When you’re young, life unravels in such a predictable sequence. Once you finish 1st grade, you go to 2nd. Then 3rd. Then 4th. Then…(yeah, exactly, predictable sequence). But something strange happens once you become an adult. It’s like someone forgot to write the rest of the chapters. The pages are either blank, illegible, or written in an unfamiliar language. It’s now up to you to figure out how to navigate the rest. All of those years that you thought were “preparing you for the rest of your life” somehow seem irrelevant and unrelated to the overwhelming task at hand. What’s even more perplexing for Black professionals in particular is that we tend to enter work forces that weren’t designed to include us, let alone elevate us. In our predominately white sectors, we walk a fine line between proudly embracing who we are and trying to figure out what we need to know or change about ourselves in order to rise to the top. Minorities represent only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Now, within that minority population, what percent of those CEOs are Black? 0.8%. Not even one percent!
The lack of diversity workplace leadership isn’t a phenomenon that’s isolated to Corporate America. 93% of nonprofit CEOs are white, despite the fact that the majority of nonprofit organizations primarily serve People of Color. So what does that mean for us, as young Black professionals? Well for starters, we know that there are statistical odds against us as it concerns becoming leaders in the sectors that we enter. And we of course know that this reality has nothing to do with our merit and work ethic and everything to do with the fragmented, inherently racist system that we are forced to operate in and figure out how to overcome. We are uniquely charged to navigate the workplace from a disadvantage before we even enter it. As a result, it is critical for us to understand the landscape in order to overcome the odds that are stacked against us.
1| Learn to embrace discomfort.
Unfortunately, we won’t end systemic racism in a day. White dominance won’t cease to exist tomorrow, micro-aggressions will continue to run rampant in predominantly white spaces, and centuries of being excluded from opportunity and decision-making will continue to rear its ugly head. These are all very challenging realities in and of themselves–but now add on the fact that regardless of your race, it’s challenging to be a young professional in general. It’s why our parents told us we have to work twice as hard to get half as much — we have to navigate a system that was designed for us to be subordinate while tackling the inevitable obstacles that life throws at everyone. Instead of letting these realities weigh you down, learn to appreciate the growth that occurs in seasons of discomfort. If you can learn to thrive in the uncomfortable, you can do anything. Black people have never had anything handed to us, and as a result, we are the most resilient people on this earth. Appreciate the dimensions of the skills you are learning and figure out a way to leverage them as unique and competitive qualities throughout your career.
2| Don’t allow others to determine your needs.
You are unique in what you offer and what you need to be successful. Unfortunately, I can’t make a broad statement like”the people who get ahead the quickest are those that own their own development,” because the reality is that white people are positioned to get ahead quicker than we are whether we manage our needs in the same manner or not. Understanding this deficit, be extremely intentional about getting what you need in your development. Don’t let the status quo or what the person next to you is getting determine what you get. If you need a mentor but your company doesn’t have a mentorship program? Seek someone out. If you need to hone a particular skill set that your manager hasn’t prioritized? Bring it to their attention. One thing that you will notice about white people–men in particular–is that they ask for what they want, and they feel confident about what they deserve. You won’t see them tip toeing around the issue or being afraid of taking up too much space. Yes, much of that is the inherent power of white privilege. Nonetheless, it is important to be cognizant of what you need so you can develop a strategy to get it.
3| Know what your “best self” looks like and when it’s present.
There are certain environments that are challenging but you can learn to show up and thrive in, and there are others that make you feel small and can dim your light. Know the difference between these two types of environments, and make strategic moves throughout your career that will position you to be your best self. It may take a few different jobs, work environments and teams before you build a thorough understanding of your preferences–and that’s okay. With each environment and work setting, you have the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of how you work, who you work best with, and what your non-negotiables are.
It’s not easy to be a black professional of any age. It’s not easy to swallow the leadership statistics or to not see a single person in a position of power who looks like you. But this is why we are magical. This is why we are a force to be reckoned with. This is why we have an edge and an arsenal of unique skills that cannot be emulated. Embrace the challenge. Prioritize yourself. Be aware. And be the best.
/// What mindsets have you learned to embrace early in your career? Share them in the comments below!