Corporate Eye Candy

List the top 3 things you need to make it in the entertainment industry as say, an actor or model.  Come on…It’s not a trick question. Pretty sure appearance made the list, right? Every minute of everyday, we are being bombarded with images of society’s definition of beauty and attractiveness. Seems to me this definition, while constantly changing, becomes narrower and narrower. With the surge in social media, these images are now all over Facebook and Instagram. If I have to see one more person on IG with their ass pointing towards the camera, or a picture of someone’s abs…

Anyways,  this is not a post about defining beauty. That is an age old debate, albeit incredibly worthwhile.  Today, I am especially troubled by the realization that Corporate America can be just as harsh in judging people based on appearance.

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The Spotlight is Shining. Stand in It!

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If you know anything about growing up in an African, ultra-Christian home, then you know a bit about how I was raised.  I, like most of you, was brought up by family members who believed humility and gratitude were the most extolled virtues. It’s hard to disagree when you think of how many chapters in the Bible are dedicated to this ideology.

“Blessed are the meek…”

“In all things, give thanks…”

Where religion leaves off, conventional African wisdom picks up with sayings like…

“Pride goes before a fall…”

“The fool speaks, the wise man listens…”

“Pride is the mother of arrogance…”, etc again teaching us, from a very young age how far we can get in life simply by being humble and meek.

So it suffices to say that I grew up with these values ‘beaten’ (literally, albeit lovingly) into my subconscious.

As a young adult entering into the Corporate American landscape, I struggled with balancing these values long inculcated in me, with the new Corporate values of self promotion, i.e., speaking highly of one’s self and achievements.  I had a difficult time talking about or taking credit for good work I had done.

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A Bully…of the Corporate Persuasion

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Lately, there has been a lot of emphasis on alleviating bullying especially as it relates to children. And rightly so.  Much attention has been drawn to this phenomenom of young adults who are victimized to the point of acute depression or in fatal cases, suicide.   At such a young age, before the psyche is fully developed, there is the potential for significant damage if a child is being bullied.

Bullying. The use of force, threat or coercion to abuse, intimidate or aggressively dominate.

Rarely, though, do you hear about bullying as it relates to adults, or even corporate professionals. And let me tell you, I see this all too often in the workplace.

Here is the most blatant example of bullying I have ever witnessed:

We were on a conference call, led by Bob, the head of a particular business unit, also known for his ultra-aggressive style. He yells at, belittles, and demoralizes anyone who does not meet his ever changing standards of behavior. A new sales manager, Tim, was on the call and we were discussing pricing strategy.

Bob: So the approach should be an across board increase of 3% for Tier II customers by 4th quarter. Ok?

Tim: somewhat timidly since Bob can be…intimidating...
Bob, I am not sure that approach will work for ABC industries. They are threatening to put us through an online auction if we cannot be competitive and reduce price.

Bob: Oh really? How long do you think it will take for your nuts to drop because only then can you get this job done!!

In front of the whole team!!!

Now this is the most outrageous case I’ve ever experienced. The others have been much more…subtle but no less offensive.  Corporate bullying manifests itself in various forms : verbal insults, taunting, lies or rumors, physical abuse, exclusion,  etc.

The Corporate Bully does not necessarily have to be a boss. An entry level hire, an African-American woman in my department at a previous role, came to me for advice.  One of her male, White peers was making border line remarks and she didn’t know how to react. He would say things like,

“Oh, I’m surprised they hired you from Spelman. I went to the best business school in the country. But I know they are trying to hire more diversity soo…”

“You have a certificate in international business. What does that even mean? What’s that worth really? Haha. Jk.  Well, I have an MBA.”

He would always find ways to put her down professionally. Although he is not her boss and technically has no power over her, he is being a bully. Putting her and others down to make himself feel better.
Just like a child or young adult whose psyche is still being developed, many young professionals are still trying to find that confidence,  that self-esteem in the business world. They seek approval, compare themselves to their peers, and beat themselves up over mistakes. This leaves them vulnerable to corporate bullies like the ones described above.

