Surviving the double standard in your organization

It often seems that black executives must be supermen and superwomen just to remain at the same level as their white counterparts. And if they make a mistake it could prove to be the equivalent of Kryptonite to their careers.

An example of this phenomenon is the double standard that Marlon Cousins faces when he’s asked to recruit black executives.

As managing partner of The Marquin Group, an Atlanta-based executive search firm that focuses on diversity recruitment, Cousins recalls a conversation he had with a white executive who had 20 VPs working under him Cousins asked the executive, “If you left the company today, how many [vice presidents] would you take with you?”

“Five,” replied the executive.

“So the other 15 are just average players?” asked Cousins. The executive agreed, saying that he was relying on Cousins’ firm to identify African Americans who were among the best and the brightest. Cousins countered: “If you’re comfortable with 15 average players, why do I have to be exceptional?”

Cousins says that white managers are often satisfied with mediocre white employees, but black executives must be among the cream of the crop.

To make matters worse, black employees can demonstrate exceptional performance in 90% of their job functions, but “[their managers] focus on the 10%” that may require improvement. Cousins says that 10% equation often serves as a stumbling block that prevents black professionals from moving up within their companies.

“We all know that we have to work twice as hard as our white counterparts,” acknowledges Raphael J.D. Sebastian, a VP at Workplace Diversity in Livingston, New Jersey. “Some of us get [to corporate America] and forget where we are. We go to the right schools, get the job and forget [it’s] not that you look twice as good [on paper], but you need to work twice as hard.” Sebastian is not talking about assigned tasks. His concern is that black professionals do not put enough effort in developing their profiles and spotlighting accomplishments.

Adds Cousins: “That’s where we fail. We have to create an internal vehicle to communicate our successes, our wins, and what we’re doing within our organizations.”

Knowing that a double standard exists is the challenge, and the frustration of being a diverse candidate in corporate America. What can black professionals do to increase their opportunities for advancement? Here are a few pointers:

Network strategically Sebastian believes that employees often bump their heads against the ceiling because of three main reasons: politics — not knowing how to play the game; development — They’re waiting for someone to develop them or they don’t know how to get it; and failure to network, which is intrinsically tied to the previous two points. “Everyone knows it’s important, but it’s a lost art,” says Sebastian. “Unless you go out of your way to learn, or unless you have a mentor in place who teaches you how to network, it’s not something you’re just going to know how to do.” Informal meetings over lunch or dinner as well as social activities like joining the company’s softball team are ways to increase your visibility as a team player. These actions create opportunities to ask questions, figure out the political landscape, and receive other vital information you wouldn’t normally get in the workplace. “Putting yourself out there is not easy,” offers Sebastian, “but it’s a requirement of the game.”

Solicit feedback “Organizations are not good at [offering] feedback,” says Sebastian, “and people don’t go out of their way to say, ‘Here’s where I am; I’ve been here for the last five years. What do I need to do to go to the next step?”’

It’s important to gain feedback not only from supervisors but other key personnel. If your direct supervisor doesn’t acknowledge your leadership potential, “the next step is to get different data points as to where you should fill in gaps.” You can also confirm or dispel your own suspicions about how you’re perceived. That information will be critical in building your action plan.

Examine lateral opportunities Aspiring professionals always tend to focus on vertical advancement when a more strategic opportunity may be in a lateral position. “A move sideways may have nothing to do with your functional discipline,” offers Sebastian, “but it may be an area valuable to an organization. And you may have the opportunity to be broader than you are.” Taking such a position could strengthen your skill set and broaden your exposure. But to make this determination your network must be broad enough within the company to get accurate feedback. Offers Sebastian: “You might say, ‘I’m thinking of taking a job in customer service, what do you think?’ And they’ll say, ‘That’s the point of no return.’ Or ‘if you get some wins in there you will be a hero in this organization.’ No one from the outside can really tell you that.”

