Client Spotlight: Mylena Sutton, Voltage Vista Consulting
Meet Mylena Sutton of Voltage Vista. Earlier in her career, Mylena found herself in work situations that were toxic, and she realized the problem was rooted in organizational culture. She resolved to devote her career to ensuring no one else would have to endure that kind of difficult work environment. “Because when you’re unhappy at work, you’re unhappy at life,” she said.
Mylena created Voltage Vista in order to reach her goal of promoting comfortable and effective work environments. In our interview, she shares how she started her business and the advice she has for other entrepreneurs. Check out Mylena’s The Leadership Drives Podcast!
Why did you start Voltage Vista? How did you make it happen?
The why is easier than the how. To be totally transparent, the reason that I started my business is because I never believed that I would ever have a job where I could be myself and be treated well.
At the time that I decided to strike out, I was in a job where the culture was—I don’t even know how to describe how much of a bad fit that was. The challenges I had there were similar to challenges that I’ve had in every job, in the sense that I felt the need to code-switch and play a lot of political games.
As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I focus on leadership development and organization culture is because I never want anybody to have those kinds of experiences. Because when you’re unhappy at work, you’re unhappy at life. You spend so much time tethered to work, thinking about work. If that is a source of consternation and frustration, I think we as leaders owe it to people to do our very best to create better environments. That was the why of the situation. I never had the confidence that it would change for me.
Growing up in a Southern, working-class family, I felt the differences in social graces and the cultural differences that are associated with the class. Not only class but regional differences too—since I had moved to New Jersey from Atlanta. I thought code-switching all the time was a waste of time and energy. I would never be the round peg in the round hole. It just wasn’t worth the energy.
That was the why of the situation. I never had the confidence that it would change for me.
In terms of how it basically was a function of scratching and clawing my way. I don’t like the impression that we give sometimes of being these rugged individuals, but I was able to be a rugged individual because I didn’t have obligations outside of myself when I started. I started this when I was 30, and I was never particularly in love with the idea of being a parent. That whole exit strategy was not working for me.
When I decided that I wanted to give myself my very best years of my life, I said, “I’m going to give myself until I’m 50. if I’m not happy with where I am at 50, then I have just enough time to take a job and perhaps have a pension so I can retire.” From there, I just really made it work. There have been tremendous ups and downs.
A big part of the story of how I got started was getting fired from my last full-time job. One of the things that is so funny to me now, but it wasn’t funny at the time: the day before I got fired I was in a workshop and I wrote in my journal, “I really want more time to focus on the things that really matter to me.” I had already registered my business; I just didn’t have the courage to make the leap. I was still working on a few business planning things. That was a Wednesday at 2:00 PM. I was fired and back home Thursday by 10 AM.
That was actually how I got the gumption to get going. As I was lying at home watching the ceiling fan go round and round, I had to be honest, I didn’t want to look for another job. If you don’t have a job, you may as well go ahead and start implementing that plan you were already working on.
How is your work a calling?
I really do see it as having the privilege to help leaders create environments where people don’t feel oppressed. If you can create an environment where people don’t feel oppressed, where you can try to minimize the power dynamic between leaders and people that report to them, where people can feel as psychologically safe as possible, you create a space where they can truly contribute to the organization because they aren’t working through a lens of fear.
I don’t think many leaders want to embrace what it really means for most employees to truly come to work. The power dynamic is real. When we pretend as if it’s not there, we also miss many opportunities. I tell leaders that if you are working with your team and nobody ever strongly disagrees with you, it’s because they don’t feel safe with you. Nobody agrees with you all the time. I mean, your family members like you, and they don’t agree with you all the time. For me, in order to do my best work, I absolutely need to be free. I want to give that to other people.
Part of my commitment to my brand is that I’m never willing to go in-house full-time for a client. I may go on retainer to provide services, but I will never be a full-time employee. Once you have that power shift—where most of your revenue or all of your income comes from one source—that changes the game. For me, it changes it too much.