Now if this were out on the street, I would have completely different advice on how to deal with bullies. But we are at work so here’s what I’ll say:

First, know what or whom you are dealing with.
Be able to recognize that this person before you is a bully. Observe them. They are no different from that big kid on the playground you may have had to contend with at a younger age.  This pattern of behavior stems from deep insecurity and really has nothing to do with you. Realize that and it will ultimately make it a lot easier to navigate.

Do not try to prove yourself to them.
Do not go toe to toe with them,  arguing point for point. It makes no sense and really brings you down to their level. Keep it professional. Stay cool and calm. Anything short of this will make them win at their sole intent, which is to rattle you.  So don’t let them. Especially if this is not your boss.  Keep your responses to them short and sweet and know when to walk away.

Keep your personal information private.
This one is really important. The more a bully knows about you, the more ammunition he or she has with which to come at you. Give them little to none. Keep your conversations with them strictly professional. This person has made it clear that he or she is not your friend. So why divulge any information about your family, or your finances, or educational background?  Yes, you may be perceived as reserved. But at least you will stay sane and are less likely to punch said bully in the throat 🙂

Feel free to check ’em once in a while.
As much as you may try to avoid them and keep your info private,  there will be times when your paths will cross. And they will say something completely off the wall.  It’s ok to dish out those clever, but deathly comebacks, coupled with a smile and a wink of course.  I once had a corporate bully make a snide remark to me about how an award I had been given was less than deserved, compared to other award recipients. “All you guys did was save a couple hundred thousand dollars on that project. “, he said.  My response? “That’s a couple hundred thousand more than your team has ever saved.  Where is your award? Let me see.  Oh, you’ve never gotten one? Haha”.  All he could muster up in reply was “Touche”. And then he walked away. Heehee.

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Obama May Be President, But You May Never Be CEO

A couple of years ago I decided to start volunteering as a mentor to high school women in my neighborhood.  Many of them were minorities, from poor, often dysfunctional families.  These young women although very smart, had been done a great disservice by the horrendous school system they were subjected to. The goal was to get them not only interested in college, but through the application and acceptance  process and help them launch a successful college career.  This mission is near and dear to my heart.  Many of these young women had no other positive influences in their lives. Many had no role models, no one they knew who had gone to college and “made it”.

The purpose of the program,  or at least my personal goal,  was to convince these women that they could make it. That if they worked hard, paid their dues, they, too, could be successful. That no one could stand in their way if they put their mind to something.

Usually, I have no issue delivering this message. I do my best to encourage each young woman that comes my way. I am normally filled with upbeat optimism and passion.

Today, on this particular day,  I feel differently. Here is my message to the intelligent,  talented lovely lady who told me she wanted to be CEO of a multi billion dollar corporation so she could “call the shots” (lol).

You can work hard and still not get it. Your success is not guaranteed. We often hear the message of many artists, singers, athletes, models, etc who never make it. For every successful one, there are thousands who no one ever hears of. Well, Corporate America is no different. It is just as cutthroat, imbalanced and corrupt.

Here, you will also see racism, sexism, nepotism, ageism and other isms in full display. You will come across people who do not achieve any results and watch their careers overtake yours.  You will wonder why.

Am I not smart enough? Visible enough?
Did I make any mistakes in that presentation?
Did I not network enough, go to enough company parties?
Do I just not have what it takes to succeed?

And the reality is that it is none of these things. You are awesome just as you are! You made it thus far so you clearly have what it takes. You made it here even against the odds.

But it will get even harder as you progress and the odds will be even less in your favor.  You will be passed over for a promotion you deserve because, the ‘Black woman quota’ has been reached and the diversity numbers met. You will be given more and more to do, because “we know you are capable and can handle it”, but you will watch your pay fall farther and farther behind from your White male colleagues. With all of this happening, you will still be expected to keep giving 150% with a smile on your face because anything short of this will reinforce their unfounded belief that Black women are emotional and unprofessional.

