Celebrate Black History Month
Helping Black Professionals Thrive in America’s Workplaces
Many Black children and teens grow up hearing the message from well-meaning parents and other adults that they need to work twice as hard to have their performance considered half as good in a dominant white culture. The constant burden of being judged more harshly creates an emotionally taxing situation (often referred to as the “Black tax”) that can make it hard to thrive at work.
In her book Intelligence Isn’t Enough: A Black Professionals’ Guide to Thriving in the Workplace, author Carice Anderson shares advice on how to navigate the complicated world of work beyond being flawlessly prepared and putting in the hours.
A workplace development and success engineer, Anderson has held senior positions with McKinsey & Company and Korn Ferry in South Africa, served as a senior consultant with Deloitte, founded two businesses of her own, and is currently Director of People Manager Strategy with BlackRock. She interviewed 30 Black leaders from the U.S., Europe and Africa, and drew on her own personal experiences of early career frustrations, to write a book to help young Black professionals learn to thrive in corporate environments.
Although, of course, there is tremendous work that needs to be done in all societies around systemic racism, Anderson says there are also actions you can take on a personal level to impact your experience. “We’re not completely powerless,” she says. “Knowing yourself. Building relationships. How we show up, communicate and deliver are all in our control. We have to keep challenging ourselves to rethink our limiting beliefs.”
The workplace is about interacting with people
While early preparation in college may help you land a coveted job with a top company, Anderson says that young Black professionals especially need to be coached on how their new working environment functions. Although many young professionals expect their educational training alone to prepare them for job success, research from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and others shows on-the-job learning is likely to play the largest role.
The CCL’s 70-20-10 rule, based on more than 30 years of research, shows that leaders learn and grow most from challenging experiences and assignments on the job (70% of their learning); developmental relationships (20%); and formal coursework and training, just 10%.
While educational credentials get you in the door, the skills needed to thrive change quickly as young people transition from students to employees. A major element is developing competency around collaboration.
“A lot of us are told we need to be excellent, but we’re not told that we need to be excellent with, through and for other people,” Anderson says. “Excellence does not exist in a vacuum. Everything you’re going to accomplish that’s going to have real impact is going to be with other people.”
She also believes that Black people are often over-mentored and under-sponsored. There may be a lot of people willing to share advice, but not senior leaders advocating behind closed doors when decisions about promotions, bonuses and step-up opportunities are made. “We need to build relationships with decision makers and influencers,” Anderson says.
Start by looking inward
The first step to developing corporate cultural intelligence is to look inward to understand the lens you bring to the experience. What are your experiences around hierarchy, power differentials, communication styles, collaboration and how conflict is handled? How are these things viewed in the organization? The next step is to look at how you can fit into the culture in a way that remains authentic to you.
Anderson sees a “continuum of authenticity.” While many Black people feel the need to wear a “mask” in predominantly white spaces, or pressured to represent all Black people, Anderson urges communicating in a style that works in your unique context and remains true to who you are. Maybe with friends, your go-to style is funny and sarcastic. If you operate at a “10” on that scale at home, you might dial in at a “5” at work, or even a “2” in a job interview. The point is to remain recognizable to yourself and others while showing up in a way that fits the context.
“Maximum impact is at the intersection of knowing yourself, knowing other people and knowing your environment,” Anderson says. “You can craft a personal brand and communication style from those three elements.”
Seek out coaching
Being deliberate about getting on-the-job training is also key to career growth and success. Proactively seek feedback and coaching with your manager, arrange regular meetings to review progress, and check in to ensure your priorities are aligned with your manager. If you wait for your annual review, you will not get enough focused input to help you grow, increase your contribution and set yourself up for advancement.
According to Sheila Heen, author of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, people who proactively seek candid feedback on their performance adapt more quickly to a new role, demonstrate commitment to doing a good job and get higher performance reviews. Asking for feedback in real time can be especially important so that results are fresh in everyone’s mind and you can immediately put new insights to use.
Quoted in Harvard Business Review, Heen suggests asking specific questions such as, “What could I have done differently?” “What elements of this project worked best, and which were weakest?” Then probe for specific examples. If your boss isn’t great at providing feedback, you can ask colleagues for their thoughts as well.
It’s not fair that Black professionals often face harsher scrutiny than white peers, but learning how to analyze workplace culture, build important relationships, and identify limiting beliefs can help young leaders transform a solid educational foundation into career success.