“You’ve been my therapist since we were 13 years old.”
Dr. Cranla Warren’s lifelong friend reached out to congratulate her on being named one of the Top 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women for 2022. She said she wasn’t surprised that Dr. Warren was being so honoured, since she had been helping people as long as she could remember. Which included being a de-facto “therapist” for her friends from a very young age. "I never doubted you would be a therapist, as you were mine since I was 13! But now you have helped so many people over the years, whose lives were no doubt changed for having known you."
For Dr. Warren, that passion went beyond simply being a shoulder to cry on, or a sympathetic listening ear. She was the person to whom all her friends came to talk about their struggles or their issues, and she started to actively study what drove and motivated people. She started to read psychology books – there weren’t a lot of them in the 70s, but she read every one she could find. Like books by Dr. Joyce Brothers, one of the very few well-known female psychologists at the time.
“I became a student of human behaviour in my teens, reading everything I could, trying to understand everything that I could. I realized this was the path I wanted to take, but it was a very circuitous route.”
That route started out in social work, moved into psychotherapy, then into business. Through it all, Dr. Warren remained a student of human behaviour, figuring out how to connect with people at every step along the way. She obtained a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology. She is currently the Vice-President of Leadership Development at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), where Dr. Warren specializes in organizational culture and (as the title implies) leadership development.
Much of her success as a psychologist, a professional, and a person has come about as a result of her ability to understand others. But that success was not easy to attain, and got off to something of a rocky start.
“Don’t worry about becoming a psychologist, that it isn’t in the cards for you because you have too many strikes against you. Go for something that’s attainable, like becoming a secretary.”
This was the advice given to a young Cranla Warren by a guidance counselor before she applied to university, before she began to shape her career path, and before she had the “Dr.” in front of her name. The ‘strikes’ were that she was a Black girl – someone for whom academic success was unlikely, and for whom the path to that success was filled with dozens of barriers that did not exist for others. She overcame those barriers thanks, she says, to a very supportive family and series of great mentors. Not only through school, but through her professional life afterward.
“I’m very fortunate, I realize that every day. I’ve had incredible mentors through every step of my professional journey. I think, though, that I was vocal in seeking them out. Not everybody knows how to be proactive in doing this. When I was hired on at a pharmaceutical company I had worked in a hospital, I’d been a clinician, but I’d never worked in a business. I had done a talk, someone had seen it, and they loved what I presented, and they knew I was an advocate for mental health. They wanted someone like me to be in their medical education group. I got connected to the people who were in the seats of power, who said ‘I believe in what I see you doing and I’m going to help you rise in this organization’. Even though it may have been a potential career hazard for them. My advocates, mentors, and sponsors in the business world have always been white men, because that’s where the seat of power has traditionally been held.”
That proactive approach to seeking mentors and sponsors within an organization is one Dr. Warren imparts to many professional women, who seek her out for that very purpose. She mentors so that women and girls can see and work with someone who represents them, knows them, sees them and is also in a position of influence and power to a certain degree. The hope is that in these circumstances, and one day in all circumstances, these women and girls will no longer have to rely on white men to be their sole mentors as more and more women and people of colour assume leadership roles.
“I get sought out quite often by women, women of colour in particular, who say they want to learn how to crack the glass ceiling as it exists in their organization. They want to be leaders in their companies. But they keep bumping up against so many systemic barriers that they don’t quite know how to navigate. I’m trained as a coach, and I help coach them to create a development plan that’s separate from their organization to get them on a leadership path. A lot of it starts with self-awareness, emotional intelligence, how are you showing up? From there it broadens to the organization itself. Who can mentor them? Who might be a potential sponsor? Black women are often overlooked, and are invisible in many organizations.”
Dr. Warren has deconstructed her own path in order to see where the barriers lie, where the seats of power are concentrated, and what is required to break through in organizations for Black women in particular.
“Unless you have someone who has a seat at the table who’s advocating for you, who’s your champion and sponsor, who’s talking about you and your capabilities when you’re not in that room, it’s very, very hard to move forward.”
Having deconstructed her own path, and helped to create a path for many Black women to succeed in organizations across North America, Dr. Warren doesn’t stop there. The idea of mentorship, and the value that it imparts, is core to her philosophy in every way. She extends that idea to women and girls in her area as well.
“I’ve been a mentor for Black women and girls for probably 20 years. In the last decade, very formally, under the umbrella of a group called Trust 15, where I worked with their founder Marcia Brown to help provide very different experiences for the people in their programs Girls on the Rise and Ladies on the Rise. They hadn’t met anybody who had my level of education before, and I was driving into Toronto to be a role model, to be a mentor, to support them to effectively create their dreams and then to make a plan to achieve them.”
Dr. Warren created a program that brings young inner city Black youth she mentors to Stratford, where she lives, to take in the famous Stratford Festival. The young people get to tour the warehouse area and meet all kinds of people involved with the theatrical productions from actors to set designers. They come out of the experience with a newfound sense of what is possible. You can get work designing costumes, creating props, or making wigs? You mean those could be actual jobs?
“That advice I got [not to aim too high] from my guidance counselor was in the 70s, and here we are in the 2020s and young black girls are still receiving that same message. So, we bring them by bus to Stratford, partner with the festival, and provide a whole new lens for them to see the world through. It’s an incredible experience just to walk by the river and have lunch outside – things these girls don’t typically get to enjoy in their own neighbourhood.”