Nicole Case, Executive Coach, Speaker, and Founder of The Upgraded Leader

Ask the Expert: Coaching Leaders to Achieve Career Goals and Inclusive Workplaces

Articles Mar 29, 2024

Through our work with hundreds of clients, The Diversity Movement has connected with thousands of fascinating people who are creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces and communities. For this “Ask the Expert” series, we invite leaders to talk about their DEI journey, lessons they’ve learned, and what inspires them every day. 

Nicole Case, Executive Coach, Speaker, and Founder of The Upgraded Leader

Nicole Case, Executive Coach, Speaker, and Founder of The Upgraded Leader

Nicole Case is an award-winning Leadership & Executive Coach, Keynote Speaker, and the vibrant force behind The Upgraded Leader Podcast. Nicole is on a mission to close the gender power gap by helping women corporate leaders get the promotions they deserve, make the impact they want, all without overwhelm or burnout. With over a decade of corporate HR experience under her belt, she has the insider knowledge and insights to guide women in navigating and succeeding at that new level on their terms.

Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share how you came to your current role?

I have a master’s degree in human resources and worked in the HR space at technology and pharmaceutical companies for about 11 years. While I was growing my own career, I was also participating in conversations about who was going to get a raise, who was going to get a promotion, and who was going to get the exciting project. I was relatively early in my career, yet I was sitting around a table with vice presidents and SVPs talking about these things. I started to see themes emerge about who got those opportunities and who didn't. I was being let in on secrets that everyone should understand – how the process works, what it takes to be promoted to senior leadership, and how to be successful once you're there. 

At the same time, I was co-president of the Ellevate Network in Raleigh, which hosts various events for women. When people found out that I worked in HR, they would start asking me questions, and I found myself helping other women progress in their careers. I was also coaching leaders as part of my HR role.

In 2018, I started developing my own coaching business, and in 2020, I went full-time working for myself. For the last four years I've been coaching and advising senior leaders—women and men— to be the best leaders that they can be for themselves and their teams.

How are you working to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in your community?

I really see promoting DEI in the community as a series of day-to-day decisions like patronizing businesses owned by women and folks from marginalized communities. For instance, I love going to Asali Cafe in Cary, North Carolina, a bakery owned by a wonderful Pakistani woman, instead of the Starbucks in the same parking lot. I also talk about those businesses, in person and on social media. Anytime someone asks me for recommendations, those are the businesses I suggest first. 

In my business, even though it’s women-forward, I coach men as well. In those interactions, I help male leaders keep DEI at the forefront of their minds as they are hiring and leading their teams. That's an integral part of my coaching and my programs. 

I also highlight a variety of voices on my podcast, The Upgraded Leader Podcast. I welcome people with different lived experiences and people who are writing books and trying to get their message out in the world. I try to amplify those voices as much as I can on my podcast and in my marketing and social media efforts. 

Finally, I volunteer at a variety of organizations, such as Dress for Success. I will be doing a lot of speaking for them and their audience throughout the year. I've also been a volunteer coach with the nonprofit Athena of the Triangle in their emerging leaders group. 

Can you describe a personal experience that fuels your passion? 

Early in my career, I was working with several senior leaders and directors, discussing the performance of the people on their teams. The purpose of the meeting was to assign performance ratings, so they could be consistent across the various teams. For example, the engineering leader in Pittsburgh and the engineering leader in Raleigh would rate the same types of roles in the same way. 

During our discussion, one leader described a woman project manager in India as being tough, and said her communication was really aggressive. Because of those behaviors, the leader said we shouldn’t give her a good rating. She received one of the lowest ratings, and everybody in the room agreed. A few minutes later, the same leader talked about a White man from California, who was at the same level, same job title, doing the same type of work as the woman from India. The California man was portrayed as really effective, because he would push to get things done. This senior leader described the man as doing the same exact things, behaving in the same exact way as the Indian woman a few minutes earlier. Yet, the man’s behavior was viewed as a positive by everyone in the room.

Observing this, I wanted to scream out loud, and say, “Let's check our bias here. We are describing these two individuals in the same exact way, but we are characterizing the woman as unpleasant to work with, because toughness and aggression are perceived as negatives in women.” However, I did not feel strong enough to speak out. Everyone in the room was a middle-aged White man. I was the only woman, and I was much younger than everyone else. I just didn't feel comfortable speaking up, and I felt really guilty about it. 

A couple of weeks later, after that woman got her performance review and her low rating, she quit. She felt that she was being unfairly rated for the great work that she was doing, and she went somewhere else. 

That incident has stayed with me. What might have been different if I had spoken up and advocated for this woman? Had she gotten the rating that she deserved, it would have probably equated to a much larger salary increase and a much larger bonus. What could have happened to her and the organization, if she would have stayed and felt valued? Also, how would the senior leaders in that room have been impacted? Perhaps they would have become more aware of their bias, because of their experience with me. Other people could have benefited.

