The corporate world is in constant flux. The economy gets more global every day. Business is more competitive. Technology quickens the pace of change. Corporations are forced to adapt, to morph, to be agile. That pressure is passed on to employees. “The implications for individuals is that they must bring an ability to be agile, to be flexible, not with who they are, but with what is going on in the market and how it impacts business and business needs,” says Juan Johnson, president of the Diversity Leadership Academy in Atlanta. Add to the mix an anemic economy and it makes for a challenging situation for African Americans.
“When America gets a cold, African Americans get pneumonia. We are the last hired, and first fired. While we’ve maintained our numbers in some corporate downsizing, in others our numbers dwindled,” says Price Cobb, a psychiatrist, executive coach, expert on corporate diversity and co-author with Judith Turnock of Cracking the Corporate Code: The Revealing Success Stories of 32 African-American Executives.
Without question, African Americans have seen progress. A decade ago there weren’t African-American CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. Though there are only a handful – there are a handful! Over a quarter of a million African Americans are firmly entrenched in managerial and executive positions at companies that are household names. Diversity is on the radar.
Many major corporations have diversity initiatives. Yet, despite the gains, there’s little reason to cheer. “Legal reform is the first step in a long journey. You’re talking about changing cultures, ingrained attitudes and behaviors. Issues like racism are a lot more difficult than people want to acknowledge,” says Cobb. Overt racism is rare, subtle racism is not. And, it’s not likely to completely vanish anytime soon.
Secrets for Success
Despite running up against what may appear to be daunting obstacles, plenty of African Americans continue to succeed. They have a secret. They’ve cracked the corporate code. “Each corporation is different, has different DNA. The code is understanding the company’s DNA, what’s written down, the norms, who you should know, the unwritten rules, the things beyond the technical execution of your job. Those who crack the code, ‘get it’,” says Cobb. In interviewing the 32 executives who shared their trials and ultimate triumphs in corporate America, Cobbs found common traits. They had discovered several keys to cracking the code and opening the door of opportunity:
“Part of this new world is readily understandable. There is an organizational structure to join, a job to perform, bosses to please. But other aspects feel like entering a foreign culture with its own language and shifting rules about behavior and expectations. There is uncertainty and confusion much of the time as you try to interpret a setting that seems puzzling, if not alien,” says Cobb. “Once you get past the basic infrastructure, it’s murky. Sam gets the e-mail about a new project and you don’t, others in your department are invited to a meeting and you are not. You’re left trying to connect the dots,” he adds. Ambiguity is a fact of corporate life. “The corporate environment was not developed with you in mind. It was created by and for white men. As a result, it guaranteed the success of others like them and excluded everyone else. So to succeed in business terms, to be comfortable in this environment while preserving your own emotional wellbeing, you must first learn this culture,” says Cobbs. Acknowledge your confusion, remain open to learning and make peace with uncertainty and ongoing upheaval.
Manage Your Demons.
Race can only deter you if you give it that power. Learn to control your rage at bias, the overt, the covert and the unconscious. Step back, examine each interaction and reaction. Identify what pushes your “hot buttons” and why. Analyze your own behavior, gather enough data to understand the other person’s behavior, and then respond. “You have to decide whether you go after each incident or do you develop a strategy and act later,” says Cobb. There is no magic formula. Focusing on your work is the simplest strategy for bringing the demons of race under control. Not only does it take your mind off matters you can’t control, but it also brings important rewards of its own, rewards that play a role in stopping the slights, insults and condescension that are the more subtle discrimination.
Find Your Place.
Isolation is a career killer. As an African American accept the fact that you will have to work harder to develop relationships, rather than believe in a meritocracy. Information in an organization is the currency of power. The earlier you get information, the more power you have. The later you get it, you’re an also ran, Cobb explains. In other words, you may have to seek the advice of those you’re not wild about or who may not be sweet on you, for the advancement of your career. That’s not to say that you should sacrifice your personal values, but that you should find ways to bridge the gaps. “It’s tough. It can feel like you’re teetering on the edge of selling out. You don’t have to sell out to succeed, but you do need to buy in, to have a stake in the company. You must hang on to your values though. It’s a delicate balance, but as long as you remember who you are and how you got there, you’ll be okay,” says Cobb.
Read the Unwritten Rules.
Nothing makes your outsider status so crystal clear as the realization that the organization operates according to a set of rules you know nothing about. The rules dictate behavior. They aren’t in a manual and you won’t learn about them at employee orientation. Recognize their existence and learn its strategies and its subtleties.
Make Your Mark.