When this inevitably happens, my dear…
Keep your face up, but your soul tucked away! Like a boxer during a match, guard your essence. Do not let them destroy the inner you, the you that matters. It’s ok if you cry in that office bathroom stall when you hear news of the VP’s incompetent son getting the job you worked tirelessly for and earned. Get used to that sick-to-your-stomach, hot/cold feeling because you will experience it time and time again.  Stock up on tissues because,  you may need to stick them under your arms for a few minutes to absorb the sweat (if you sweat like I do).  But do not measure your worth based on how fairly they treat you. Do not start seeing yourself from their eyes, letting self-doubt creep in. Keep the mask on and do not bare your spirit to them or they will trample it. It is difficult I know,  but you must try. Because if you dont, then they win. And you my fellow dual citizen,  cannot afford that!

And through it all years from now, when you need any support or just the listening, empathetic ear of a forerunner, a survivor, I will still be here for you.

Performance Evaluations: Who Should I be This Year?

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Most people I know do not like the process of being criticized evaluated; much less in the workplace.  At least once a year, someone, likely your boss, gets to provide feedback on how you have fared. If you are lucky, this process is constructive and painless, where your successess are highlighted and rewarded and your few shortcomings discussed in a collaborative way.  Many of us are not quite so lucky.

I am sure many social experiments can and have been conducted on performance reviews. I, for one, am usually amused by the use of euphemistic terms such as “Areas needing improvement” or “Development needs”.  Rather than saying, “You just don’t cut it” or “Start looking for another job”, these terms are replaced with the aforementioned, even though every experienced person knows what they mean.

My particular beef with this process is how almost completely subjective it can be.  No matter how hard you try during the year, you can never really score a perfect 10; unless your boss wants you to.

Let me give you an example:

Some employers use a forced ranking system where they list a bunch of attributes and basically grade on a bell curve.  One of the attributes we are typically measured on is Passion and Determination to Achieve.  This means that you stop at nothing to achieve your targets which by the way, get more unattainable each year. It may include employing tough tactics with your competitors, other departments and even your coworkers just to get ahead.  After all, a forced ranking system means that if Joe is ranked 1st, Jane would have to be ranked 2nd or lower, so no ties.  This attribute is the often most important  and is usually rated highest which is no surprise: it’s how we achieve results.

Another attribute is Empathy which measures your willingness and ability to relate with others and help them solve problems, even sometimes at your own expense.

Is it really possible to score a perfect 10 on both at the same time?

One of my natural strengths has always been the former.  Having been blessed with the competitive gene, I  work extremely hard to achieve KPIs as this is how I am measured quantitatively.  This may mean that I am not always available to chit chat and schmooze with coworkers. But it does mean that my numbers are met and often exceeded.  However, rather than passionate or driven,  I have been called aggressive, pushy, a bulldog and some other less than flattering names because I do not go out of my way to socialize and am more likely to go straight to the point.

Being a West-African woman adds another dimension. I was raised to distinguish between work time and play time.  I was brought up to speak carefully about my personal life, divulging as little as possible and only to those who needed to know.  So I may not be the loudest at the lunch table, nor will I be the one pretending to understand pop culture references that are foreign to me (hmm, I think I should do another post on this).  Point is, I am pleasant without letting it affect my work.

Once, during a discussion on my performance and upcoming promotion, my White, male boss said to me, “You can definitely do the job but you just don’t smile enough”. This was hard for me to deal with seeing as neither him nor his boss nor anyone else at their level walked around the office all smiles.  Why were the rules different for me than for them??

