Natalie S. Burke, President and CEO, CommonHealth ACTION
Natalie S. Burke reminds us of the value of orchestrating discomfort for yourself and others, the importance of a diverse network, and why holding healthy tension is the responsibility of a leader. This interview is the seventh in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. For more about this series, click here.
Natalie S. Burke, President and CEO, CommonHealth ACTION
Strategist. Speaking Truth. Orchestrating Constructive Discomfort.
What are some of your career highlights?
In 2004, when I co-founded CommonHealth ACTION, I decided to take the risk that comes with being an entrepreneur. I took out a home equity line of credit, gave myself one year, and stepped out on faith with confidence that failure was not an option. I knew we had a year to make something of it. My investments in prior relationships and support from many partners allowed the organization to become a reality — and here we are 14 years later. (Natalie S. Burke pictured at right.)
When I started the organization, we operated virtually, with flexible office space for the first five years or so. A wise mentor said that until I stepped out on faith and committed to physical office space, the organization would never take off. She said that people believe in things they can see, touch, and feel, and at that time, they couldn’t do that with CommonHealth ACTION. Visibility leads to credibility. Credibility leads to sustainability. The office space provided that visibility, something tangible that created the perception that we would be there tomorrow. That is important when you need clients and partners to invest resources and trust your work. I remember the day I signed the lease. I was nervous and sweating. Generally, I don’t do “nervous.” It was a 7-year commitment and I was thinking that I didn’t even know what would happen next year with this organization! I didn’t have enough staff to fill the space at that time, but we stepped out on faith. I may have signed the lease, but the risk belonged to all of us. Failure was not an option because in my role as the leader, my job was—and is—to find the solutions to make it work.
Another highlight was getting selected to be co-Director for the Culture of Health Leaders National Program Center, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Having CommonHealth ACTION become partners in the National Program Center was huge. In a lot of ways, we were David against so many Goliaths who tried to get the work. We competed against major universities and think tanks with longer track records and much more capacity. The result was a surprise and a blessing, which has certainly changed the spaces I enter in the world and cultivated new relationships and work that have found their way to us. The organization has gained a new type of credibility in the eyes of others in the field so that we are more than “doers,” we are thought leaders. Just as important, I believe that my role as a co-Director of the program has expanded my platform to engage in difficult discussions about inequities, and I take every opportunity to teach about the value of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the production of the public’s health. In so many ways, getting to spread the message about privilege, oppression, and racism’s impact on the public’s health — that is priceless.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
Get uncomfortable. One of the most important things I’ve done at critical junctures in my life and career is to seek and orchestrate my discomfort. I recognize that I become the best possible leader in those moments. I am willing to hold the tension that often precedes growth. I don’t run through a challenge, I stew on it sometimes. I do it because I know that change and innovation live at the edge of chaos and settling into discomfort is exactly where the best leaders belong.
How do I orchestrate constructive discomfort? I ask the tough questions. I say what others hope will remain unsaid. I connect people, information, and resources in new and different ways — bucking the norm. I spend each day figuring out what I don’t know, admitting it to myself, and then finding a way to know it. I push myself beyond what seems possible because that’s what is necessary to be the best me and to show up for the people who trust me to lead and support them to become better leaders.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
I have a degree in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland College Park. My degree never taught me how to be an entrepreneur, how to stand up an organization, and manage all the components. College taught me how to learn, how to be self-taught, discipline, and how to get the resources I need to achieve my vision.
I love to learn. I am a student of any and every thing. Early in my career, many people were critical of me and told me I had to specialize. They told me I would fail and fade into obscurity if I didn’t. I just couldn’t do it, so I committed to a lifelong learning journey. As a result, I consider myself a “highly specialized generalist.” I say that somewhat jokingly although it is fairly accurate. I know enough, and sometimes more than enough, about a myriad of topics. That allows me to hold my own in conversations and establish relationships with “unusual suspects.” It helps me to regularly challenge and expand my worldview — which is invaluable to CommonHealth ACTION and to my continued growth and development as a CEO.
Even with that approach, the greatest challenges I faced were because I had no background in how to run a business — and make no mistake, a nonprofit is a business. I had to seek resources, knowledge, relationships, and information for the organization to remain viable. It wasn’t always pretty. Sometimes I missed important cues because I didn’t know what to look for within the organization or out in the marketplace. Although we never missed a payroll, there were times that I had to get especially creative (with the help of my leadership team) to find solutions. At the same time, I had to be transparent about our challenges AND alleviate any fears among staff. In essence, I had to ask them to trust me during the toughest times. That was definitely a challenge because it required me to express my vulnerability and my strength, all at the same time. Thankfully, they believed in me.
