by Keith Wyche
In a session targeted to mid-level managers still striving to break through the glass ceiling, Keith Wyche, author of Good is Not Enough, addressed the imbalance of diverse leaders at senior levels within corporate America. While women and people of color have made strides, they are still under-represented in the boardrooms, and as such, corporations are not fully reaping the benefits of diversity and inclusion. Wyche discussed the importance of the derailment factors that can effectively kill a career, and the steps that can be taken to avoid them. He offered take-away tips, tools, and ideas to make middle managers more attractive as candidates for greater responsibilities. His session also provided senior leaders with a mentoring framework they can use to help guide those with whom they coach, counsel, and mentor.
Here are some highlights:
Today like never before, it’s essential for minorities in business to understand the rules of engagement if they expect to survive at all in the race called corporate America. All too often, careers of young minority executives are left wrecked at the middle-management level, as they fail to properly navigate the roads of right-sizing, mergers, acquisitions, and other potholes of corporate life.
Thousands of middle-management minority executives are frustrated, confused, and burned out. They’re good at what they do. Their results are good, and their performance is as good as their peers, who seem to get ahead. To make matters worse, they typically lack the support of “mentors” and “sponsors”, the power-brokers and influencers who provide guidance and direction within corporate America, to not only survive, but to thrive and enjoy successful, rewarding careers.
To rise beyond the middle and into the boardroom, good is not enough; much more is required. You’ve played the game only to find out that the game has been changed, and you have been played. You might have been forced to assimilate, hide your ethnicity, and basically deny yourself what amounts to the crumbs that have fallen from the table, while still asking, “What do I still lack?” Selling out is no guarantee of acceptance. Perhaps you tried to fit in. You chose to wear the Brooks Brother suits and Ann Taylor outfits. You joined the “right” clubs, decided to live in the “right” neighborhood” and most important, to say the “right” things. You wanted the whole world and all it had to offer. Maybe you realized your goals. Others are still striving, and many have given up.
You have to know the unwritten rules for minority professionals. Most people understand the importance of performance, but often overlook the impact of exposure and perception. Performance is not the be-all and end-all. People focus on it because they learn that it counts at an early age. In kindergarten, you learn the alphabet and get a gold star. But the truth is, performance is only 50% of the equation. Exposure is 25% and perception is 25%. Performance is the key, but exposure and perception unlock the door. When it comes to performance you have to know what’s valued, what matters. Make no assumptions. Every culture is unique. What impresses in some corner offices might go unnoticed in others. Look around. Who gets promoted, what was their path, and what does it take to move forward where you are?
You also have to know and document what’s expected of you. How can you get to your destination without a road map? You can’t just trust your gut to tell you when you’re hitting or missing the mark. Request timely and consistent feedback. Don’t shy away from the truth. Prepare yourself for the review process. Have documentation of your successes, including letters of praise from clients, customers, or colleagues. Feedback gives you the knowledge you need to make necessary changes. If you’re off-track, you can recalibrate your efforts and get back on it.
Exposure is critical. Work to get access to key power-brokers. Do your part to develop relationships with senior leaders or others who could influence hiring. Don’t wait for others to seek you out; make the first move. It’s a good idea to meet with your bosses’ boss once a year. Know, too, that it’s not enough to have accolades from people in your department. Find ways to gain experience across a spectrum of business functions, such as operations, marketing, finance, and others. Consider volunteering for taskforces and special projects that will provide you with the opportunity to broaden your skill-set, your scope, and your network. To be the one always shining in the room, stay abreast of the latest innovations and ideas. A voracious appetite for reading periodicals and business books will serve you well. Always have an intelligent, thoughtful question to ask, no matter what the occasion.
Reality is sometimes beside the point. Perception is everything. Ask yourself, what your brand is. What adjectives would other employees use to describe you? What sort of stories could they share? If you think there’s a disconnect between who you know you are and what the word in the halls might be, work to reconfigure the distorted picture. You don’t have to do this alone. Seek out mentors who can give you an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. Debate whether it’s worth it to find a career coach.
You’ll be liberated when you realize that while there are definitely things your company can do to help you advance in your career, you have little power to make them do anything. But you do have complete control over what you can do for yourself. Do all you can to position yourself for success.
Learning didn’t stop with your MBA. It’s a lifelong pursuit. It’s the professionals that not only put in the hours at work, but also attend seminars and conferences, and seeks leadership opportunities in industry, community, philanthropic, or other organizations, who strengthen their prospects for promotion to the next level. Keep your skills updated. Leaders lead, not follow.
Image and attitude also speak volumes about you. Ask yourself what messages you’re sending via your wardrobe, demeanor, and behavior. If you don’t look, act, and talk like a leader, seeing you in those shoes might seem like too great a stretch. As a minority professional, you will always be under the microscope. Someone will be looking for your misstep. Keep them waiting. Your “A” game should be your only game. There’s room for nothing else in today’s competitive workplace.
Most importantly, be cognizant of the derailment factors – the career killers. Minorities often don’t get a second chance. What leads the list?
- Having difficulty changing or adapting. Be flexible.
- Having problems with interpersonal relationships. Choose your battles.
- Failure to build and lead a team. Don’t try to move mountains alone. Surround yourself with good people and support them fully.
- Failure to meet business objectives. Always deliver. Stellar results speak for themselves.
- Having too narrow a functional orientation. Think broadly.
Don’t give up. Realize there’s a process to getting recognized, rewarded, and promoted. Take the time, effort, and energy necessary to become a more attractive candidate for advancement. And when you do, take the time to move beyond success to significance; share your lessons with others.