I vowed from that day forward to speak up and use my voice when I see injustices or when I see things happening that are not correct.

Can you tell us about a DEI win that you are proud of? It doesn’t have to be big, just meaningful for you.

A few years ago, I was nominated for an award, something like Top Coaches to Watch. But what a lot of people don’t realize is many of these awards are “pay to play.” Typically a magazine will reach out to individuals, asking if they want to be on the list, and you pay them to include you. A lot of times, your win is not a reflection on you and your qualifications or performance.

Again, somebody reached out to me about one of these lists, and because I was flattered, I paid the money to be on the list. However, I didn’t ask the questions I should have. I didn’t ask who else would be on the list or what the criteria was. 

When the list was published, it was all White people except for one woman of color. I reached out to the magazine and said, “Listen, I'm actually quite embarrassed to be on this list of other White people. What are you doing to help amplify diverse voices? Do you provide scholarships for people who can't pay to be on this list?” I got a nasty letter back telling me, basically, to mind my own business. 

I learned that I need to ask more questions when I’m asked to be a panelist at a conference or a guest on a podcast. Now, I ask, “Tell me about the other voices that you're amplifying, because I don't want to be just another White woman on this stage or on this podcast.” I don't know if my interaction with the magazine was a win, but I felt really strong afterwards. Even if I didn’t change the mind of that person at that particular publication, I know that my actions changed afterward. 

Character is so important today in our professional and personal lives. Which character trait do you think has been most helpful in your journey? Can you please share a story or example of that trait in action?

One of my most important character traits is optimism. I've been called an optimist my entire life, yet to me, optimism is not just positivity and always seeing the silver lining. That's definitely part of it, but I also think optimism has a good, healthy dose of realism with it as well. It's not putting your head in the sand and saying everything's fine, everything's great. 

Optimism is knowing that regardless of the outcome, you'll get through it. It actually includes a lot of resiliency. It's saying to yourself, “I believe that I can get through this. I can do this. I can achieve this. And whatever happens, I’ll still be OK. I'm going to learn from it, and I'm going to keep moving forward.”

Optimism has been so important in my professional and personal life, because if we allow the heaviness and the negativity of this world to eat away at our hearts, then we're just going to get pulled down. And we're not going to be able to get back up. An example of this would be starting my own business. It's very much a rollercoaster; it's up and down. Some weeks you book new clients, and then several weeks in a row, you don't. Or, you put a lot of time and effort into developing a keynote talk or a workshop and your pitch gets rejected. If I were not an optimist, I would have quit this business a long time ago. Being an optimist also keeps me focused and keeps me excited about what the future could hold.

What does inclusive leadership mean to you?

Inclusive leadership is an intentional leadership style that fosters innovation, creativity, high performance, and creates a sense of belonging. It allows individuals from all kinds of backgrounds to fully show up and contribute their unique perspectives and talents, so the organization can succeed. 

That means embracing diversity and inclusion in every part of the employee life cycle. It includes equitable treatment regarding promotions, raises and opportunities. It includes having open communication and creating a collaborative decision-making environment involving all team members and seeking diverse viewpoints and opinions before making decisions. It is also leaders who are incredibly self-aware and sensitive to their own biases, leaders who actively work on their personal growth. Inclusive leaders are aware of what's going on in the world and the systemic issues that their team members face. Finally, it's trusting and empowering their teams to do awesome and amazing work.

What strategies do you use to maintain your personal well-being and/or professional resilience?

In the last year and a half, I've had a big goal of integrating more fun into my life. So I have been reading a lot more fiction books before bed. It’s been fun to turn off the business side of my brain a little bit and just indulge in a complete fantasy world. I've also started taking dance classes, some adult beginner ballet classes and hip hop classes, which has brought so much joy to my life. Again, it allows me to turn my brain away from the work stuff and focus on things that are just fun. Often, after reading a good book, or finishing a great dance class, I end up having some great ideas for my business. The practice sparks a fun, creative and innovative side of my business. 

I also ensure that I have a really strong support system around me. Along with my husband and my friends and other family members, I also have at least one coach that I'm working with myself to help me process what I'm doing in my business. It helps me focus on things that deserve attention and helps me craft the business that I want to craft. That has been so helpful. Of course, therapy is always a good idea as well.

How can people follow you online or connect with you?

For more information on The Upgraded Leader, visit my website or listen to The Upgraded Leader Podcast. You can also follow me on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Check out more expert advice in TDM Library, where you’ll find articles, videos, how-to guides, podcasts, and webinars – all organized by topic so you can quickly find the answers you need about the subjects you care about. When you subscribe to TDM Library, you get access to thousands of award-winning DEI learning resources, so you can start improving your workplace culture right away.


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