“The Only One”
You must be willing to take a risk; without risk-taking, you will not go far.
– Elvoid Mayers
The time has come to end the isolation that is so prevalent for many people of color. Whether you’re in a formal organization or in an entrepreneurial venture, too often the proverbial village that is required for fostering inclusion and sustaining successful engagement is nonexistent.
Earlier in my career, I started the first African American Resource Group (AARG) at a very large multinational financial institution in Boston, Massachusetts. At the time I was a marketing manager in a large department, but I was still experiencing personal isolation. As a black woman, the experience was not new; however, at that point, I was dealing with one of the most painful experiences in my life—the loss of my unborn child after the four-month “safety mark.” Most miscarriages occur within a three-month window, so once I had passed that hurdle, I shared the news of my pregnancy. For what seemed like an eternity, I relived the anguish each time a well-meaning colleague congratulated me on the pregnancy.
With every explanation, the experience remained vivid. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the comments stopped. This was a defining moment in my life, as it caused me to think deeply about my work relationships, personal relationships, and my career. I dealt with my personal pain by praying, and I threw myself into work.
I eventually reached out to colleagues and sought out other African Americans throughout the company. From that experience, I emerged fearless and determined to end the isolation I experienced in the workplace. It was helpful to have a wonderful, supportive boss at the time. With his blessing and the help of a few brave friends, a new path was created.
After reaching out across the large company, the resource group’s membership blossomed to over two hundred employees. The majority of the black employees were in departments where they happened to be the only person of color. Within a two-year period, the constructive engagement of the employees who participated in the group got the attention of the CEO.
Together the associates identified key issues that hampered the black employees’ ability to bring their “true selves” to the workplace. They participated in development activities, worked with human resources to address advancement barriers, and established ongoing communication with executive leadership. Before long, black employees had a voice, a budget, and the support of leadership in tackling some of the structural changes required to address key issues. Another defining moment was the implementation of the first-ever “Diversity in Action” companywide forum, which was organized by AARG and chaired by the CEO. Leading AARG came with its own set of challenges, but the experience reinforced the idea that change occurs when we work together, take risks, and engage constructively.
Prior to achieving critical mass and organizing an agenda, the individual voices of black employees were just that—individual voices. Their efforts, while similar, were uncoordinated, fragmented, and dispersed. In their article, “Power and Influence in Organizations,” Joanne Martin and Debra Meyerson describe this type of action as “disorganized co-action.” It is incredibly difficult to drive change, achieve inclusion, and most important, maximize effectiveness in business and in life without a focused strategy and true connection with others who can identify with and support your agenda.
Through AARG and the support of leaders who listened, the organization redefined its approach to diversity and inclusion. As a result, other employee groups were formed. Don’t underestimate your ability to influence change.
An Alternative Path Forward
How many times have you been in a room, looked around, and discovered that you were the only one of color? How did it make you feel? If this is still your reality, how does it make you feel? In this age of job insecurity and high unemployment, many workers are reluctant to address issues that are affecting them. So what can you as an individual do? Here are some practical tips:
- Be positive. It is a state of being that has tremendous impact on your mind, body, and soul. Each interaction with an associate, friend, or work colleague is a reflection of your personal brand. You wouldn’t spend your hard-earned money on a product that evoked negativity for you. Don’t spend your human capital with negative people. This is a very crucial point. Each interaction matters; whenever possible, make it a positive one.
- Assume positive intent. Approach each situation and interaction with the expectation that it will be positive. Cut yourself, your colleagues, and your business associates some slack. With the exception of a small minority, most people are well-intentioned. Approach with a smile. It’s a very powerful tool and great for your health!
- Have an attitude of gratitude. Give thanks for all that you are and all that you have. The fact that you are reading this book tells me that you are privileged and have a lot to be thankful for. Focus on all of the positive things in your life. That which gets your positive energy and your focus will grow stronger and better—relationships included.
- Exercise your body and your mind. What does exercise have to do with networking or relationships? A lot. When you exercise, you feed your body, your spirit, and your mind. The release of all of those healthy endorphins adds to your wellbeing. It is equally important to consistently and systematically read and engage in activities that require you to learn new things. It makes for a healthier and a more interesting you!
- Support your fellow sisters. You’ve probably heard of the “crabs in a barrel” concept where the crabs have difficulty getting out of the barrel because they keep pulling the ones in front of them down. Too often this dynamic plays out in the workplace and marketplace.
