job Policy.
Dr. Francis resides in Hyde Park with her husband and two young children. Originally from Nashville, TN, she completed her undergraduate education at Fisk University, then earned a masters and doctorate in English Literature from Vanderbilt University.