The reason I see the work as a calling is that if I can get leaders to embrace what it means to look for ways to liberate their employees so that employees feel safe to truly contribute, to disagree, and to bring their full selves to the organization, I think we have better outcomes for both the employee and the organization as well. I just don’t know how to do better work than that.
What do you love about anti-harassment training?
To be honest, it’s fun. I try to listen to at least one audiobook a week. Sometimes I’m listening to the same books a couple of weeks in a row because I find that I get something new every time. I spend that kind of energy on harassment training too—in that, I’m constantly studying and following various cases to see how they turn out.
On one hand, I’m sometimes incredulous. I think, “I can’t believe somebody did that. Are you out of your mind?” When I go into teams to teach harassment training, I look at how I can use scenarios and stories to make this training real for them so it’s not one more check the box. Sometimes people think, “Oh, God, my boss said I had to go to training.” I don’t want it to be that. I try to really think about the team in the sense that I want to make it something that they can key into.
A lot of times I’ll create scenarios. 99% of the time the scenarios are based on something that has really happened. I try to think about what really connects to a problem or a situation that I know this team might experience, or depending on the client, I already know they have experienced.
I have a longtime client. I’ve been with them now for more than 10 years. It’s actually a correctional facility. I’ve been with them so long that the officers will share with me the things that take place within the organization. As a paramilitary organization, you have all of the social challenges that come from the community that comes into the jail. Then you have the culture of what it means to work there. What I love about it is, they trust me enough to tell me what’s really going on and ask the questions that they really want answers to. At the end of the day, you’ve never been proven until you’ve sat in a room with twenty corrections officers who ask you really hard questions. I enjoy it because I give them the information they need.
I do this with my other clients, as well. I make it clear that it is not my job to teach employees how to sue you. That is not my job and is not appropriate. It is also not my job to sugarcoat what the rules are, particularly when they share scenarios or situations that question how well the client is doing with respect to protecting their rights. This builds a type of mutual accountability between the client and the staff. I’m not going to give them a story that’s not really true or leave out part of the story that they need to know. It’s just fun work to do. When I say harassment training is really fun for me, it really is.
I explain things like the fact that there are no laws for working professionals against bullying. Do you know how interesting it is to get grown people to go, “Wait a minute. You mean to tell me that all of these things can actually be permissible in the workplace?” I’m not saying that it should happen; I’m not saying that the person who does it to you is not a terrible coworker. What I am saying is that if they don’t do it for these particular reasons, they aren’t breaking harassment laws. Granted, sometimes they try to twist the question in ways to understand what other laws can be attached to this. That’s a whole other story. What I love is being able to make it clear so that they know what their rights are.
Is it difficult for some people to face the truth about their behavior?
Oh, yes. One of the things that I do in the harassment training is present it in two ways. On the one hand, these are the things that you want to be aware of to protect your rights. And then I flip it. These are some behaviors that you engage in that perhaps your coworkers find offensive where you could be the alleged aggressor. We often think about ourselves through the lens of “I might be a potential victim,” but we don’t think about the things that we’re doing to create a hostile work environment for other people.
It’s also interesting to help someone see themselves through the lens of the various phobias they may have—whether it’s homophobia or one of the “isms” like racism or sexism. Whether we’re talking about trans issues, ethnicity issues, or issues around accessibility and disabilities, it is amazing how people really see the need to be inclusive as oppressive. It is amazing sometimes to see that, to get people to see themselves.
I get that it may require a little bit more effort from you. By the same token, what are you saying by not wanting to put forth that effort, particularly on a systemic level? What are you really saying? Do you hear yourself? It’s hard sometimes to get people to really see how they take for granted the privileges that they have, and they are offended at making space for other people.
That’s very courageous work
It really is. I prefer to talk about organizational culture rather than Diversity, Equity and Inclusion because I think DEI is placed in a box by itself. I won’t even put myself out there as a DEI specialist, because it’s really about organization culture.
Demographics matter. Some groups are marginalized more than others. I really want leaders and teams to think about the culture of the organization, their day-to-day habits, the norms that are in the office, and how sometimes those norms create hostilities that they are blind to. At the end of the day, it doesn’t mean that everybody feels the way that you feel. I don’t think people realize the mental gymnastics that their coworkers often go through just to make it through the workday and to do a great job. Work shouldn’t be that hard.
