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Episode 84: Getting Comfortable With The Uncomfortable with Erica Nelson of REAL Consulting

"We're going to have conflict no matter what. So how can we communicate through that and how can we be emotionally intelligent working through that?"

This week we're joined by Erica Nelson, DEI consultant and Organizational Leadership Developer (and avid flyfisher). Erica talks about leadership vs management, how to determine your leadership style, and representation without tokenizing. Erica gives expert advice to brands and leaders and actionable steps to take to become more self-aware.

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Episode Transcript

Lisa: Hey, Iris.

Iris: Hey Lisa.

Lisa: How's it going?

Iris: Oh, it's going good. The sun is shining.

Lisa: Sun is shining. Finally.

Iris: Oh my gosh. It makes a huge difference.

Lisa: What's been going on at WHEELIE lately?

Iris: We are gearing up to possibly start heading back to the office, so that's kind of exciting. Very slowly a few of us will be heading in there and working in the office a little bit, so we'll get some more people time.

Lisa: Yup. We're getting ready to shoot a commercial next week. So that's going to be fun. All over Montana, the theme is local road trips.

Iris: Yeah, it's starting to be photoshoot and video shoot weather around here. So gearing up for summer.

Lisa: It's my favorite season. I love photo, video shoot season. It's like the biggest, longest days, but it's so much fun.

Iris: Mmhm.

Lisa: Yeah. Well, should we get to the podcast guest?

Iris: Yeah, we should.

Lisa: Today on the podcast we have Erica Nelson and she is Navajo. She specializes in DEI consulting and she started her own consulting agency called REAL consulting and real stands for reconcile, evolve, advance, and lead.

She and her business partner are passionate at providing diversity, equity, access, and inclusion training for anyone from individuals to higher education partners, corporate and nonprofit executives and outdoor guides. Erica talks extensively about things that you can do to be a better leader and the real need for inclusive marketing strategy that goes beyond checking a box and kind of all the diverse complexities that come hand in hand with managing people.

Iris: Yes, Erica does not shy away from uncomfortable conversations and to anyone out there who is listening to this podcast and wants to get in contact with her, she is open and ready and loves having conversations with business owners and organizational leaders in the outdoor industry and she'll be a great asset for you and your brand.

Lisa: I love this episode because it's full of tactical advice that is really approachable and also has a lot of depth to it. And so as a business owner, I got a lot out of this. And I hope that our listeners do too.

Iris: I know they will. So let's get into it.

Lisa: Let’s do it. Well, Erica, thanks so much for being on our podcast today.

Erica: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Lisa: So, the first question we ask everyone is to describe where you are in the world and what you're looking at.

Erica: I am currently in Crested Butte, Colorado, and I have an awesome view of the mountain of Crested Butte, so it's a beautiful scene.

Lisa: Nice. I used to live in Crested Butte. That's where I started my company.

Erica: Oh, that's awesome.

Lisa: I love Crested Butte. I used to live in a little house that I was a caretaker at on top of Cinnamon Mountain road.

Erica: Oh, cool.

Lisa: Yeah, it was cool. It was really cool. Cool. You're lucky to live there.

Erica: Yeah. I feel very fortunate to be here.

Lisa: Yeah. So I'm curious. We've never met what's, what's your story and how has it led you to the work that you're doing today?

Erica: Yeah. So I... I identify as, I bring a lot of identities into the work that I do. So part of that is being cisgender. My pronouns are she/her. I'm also a woman of color, and my tribe is Navajo, so I'm also an indigenous woman.

So I started... Let's see. I'm currently doing organizational leadership development for a large corporation, and then I also do diversity, equity, and inclusion for the outdoor industry. And I'm also an avid flyfisher.

So kind of taking that and taking a step back... just different experiences have led me to doing what I do now. So that can include outdoor guiding, you know, whitewater rafting mostly - that's kind of my passion, that and fly fishing - and just kind of being curious out in the world. I also worked in hospitality management for a number of years and kind of had this corporate life, went to nonprofit life. And just tried to get as much experience as possible, you know, working in several different fields. So I think over the last couple of years I found a really deep passion for marketing and also pairing that with diversity and inclusion as well.

