An Interview with Alli Myatt, COO, Teaching Trust
In terms of career, there’s value in picking the right role for right now. Alli Myatt shares highlights along her career trajectory that exposed her to multiple pathways and reminds us how not internalizing microaggressions has helped her to thrive.
This interview is the twenty-sixth in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership.
Alli Myatt, Chief Operating Officer at Teaching Trust
Amplifier. Thoughtful. Genuine.
What are some of your career highlights?
I have had a career that meandered and have been exposed to a lot of different things. At 20, you believe you have to pick the right thing and that will be it, but I learned I have to pick the right thing for right now. It has worked out. I was able to see lots of different aspects of work, which set me up for success in my current role. (Alli Myatt pictured at right.)
I was a funder making grants and loans to nonprofits early in my career, which allowed me to see the operational challenges that nonprofits might have. While consulting, I was exposed to lots of organizations and realized there is more than one way to approach things. I’ve worked for strong organizations — leaders in the field like TNTP, Teach For America, and Bridgespan — which were great opportunities that allowed me to learn, grow, and amplify my strengths.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
I think my headline is something related to authentic flexibility. It’s more of a theme. Over time, I’ve learned to be my authentic self and not internalize microaggressions. We get lots of feedback as Black women, and usually it’s not all that helpful. It may be about tone and personality but not work necessarily. You have to blaze your own trail and not internalize that stuff. It can make you feel really bad about yourself, which slows you down. Once I accepted that, my career took off. The flexibility comes into play because I have worn many hats. I’ve learned about organizations through many different lenses and have to be able to flex in that way.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
I am really passionate about how I can edify people through work. I aim to find the perfect role and match them with what they’re really good at to amplify their skills. I like challenges that allow me to do that and where I get to learn too. In my current role, I get to learn not just about our organization and how we do things, but lots of what we do is grounded in academic research. I’ve studied goal-setting theory and designed and refined our goal-setting approach over time. Blending theory with experience and seeing how it works out pushes me to learn more.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
There are a lot lately that have resonated with me. Drive by Daniel Pink is really good and pushed my thinking about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. I reconsidered how to design human capital practices.
The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle is very simple; it talks about how you can reinforce culture by focusing on belonging, shared vulnerability, and things that make up culture.
Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock shows how other organizations do things. I like when I can learn from other people’s experiences. I could keep going. (Laughter.) I read a lot of books. We are reading The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business by Patrick Lencioni at work and thinking about how we want to create clarity for the organization. It’s a good framework for us.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
This isn’t an example from my time in the social sector, but it’s what first comes to mind. I studied hotel management and worked for an organization that conducted hotel feasibility studies. I was working on a study with a client trying to get a loan, and in order to get more loan either you increase revenue or decrease cost. I completed the valuation and the client asked me to change the labor costs, explaining that they planned to use immigrant labor and pay them below market rate. I was really bothered by that. I was not going to use my skills to enable someone who planned to actively discriminate against brown folks, nor did I want to use my skills to make rich people richer. I was disappointed in society.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
One particular moment that sticks out is when our office manager got a great opportunity to switch to virtual work and left abruptly mid-year. During staff meetings, she would aggregate materials for the presentations. In her absence, I suggested we put all of the slides in a Google document. One colleague used a different format, which wasn’t compatible, and asked me to handle it for our next staff meeting. I let the colleague know that I opted out of solving this for her. I also shared an article about how women of color are tasked with more office chores. She figured it out. The reclaiming of my time was me saying no. People can figure stuff out; it’s an opportunity for learning.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
I try to make sure that I work out regularly. In the past, I worked a lot and the first thing I would let go was working out. I’m clear with my team that I don’t ever want to be in the position where I don’t have time to take care of myself. I try not to work at home, so I spend longer time at the office.
I’m really clear about going to bed on time so I can wake up early and go to the gym. It’s important to protect your personal time. If you don’t want people to email you on your vacation, then you can’t respond to emails on your vacation. You need to be clear about boundaries and train people.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
The biggest piece of advice is to not internalize microaggressions. There are so many messages we receive that we are not adequate. We are more than enough. We all know when we get feedback grounded in evidence and may think about it. However, there is other feedback where Sally and Becky did the exact same thing I just did, yet you got really mad when I did it but weren’t phased when they did it. What’s that about? A lot of times we get in the muck with them. We need to rise above it and keep it moving.
Make sure you negotiate your pay. I realized over time that I have been grossly underpaid and it has cost me a tremendous amount of money over my career. I was too trusting. I assumed people were being honest and forthright when entering into that relationship. Organizations are duplicitous about salary negotiations. Ask questions about the range for the role and ask them to give you evidence about where your offer is in the range. How much are other people in similar roles making?