In the Burroughs | Children's Minnesota | The Kid Experts

Equity action: starting at the top

We can’t talk our way to equity. We have to act. And not just acts of charity. Actions that will change unjust processes and systems.  

Every few months I’m going to post an equity action you can incorporate into your work to create an equitable community and workplace. The first is equity coaching for leadership.  

Change needs to happen at all levels of society, all levels of an organization. Are the leaders of your company equipped to create an equitable organization for staff as well as the people they serve? Equity coaching can prepare them. If you’re a leader, consider implementing equity coaching. If not, consider bringing the idea of equity coaching to your leadership team.  

At Children’s Minnesota, 30 of our top leaders have been working with two equity coaches, Anika Ward and Janice Downing, for the past couple of years. Below, Anika and Janice answer questions about what equity coaching is, and how it can lead to diverse, inclusive and equitable organizations. 

Equity coach Anika Ward
Anika Ward
Equity coach Janice Downing
Janice Downing

What is equity coaching?

Anika Ward: Equity coaching supports individuals to sharpen leadership practices and strengthen impact across work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). 

An experienced equity coach functions as a strategic thought partner for DEI/systems change; gaining an understanding of the leader’s role, interests/motivations, strengths and challenges; then facilitating a progression of personalized discussions and exercises that stretch/support them to reach their developmental goals. 

Coaching activities may include setting (and tracking progress toward) development goals, processing current/ongoing issues and opportunities and brainstorming strategies and solutions. 

Janice Downing: Equity coaching is an experience. The coach and coachee believe that each is unique, holds multiple identities, and they are willing to partner together so that each feels safe, heard and understood.  

The coach uses their knowledge, skills, abilities and experiences to meet the needs of the person they are coaching. They do this by asking curious, non-judgmental questions, offering options and providing intentional and regular support. Support can and should be shared in many forms, e.g., truth telling, offering a different perspective or sharing tools.  

This type of coaching requires broad and great skill, a lot of patience and a deep understanding of emotional intelligence, styles, many cultures and experiences. A coach needs to be skilled at understanding and flexible to meet the needs of the individuals they coach. For example, the coach will understand that coaching a white, cisgender male in their 60s is incredibly different from coaching a Black, cisgender female, and this same coach is able to successfully guide those who have other identities.  

Why is equity coaching important?   

Anika Ward: Equity fuels excellence. As we become increasingly effective at centering diversity, equity and inclusion throughout our leadership practice, we become stronger, more impactful leaders.  

Equity coaching supports leaders to strengthen alignment between our words/actions and our DEI vision and/or intent– in ways that equip and activate us to make the greatest impact possible. The resulting shifts in our leadership approaches and practices have an exponential impact on every person and process we support. 

Equity coaching is most valuable to leaders who’ve made a whole-hearted commitment to creating more equitable systems, and have prepared themselves for the challenging (and sometimes uncomfortable) work of making significant shifts in their leadership practices/strategies to get there. 

Janice Downing: When coaching is done in a routine way or through the coach’s lens (point of view), it can cause damage and/or trauma and is less effective.   

The equity coach does this work without ego. They provide support in a way that meets the needs of the person being coached. Equity coaching requires the coach to understand the needs, desires and define success through the other person’s point of view.  

When equity coaching is done right, trust is developed and maintained. There is a level of authenticity and transparency that enables the coachee to not only achieve, but to sustain their highest and best results. And the coachee is usually able to implement the experience they have with the coach and provide equity coaching to others.  

How does equity coaching differ from diversity training?  

Janice Downing: [Diversity] training provides a platform for individuals to upskill, learn new information about a topic, practice a specific skill and receive the invitation to use it going forward. Equity coaching involves follow up with the coachee. The coachee can “unpack” what they have learned or unlearned, identify the parts that worked and decide how to integrate and use their new knowledge to sustain this achievement in the future.   

Anika Ward: While [diversity] training opportunities are effective at supporting individuals to increase knowledge and awareness around specific content and learning objectives, they rarely provide concentrated space and support for individualized reflection and skill development beyond the curriculum or workshop timing.  

The [equity] coaching structure and environment provide personalized support in a more intimate, confidential setting – often over an extended period of time. This creates greater opportunity to connect the learning to one’s own journey and experiences, and for ongoing reflection, processing, ideation, testing and refinement of identified leadership and change-management strategies. 

Another significant value of [equity] coaching is that leaders are provided space for questions and discussion they’re less inclined to bring forward amongst colleagues and/or team members (for fear of coming across as rude, ignorant or insensitive). This vulnerability creates heightened opportunities for learning, growth and innovation. 

What outcomes do you see with equity coaching compared to diversity training?   

