As a first-generation British black, Sandra Wilson is on a mission – to help people be themselves rather than wear the ‘corporate mask’. She’s perfectly placed to do this, she tells Liz Hall, in her role as coaching and mentoring lead at British Transport Police
For Sandra Wilson, British Transport Police’s coaching and mentoring lead, one of coaching’s biggest gifts is helping people – including herself – to be more themselves and find their voice, particularly at work.
“Some of my biggest achievements in coaching have been witnessing people becoming more of themselves within the workspace.”
The pressure many face, particularly those from marginalised communities, to wear the “corporate mask” to ensure they’re accepted at work can “break people’s spirit”, she says.
Coaching can support clients to identify and question who they are, working out their drivers and what serves them still so they can bring more of themselves to the workplace, she notes.
The business often isn’t even the culprit, she says, it’s the individual believing they have to conform.
Many people of colour – if not all – will have faced racism throughout their lives and been told if they want to succeed they have to fit in, perhaps even assimilate.
“All the ethnic minority clients I’ve worked with wear this ‘mask’,” she says.
She explains that those from other marginalised communities including people with disabilities, the neuro-divergent, people who identify as LGBTQ, and women may similarly feel they have “hide who they are just to try and fit in. I call it survival mentality – you’re not thriving, you’re just surviving.”
As first-generation Black British, Wilson can relate:
“My parents came from Trinidad and Guyana to seek a new life. The discrimination faced by Caribbean people from their generation is now well-documented. Having grown up in the 70s and 80s, I also faced direct, indirect and institutional racism on a number of levels.
“My parents didn’t hide the realities of living within the UK but they wanted me to succeed regardless….They told me, ‘They don’t have to see you. All they need to see is this person coming in and doing the work and sounding like them because you stand out anyway’.
“They’d often say to me that life will be challenging because I’m a black woman. They reminded me of the need to work very hard to achieve a successful life.”
When Wilson was coached, “It was the first time someone had listened to me, asking why I thought like that, what the background was. The coach was kind enough to acknowledge that my parents were absolutely correct at that time. But the biggest eyeball question was, is that serving you now?
“My parents’ pearls of wisdom helped me to negotiate the world of work and yes, it’s been a challenging ride. [However] my coach challenged my hard work ethic, introducing reflection and building in time for well-being.
“This was a real lightbulb moment. My parents were absolutely right – yes, working hard was needed to succeed but not just working hard.”
It’s only in the last decade that Wilson has started to wear bright, colourful African fabrics to work.
“I wouldn’t have done this earlier in my career because I felt I’d be looked down upon.
She’s now learnt to “share more, allow myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. This is a challenging one for me.
“I’ve found my voice. It may not be what other people want to hear but it’s a different perspective. On my supervision course at Oxford Brookes, for example, I was asked how I would show my signature [approach]. I said I see it like a tree and I hang the concepts on it, and I take them off for some people and hang them on for others. [The person] said, ‘I’ve never seen it like that.’
“[So it’s about] making no assumptions about our practice and not taking people for granted. It also means we really work [hard] in coaching because we don’t know what’ll come up. Curiosity is so important, you’re learning and growing all the time.”
Wilson has worked with some very senior leaders, including females, devising strategies which enable them to bring themselves to work and let people really see them. These have included letting people know they’re not a morning person and not feeling they have to smile first thing, or letting go of ‘masculine’ ways of being to fit in which may no longer serve them.”
Creating a psychologically safe space is vital to allow “the individual or the group to really speak their truth, enabling them to move forward. I’ve found this to be very evident within communities marginalised by society.
“It’s about being mindful and careful [too]. I was working with a Muslim lady who came in wearing the full hijab. I said that I respected her religion but that I was going to find it difficult to coach her because I needed to see her. She said that as long as we had a private room, she would take it off for me only, and that’s how we were able to work together for at least six sessions.
“Every time she talked about her issues, I would say, I don’t understand your faith, please tell me how your decisions impact your life, your family, your faith. I did lots of background reading but I didn’t assume that was how it would be for her. It was, ‘you guide me through this’, sitting alongside someone. I think the worst coach is one who thinks they know it all!
“It’s about accepting we’re all so different. It’s not even about colour or culture. We need to bring all that difference into the room so we can make better decisions and have better options. I feel strongly about that!