Lisa: Boy, that is- I am excited to talk to you. So the theme of our podcast this year is level up. And... and you got recommended to be on our podcast to talk about how to level up leadership skills and things that we can collectively do to be better... better leaders in marketing positions and in life.

Erica: Yeah.

Lisa: So what's your, I don't know, what's your... let's get into it. What's your, like, advice for… how, how you approach leadership and how people can be better leaders?

Erica: Yeah. I've always kind of been a pretty big critiquer of leadership and managers that I've had. So just a difference between a manager and a leader, right? I think that's been kind of in the works of different organizations lately. So, you know, management can just be top down, do this, do that, you know, and leadership is really bringing out the best in people. And I have had [laughs] really terrible experiences with really bad managers of just micromanaging and you know, no room for creativity or just feeling stuck, you know? And so then I've also had mentors, you know, they were my boss, but I consider them a mentor, of really just kind of molding and taking my hand and really just kind of showing me step by step ropes and really supported me and coached me through decision making processes, how to lead teams, how to be better, you know, make better decisions. And I really kind of just took and ran with that… this is, this is what everything every leader needs to know, is how to be a better coach and how to be a better mentor.

And so any job that I've had, I've kind of been a little frustrated of, well, you know, like people can be a little better. And I think it starts with a lot of self-awareness in kind of who you are as a leader, figuring out your own style and how that kind of, how to adapt to other different people's styles as well.

So I do a lot of coaching with leaders. Typically with C- excuse me, C-suite level to line level employees and basically just kind of help them build more self awareness, how to communicate with others, again kind of their leadership style, their self, and others. And it kind of develops a common language and how to communicate better with each other.

I also am a big proponent on figuring out, and teaching, what emotional intelligence is. And that can help really navigate through a difficult conflict, ‘cause we're going to have conflict no matter what. So how can we communicate through that and how can we be better and emotionally intelligent working through that with teams?

So I basically just help coach others. Yeah. And kind of help manage expectations as well. So that's just kind of how it started, was really bad leadership versus really good, and then kind of figuring out a way to help... help leaders kind of figure that line out, you know, of what's not, be a little too aggressive and micromanaging, but let’s also help others lead. So that's just kind of a passion that I fell into. ‘

Lisa: Wow. Wow. Do you... I have like a million questions now. Do you have any examples of like... well, so this is common in the outdoor industry as well as probably other industries where people are really good at their jobs, they keep getting promoted and promoted, and suddenly they're running a team and they really haven't had any leadership training. We see that in marketing and the outdoor industry all the time. So what, like... what's your advice for someone who's looking to start with a basic question like, “Whoa, what kind of leader am I?”

Erica: Yeah, that's a great question because I see that a lot. You know, like I said, I work with a lot of line level employees that just, you know, either come for a seasonal job or work their way up. And at what point - you know, you're so good at what you do, you have amazing skills, you're really talented - but at what point do we actually so slow down to think about, “Oh. And now I have a team under me. Am I communicating effectively?” You know, am I going back? And, you know, most of us don't take the time to go back to school. And so how can we take time out to kind of figure out more skills about ourselves and build those leadership skills?

So I think part of it, there's a lot of great online assessments. You know, Myers Briggs is great and that's just a great step. There's a lot of free assessments like the enneagram. So kind of stuff like that kind of helps you get a little bit of an idea of how you communicate, how you operate, who you are, and kind of builds an awareness of, “Oh, not everybody talks the same way that I do. Not everybody makes the same decisions the way that I do,” you know, and kind of start diving into those things.

So I always kinda like to think of the self first. So how do I like to communicate? Am I pretty direct? Am I pretty straightforward? Or do I kinda like to socialize a little bit? You know, kind of thinking about who am I, am I introverted, extroverted, and how does that come out and how does that come across to other people?

And then how do I make decisions? Do I need to be more collaborative or do I just need to just put my head down and do it? Right? And that's going to help, just asking yourself those questions can really help you communicate that to your team as well. “Hey, I'm more of a collaborator so I need your input on this” or “I'm more of a decision maker.” So just kind of building that awareness to your team can be a really helpful conversation as well.