Think of the business pie as infinite, because it is. Find ways to support other women whether it’s through sharing information, purchasing products or services, or advocating for a colleague who is not in the room. These types of affirmative actions will propel you and others forward.
- Secure your financial future. Practice good financial stewardship. It is a mindset. It’s not about how much money you make but about how much you keep. In order to accumulate wealth, you must master basic habits such as budgeting, automatic saving, and living within your means.
I am amazed at the number of high-income women who are living from paycheck to paycheck. Stop the madness now! Commit to restructuring your finances to accumulate appreciable assets and savings that you can pass on to your heirs or fall back on in the event of a crisis. There are many free online resources to get you started. Use them.
- Don’t be a victim. Be a victor! As an individual, you have the power to influence positive changes even when you are the only one. Use your networking skills to build relationships across cultures. Step outside your comfort zone to create relationships with people who will support you and help you reach your objectives.
Black women are skilled leaders in many social organizations, whether it’s church, a sorority or some other community center. Too many hiring managers use the excuse, “We can’t find them,” when it comes to selecting qualified black women. To address those isolation and scarcity issues, the talents used in social organizations must be parlayed into the business and professional environments.
It is imperative that we embrace the role of teacher, bridge-builder, advocate, and change agent. This is a huge risk depending on your situation, but it is a bigger risk not to take the lead. It doesn’t seem fair, does it? Why must blacks play roles that will help others feel comfortable? When will we arrive at a place where people are inclusive in their thinking and truly value the contributions of black women? These are all great questions. Black women in significant corporate roles are still a novelty. Perhaps when a critical mass is reached, these issues will subside; however, we have not yet reached that milestone.
Look for Partners In the Struggle. When I reflect on key defining moments in my life, those moments where I took significant risks and acted with conviction, I realized they tended to follow significant challenges. Such was the case when I founded the AARG—and history has shown this pattern to be true.
In order to end the isolation, you must identify others who (regardless of race or gender) have an interest in creating and advancing a shared agenda.
Help Organizations Address Barriers
In their book Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America, David A. Thomas and John J. Gabarro explore pathways to success for minorities. The authors assert that breakthroughs can happen if individuals and organizations understand the roles that they play in creating the opportunities that enable minority executives to reach the top. We’ll revisit this in the next chapter, “Play to Win.”
Find a Mentor
Everyone can benefit from mentoring. Having a mentor requires a measure of humility, the ability to accept candid feedback, and the will to take the necessary actions to ensure continuous improvement. The mentors who are in my life today are the ones with whom I had a personal connection or shared agenda. My mentors span the gamut—from peers in different industries, CEOs I’ve worked with in a community leadership capacity or through board service, and my dear friend Martha.
Interestingly, my staunchest advocates have been white men and black women. This is not to say that I haven’t had support from black men and white women. I have, and some of those people are included in this book. In this instance, we are talking about mentoring relationships that by definition require a high degree of trust. This is someone who has your back, truly cares about your development, and will tell you the truth without judgment. This is the type of relationship that will accelerate your growth and your opportunities.
“Mentoring relationships provide an excellent forum to hone and develop Goleman’s five dimensions of emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, social skills, and understanding what motivates you and others.
Trust is an important aspect. Mentoring requires a level of vulnerability and willingness to open yourself up. It is special and different from other developmental relationships. To gain the most from mentoring, there has to be a willingness to be vulnerable. Often our protective defensiveness gets in the way of good mentoring. We have to be willing to hear critical feedback. We also need to make the time to solicit feedback. We have to make it a priority.” Stacy Blake Beard
Rewrite The Script
I love to write. I have found it to be a very powerful means of expression. In life, each one of us has a script. Like writers, we have an opportunity to strengthen our future stories, through reflection. We cannot change the past, but we do have tremendous opportunity to shape the future. Through personal sharing, mentoring and active management of our networks and a commitment to drive change within our environments, we can create new experiences. Start now! Take a few minutes to reflect on this chapter and write the answers to the following questions:
What aspects of “The Only One” resonated with you?
What specific action(s) will you take to address isolation (on-going or incidental)?
What will you do to support other women?
Share your story. Identify at least two people with whom you plan to share your story and do so.
*Excerpted and adapted from Chapter 8 of the book, A Black Woman’s Guide to Networking by Juliette C..Mayers. All rights reserved.