My first responsibility beyond being a leader is being a student. At times, leading, directing, and managing pulls me away from being a student. Even in the toughest moments, I have to stop myself and ask, “What do I need to learn from this?” It’s called conscious engagement — the ability to quiet myself, recognize what I’m feeling and thinking, and bring all that together in a way that is strategic. I have to stand in the emotion of the challenge, not avoid it. In that, I believe there is power. Then I work to channel that emotion and make it work for me and the situation. That requires that I ask more specifically, “What should I be learning about myself?” “What should I be learning about the people around me that I can use now or in the future?” It’s fundamental that to be a good or even great leader, I have to use challenges to be a student of the world and a student of myself.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
Oddly enough, there is no one book that comes to mind, even though I’m a voracious reader of books, articles, and just about anything within my line of sight. I suppose over time, bits and pieces of what I’ve read have become part of my thinking and leadership. More important to me than books, though, are people — real leaders, doing real work. In particular, I have learned so much from “dot connectors” — strategic leaders who connect people, information, and resources in ways never connected before. They see possibilities that elude others. They are the people who lead us to find new solutions to old problems. So, although I am constantly reading, observing successful and struggling leaders has had the greatest influence on my leadership.
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?
As I mentioned earlier, holding healthy tension is my responsibility as a leader. In a broad sense, when you receive funding from a philanthropic entity to work in a community, they have their priorities and the community has its priorities — rarely do those priorities align. Often my role, and CommonHealth ACTION’s role, has been to serve as the translator or shock absorber between those two entities. There have been many times over the years when what a funder wanted wasn’t the right thing for the community, or it wasn’t what the community wanted. During those times I had to stand in that space to be the translator or shock absorber, especially when the funder was unwilling to hear the voice of community. Foundations have their strategic plans and communities have their lives. They are both important, but I will put the lives of a community over a foundation’s strategic plan any day of the week — regardless of who’s writing the check.
Second, one reason I love my work is our staff — my “work family.” I value them as human beings and I am concerned about the quality of their lives. It’s a heavy responsibility to make a decision that will have a negative effect on the staff for the sake of the business. I value each of them, but at the same time, I can’t jeopardize the organization for one or two people. Sometimes I have to make tough decisions and doing that in a way that is equitable is critical. When faced with those decisions, I can easily make a misstep based solely on emotion and jeopardize even more people than I was originally trying to protect. In those moments I ask myself who experiences the benefit of the action I am taking and who is going to bear the burden. Then I make the best decision I can with that in mind.
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?
Building an organization from the ground up with the support and contributions of many people, I have had to learn everything from the inside out. That required a deeper understanding of the business than if I had been hired as the CEO of a pre-existing organization. As we have grown, I have had to get strategic about how and when to engage in the inner workings and mechanics of our day-to-day operations — much of which I set up or designed. To do that, I had to accept that there is a wrong way and a right way. Within the right way, there’s “Natalie’s way,” “Tami’s way,” “Alex’s way,” and “your way.” To reclaim my time, I have had to solicit, welcome, and accept different approaches to our work, as long as the approach gets us to a good enough outcome. The fact that I can do something doesn’t mean that I’m the person that should be doing it, and sometimes in order to step out of the weeds, the “Natalie way” is not an option.
I’m not an overly-structured person. On Myers-Briggs I’m a P (a Perceiver) and not a J (a Judger), but I have had to learn some behaviors of a J. I have a lot of people who want to meet with me to find out how I started CommonHealth ACTION. Young Black women, typically between the ages of 26-36, often reach out to get an hour of my time. My gut reaction is always to say yes, but I have had to create structure and boundaries to manage those requests. I have tried to earmark certain times monthly where I make myself available to share my experience while leaving time for other commitments. By scheduling three of these mentoring sessions in the same day — versus scattered across different days — I engage more meaningfully.
The last thing I can think of is that LIFE has at times forced me to reclaim my time. I experienced the death of a loved one, and I thought I was just going to work through it even though I was overwhelmed and hurting. My team did something remarkable; they managed up, told me to leave, and just go BE… so that I could grieve. They showed up for me because they knew I needed it. Life circumstances forced me to reclaim my time, and my team made sure it happened. (For Natalie’s reflections on leaders being vulnerable and this pivotal experience, check out her video.)