And then the third thing we would also focus on is feedback. So how do I like to receive feedback and how do I like to give feedback? You know, and how do I like to be recognized? There's certain styles that love public recognition, you know, they love to [inaudible] like, “thank you.”, you know, like a big award or something. Whereas that would terrify another person to be able to be publicly recognized, but maybe a card or a note would be more helpful. So those are little things that you can kind of start thinking about is communication, feedback, and decision making. Are components that I kinda like to start out.

Lisa: Communication, feedback, and decision-making.

Erica: Yeah. Mhmm.

Lisa: Cool.

Erica: Yeah. So figuring those out for yourself and then asking people that you're working with those same questions.

Lisa: And then how does that foster creativity since most of our listeners work on creative teams?

Erica: Yeah. I think once you kind of figure out your own self-awareness, you know, I think… kind of building a culture around that of some ground rules is really helpful. Working in the field, you know, and doing expeditions, you kind of have a ground rules, right? That you kind of establish, especially if it's a learning environment of what does a positive learning environment look like, or what does a positive work environment look like to you? What are some hot buttons, right? What pushes your buttons and how can we work together and collaborate a little bit better?

And having that discussion, open and honestly, can be a little intimidating at first, but, you know, just kind of getting in that flow, in that habit, checking in, can be helpful as well.

So I guess as far as, you know, “I work really well at midnight,” you know, or “I work really well in the morning.” You know, this is how I foster creativity. This is me working. And kind of honoring that, but also having some ground rules of, okay, I need to check in. Or, you know, if you're managing a project and really drawing your boundaries can also be really helpful in the beginning.

Lisa: Mmm. Let's talk about boundaries.

Erica: Yeah. [laughs] Yeah. What do you want to know about boundaries?

Lisa: Yeah, that's really interesting because at my company, we're a fairly small team and we, we have project managers who really care. And so they're… they feel sometimes a little bit of resentment that they're on call to clients all the time, or they're on call to the creative team who needs help. And so like, what are some things that we could do differently?

Erica: You know, that's a tricky question because sometimes, you know, it really depends on the leader and how they want their business to be ran, right? There still needs to be the lights to be able to turn on, right? So that's kind of the setting the expectations at the beginning of these are the ground rules that need to happen, however you want to get there. You know, that's a, that's a collaborative process and really kind of bouncing ideas and getting buy-in from your team is important. So sometimes a leader can be so tunnel visioned on their business, you know, and this is our goal. But sometimes our teams actually can come up with some really creative ideas to help reach that same goal.

So really asking your team, making them feel like they're part of the decision making process can be pretty helpful as well. So kind of just asking… Yeah. Asking open-ended questions other than can be helpful and playing around with ideas. There's kind of like idea boosters and ideas zappers, I guess you could say.

So I'm thinking about if you have an employee that approaches you with a different way of doing things, really just kind of get... being curious. You know, asking like, “how do you see this being done?” Or “what do you think could get in the way?” instead of, no, we've tried that. Oh, I think it's nails on a chalkboard to hear, “we've tried that and it didn't work.” You know, so that can really put somebody down and probably, restrict them from wanting to approach you with other ideas or other things that could be completely different from that one time. They just remember being rejected. So really just kind of focusing on being curious as a leader can really help you develop that coaching skill.

Lisa: That's wonderful. You seem really fun to work with and like, uh, feel very approachable.

Erica: Oh, thanks. I like to think so. [;aughs] I've been managing teams for over 13 years, and I'm kind of the same concept of... I started my hospitality career, going to Alaska for a season and being a housekeeper and then just worked my way up into hospitality management as a room operations manager.

And, you know, I've learned a lot and I've made a lot of mistakes. And so I think just through that process, you know, it's not... leadership skill and development is kind of not just, “Oh, I take a class and now I'm excelling in it.” It's a continual process to continue to build on. So I'm just kind of having that mentality has really been helpful, of, this worked and this didn't let's try something new, or let's try it. You know, being flexible and being curious is really helpful.

Lisa: Yeah. And so now you have a consulting company called REAL.

Erica: Yeah.

Lisa: And that stands for reconcile, evolve , advance, lead.

Erica: Yes.

Lisa: Right?

Erica: Yes, that's correct.

Lisa: Oh, cool. Do you want to talk about that and kind of how you, how you came to those words and what you’ve got going on?

