Human Centered Leadership Power of the Relationship
By Lynn K. Jenkins
(tThis article first appeared in Women Leadership Magazine)
When asked what matters to her most as a leader, President and CEO, Tanaia White Parker, is quick to share the ethos she used to build and sustain her business,“ Taking care of my clients and staff and meeting them where they are [pause] the buck stops with me” is her rapid response.
Ms. Parker’s personal and professional story is both an inspiration and guiding principle that underlies the calm and balance you sense when you interact with her. She started T. White Parker 16 years ago driven by a deeper sense to make a bigger impact, drive excellence, avoid mediocrity, and to better serve her clients.
The Fabric of a Leader
Ms. Parker leaned on her faith sharing with me that God has had her back like nobody’s business. “If he allows it to come my way, I can at least be expected to handle it in the best way using all the resources that I have to bear. If those resources are not enough, I stand up, be still and pray.” Her steadfast belief is that her people come first. “If I do right by them, then they, hopefully, will do right by us and take care of our clients.” She is proud that her company has never withheld pay from employees and never incurred long-term debt despite federal government sequestrations, shutdowns and the current pandemic that could wreak havoc on any business, let alone a small business.
How Leaders Evolve
When you first meet Tanaia, you would never believe that she lacked confidence as a young adult. She is most likely as endearing today as she was as a young woman. She was educated through the Prince Georges County public school system, predominantly Black, and was fortunate to have her high school guidance counselor take her under her wing and help her navigate through the college application process. Tanaia was a straight-A student and her guidance counselor wanted to make sure Tanaia made it to college. Tanaia beams as she discusses her high school senior field trips and the close friends, she made who, to this day, she remains in close contact with. She grew up in a loving household recalling that her mom and dad kept a clean house, but no extras. You see, Tanaia was the first in her family to go to college. She wanted to attend and was accepted into two HBCUs, Howard University and Hampton University. But she chose American University because she received a full scholarship valued at over $80,000. She and her family had already decided that she would go where the biggest scholarships presented. Tanaia had a phenomenal experience living on campus at American University. You might imagine the culture shock of being exposed to an international student body, with both Caucasians and African Americans with wealthy means unfamiliar to Tanaia. Tanaia treated everyone as a “human” rather than who they were or what they had which made it easy for her to communicate with anyone, at whatever level they stood.
She pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, excelled in her studies and graduated with a double major in marketing and management information systems. Tanaia believes her high college GPA was better than what AU thought she would do given the remedial summer classes they made her and many of the scholarship recipients take before attending their freshman year. During college, she met her best friend and love of her life, Lloyd Parker. They married a year after graduation when Lloyd was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and the uncertainty of their future lingered until Lloyd overcame his illness. To this day – twenty-six years later, they are still happily married, best friends, proud parents, and staunch business people.
Meanwhile, back to Tanaia, she was recruited by American Management Systems (AMS) during her senior year of college and soon after getting married was forced to travel, heavily for work maintaining two residences – one in New Haven, Connecticut and the other in Northern Virginia. She left AMS to further her education; graduating with a master’s degree from George Washington University in 2000. From there, she went to work for Bell Atlantic in Calverton, MD finding her way back home! Her skills and talent were easily recognizable. She was recruited to work for Winstar, a start-up telecommunications company, and at a ripe young age was made responsible for critical elements of the company’s billing system – an area that was critical to the success for the start-up phone company. Her tenacity and skills led to her quick promotion to lead the development and launch of the company’s product catalog team. This team was responsible for developing the system capability for customers to select services.
Her team was responsible for software development and included contractors, like Perot and EDS, and other support personnel. Other than starting her own company, Tanaia proclaims this was her best job ever! She attributes her success to some of her early mentors (who didn’t know she considered them mentors) who empowered her to do whatever was needed to get the job done! She learned so much about business, about herself and the challenges and excitement of being a part of a start-up.
Leadership is all about people. Tanaia thinks for a moment then quickly proceeds to share invaluable lessons learned from mentors as well as from her own leadership experiences.
Lesson number one – the buck stops with her! She thrived by taking on responsibilities where she may have not had the knowledge, like performing executive briefings for Winstar executives, but always made it happen.
Lesson number two – never throw people under the bus. She made this mistake early on in her career and learned quickly the value of the next lesson.
Lesson number three – success only exists when everybody wins. The whole team fails if one team member doesn’t do their job.
Lesson number four – processes and systems fail because of people. These are just a few early yet lifetime lessons tethered to Tanaia’s leadership mantra.
After many career successes including her role as a Managing Director at BAE Systems responsible for a portfolio of projects, the entrepreneurial bug hit, big! Pregnant with her first child, Tanaia wanted to leverage the power of innovation, move quickly, and, “bring commercial audacity to federal contracting.” She started her 8(a) company T. White Parker Associates, Inc. Initially focused on IT Governance, Capital Planning and Investment (CPIC), Enterprise Architecture, Program Management, and Business Process Reengineering creating a niche and earning a reputation for performance excellence.
She made the strategic decision to choose work that would always be deemed relevant. Having achieved $7.7M in annual revenues early in the 8(a) program, having served primarily as a prime contractor and subcontracting only three times in 16 years, the procurement landscape was shifting in favor of several government wide contracting vehicles. The company’s niche work was finding its way into the sights of large prime contractors.
Lesson number five –You’re going to make some mistakes, but you cannot stand still because it’s safe. She found there were some staff that couldn’t move forward, hired functional experts but also learned that she needed added skill sets. She needed more holistic resources that had functional expertise and a combination of business skills.
Lesson number six – Be accountable. Fix it or go home!
Lesson number seven – Don’t be afraid of change.
Lesson number eight – Pivot slow.
Lesson number nine – Fail Fast.
Lesson number ten – It’s about survival. Take a calculated risk and break the rules. Be disruptive in your thinking. “It’s more than just existing.”
In 2019, T. White Parker Associates made a major pivot to ensure her company stays relevant and could focus on areas of value to her customers. Under her leadership and guidance, her team earned the reputation of delivering performance excellence and broadly being labeled as “cool to work with” by clients. The very same requirements gathering and process driven methodologies Tanaia had used early in her career were now used to distinguish her company from her both small and large competitors. There was a difference in the way this small company would interact with their customers. They always have access to the CEO who is there to maintain the equilibrium, anticipate any bumps in the road, mitigate risk, and manage expectations.
Tanaia loves staying in the trenches, close to her customers, and stands ready to be “the fixer”. This appears to be a role that helped her stand apart from her peers and propelled her natural progression into leadership roles throughout her career.
To this day, Tanaia praises her mother and father for teaching her work ethic, tenacity and mental toughness along with her many unofficial business mentors and trusted advisors. Her first, unofficial mentor, a gentleman who was her age but had insight and wisdom well beyond his years, instilled a sense of fearlessness, courage and entrepreneurship that helped her chart her path and stay on course. “A huge part of who I am is thinking big and working hard. I learned from some of the best ….my parents and the many people who taught me lessons, the easy ones and the hard ones, along the way. I’m committed to continuing to learn, share, trust my instincts and navigate this journey in a way that makes the Lord proud.”