What do you find challenging about your work?
I’m very careful about the diversity work that I do. When I say “careful,” I’m very keen on not promoting myself as a diversity expert or specialist. Although, I will subcontract for larger consultants to help do things along the lines of HR assessments to help organizations better understand their cultures. Inclusion issues are part of the challenges that clients reach out to me for.
Diversity is very different from harassment work, actually. Harassment is about the rules and helping you see your behavior. To me, diversity work is about a mindset. It’s about looking at how we create equitable systems within organizations. It becomes personally difficult for me when I feel like I’m trying to get people to see me and people like me as human beings. The emotional burden of that sometimes can be heavy.
I was with a team about four years ago. It was the most powerful and painful experience I’ve had in a long time. It was for that reason that I really stepped away from diversity work, and I have not come back to it. It was a team of about fifteen or sixteen Executive Vice Presidents and above. One of the things that I pride myself on when I work with groups is creating a space where people feel completely comfortable, where they feel safe. I feel like once we get to that place, we can really have the dialogue that we need to have.
They got really comfortable. I knew that it was going to get interesting when one person said, “You said this is a safe space, right?” And they leaned in and I thought, “Here we go.” I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect this. They talked about whether or not respecting people’s rights and inclusion was actually a value for them as leaders of this organization. They felt like their customers might resent or reject some of their attempts at inclusion. One person said, “Look, I’m not doing anything to sacrifice my bonus, particularly if it’s in the name of somebody’s feelings.” I thought, “First of all, we’re not talking about feelings. These are actually rights and laws.” This was at the VP level with fifteen other people on the same level. Ten of them are in agreement with him, at least by their body language. They were literally asking “Do we even need to take a stand on these issues?”
It was eye-opening for me. I think money is king around here. It was really interesting to hear somebody flat-out say, “My bonus and my profit margin is much more important than honoring laws or respecting people.” If I, a Black woman, was not in that room, I wonder where else that conversation would have gone. This work is difficult. I would say that’s probably the most emotionally tasking part of this kind of work in terms of just dealing with leaders.
On the other hand, I work with a lot of leaders around issues pertaining to conflict within the organization. The thing that I find challenging in that sense is when they are in a position where they have all of the authority to make change within the organization, but they are so conflict-averse or fearful, that they do nothing. At the end of the day, I say, “You see this problem. You paid me to come in here and help you really get clear on it, to help you figure out a solution, and you’re giving me all of the reasons why it’s impossible, why it’s going to be hard.”
The other difficulty sometimes is really doing the work to figure out what I can do to convince that leader not that changes should be made, but that they won’t be more vulnerable than they need to be when they take a stand on certain issues. That I am not going to abandon them, and the work that they’re doing is worthwhile. That shifts in many ways from focusing on the work to really building and encouraging the leader.
Usually, those kinds of reservations come from a place that’s personal. There’s something internal that they’re needing to work out. Then it becomes about trust building. In order to get past those kinds of hurdles, sometimes leaders aren’t disclosing things that are deeply personal, and that part can be a little challenging, too. Some of those issues are things that they do not want to deal with.
Do you have advice for other entrepreneurs? What do you wish you had known at the beginning?
I would say a couple of things. If I had known from the beginning what I know now, I would have started my business with an eye toward systems right from the beginning. I think what often happens is entrepreneurs jump in and hit the ground running. You know the expression, “You’re building the plane while you’re flying it, etc.” You’re just doing stuff and you’re not taking into consideration what is enabling you to get things done. If you need to have some help, you’re not thinking about what parts of the job and the business you need to do versus someone else on your team. You often think you’re too busy to do those kinds of things.
The time that it takes you to think through those processes actually lays the groundwork to make it better as you grow, so that things are less hectic, more structured, and more organized. I think in the beginning I really wish I had known to actually do that, to think that kind of thing through.