Erica: Yeah, absolutely. So I was working for a nonprofit and I was managing our marketing team and sales team and I would have to collaborate with our diversity manager. And typically, diversity manager sits under the human resource umbrella. Which... I have strong opinions. That's not a great idea. But we ended up running into many walls as I wanted to create these campaigns that were reaching, you know, marginalized communities or doing different things, and we kept hitting a lot of walls due to our leadership at the top.

And so I ended up doing a lot of road shows and trade shows and really just kind of meeting other folks from different organizations. And I remember looking at their... like, their marketing and their imagery. And, you know, it just seemed a little... interesting. For example, there was, it was kind of in the gap year sector, so there would be, like a white person that has a whole lot of privilege would be holding, like, or being… having a picture with a bunch of impoverished children. And I kinda consider that poverty porn. So, you know, it's kinda like, well, I want to go and I want to save the world, you know, and you know, that speaks to a lot of systematic oppression.

And so I ended up just kind of being invited to different companies and speaking to their marketing team really kind of diving into their own self awareness and their own identity. And kind of thinking and reflecting, what access do I have to my own resources, which can also be viewed as privilege - what does my privilege look like? What do I have access to?

And not everyone comes from the same background experience or has the same perspective. And so how can we get a little bit more curious about how we're operating our business? So becoming more curious about ourselves and kind of listening to other's perspectives, pulling each other in, other ideas, creating a vision, and you know, and what can actually capture, uh, various audiences. Right? So, yeah, just kind of thinking about... how can we pull in more people from different backgrounds and also what are we putting out there in the world and how can it be perceived?

So just asking questions, pushing back and challenging marketing teams was kind of something that I ended up doing. So I partnered with a woman, Sidney Clark, and she has a social justice background. She was actually the diversity manager. We ended up leaving that nonprofit and forming our own consulting to kind of work with folks, you know, taking a step back in their own leadership and their own style, their own self awareness, and then kind of helping them build tools to develop a team and kind of have this different lens of different perspectives. And your team's also bringing in many different skills and perspectives as well.

And then what does this look like when we put it out? Right? Whenever we're ready to launch, like what? What things can we be possibly facing or measuring up against as well? So just kind of asking those questions is something that we like to do with different brands and companies right now.

Lisa: And how... How can teams have... I mean, you don't know what you don't know. And so how can teams have bigger perspectives and better awareness of how what they're creating might be perceived?

Erica: I think that it starts again with the individual. So with the self. So, you know, we don't know what we don't know, right. And sometimes we don't know as much as we don't know about ourselves.

And so the words that I use, the way that I'm coming across, my body language how am I you know, communicating with my team... you know, what words are being used at the table, right? And am I being held accountable for that? And I think once that is kind of developed more in the self and the identity, then you're able to kind of recognize it in other people am and you're able to kind of be more aware of the language that you're using, how you're showing up. It can really be helpful with collaborating and pulling a team together as well. So kind of stepping back, again, recognizing your own access to your own resources and then figuring out that not everyone has that same background and that same lens.

Lisa: Mhmm.

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Iris: Lisa, a recurring theme that Erica talks about in this episode is starting with yourself. So figuring out how you communicate, how you function as a leader, being aware of your communication and how it might impact others. And I think that is a huge piece of being an effective leader and just being a good person in general is knowing how you’re putting yourself out there before you can understand how your employees and your coworkers do.

Lisa: Exactly. That level of self awareness takes a lot of practice and deep diving and sitting still with yourself and sorting... all that, all that good stuff that's very hard work. And I just love Erica's approach to starting on the inside to go outside.

Iris: Yeah. It's not easy to figure out who you are. I mean, it's a lifetime practice. It's not like a five minute thing that you can just sit down and be like, “Hmm, what kind of leader am I? Okay.” It takes a lot of reflection and it might change over time, and it's kind of a constant thing to strive towards.

Lisa: Big time. Constant evolution. That's the E in REAL consulting, is evolve.

Iris: Indeed.

Lisa: Well enough from us. Let's get back to Erica.

Lisa: And I read an article that quoted you saying that there's a real need for inclusive marketing strategy that goes beyond checking a box.

Erica: Yes.

Lisa: And IlLike that. Yeah. I'd love to learn more cause that's so, I just think that's so well said.

