Debbie Ferguson is head of foundation engineering and account segment at Gusto, a workplace software company. She actively works as an advocate for inclusivity combining her engineering expertise and life experience.
Advocacy and leadership should be synonymous. I’ve worked with leaders across all levels at organizations of all sizes, and the most effective leaders all shared one trait: they were advocates for the people in their organizations. This was only possible because they listened to and understood each person so that they could advocate with confidence. The result: teams that were engaged, productive, and innovative.
And advocacy spreads. A team that feels heard will listen to and advocate for their customers. They will seek to understand a product’s impact and advocate for changes to meet customer needs better. This results in more engaged customers who advocate for those products, and a powerful positive cycle grows.
I know firsthand how important empathetic advocacy is. Eight years ago, I began the process of transitioning (shifting toward a gender role different from that assigned at birth) while I was at another tech company. I was extremely nervous about what it would mean for my career. When I first shared this with my manager, his response was honest and empathetic: “I don’t understand what you’re going through because I haven’t had to deal with something like this. But I’m available to listen. Please let me know what you need and how I can support you.”
This was the best possible way to support me at that time. His authenticity was much more empathetic than hearing a story about someone he knew who transitioned—or telling me that he totally understood. Or saying nothing will change.
As leaders, we put pressure on ourselves to know everything and fix every problem. Luckily, problem-solving is not the primary role of an advocate. Instead, it’s about listening and seeking to understand. It’s easy to make assumptions, apply our needs to someone else’s situation, or take action when someone didn’t ask for or need it.
Here are four behaviors of an effective advocate at work.
Instead of waiting for someone to ask for support, leaders can proactively act as advocates by building systems that are inclusive by default.
For example, we aim to make review cycles and hiring processes as unbiased as possible within the engineering segment, starting with language. We do not use gendered pronouns when discussing an employee or candidate’s contributions. By defaulting to they/them pronouns, we help ensure everyone is evaluated to the same standards. If that language comes through in an evaluation or review, we can quickly isolate it and remove it from the decision-making process. We then provide coaching to the person who used that language, so it doesn’t happen again.
When a person approaches you in need of support, a common instinct is to offer advice or try to fix it. Instead, start with a question: what kind of advocate do you want? How can I best support you? They may need you to listen, advise on a specific situation, or connect them to others. If you still need clarification about what they need, feel free to ask a follow-up question like, “Help me understand. Can you say a bit more about what you meant?”
Approach advocacy with humility, and then take responsibility for filling in your own knowledge gaps. Instead of putting the onus on someone else to explain an experience, conduct your own research. At a previous company, a team member told me they were wrestling with a mental health issue. They shared some good resources so I could learn more. And then I learned as much as possible about it on my own—which helped debunk assumptions I didn’t even know I’d made and gave me the context I needed to support them. It also enabled us to have richer conversations as my understanding grew.
Too often, I’ve seen leaders ask a member of an underrepresented group to be an advocate for that group. This adds responsibility to a person who might not want or be able to achieve it. Advocacy should not be delegated. My goal is to support those who want to be advocates without setting it as an expectation for those who do not. I do this by listening and understanding what someone wants to accomplish and supporting them if they advocate for a group or a cause.
Those in positions of power have a responsibility to support and uplift those around them. By better supporting our teams, advocacy-focused leaders can better support our customers and, ultimately, an entire ecosystem of people. And this not only has a multiplier effect across an organization, it feels really good.