It’s simple. For many black Americans the compulsion to work twice as hard and to be twice as good, no matter how physically and emotionally exhausting, is how they make their mark. They use this as a powerful motivation to succeed, says Cobb. Top achievers know no limits. They compete for high visibility assignments, volunteer for new projects, tackle the tough stuff, the kind of things others run from.
No man is an island. In fact, you’ll need a small army backing you if you want to succeed. From the janitor, the receptionist to the CEO’s office, build relationships all along the way. Network at every opportunity, seek mentors and sponsors. “One of the biggest mistakes I see is people not taking control of their own career. Say you don’t have a mentor, are you expecting one to strike like lightening or do you have a strategy for cultivating relationships?” asks Cobb.
Understand, Acquire and Use Power.
Success requires an understanding of power. You must understand your relationship to it, both personally and as it works within your organization. Make no mistakes, says Cobb, the competition for individual and organizational power – is the key dynamic around which all corporate activity swirls. Train yourself to enter the competition and enter to win. Power is elusive; it is not tangible. If you are given power, and you seldom are, and you do not know what to do with it, you will squander it. You must know what to do with it, how to acquire, use and maintain it. Power requires endurance, confidence, courage, focus, tolerance for conflict, sensitivity in others’ needs, and flexibility.
Take Charge of Your Career.
Other experts weighed in on the issues facing African Americans in the workplace. Richard Bayer, chief operating officer of the Five O’Clock Club, a New York City-based career coaching and outplacement network for professionals, managers and executives, offers practical advice for those who are “stuck” in their careers. If you didn’t get a raise or promotion look at the situation objectively. Draw a line in the center of a piece of paper. On one side put job requirements and on the other list your achievements. “Hopefully, the accomplishments are going to be much longer,” says Bayer. He recommends making an appointment with your boss and stating your case. “You deserve a raise given that your contributions exceed the requirements,” he adds. You can expect a “no” because your boss will likely have to get approval, or there may be budget concerns, particularly in these times. “The point is, if you can’t have it now, ask what is needed so that you can earn it. You’re not adversarial, but congenial.” What’s the moral of this story? Take the emotion out of the process. Juan Johnson of the Diversity Leadership Academy says one of the best ways to survive in corporate America is to stay relevant, to keep your skills up to date. “The skills required today are very different than 10 years ago when you entered the market. Say you got a degree in marketing, back then there was no Internet marketing. Now, if you’re not savvy about how to leverage Internet marketing your skills aren’t relevant,” he says. The changing economic landscape requires change for all employees, not just people of color, points out Westina Matthews Shatteen, first vice president, community leadership, global human resources at Merrill Lynch. She was the first woman and person of color elected as trustee for the Merrill Lynch Foundation and still serves as trustee of two of the company foundations. “To be successful requires not only technical ability, quantitative skills, but strategic thinking, problem solving in different ways, especially because there are unexpected circumstances out of your control, that impact this country, the world, your company, your industry,” says Shatteen.
As an example, Shatteen points to 9-11’s impact on Wall Street. Many employees had to work at different locations for three to six months, and they were expected to give top performances. “A new skills set is required. You must be able to work out of your comfort zone,” she adds.
There’s been a lot of talk about team work, but these days it’s not just teaming within your own business group, but teaming across business groups – smart people solving new problems. If you can’t go with the flow in that environment, it’s likely to be a career stopper. More than ever, employees must be multi-talented, multi-taskers. “This is a time when creativity and inventiveness come into play, it’s a time of great opportunity,” she adds.
She shares a secret of her illustrious career. “I always had a hunger and thirst for learning. I was never satisfied. I had a willingness to take measured risks in my career. You have to believe in yourself and your ability to achieve. You want to be confident, but humble, so that you are open to learning.” You’ll need that confidence because the wheel of opportunity may land on you at a moment you don’t expect. Be ready to step into the moment, otherwise, who knows when it will come again.
What’s also important, is to step up for your own development, says Ancella Livers, co-facilitator of the Center for Creative Leadership’s African-American Leadership program and co-author of “Leading in Black and White: Working Across the Racial Divide in Corporate America.”
“Corporations are looking for superstars. Folks who are just good, competent, average, get overlooked. Sometimes African Americans don’t step up for their own development. We’re waiting on someone to give us something. You may sit for a long time. You have to be active on your own behalf. You see others getting developmental opportunities, you have to go and ask,” says Livers. She adds, “People aren’t going to ask you to dance. If you want to dance you’re going to have to ask someone and get out there and dance”.
Cobb remembers 30 years ago corporations doubted whether we were capable and qualified. Now they are asking muted parts of the same question. “She has a degree and successful experience, but does she have leadership abilities? There is always a little hook and that’s not likely to change,” says Cobb. He adds, “While in the future things will get better, incrementally, we can’t go off the case. We must remain vigilant.”