“My key value of equality for all is deep-rooted and drives everything that I do,” says Wilson.
“The coaching profession currently isn’t truly representative of the different communities that make up our population.
“So I’m so pleased that coaches can be trained at BTP via the Apprenticeship Levy which should enable coaches from different backgrounds to access development.”
She believes “it’s imperative that [all coaches and mentors] are able to work with different sectors of the population. Real growth happens when one works outside of their comfort zone.”
Wilson has been in her current post for two years, and is proud that the organisation now has more than 100 coaches and mentors volunteering “while balancing the needs of a very demanding day job”.
Its thriving coaching and mentoring community consists of internal lead coaches/ mentors, a small supervision group and more recently a team coaching team.
BTP’s coaching and mentoring service is going from strength to strength, with a number of new initiatives underway and planned including launching a matching app and developing team coaching, and is revamping existing initiatives including reverse mentoring (see News, Page 9).
Wilson highlights the contributions of BTP’s supportive senior leadership team members “who embrace a coaching culture and a engaged champion for coaching and mentoring” (Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Furnell, head of crime and public protection).
Getting into coaching
Wilson started her career in local government supporting local councillors, and has served as a public servant for more than 35 years in various policy and project management roles. She worked for the Greater London Authority and until joining the BTP she led the Government Cabinet Office Cross Government Internal coaching offer, and managed a national positive action programme for more than 600 civil servants.
When she was seconded into the post of head of private office to the then CEO of Islington Council, she noticed that many senior officials had an executive coach. It was a pivotal time when she too was allocated a coach to help her transition into this post.
“Coaching absolutely blew my mind. It was the first time that I felt really listened to. Someone expertly challenged my way of thinking and supported me in coming up with bespoke solutions to my problems. I began to really understand why many of the senior officials used coaching to support them in their careers.”
After her 12-month secondment the CEO funded her attendance at the Centre for Coaching where she started her journey as an internal executive coach specialising in performance coaching. She’s since qualified as an NLP practitioner, completed an Oxford Brookes University postgraduate certificate in Coaching and Mentoring and more recently been accredited as an EMCC Coach/ Mentor Supervisor, Senior Practitioner Coach. In July, she qualified as a team coach with the OCM, along with two other BTP employees.
Wilson values coaching and mentoring’s capacity to help people understand their drivers and the importance of making time for reflection and for self.
Her practice as a supervisor and coach is underpinned by Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech which refers to the inspirational poem Our Deepest Fear by the poet Marianne Williamson.
“This poem taps into themes of spirituality, religion, self-perception, and self-confidence. It encapsulates my desire to help people realise their full potential, develop their confidence to create the lasting change individually and systemically within their work and home.”
Her practice has also been informed and inspired by “Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability, Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment, Matthew Syed’s on diversity of thought, Carol Dweck’s on growth mindset and more recently Salma Shah’s on how to coach under-represented and minority groups in a majority space, among others.”
She’s loved the writings of authors Maya Angelou and Oscar Wilde, and says the book club she set up for readers from the African, Caribbean and Afro – American community to discuss black literature has “enabled me to better understand my own and others’ lived experiences”.
She credits her family and friends for helping her keep it real: “I’ve had the good fortune to be surrounded by a large extended group of family and friends who are very real about life- they tell it as it is!”
She was “fortunate to have met the love of my life when I was 16 years of age and by some miracle, we’ve been together over 40 years, have two beautiful daughters and a son-in-law and a dog named Mei Mei.”
During lockdown, Wilson learnt to sew, and as a “great fan” of the British Sewing Bee, she plans to volunteer at the Sewing and Knitting Show this autumn, which she’s “very excited about”.
When not sewing, she might be found dancing: “I do like shaking a leg to Jazz, calypso and R&B music.”
“Equality is a big thing for me. My vision is that coaching will be available to all who require it regardless of income/status or background and that the profession will have more coaches and mentors from different backgrounds.
“Imagine a child having that right from the start. I think it would cut down mental health issues, [young people’s] feeling of having to be part of a tribe, value their difference, help them grow and build their confidence.
“I’d love to see coaching offered to everybody and paid for as part of what we do. We need it so badly in this world. Where else in the world do you get bespoke development for yourself?
- Read about how BTP’s coaching and mentoring service is going from strength to strength: News, page 9