Tia Buckham-White: Pioneering Inclusive and Authentic Leadership in Conformity-Driven Business Landscapes

The Most Influential Business Leaders Making A Difference, 2024

In 2011, Tia Buckham-White founded Notre Internationale, a Human Experience Management (HXM) consulting company based on her north star: “To know others, you must first know yourself.” The bedrock of Notre’s philosophy is an unwavering belief that leadership, focused on authentically connecting people and leveraging the human power of community, is the future. She attributes and emphasizes the evolving nature and characterizations of success to a generational shift towards community-centric values. In nearly every sector, businesses are beginning to minimize process-oriented hierarchical structures and fully embrace twenty-first-century mindsets and perspectives. Tia believes, “Leaders in today’s environment need a solid foundation of self-understanding and a supportive community that offers honest feedback, reliable objectivity, and gracious accountability.” Her journey unfolds as a blend of personal growth, early exposure to the human side of technology, and a commitment to creating functional, thriving communities.

Just before the new year, we had an opportunity to discuss her leadership journey and what paramount skills she believes technology leaders will need in the Future of Work.

CIO Views (CV): Tia, briefly tell us about yourself and how you started your professional career. 

Tia Buckham-White (TBW): My husband and I married in our mid-twenties, and we’ve been together for nearly thirty years. We have lived in Atlanta since 1997, where our children were born.

I went to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. My mother, aunt, and uncle integrated the student body in the 1960s, and I continued that legacy with my enrollment and earning a degree in Journalism with a minor in English.

My first job out of college was as an airline ticket agent using proprietary software back in what I joke was the last century! That’s when people still bought tickets at the counter and needed a human to make reservation changes. We lived in Virginia before we had kids, and my job at Virginia State University exposed me to yet another custom software platform that supported the interlibrary loan program. I thoroughly enjoyed that work because it helped connect students with books from around the world, and I thought it was terrific. Along with the interlibrary role, I also taught students, faculty, and staff how to use the new digital card catalog technology when the University transitioned from paper index cards. So, from the beginning, I experienced technology as a tool benefiting human interests and intellectual endeavors. This perspective drove my corporate career, and I believe that’s more true now than ever before.

In 2011, my current employer prepared to sell the business, and I used part of my severance package to begin Notre Internationale. I didn’t have a lot of external support, mentorship, or an established client base when I began Notre, and only the most progressive executive leaders at that time championed emotional intelligence. Corporations were still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2012 global recession was on the horizon. By and large, executive leaders in that era still relied on the established, moderately effective 20th-century leadership formulas, and no one talked or wrote specifically about self-awareness. I used that time to educate myself about entrepreneurship, clarify my business strategy, and invest in my own executive coaching.

A few years later, a small, savvy, women-owned consulting company focused on executive leadership development offered to incubate and mentor Notre. As one of their bench consultants, I had the opportunity to learn from these women and hone my unique business point of view on leadership development based on self-awareness, self-understanding, diversity, equity, inclusion, and culture.

CV: Your career journey demonstrates a pattern of thinking beyond conventional functions and roles. Does that influence how you created and differentiated Notre?

TBW: We definitely take a different perspective on off-the-shelf leadership development. As a HXM consulting company, we train our attention on the “why” of a situation instead of stopping at the “what.” It doesn’t matter if you have perfect processes if the people involved can’t work together! From the beginning, Notre positioned self-awareness as a bridge to help leaders think differently about who they are, how they approach their work, teams, and business relationships, and whether their “leadership style” is authentic, positive, and compelling. How we engage our clients is different and provides the much-needed space for them to consider and reconsider how they and their organizations define success. With every project, we help our clients understand how to be better self-managed and authentically connect with the teams they lead and serve. Essentially, we are a management consulting company with an experiential philosophy. We help our clients evaluate their goals and actions by looking at the human experience and using more human-centered tools and practices.

CV: When you mention behaviors and leadership, it makes us think about the increased focus companies have on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Does Notre work in that consulting space?

TBW: As a Black businesswoman, my everyday experience is full of negative biases and stereotypes, both personally and professionally. Our DEI approach considers experiences like mine and the realities of our racially and culturally diverse team, and it rests on four key aspects or pillars: first, we strive to understand the unique impact of a client’s corporate and geographic culture; second, we evaluate which privileges are in play; third, we provide a programmatic approach to deepening the self-awareness skills of the executive leadership individuals and teams; and forth, we consult on what leadership actions will foster curiosity and open-mindedness. Combined with our leadership development methodology, this approach to DEI aligns with the evolving twenty-first-century business landscape. It caters to innovative leaders seeking lasting results beyond “just DEI.”

In fact, most of our consulting helps clients pioneer effective leadership development and refine or clarify existing work and team culture, especially in global companies. Because our expertise lies in culture, as I’ve just described it, our best work focuses on innovative engagement – why does your team or organization behave as it does, and do those behaviors and mindsets support the Future of Work? Do your leaders engage in ways that finally move us into the 21st century because we’re nearly a quarter of the way through it!

Business changes with each Industrial Revolution, and we’re all squarely in the middle of 4IR—the 4th Industrial Revolution. However, some leadership behaviors still reflect what worked in 3IR, and they won’t work much longer. Millennials are leaders in organizations around the globe, and Gen Z will outnumber the Baby Boomers within the next 8 to 15 months. Notre helps organizations and executive leaders embrace these realities, stay relevant, and attract and retain bright new talent to help us all succeed in the Future of Work. Peter Drucker’s quote from the 1970’s says it all: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

So, instead of relying on confrontation, definitions, or didactic one-way information delivery, Notre excels at offering experiences that encourage and support self-discovery. We’ve found repeated success serving individuals and organizations that appreciate our fresh, future-focused, and distinct viewpoint. Instead of trying to change hearts and minds, we respect every voice in the space, encourage rich dialogue with expertly facilitated conversations, and create the opportunity for personal “a-ha” moments. That’s our secret to igniting the innovation every organization wants to harness because innovation thrives in diverse environments. And that’s not just my opinion; it’s a quantifiable fact!

