Encouraging Personal Growth and Freedom While Offering Psychological Safety and Support

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Nia Maxwell

Photo courtesy of Splunk.

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May 19, 2024 at 8:35AM UTC

“I think of my style as promoting leadership through guidance and support,” says Nia Maxwell, a site reliability engineer at Splunk, and a leader within two of Splunk’s employee resource groups (ERGs).

Maxwell views leadership as a chance to help others grow, while ensuring everyone feels supported. She does this by placing an emphasis on empowering employees to advance by designing their own solutions to challenges. 

“I give the people I work with as much freedom as possible, allowing them to approach problems differently,” explains Maxwell. “Just because I see a solution doesn't mean it's the right one. I find that giving people the ability to decide how to approach problems themselves is really important. That way, we all grow and form different opinions, approaches and skills.”

Maxwell is there to provide guidance, empowering an inclusive team around her that has the space to confidently build self-grown and diverse skill sets, all while feeling supported and safe.

In this article, Maxwell shares more insight into her leadership approaches, along with the importance of inclusion and intersectionality in the workplace. 

What is your No. 1 piece of advice for other women who are moving into or want to move into leadership?

“I find that I've had to prove myself more after coming out as a trans woman,” Maxwell tells Fairygodboss.

I lead the Disabled=True ERG, and I work closely with the leadership of our global Pride ERG, along with being the Boulder Office Liaison for the Pride ERG. It's important to make sure all employees have a safe place to exist within the company, along with a way to form a community. The ERGs are able to positively affect policy decisions to make sure all voices are heard.

The best advice I can give is to join your ERG communities, and find what you're really good at, then invest heavily in it. Proving yourself in this way will help build your successes, advocates and confidence into leadership.

What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual (or team) that you think has been particularly effective?

Honestly, I ask people what they want to work on. Do they want to focus on code, design, management or some other skill set? People will tell you where they want to grow and what they want to do. My role is to help them follow this passion with data and clear planning.

My primary focus is on policy changes and advocacy. I've hosted and participated in a lot of events to tell my story and talk about being trans and disabled. We recently hosted an AMA (ask me anything) with trans and non-binary Splunkers to discuss what being trans is like. We talked a lot about our experiences with discrimination and the difficulties we face. We also recently hosted a fireside chat about disability in the workplace, and we were able to talk about our experiences regarding disability, intersectionality and allyship.

When we’re able to come together and have these open conversations in a safe space, people feel more comfortable to follow their passions knowing that they can do so as their authentic selves. 

What do you hope others are getting out of working with you?

I focus on creating opportunities for others to develop as both leaders and within their roles. I care a lot about psychological safety and making sure people are supported to grow in ways they want to.

I've worked on ensuring my team has been structured in a way that focuses on psychological safety and inclusion. Everything else can be built from this foundation. Skills can be taught, but working together and enjoying working with the people on your team is very important.

Those who work with me will always be given support to assist with finding community. Representation is important for so many reasons. 

We need people who advocate for the needs of others. We need people who can speak up and offer new viewpoints when it comes to decisions. Employees need to have a community where they work, filled with people they can trust to advocate for their needs.

While building your team, what did you learn that surprised you most?

I learned how important adapting to changing resources, priorities and budgets can be. You can't expect everything to be 100% planned out, and you have to be able to adapt to not knowing with full certainty what is coming. Priorities change, and the best way to find success through change is adapting. 

Our ERGs are focused on growing together, working with purpose and being less isolated from one another. I've been very outspoken about the importance of intersectionality. I see first hand how we're heading in this direction, and we're definitely seeing more events and resources surrounding the intersectionality we all are a part of. I’m also energized to see us continuing our work with global programs for our employees and outside communities.

How do you help to educate employees to grow and evolve?

We recently did a fireside chat with an outside disability speaker discussing intersectionality. She talked about her experience as a disabled LatinX woman, whereas I talked about my experience as a disabled trans woman.

It's important to have these conversations so that we can share our experiences. A lot of people don't have these experiences, they don't face discrimination or have to deal with microaggressions. Helping people understand what we experience helps them be better allies, or may even convince some people to put active effort into being allies. For those that share the same or similar experiences, it's really nice to see others going through the same. It helps build community between us.

This has meant a lot to me, both as a Splunk employee and as an individual. Having these communities with open discussions shows just how many people were willing to listen to our stories. Seeing the questions people were asking was encouraging as I hadn't seen people ask such thoughtful and inspired questions. Being able to host this event also showed me that Splunk’s leadership team is committed to inclusion. 

These events create support from two primary groups: the first is people who are (or want to be) allies, providing more information for our greater team to better act on. The second group are people who have similar experiences. As a person who faces discrimination, it's really nice to see people like me in positions where they can speak freely about their experiences. It helps me feel like the world is moving in a positive way, and I hope I can give that same feeling to others.

These conversations give employees the data they need to take action, providing visibility into the issues we face. 

How do you make sure your direct reports feel well-supported in their lives both in and out of the office?

The best thing anyone can do to help others is to share their story and experiences. We can't just tell people to be better allies or provide a list of what they can or cannot do. What we can do is build empathy and visibility of these viewpoints so that people are more conscious of how their words and actions affect people. 

Showing people how their actions and words may be interpreted may get more people thinking about these things before they do them. Realistically, we know people make mistakes, and, when we take this approach, we are empowering the tools to grow and accept mistakes with the assurance they can do better the next time.

Work-life balance is really important to Splunk. If I see a teammate submitting work out of hours or on the weekend, I reach out to them to see how they're doing. Employees are not expected to set aside their personal lives. If someone needs time for any reason, be it medical, family, mental health or just to relax, then I want to support them.

What do you believe is the No. 1 thing managers must do when onboarding new employees? How did your own manager support you during this process?

As a a disabled transgender activist; I've been facing hardship on both of those fronts for years, and pushing forward has given me the tools to help others.

Effective managers make sure their employees know the different resources and support networks available. Employees need to know what employee resource groups (ERGs) exist, where teams and dependencies are, how to interact with different teams and what growth looks like at the company.

My manager made sure I knew what ERGs there were. He also made sure I knew what teams we work with the most, and how the communication and working agreements in the past have been successful. He made sure I knew what the guidelines for promotions and growth were, and provided the resources Splunk has to use (things like: different benefits, use of wellness funds, global rest days and more).

Overall, how did your manager and Splunk help set you up for success?

My manager has made sure I've had resources available to me. For example, Splunk not only offers the ability to move around within the engineering organization, but also provides the ability to take classes online, which has helped me change roles between different types of engineering. This has helped me get where I am today.

Our leadership provides us with time to work on our ERG initiatives, resources to support community events and conferences, and they provide a platform for ERG leadership to speak on our issues.

My manager also made sure that I know what teams and people to reach out to. This reflects a larger, team-oriented global culture at Splunk. We've focused on letting teams own their work, and making sure they can communicate their needs to other teams.

At Splunk, we have over 8,000 employees working together to remove barriers between data and action so that everyone can thrive in the data age. 

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