To further complicate things, I have observed other colleagues who would probably score very highly on the Empathy attribute be considered soft and weak and unable to lead. They too, have been passed over for promotions.  Many companies pride themselves on valuing diversity, which is not only about skin color and gender, but also about personality types. Still, I find myself contemplating if there truly is room for diversity at the top.

So … what would it take for me to not only fit in but move up? Will my fate be determined by whether or not my boss likes me, or is there a more objective form of performance reviews?

Please leave a comment and let me know how you feel about the review process at your job.  Is it objective, fair, easy to understand? Or do you find yourself wondering, “Who Should I Be This Year?”

“Your hair! It’s so…interesting.”

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I remember my first day in the Corporate American work place.  I had graduated with Honors a month prior with a degree in Accounting and had accepted a position as a First-Year Associate at a “Big” Accounting firm.  I recall the feeling of nervous excitement as I walked through the shiny sliding doors, eager to start my new life. The day before, I had micro-braided my hair.  Having just moved to a new city, I opted for a low-maintenance hair style until I figured things out.

The HR coordinator met me in the lobby to welcome me and begin the New Hire Orientation.  She was blonde, petite and dressed impeccably in a grey skirt suit.  Her black heels clacked as she strode confidently across the room towards me. As she approached, she introduced herself, firmly shaking my hand, subtly eyeing me up and down.  And then, there it was…the dreaded double take.  She looked twice at my hair and said, “I like your hair.  It’s so…interesting.”

As I mumbled my thanks, I recall thinking that I had never seen my hair as different before.  I wondered if ‘interesting’ was a euphemism for something less…pleasant.  Would I be considered “less-capable” or “less professional”? Would I fit into this ultra-conservative work environment being the only Black woman on my team?  I pondered some of these questions within my first few weeks as I met my other team mates.

This was only the beginning of my hair journey in the Corporate space.  Throughout my career, as I have moved departments, offices, jobs, I have had a plethora of adjectives used to describe my hair- whimsical, cool, unique, fickle, ‘out-there’.  I would often wonder if they ascribed these same descriptions to me as a person and not just my hair.  Someone, a middle-aged, White male colleague once said to me, “It’s like a Chia pet.  It can grow from nothing to several inches in like 2 weeks!!”

The biggest change was when I transitioned from relaxed, straightened hair to my natural, more kinky texture.  Although I knew it was the right move for me personally and health-wise, my biggest  concern, believe it or not, was how my work colleagues would view me.  After my ‘big-chop’, it was as if I was no longer the same person.  Some thought it was cool and wanted to touch it, while others just stared as if I had been deceiving them all along with my ‘fake’ hair.  I have even had the discussion with other Black female colleagues about whether or not my short twist-out was considered “professional” and appropriate for our work culture.

I consider overcoming my hair struggles in the corporate world as a badge of honor.  I could very easily have continued to wear my weave at work just to fit in.  I could have continued to apply perms to my hair just to avoid the stares and questions.   However today, I choose to embrace my hair in and out of work. I choose to maintain confidence even through the stares.   I know deep down that I have become a better professional woman for it!

Dual Citizenship: The Chronicles of a Black & Corporate-American Woman

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Have you ever felt like you were constantly ping-ponging between 2 worlds? You spend 40 or more hours weekly in one; and the remains of your life are spent in the other? You wake up each morning, don your mask and enter the corporate world, doing your best to blend in. You tuck away your essence and try not to be too “different”, too obvious.  You don’t want to upset the apple cart.  You are in “their” space. When they grudgingly decide to set you free, you remove your mask and enter into another world.  Where you are free to be yourself.  Where you can let your hair down figuratively…maybe even literally.  Where your name isn’t too difficult to pronounce and your music isn’t too ethnic.  A place where you do not have to explain yourself.  It doesn’t matter if you are alone or surrounded by friends and family.  The point is, this is your space.   You cling on to the sacred moments spent in this world because you know it won’t last forever.  You will have to return to their space…sooner rather than later. You, my friend, are like me.   A dual-citizen.