This inspirational woman in STEM lives by a four-word personal mantra: girls can do anything.
Kanyatta Walker’s unapologetically fearless outlook began when she was only three years old. A boy cast as Santa in her preschool Christmas play did not enjoy being on stage and kept missing lines. Kanyatta offered to step in, but the teachers said she couldn’t because Santa was a boy. When it turned out none of the boys knew the lines and Kanyatta did, the first female Santa debuted in the play. The crowd loved it.
In high school, Kanyatta was interested in occupational therapy and planned to major in it in college. Then she did some aptitude tests with a good friend who wanted to join the marines. The recruiter told her she was excellent at math and could pretty much do anything she wanted – except be an engineer.
Kanyatta graduated from college with a degree in software engineering technology and has never looked back.
“I always loved math,” Kanyatta said. “My aunt was a math teacher and the way she explained it just made sense to me. I love that there is always a precise answer. But there is also always more than one way to get to that answer and lots of trouble shooting.”
She was recruited by Accenture, a multinational consulting firm, where she worked in a variety of roles from sales to program manager and development manager. By 25, she was leading a team with a significant budget. “I learned by trial and error. There was so much I did not know and I made a lot of mistakes. But I also knew that teams are a mirror of their leaders. I worked at a grocery store when I was 16. When it got busy, the managers would leave their office and come help wherever needed. After the store was bought by a chain, the new managers didn’t come out of their office to help. I learned how important it is for leaders to understand what people need and show up for their team.”
As her career progressed, Kanyatta realized that there are multiple roles for leaders too. “It’s like a baseball team,” she said. “There are coaches and general managers. Coaches assemble the teams and knows who to play to bring out their best. The general manager deals with the overall strategy and choosing the right coaching staff to create the win.
“To be an effective leader, you don’t personally have to play every position. When I see something I want to do, I work to understand the underlying skills. I see how to unravel things and figure out what I know, what I need to know, and how to learn the skills I need. With core skills and ability, you can do anything.”
The desire to understand executive strategy led Kanyatta to an MBA program at Emory University while she was still working full time leading product managers, business analysts and program managers for a large telecom company. She discovered the perfect combination of math and business in her finance courses. “I can look at a company’s finances and tell you what their strategy is,” she said.
Coming to ADP
After finishing her MBA, a friend helped recruit Kanyatta to ADP in Atlanta. She was excited at the opportunity to combine her business skills with her software engineering experience. She started out as Vice President of Operations working in National Accounts on outsourcing operations. Today, Kanyatta is Vice President of Global Product and Technology – Client Product Support, where she leads teams providing product and technical support for ADP’s business units and clients.
“I love the ability to transform here. As the company is transforming, so are the opportunities for people within the company and our clients to grow. I love helping people connect the dots and see where we are going from process to technology to culture, Kanyatta said.
“I also appreciate seeing women executives at ADP and how women help each other here. I met ADP business unit presidents Debbie Dyson and Maria Black within my first six months, and they always find time and make themselves available to help others.”
Helping others succeed
Kanyatta is also committed to helping others grow and achieve their dreams. She is involved in Women in Technology International and Emory’s Executive Women of Goizueta —while also mentoring and coaching rising leaders in her role at ADP. She loves helping women figure out what they want and how to get there.
“Connecting with others can be scary, but it’s important so you can understand the playing field,” Kanyatta said. “You have to lift your head up to see and for people to see you. There’s no way for people to know how amazing you are if your head is down all the time.
“There are not many women of color in tech, so I always try to say yes when people ask me to speak. It’s important to build bridges and for younger women to see people who look like them doing the things they want to do.”
Kanyatta is quick to say that she does not do it all alone. Her husband is very supportive and encourages her to connect with others and volunteer. Together, they manage a busy family schedule with their 12 year old daughter who is playing softball on a traveling team. “I love being a softball mom and spending time with my family,” she said.
Kanyatta, Kya and Kevin Walker enjoying time as a softball family.
