To say that Azure Antoinette isn’t your typical HR consultant would be putting it mildly.
Antoinette has woven a lifetime of unusual experiences into an unusual career as a commissioned poet and expert on organizational diversity and inclusion. She shared her experiences and approach to human resources during a recent Business Forward talk that was part of the month-long NetSuite Now On Air digital conference.
Growing up in a single-parent Los Angeles household in the 1980s and ‘90s Antoinette graduated high school at 16 and started attending junior college. She wanted to major in musical theater and her mother agreed but only if she also took a full slate of general courses. When her advisor suggested that, as someone who liked to be social, Antoinette would be a good fit for a career in HR, she changed her major to business administration. While it ended up working out, Antoinette joked that she’d have a few choice words for that advisor today.
“Who goes into human resources because they like to hang out?” she said.
Upon graduation, she took an HR job that had her commuting four hours every day. And it didn’t take long for her to realize that HR wasn’t the world she thought it was going to be.
“Human resources had become this overarching babysitter that was focused on logistics and liability,” she said. “My millennial mind was thinking, ‘I can’t do this for 40 years.’”
Then, one night after work, she saw Marty McConnell perform her piece, Instructions for a Body on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, which urges people to celebrate what they’ve been given. It ends:
“This is your warning. This is your birthright. Do not let this universe regret you.”
Antoinette said McConnell’s words changed the trajectory of her life.
“Even after all these years, this poem still flattens me,” she said. “I felt like the poet reached right through the screen and told me what I was going to do.”
Antoinette quit her job the next day and set out on a career as a poet. Her mom hung up on her when she shared the news. In time, she lost her car and her apartment and found herself sleeping on friend’s couches. But through it all, she made an important discovery: She was happy.
Eventually, her poetry matured and gained attention, and she was hired to commission a poem for Maria Shriver. That job led to her speaking to open a women’s conference in 2010, opportunities on the lecture circuit and a regional TED talk.
Eventually she decided to combine her education and experience as a poet in residence for companies looking at new ways to reach their employees. That experience, in turn, led her to develop a practice consulting on diversity and inclusion. Among the companies that have hired her is Johnson & Johnson, for whom she has worked across multiple brands over the past several years to bring empathy and compassion into a business world that has often been too rigid to embrace such concepts. Strangely enough, she said, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an unfortunate opportunity to get the idea to stick.
Employees: Navigating Impossible Circumstances
Antoinette encourages employees to cut themselves some slack as they navigate uncharted waters, not just at work, but also in a fast-changing cultural landscape.
“There are days you won’t have the language, you won’t have the breath, you won’t have the bandwidth,” she said. “If you are having a tough time, that is more than acceptable. You need to give yourself grace. You need to give yourself a moment to land. This is an impossible set of circumstances. Our humanity is being tested.”
Employers: A Kinder, Gentler Approach
She also has a multi-pronged message to employers that encourages them to respect that humanity and make space for it.
She suggested that management bring as much empathy into relationships with employees as possible. For instance, don’t just ask questions; actually stick around and really listen to the answers with conviction.
“As employers we have to listen as much as possible,” Antoinette said. “What I need as a person is someone to say ‘I hear you, and I’m with you, and is there anything I can do?’ and I need them to mean that.”
She urged employers to be as flexible as possible. “The entire world has been put on a time out,” said Antoinette. “We are in a moment when humanity is so critical. If we lose that at the behest of having to move a deadline, we’re in trouble.”
If you missed them live, the product keynotes, presentations and customer stories from NetSuite Now On Air are available on demand.