Erica: Yeah. I think I've seen a lot of companies and brands really want to kind of hop on this diversity bandwagon, especially in the outdoor industry, which is, “Oh, let's just put a, a Latinx face on our cover or a magazine or poster. But really, what does that do? What's the impact of that? Right? The intention is we want to appear to be more inclusive and we want to build a bigger audience. But really the impact of that is what are you doing to give back to these communities? How are you supporting these marginalized people, you know, or how are you elevating voices or taking a stand, either in social justice or just in general of, you know, kind of not just tokenizing people, but actually having a reason to be able to put that face out there of we support these communities or, you know, we are giving back to different charities or nonprofits, et cetera. Instead of just plastering and tokenizing and checking that box which can be pretty harmful to those types of people, you know. And so yeah, we want to see more representation, but at the same time, you want to see it being thoughtful.

Lisa: Yeah. And that that's a whole marketing strategy way, way, way beyond grabbing a camera.

Erica: Yeah, exactly. Right. Yeah. And I've seen a lot of, you know, you're thinking of cameras and going into these communities... you know, I've seen teams just take, you know, take resources and really not give back. You know, these communities are supporting and hosting, but how are you supporting or giving back?

Thinking about, you know, my own culture, being a Navajo, we really honor and respect the land that we were walking on. And so just kind of recognizing that we're walking on ancestral lands and we're not just taking. I just went to the natural spring the other day and it's really helpful to give back to mother earth and not just take her water. You know, I just didn't go and fill up my water bottle, but really just sat there and gave thanks, you know, and had a little blessing and left an offering. So those are some things that really, you don't have to as a marketer, but at least I'm thinking about these things of what am I just taking, and instead of what can I give, what can I offer as well?

Lisa: Hmm. I love that. I love that. So one thing that comes up a lot for creatives in the outdoor industry and a lot of our podcast listeners as well as repeatedly at, at the agency that I own, is inclusivity in photo shoots. And I think it's just as important to who's behind the camera as who's in front of the camera.

Erica: Absolutely.

Lisa: And... and it can be really difficult to... you know, maybe there's a photo shoot that's very well intentioned, but that impact is not as great. Do you have any advice for companies such as mine approaching inclusion?

Erica: Yeah. Well, you know, a lot of companies want to have... we'll call it diverse hiring. So they want people on their teams that have a different perspective and come from a different culture, right. To kind of help their company. Well, that's the intention, right? But at the same time, you know, coming from marginalized background... we're not out to save your company. So kind of just having that awareness of, yeah, because I hired a person of color, they're not going to be the, the end all be all, right? And we can't really put that labor on one specific person.

And so it's kind of stepping back and training your, you know, yourself and your staff of how can we be more inclusive and what does this look like? You know, and thinking about how are we recruiting? What's that strategy look like? Like how, what are, where are we looking at for these people to join our staff?

And are we actually equipped to have that pushback if this person comes on board and questions our culture, are we prepared to listen and not just make them feel like they're the wrong ones, you know, coming in and have them assimilate to our culture? So there's a lot of businesses that aren't ready to start recruiting diverse hires.

So kind of stepping back and making sure that you are ready to listen. You are aware of your own access and your own privilege, and is your team ready for that as well? So that can be a difficult conversation to have, but I think it's a necessary one for all businesses to have.

You know, and then... just being more curious, you know, instead of having that drive to, build, build, build, and not thinking about the impact. So kind of just thinking about, okay, what is the impact of this? What are the implications that we can possibly be facing? And then also the ability to own up to, and there's going to be consequences no matter what, whether that's good or that's bad.

And so that's a lot of conversations that I have when it comes to, let's say, cultural appropriation of... am I doing this right? Or, what is this gonna look like? You know, there's really no right or wrong when it comes to this type of work of inclusion or diversity and equity. So, you know, it's just, are you ready to face the consequences of whatever you're putting out there. You know, owning up or, you know, having answers to back up your decision making as well. So kind of being prepared for that. I've seen some campaigns fail because they weren't ready to face the consequences, you know, and public apologies did not go over very well. So, you know, kind of stepping back and, and making sure that you're ready to face those consequences no matter what they are.

Lisa: Mmm. That's, that's a really interesting way to frame it, I think. I have not heard that before. So, and again, how can, how can people estimate the consequences?