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
I had to learn how to recognize the signs that are precursors to burnout. I didn’t know what they were. When I show up at 80% people usually can’t tell. I’m generally not a sleeper, but the reality is that even if I can function sleep-deprived doesn’t mean that I should. I committed to learn to sleep for seven hours, which may sound strange. My mind tends to race and I’m constantly thinking. I realized how important it is to rest my brain and spend quality time just sleeping in my own bed!
I have committed to being kinder to myself when I travel — 40%-80% of most months. I pay closer attention to the food I eat, hydrating, and resting. I also try to carve out time for solitude. When I am on the road, I am often on stage, talking a lot, and I am required to be engaging socially. It requires a lot of energy to be “ON” for 14-16 hours. That time alone is necessary so that I can recharge mentally and emotionally.
As the daughter of a musician, music is really important to me. Being able to escape into a place that is filled with sound is a gift. In that space, I am able to settle into a range of emotions that helps me process, escape, emote, and relax.
Collage is a creative exercise that helps me to relax and decompress. I make time to sit, listen to music, and create collages of whatever comes to mind. No one sees them. They are merely a place for me to visualize and express myself. I find a simple satisfaction in the process.
Boundaries around social media and news consumption have become important for me over the past two years. Everything happening in the world is important, but I don’t need to consume the same news story four times in one day. As someone constantly learning, it’s hard to find that space and balance. Developing my professional brand has required me to embrace social media in ways that are somewhat unnatural. While I don’t find it stressful, it does consume a lot of mental and emotional energy. Over the Christmas holiday and the beginning of the New Year, I go on a two-week digital diet. It does wonders for my peace of mind coming into a new year.
I focus on being self-aware and allowing myself to feel and settle into my real emotions — as opposed to what I think I am supposed to feel. As a woman, especially a woman of color, I have been encouraged to stifle my real emotions and not express them. Over the past fifteen years I have worked to do the opposite. I focus on identifying how and what I feel and then I try to find ways to use and express the emotions constructively. It is healthier and allows me to show up as a better me. I believe that doing that is the most powerful expression of me.
Over past ten years, I have created immovable vacation time on my calendar. I used to think that three-day weekends were enough time for me to recharge. In reality, I need 2-3 weeks to slow down mentally. When I run downhill for months at a time and then I need to put on the brakes to “vacate,” it takes a while to slow down. It takes me longer to get into vacation mode. Thankfully, I have a team that is very committed to making sure I get that time and space. At least one of those weeks I go away by myself. During that week, the most I’ll do is send a text to let someone know I am alive and the only talking I do is when I have to order food. The rest of the time I spend listening to music, journaling, and drawing — it’s a very restorative time for me.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
Take a long hard look at your network and pay close attention to it. Who’s in it? What role do they play? How do they add value and how do they help you on your journey? Who’s missing? In that analysis, step outside of your comfort zone to meet and meaningfully engage with new and different types of people. When I have done that, I have had some of my greatest growth moments. New ideas emerge because I have the benefit of a different discussion or debate with someone who is unlike me. Those differences can be in sector, social identity, geography, life experiences, political affiliation, what they do in the world, etc. Diversify your network in ways that may feel counter-intuitive.
Orchestrate constructive discomfort for yourself and for others. Don’t gravitate to the same meetings, organizations, or conferences. Don’t sit in the meeting with people you already know. If you want to avoid preaching to the choir and you really want to have the opportunity to be the lead soloist or write the music and create a new arrangement never heard before, then you have to orchestrate your own discomfort. Get uncomfortable to find and amplify our voice.
My parents told me that when I was eight they noticed a shift in me. I was more cautious about how I expressed myself with my friends. I’m currently in year two of a three-year journey to become the full-throated version of Natalie. When I say that, people can’t believe that until 2016, I only presented 40% of my full self in my professional life. Now I’m up to 60%-70%. I may make others uncomfortable and I may lose some folks along the way, but that’s absolutely okay! In fact, it is exactly what needs to happen if I am truly going to clarify my voice and my views. Each time I express my ideas through my writing and public speaking, I am becoming a fuller version of me. When I tell others to get uncomfortable, I am not just saying it. I’m doing it. Trust me, I am uncomfortable. If you want to advocate for yourself and amplify your voice, I suspect you must do the same! Get uncomfortable.
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