CV: You have an uncommon origin story, but Notre has been awarded for its work and internationally recognized for your achievements. What is your secret to success?

TBW: It’s validating to be recognized because our team does fantastic work, and we regularly collect heartfelt testimonials and feedback from our clients and program participants. But at the end of the day, no one is better than me, and I’m not better than anyone else. I’m down to earth, don’t take myself too seriously, and love living my life as a wife, mother, loyal family member, and dynamic friend.

My “secret” is to consistently question and investigate the status quo because it helps leaders create inclusive communication, bring together different opinions and experiences, and embrace healthy conflict.

A second “secret” is cultivating intellectual curiosity. I love learning new things and challenging my ideas! It invigorates me, and I don’t have any hang-ups around making mistakes or getting something wrong. Experience has taught me that leadership isn’t dependent on the latest technology, pedigree, or title. It hinges and depends on how authentically you connect and include others to achieve a goal.

CV: How did you approach growing your business and overcoming competition? What are your plans for Notre?

TBW: I took my time and purposely grew the business slowly. Our services are highly customized, and our “widget” is our intellectual property. We needed time to understand how to build and scope our deliveries, accurately measure their effectiveness, respond to challenges, and duplicate success. Fine-tuning and clarifying our programs and client engagement were essential to ensure we didn’t jeopardize future success by growing too fast. That was a priority.

Here’s our experience: we’ve found that competition isn’t a challenge when you connect with people and create solid relationships. In a genuine relationship, most people are transparent and share what they need. If Notre has a solution for a problem, we can organically work together to create a plan. But if that “pain point” or “what keeps them up at night” isn’t in our wheelhouse, we connect them with professionals in our circle of relationships, our strategic eco-system, that are better suited to help. The entire construct of competition fades, and everyone eats when we operate within our strengths and focus on connecting people to solve problems. It’s how communities have survived for millennia and how Notre does business.

Our team and those on our consulting bench have leadership backgrounds from prominent American and global corporations. Those collective experiences help us appreciate the importance of building and maintaining relationships, and we’re proud most of our business comes from personal connections and word-of-mouth referrals.

Clients have requested expanded programs, so we’ll continue to scale over the next 24 months. We expect to continue leveraging our global experience and expertise over the next three to five years before we go through another growth spurt. And we’ll always keep developing and adding to our eco-system, IP library, and partnerships.

CV: How do you balance your personal and professional life, especially while running a successful business and managing a growing team?

TBW: Balancing my personal and professional life is only possible with effective communication that helps my family understand our work. Early on, I talked to my kids about Notre, and as a family, we broke stereotypes like “good parents attend every school event or recital.” When you communicate and involve your spouse and especially your children, they can become your best support system and help you with the balancing act. Even better, it helps create realistic teaching moments about “adulting” when they grow up!

I believe in living a life aligned with one’s goals and living the life you want – this makes challenges easier to accept, and my business is a testament to that belief. It’s a journey, and it’s about managing failures, making choices informed by your values, and transparently involving and evolving your support system. Doing this made my inner circle some of our biggest cheerleaders, who help get me back into balance when things get uneven.

CV: What motivates you to continue your work daily, and what inspires you? 

TBW: Notre is my oasis during difficult times. I absolutely and completely love what I do: exploring the human experience, understanding history, and learning about why people behave the way they do. Clarity about my goals and passion for my work make each day invigorating. I chose this path, created my vision of leadership development, and found support. Enjoying what you do makes anything life throws at you more manageable.

CV: Which one or two words best define your leadership style?

TBW: “Genuine.” I’m really just a little Black girl from Mississippi on an extraordinary journey! I want your readers to see that leadership comes in various forms and that success is attainable for those stepping out of their comfort zones. Other people might use the word “authentic” to describe me because I am the same person in all situations. Like many people, I can toggle aspects of my personality to better connect with another person, but I’m doing that purposefully, not as an unconscious reaction. I’m always me.

CV: What is your message to technology leaders and those aspiring to lead?

TBW: If you want to know who you are, pursue your life, not the life “they” think you should live. Going after my dream revealed my most authentic self, and I know myself better because I respected and went for the life I truly wanted.

So, follow your authentic dreams, embrace failures as feedback about what’s not working, and build genuine relationships. Surround yourself with people who quietly and consistently believe in you, and keep going until you figure it out!

Also, invest the time to know yourself. Commit to self-understanding because you cannot sincerely serve others without it, especially in today’s VUCA world. Build a community of people who uplift you and provide objective and truthful feedback. Recognize the importance of human-only traits in leadership and always strive to contribute to a culture that values differing perspectives and embraces change.

CV: In closing, what final thoughts or insights would you like to share about your journey and the lessons you’ve learned along the way?

TBW: Life is like a playground scattered with different grades of students, and every person has a peer group. The ability to humanely connect with individuals and maneuver peer groups is a powerful and essential skill. I’ve learned the importance of staying humble and not letting others project their expectations onto me. Everyone’s story includes vulnerability and strength; sharing your journey will resonate and inspire others!