The other thing I wish I had done from the beginning was to hire a bookkeeper when I initially became financially able to afford one. My bookkeeper is also an accountant. She’s a full-on accountant but doesn’t necessarily want to do taxes, etc. It helps to have someone else saying, “Hey, this is the budget you set. I just want you to know that you’re way over on travel, and way under in this.”
Those are the two things I really wish I had done from the beginning: focusing on systems and hiring that bookkeeper a lot earlier.
How is it working with VaVa?
It’s good. The VA I’m working with now is a Social Media Manager for me. We have been working together since July/August. We took some time at the beginning to talk quite a bit about expectations and work style. I don’t know about other people, but I think my person is perfect. I tend to have a very straightforward communication style. I’m often worried about that whole power thing in work relationships. I’m often worried about the other person feeling disrespected or their feelings being hurt. With the person that I work with, I constantly, in the beginning, more so than I do now, checked in. I would say, “Look, I need you to let me know if something doesn’t land well for you. Sometimes, I’m moving by the seat of my pants. In terms of not wanting to have turnover, it’s important to me that you feel seen and feel heard.”
What I love about working with VaVa is that my VA has an Account Success Manager that she can talk to if she has an issue where she’s, for whatever reason, uncomfortable telling me. My greatest concern would be for her to one day decide, “Oh, Mylena is nuts, and I’m going to quit.” I love having that reassurance that there’s an invisible person, if you will, that’s part of this relationship.
The other thing that I like is that if my person were to quit for whatever reason, particularly if it were sudden, there is a way for me to get a replacement person. I don’t know if other small business owners who have had a virtual assistant can imagine what it’s like to finally get someone onboarded, work well together, and they leave. It’s like skiing downhill—everything in a whoosh. It is one of the most frustrating experiences. What I like about VaVa is that I don’t have to go through the hiring process alone if, in fact, I need to replace someone. I like that part quite a bit.
In terms of the work that my VA is doing for me, she’s absolutely great at the actual work. There are some things that she does—I’m not even going to pretend that I know how she does it. I just say, “Great! I don’t know how you did that, but great.” Not only do I not know what she’s done, but honestly, I have no desire to learn how to do those things either. She doesn’t intend to make me feel old, but I definitely feel like I see the generational gap here. The things that she does intuitively, I think that would have taken me two weeks. I love not having to figure that out. I love the fact that we have the kind of rapport where we get along very well, and she’s absolutely the consummate professional in what she does.
Working with VaVa has been great in that you get to test out a plan and revise it before hiring someone in-house. My work with my Social Media Manager changed my strategy in a way that was more significant than a tweak. It has been a full pivot because I realized what I wanted to achieve with my social media goals didn’t align with my VA’s recommendations. The way in which I want my brands to grow and develop—I couldn’t simply delegate all of the work. I had to decide what I truly valued and wanted in order to figure out showing up consistently. Just because you have support, it doesn’t mean that you dump it on your person and give it very little attention.
Is there anything that I didn’t ask that you wish I did?
In terms of how I want to grow my business, I’m constantly asking this internal question. The way I frame it to myself is, “Do you want to be the expert surgeon or the hospital administrator?” The answer to that question speaks to how you grow your business and plan for your team. Right now, I’m in the expert surgeon role in my life. I decided I don’t want to build this huge team. I want to focus on the expertise, and there are times when I wonder if I will outgrow that perspective. I think about that quite a bit.
One of the other challenges as a business owner that I have is finding community amongst other business owners who aren’t my competitors, building relationships, and having just a sounding board. I will say that when I’m looking for professional development for myself, I’m finding that it is increasingly difficult. I’ll give you an example. I went to a leadership conference over the summer, and 98% of what came from the breakout sessions and the keynotes—I knew that stuff.
I’ve hit a place where I’m thinking, “Where do I go when I want a coach? Where do I go when I need to grow?” I’ve even hit a point when reading certain kinds of books. I’m seeing the same content recycled. For example, I read one book called Primed to Perform. Then, I read Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. I thought, “Did the same person write both of these books? The content is so similar.” The question that I really wish I had an answer to is, “What do I do to become better? How do I maintain my edge?” I’ve been doing this now long enough that I, too, am searching for those go-to resources. I’m often stewing on that question.
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