Erica: That's really hard to say. I would say with more education and awareness can really help you become more curious, you know, and start thinking of kind of more... and thinking about the impact, right? Of, what is this gonna look like if I were from a different perspective? You know, really taking yourself out of your own lens and putting yourself in someone else's shoes. What does that look like? You know, and start thinking in that way of the impact rather than your own view and your own lens, right? Because we're all very creative and have awesome projects, right? And we're so proud of them and so excited about it, you know? But it's taking that critical step of giving yourself feedback, honest feedback, and then also being able to accept that honest feedback as well from other perspectives too.

Lisa: Okay. Cool. Wonderful. It seems like the work you do has a lot, just a lot of meaning for you on a personal level and for the entire industry.

Erica: Yeah, I would say so. You know, just kind of, like I said, I've had a view, a lens of how not to do things in my personal opinion, that are like, Ooh, that didn't go over really well. There must be a better way. Right? [laughs] And how can you motivate people and how can... you know? So I've always kind of just been curious and asking questions and, and really open and also, open to feedback as well. I've had a lot of great constructive feedback throughout my career as well. Yeah, so I've been able to take that and sit with it. Sometimes it can be hard to hear. And then again, we're also our own worst critics, so being able to be open to positive feedback as well, can be an interesting experience too.

Lisa: Yeah. So a personal question for you. As you, you know, have this consulting company and, and you're doing a lot with fishing, kind of like finding this cool balance it seems, how are you currently ascribing meaning to things and like, what's your barometer for if you're living in alignment?

Erica: Oh. That's a good question. You know, I love to sleep and so if I can sleep well... [laughs]

No, I, you know, it's an interesting balance. There's a lot of doubt that comes into this type of work of, “am I doing this right?” We just want to be so... we just want to be validated. But kind of being comfortable with being uncomfortable has something that I've had to work on and so it's never comfortable work and I'm okay with that. There's never an end. We’re always evolving. And so I think as long as I'm learning and I'm growing, learning something from other people, then I know that I'm on the right track.

Lisa: Learning from other people. Cool. Cool. I love that. Is there anything that I haven't asked you about that you would like to tell our audience?

Erica: Oh, I am just available for conversations. I love just sitting down and chatting with people, you know, cause I think that question of, “am I doing this right” or “I have this idea, what do you think?” And I'm happy to chat about that. I've, I've worked with many outdoor brands of, “Hey, I want to form a committee,” or “I need a workshop” or, you know, “I want to start a new recruiting strategy or a marketing campaign” and just kind of working through some kinks and kind of coaching those people. It's something that I absolutely love... is just, I'm curious by nature. So, how can I coach through that process. But, you know, having more representation and I’m just really passionate about that process. It's something that I'm excited to talk about any time.

Lisa: Awesome. And where can people find you?

Erica: So, a couple of things. So I'm currently actually working on a website, so it's not in the works yet, but is my email address and I'm an avid Instagrammer. So @awkwardangler, messaging works really well. My email’s also attached there.

Lisa: Awkward angler.

Erica: Yeah. [laughs]

Lisa: How did you come up with that name?

Erica: I love alliteration, and also I'm a really awkward angler. I, I think I catch more trees than I do fish. And that is actually completely normal. But the other side of that point of being awkward and stumbling and falling in the rivers and cashing trees also comes with the awkward conversation that it's a pretty white male sport, it's dominated. So having the conversation of how can we be more inclusive as a fly fishing industry. So that's when things can also get awkward. It's that comfort with discomfort as well.

Lisa: Gotcha. That's awesome. We will put notes- or, links to those in the show notes and, yeah. I think you're great. I would love to work with you.

Erica: [laughs]

Erica: Awesome. Let's do it.

Lisa: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for your time and I, I seriously appreciate your point of view and all your wisdom.

Erica: Great. Thank you. This was fun.

Iris: Thank you so much for being here, Erica. You are a shining light in this industry and we're so happy to get to know you and work with you in the future.

Lisa: Yeah, and go skiing next time I'm in Crested Butte.

Iris: Absolutely. To all our listeners, thanks for being here. Please leave us a review if you haven't already. That helps us get to more folks and we hope you have a wonderful rest of your day.

Lisa: Have fun, party on.

Iris: Party on.

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