Kanyatta’s advice to others
“Finding commonalities and accepting differences is the key to belonging,” said ADP’s business anthropologist, Martha Bird.
When I started to consider belonging at work, I knew exactly who to call — ADP’s business anthropologist, Martha Bird [MB]. Here’s some of our conversation about why belonging matters and what organizations can do to create and sustain a culture of belonging.
HB: Having a sense of belonging seems so important to how we move through the world and how we relate to our work. What is belonging?
MB: Belonging almost strikes people as poetic. It seems like a feeling, so it can resist the critical lens we need to unpack it.
People think of belonging as a psychological state, but it is actually cultural. It’s the notion of being inside or outside and relates to enacted phenomena like what the cultural norms are around us and how we compare ourselves to those norms.
Everything cultural is nested in other things and is influenced by power, resources, how things have been done in the past, and what the expectations are for the people involved.
Kids can feel like they don’t belong because of their clothes. New employees can feel like they don’t belong because of the jargon used in the organization. I’m a social scientist surrounded by tech people and it’s not surprising that my sense of belonging is tested from time to time. Ultimately, I’m privileged to feel I’m part of something bigger than myself.
HB: What makes a culture of belonging? It seems like belonging is relational. It’s partly how I perceive the circumstances and culture, how people already in that culture see it, and what’s actually going on regardless of our individual perceptions and opinions.
MB: There are so many ways to feel like you don’t belong — socially, economically, intellectually, emotionally. It’s that sense of other. To make sense of it, we can look at othering, break it down, and pick it apart to see what’s happening. We identify the discreet instances where someone feels alienated and read the cultural cues about what is happening. This gives us information about the culture.
There is no universal recipe for what makes a healthy culture. There are many good and right ways to do things.
It partly has to do with a culture’s view of the individual and how the individual should relate to others. In the United States, belonging often evokes family, but we also have strong cultural values in individuality and being recognized and valued as an individual. In other cultures, a sense of harmony is highly valued and working toward common goals is more important than individual achievement.
A culture of belonging fundamentally has to do with common goals and values, respect for each other, and a sense of our shared humanity.
HB: How can we help people feel like they belong at work?
MB: We want workplaces where people feel like they can be themselves, but are also working with others to do the work. It’s less about fitting in and more about complementing. There has to be room for difference. It’s like an orchestra where the manager is the conductor and we have all these different instruments playing different parts in the same piece of music. We don’t want just the violins or the tubas. We need all the different sounds, rhythms and harmonies.
Belonging at work starts with leaders modeling the values and behavior for their teams. Is it comfortable to embody those values? Sometimes that means being vulnerable and asking for help.
I recently gave a big speech to a large group of people in a setting where I felt anxious. Walking up to the stage, I decided to tell the audience that and ask for help. So I explained how I was feeling and asked them to tell me, “It’s okay, Martha!” It was great, so I asked them to do it again. And they did! I felt so much better and they were all on my team at that point, because I was vulnerable and asked them to help me in a way they could.
In cultures of belonging, it’s okay to be honest about what’s going on, even if it’s that you don’t feel included.
HB: What are some specific things that managers or leaders can do to foster belonging at work?
MB: At the organizational level, it’s essential to ensure that the values of the organization exist at every level and in every manager without exception. It’s also important to consider how to structure teams and make sure they can communicate effectively, based on where and how people work.
At the team level, good manager training is key. Managers need skills in working with teams, allowing for different views, and figuring out how to handle disagreements and how decisions get made. When people can weigh in on something, there is a sense of being in it together.
It’s important to see each other as people, not work roles. Connecting in person and outside of work makes a difference. We need to tell and know each other’s stories and create opportunities for sharing. Have lunch, have informal video meetings where everyone gets to tell something about themselves. I was in a meeting recently where we all told the story of our names. I learned a lot and felt like the people who heard my story knew me a little better, too.
We need more awareness and cultural consciousness by design. People are fundamentally creative and want to learn. We all have different experiences and different lives.
Finding commonalities and accepting those differences is the key to belonging.