“Let’s be clear about mentorship,” writes Billie Wright, Nava’s new VP of People Operations, in an essay for The Strive Project. “It’s no pie in the sky. But it can also be very rewarding. Mentorship is not just about providing guidance, feedback and recommendations to others. It’s about give-and-take.”
For Billie, who is also an executive coach, the joy of mentoring others comes from mutual learning and support. “If you are or have been a mentor and haven’t learned anything yourself, then you probably shouldn’t be a mentor.”
It’s this belief in the personal growth that comes from helping others that led Billie to dedicate her career to people operations. Before joining Nava, Billie headed human resources departments for two Washington State agencies. Her experience in leadership and human resources spans 25 years and includes the private sector.
Billie also sits on HR.com’s Future of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 2022 Advisory Board. She describes DE&I work as a career-long priority and passion. “When you’re thinking about DE&I [in an organization], you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she said. “If you really want to be intentional about bringing this into an organization and really be committed to it, you have to be committed to having those uncomfortable conversations.”
In the following interview with Paola Valdez, Office Operations Associate, Billie expounds on the importance of mentorship, her lifelong commitment to diversity in the workplace, and her favorite work advice.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever gotten?
You work the job. Don’t let the job work you.
When I started out early in my career, I worked for a gentleman who was a retired Lieutenant Colonel out of the Air Force. I used to work way, way beyond five o’clock in the afternoon. And I was a single parent so you know I had my parents and grandparents taking care of my son while I was working late just really putting my nose to the grindstone. He came in one day and he said to me, “You need to work the job. Don’t let the job work you.” What he meant by that was that there had to be balance in my life. God forbid, if I walk out the door and get hit by a bus, the work will still be there tomorrow, and someone will do it.
I’ve lived by that and I’ve made that really a part of who I am, especially as a leader. If I work late at night, that’s not the example I want to set for people I lead. Of course, there are times when I have to work late, but I don’t make it a habit. You can be dedicated to the job without being tied to the job. That advice has taken me and served me well throughout my career.
What started your people operations career, and what’s inspired you to continue in this journey that landed you here with us?
I was a reluctant participant coming into the field of human resources, or people ops. I started my career as an executive assistant, and I just loved doing that. There’s a lot of prestige and power that comes with that. You are literally the gatekeeper to the executive. I really loved what I did.
Then I went to work in a hospital environment. The VP of HR at that time was a Black female. She was a unicorn because personnel — that’s what we called HR — back then was generally assigned and run by white males. She kept asking me to come work in HR, and I was like, who wants to do that? That’s where people get hired and fired. I don’t want that reputation.
But she kept after me for nine months until I finally came over. It was a pay cut. But it was the best decision I ever made in my life. I’m a people person, and you can’t be in HR and remove the H factor. So that has been my journey: over 25 plus years, it’s been serving others.
We saw that you recently wrote an article about mentorship. How do you believe that mentors can benefit from mentorship opportunities, while also handling a full workload?
I’m also an executive coach, so I coach executive leaders on performance, leadership, all of those things. One thing that always rises to the top is that leaders very rarely invest in themselves because they’re always investing in their people.
I get great joy out of mentoring because it allows me the ability to bring out the best in others, and to have them realize the potential that lies within them. Here’s what I like to tell leaders when you’re thinking about becoming a mentor: it’s twofold. Mentees also help me learn things about myself. It helps me to be able to go outside my comfort zone and look for other ways in which I can help them grow and develop, and eventually that turns into a relationship where you’re helping them professionally, as well as personally.
When you’re mentoring someone, you’re forming relationships. I have mentored people throughout my entire career and I can call them lifelong friends. Also, you just get great joy out of seeing others be successful. Who doesn’t want to do that? It’s about seeing people become successful in what they really want to do.
Would you be able to give the three highlights of your experience in DE&I?
I have been doing DE&I work throughout my entire career, before it was a thing. We all know the world changed on May 25, 2020. On May 24, 2020, the world was status quo, until the killing of George Floyd. Then every organization wanted to go out and get a chief Diversity Officer or DE&I practitioner or coordinator. And now, it’s really important for an organization, whereas before, not so much so.
So when I talk about DE&I in an organization, three things stand out for me. Number one, you have to have 100% leadership buy-in. What I’ve come to learn is that people are always wondering, what’s in it for me? What do I get out of this? Strategy is only as good as the paper it’s written on if people can’t see themselves in it, and they can’t see their leadership being committed to it.
The second thing is that DE&I is really a byproduct of an organization’s culture. I actually like to start off with the I: if you have a culture that starts with inclusion and models inclusion, you will get the D and the E. It’s just like that phrase, “Diversity is asking someone to the dance, and inclusion is asking them to dance.” Inclusion is a byproduct of that culture.
The other thing that I like to highlight is that when you’re thinking about DE&I, you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Talking about DE&I is difficult and uncomfortable conversations. If you really want to be intentional about bringing this into an organization and really be committed to it, you have to be committed to having those uncomfortable conversations.
Nava is thrilled to have Billie on our team. Learn more about Billie by reading her essay on mentorship here.