By Dr. Akilah Cadet
There’s nothing like being a boss. Having all your hard work pay off for that one promotion that gives you the salary, the perks, and the power to shape a team! Not all of us aspire to be leaders and there’s more than one way to lead (company, department, team, project, idea, etc.). But if you want to be in a leadership position you must be mindful of who you are and how you are perceived.
In a former role, I oversaw training and education for a large organization. One of my roles was to sit on various committees and provide expert advice on how to introduce a new concept or policy to the workforce. One day, I was informed that I need to take minutes at one of the meetings I had attended as a training expert for a year. I was confused as an entry level analyst took notes and staffed the meeting; I held a mid-level master’s degree required position. I clearly shared with my supervisor that note taking was not a part of my job description and that I would no longer be viewed as an expert, but as a clerical assistant. My supervisor said that I had no choice as the analyst was reassigned (side note, this is when I knew I would need to look for another job, but that’s another story).
That month, I went to the meeting, took notes, and was viewed differently. As a woman of color, you are expected to be in an entry level position, not a leader, so for the chairs (white males) it was comfortable for them, but uncomfortable for me. I worked hard. I had two degrees. I was in a mid-level role, knew I deserved more, and I was determined to change that. Here’s what I did.
1: Know your threats!
As women of color we must be aware of what we bring to the table. I like to call myself a triple threat; an educated, perceived young, women of color (I know it’s technically four things, but I bring a lot to the table). You are probably thinking these are GREAT things, which they are, but these quickly become threats. I’m sure you’ve heard “you’re young,” “you don’t have the experience,” “what do you think” (about an ethnic/racial group because you represent them), “oh you have a masters,” and the list goes on. Even when we are qualified for a role we are in, some people still do not see us as the experienced, educated women of color we are.
You must be 100% comfortable with who you are a how those things you love about yourself can be threats to others. When you know your threats, you can use them as strengths. You can become more strategic in how you see yourself thriving at work. You must embrace your confidence all while dispelling stereotypes that come along with threats.
With this committee, I knew that being educated, young, and working on my doctorate (at the time) was a threat. I was quickly asked by the chairs to make copies and update agendas. I would say, “remember (even though I never told them), please use your administrative assistants for those tasks.” And because they did not want to be in a position where they were wrong, they started using their assistants. I would say, “in my doctoral program,” “as manager of training,” “when you get someone to staff this committee then…” as much as I could to remind them that I was not an administrative assistant. My threats and those stereotypes I was forced in were not going to be how I was perceived. I then slowly started changing my role from staffing a committee to running a committee right before their eyes.
2: Problem Solve
Problem solving is key to the fight women of color have to be successful leaders. Finding ways to fill in the gaps of what is missing is one of the best ways to problem solve. The chairs of the committee did not know how to introduce new policy, develop a training, or change the workforce culture. Luckily for me I was finishing my doctorate in leadership and organizational behavior. I also, you know, had years of experience leading projects that was overlooked. So, I started to fill in the gaps. I would say “have you thought of,” “I can set up a meeting with,” and “I’ll follow up with the consultant…” to problem solve and get the initiative moving forward. There was a well-known consultant used to train the workforce and since the chairs were not versed or interested in the logistics of training I was able to have many conversations without the chairs. During these meetings I was able to successfully negotiate a multimillion dollar training deal for the entire organization for FREE! When I brought that back to the next meeting, the chairs were beyond impressed (what I did was unheard of and kind of amazing). I then wrote a grant (something they did not know how to do) and was awarded funds to pay for logistical support aka resources to staff the committee. I filled their gaps. I gave them an opportunity to be part of something that would take their careers (and mine) to the next level. I literally solved all their problems, while solving my own.
3: Make Yourself Valuable
When you problem solve, you become valued. When you make yourself valuable, you become valued. I know, cheesy, but true! Finding ways to be strategic in order to put yourself in a position of value is key to breaking through the threats, stereotypes, and barriers that come along when women of color want to be leaders.
In correspondence with the consultants, I introduced myself as project manager. Remember, the chairs did not want to deal with the logistics, so I took advantage of their absence. When we had meetings with the consultants and chairs, the consultants referred to and treated me like the project manager. Yet again, the chairs aka white males, did not want to look misinformed before the important client, so they started calling me the project manager. Meetings were held with the highest leaders of the organization, and the chairs could not meet without me. I had made myself so valuable that I was the key to the success they wanted to have; they literally could not do it without me. I was able to now be proud of my role and the positive change it would have on the organization. I felt valued, appreciated, and I finally felt like the leader I already was when I originally sat on the committee. Funny enough, the consulting company offered me a job. Talk about super valued!
Being a women of color leader is not easy. There are always obstacles and barriers. People will view you as less than, emotional, unprepared, or weak. We know this is not that case, but at times, is the reality. The more you are comfortable with all the things you have to offer, good and bad, the more these things don’t matter. You can shine or keep shining. Know your threats and make them your strengths. Be a problem solver! Sometimes solving other problems will solve yours, but don’t get lost and lose your value along the way. Making yourself valuable to a company only works when you value yourself first. When you are put in a position when you feel you have to fight, just ask yourself is it worth it? If the answer is yes, do the above. If the answer is no, find another place where you can thrive in the amazingly beautiful skin you’re in!