Janice Downing: There is a deeper sense of reflection and commitment that occurs with equity coaching. The results the organization and individuals achieve are very measurable and more easily sustainable than through diversity training. When equity coaching is provided to leaders, organizations see greater levels of engagement, performance, retention for the employees and satisfaction for those who are served.   

Anika Ward: The [equity] coaching process helps leaders sort out the ideas, stresses, hopes and possibilities that are weighing heavily, and shape them into a more intentional and energizing plan-of-action. As this happens, leaders will begin speaking—and then acting— with greater levels of confidence, clarity, courage and deliberateness as they work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion.  

We should also observe leaders engaging with team members and colleagues in new and creative ways to challenge, inspire and support their DEI growth and development. 

What changes have you seen at Children’s Minnesota while working with us over the last 2.5 years?

Anika Ward: During discussions with leaders at Children’s [Minnesota] in 2020, I witnessed a great deal of excitement and wonderment around the institution’s stated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. While leaders seemed clear on the importance of strengthening their equity leadership stance, some wondered aloud how much space this focus could realistically take when pitted against seemingly competing institutional needs and priorities. 

Since that time, I’ve noticed some significant shifts in DEI leadership discussions. There is strong appreciation for the ways Children’s Minnesota is continually strengthening clarity and focus around your equity commitment. You’ve made it clear that equity is not a short-term push, but a long-term, focused journey for your institution.  

Among leaders I’ve spoken with, there’s a heightened sense of impatience for status quo practices that lead to inequitable outcomes. There’s also a greater awareness and alignment around the areas the institution (and its culture) will need to evolve to shift to more equitable practices and outcomes for patients, team members and communities. 

Also notable across the team is an increased awareness of systemic barriers to positive outcomes for many communities, and a desire to adopt a more empowered and proactive approach to eliminating barriers. 

There is excitement about a perceived increase in “courageous conversations” being facilitated across the institution and an appreciation that individuals bringing new/diverse perspectives are offering valuable new ideas, challenges and innovations. 

Janice Downing: The leaders are more aligned and take greater ownership in providing a workplace culture that starts with them. The more they intentionally cultivate an equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible workplace, the higher the level of engagement, performance and retention they see.   

What would you say to someone who wants leaders at their company to participate in equity coaching?

Janice Downing: Equity coaching requires that a leader is willing to learn and intentionally integrate their thoughts with what they know in their hearts is the right thing to do for the organization, themselves and those they work with to provide the highest level of satisfaction to those they are serving. Participating in equity coaching is challenging, but once you see the results of your efforts, there will be no turning back. The feedback from those you work with and the results you get are amazing. We have a team of coaches ready to serve. 

Anika Ward: It’s important that the energy for DEI and systems change begins at the highest levels of the institution. Executive leadership gets the ball rolling by communicating a firm, ongoing commitment to action advancing equity—and by preparing themselves to provide the support and accountability needed to ensure results. 

The next step is to identify a coach or consultant group that meets the needs of the institution. Consider the background and expertise you are looking for, i.e., leadership (people & systems), equity, diversity and inclusion, change management, community partnerships/engagement and systems change. 

Finally, you’ll need to identify the group of leaders to whom the coaching opportunity will be offered. When resources are limited, I suggest beginning at the most senior levels of the institution (those with authority to leverage resources and shift systems/structures) and then progressing to middle management (those with the greatest potential for shifting organizational culture). 

Throughout the coaching timeline, it’s important that leaders are communicating what they are learning, and the shifts they are making in leadership practices, and soliciting input/feedback – to ensure team members across the institution are able to remain informed, engaged and activated. 

Final thought

Anika Ward: I think it’s important to note that equity work, discussions and dialogues can be emotionally challenging and sometimes exhausting. It requires our ability to challenge and/or reconsider long-held personal beliefs, assumptions and behaviors— and, at times, to appreciate the ways we have unintentionally caused harm by perpetuating status quo inequities. While navigating our way through complex systems, we’re also working through complex emotions.  

A strong equity coach will support leaders to thoughtfully navigate heavy experiences, learnings and emotions while identifying sustainable and energizing practices that increase confidence in their own ability to make a meaningful difference.  

Over time, working with a strong equity coach can help to create a more productive balance between the stress and the joy of equity leadership. 


Thank you, Janice and Anika, for your work to create equitable workplaces – at Children’s Minnesota and at all the companies with whom you consult.  

James Burroughs

James Burroughs
Senior vice president, government and community relations, chief equity and inclusion officer

James Burroughs is the senior vice president, government and community relations, chief equity and inclusion officer at Children's Minnesota. He is responsible for advancing equity and inclusion in all parts of the organization.
Follow James on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Julianna Olsen