Diversity Leader
L. Renee Richardson, Director of African American Markets for Tapestry
Recent U.S. Census data shows blacks in the U.S. now represent 13% of the population, a 16% increase since 1990. According to the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, by 2008, black spending power is projected to reach $921 billion. Since 1990, that’s a growth spurt of 189%. Those numbers set the platform for L. Renee Richardson’s charge in educating clients as director of African American markets for Tapestry, an advertising division of Starcom/Leo Burnett focused on ethnic marketing. “There is a more upscale, affluent consumer that is not predominantly in the minds of advertisers or marketers,” she argues. “Hip-hop is a segment in the African American community, but it’s not the only one. And [advertisers] are missing the diversity of the African American market. We want to [include] the business owner; the entrepreneur; the working mother who is successfully raising her kid; the father who may be raising his own children; and the male in the household, who we in the African American community see all the time. To other people, those images are not seen and, therefore, they don’t associate them with our community.”

Debunking the myths that prevent professionals from moving ahead

As a first line manager at Prudential in Atlanta, Gregory Morrison made sure he never missed the chairman’s annual state of the company address. It was by invitation only for company officers at a location 10 miles from Morrison’s work site, though it was also telecast. Morrison was never invited. But he knew no one was verifying RSVPs. And because of the distance, senior managers at his location would opt to watch it on television. So Morrison would just show up—even coming in from vacation one year—and use the occasion to introduce himself to top-level executives. “I usually had a particular individual that I wanted to meet there and I would find a way to meet him if it meant just walking up, introducing myself, and starting a conversation or cornering them someplace where they couldn’t run.”

There were 100,000 employees at Prudential. Morrison understood the importance of making a personal connection to develop the right relationships.

When Morrison left Prudential in 2000, after 11 years, he had risen to the post of vice president. I got promoted on a very, very rapid schedule,” explains Morrison, 45, who today is chief information officer of Cox Enterprises Inc. “Some of it was merit-based but, quite honestly, I know some of it was because of the relationships. I got the opportunities because I’d already established the relationships.”

Networking has become the nomenclature for the art of developing powerful relationships that move careers forward. Every professional is aware of its importance. After all, 85% of all jobs are secured through networking. But as familiar as it is to everyone in the workforce, it is an underused career enhancement method, due to misconceptions about how to network strategically. Here we talk to experts and professionals who debunk the myths.

Myth #1: It’s all about you.
The most successful professionals view networking as a two-way street. A networking alliance should benefit each party, experts say. In fact, many say it’s better to err on the side of giving more than receiving. “You can’t build your network and always expect to get something,” says Marlon Cousin, managing partner of the Marquin Group, an Atlanta-based executive search firm. “To get something, you give something.”

Morrison concurs: “The best approach from a networking perspective is to ask, ‘What can I do to help you?'” he says. Morrison notes that everyone has something to give, whether it’s time, talent, or performance. But perhaps the most valuable networking currency is information. Morrison didn’t always focus on networking for a job or promotion; often it was for information that could be helpful.

Myth #2: It’s about a party.
Most are familiar with networking “mixers” or, as some recruiters call them, “card parties.” In the midst of drinking and socializing, strategic networking oftentimes gets lost. Though some experts recommend avoiding mixers, others note that networking can be done anywhere. At these events, it’s important to make a connection instead of just socializing.

Indeed, some parties are fertile ground for networking. Attending internal corporate functions can help you raise your corporate profile and bring you into contact with people you might not otherwise have ready access to. Morrison says he would attend retirement parties at Prudential for that reason.

“Especially if they were [for] a senior individual, because I was likely to meet someone I was looking to meet or talk to or follow up with,” he says.

The key to social networking is knowing your goal, figuring out who you need to know to facilitate that goal, and deciding where you’re most likely to find that person, experts say.

In some cases, you can do some homework in advance. If you’re attending a conference or panel discussion and want to approach a particular panelist, research the person. They may have been quoted in an article, compiled a paper, or may presently sit on several boards. Having that information beforehand will make you more confident and conversational in your approach.
Myth #3: It’s is a quick hit.
The most you can hope for at an initial meeting is to make a contact that, with care and time, could blossom into a fruitful relationship. The key is to view networking as a long-term career strategy and to be diligent about following up with contacts.

Always send a note no later than a week after the first exchange. Cousin recommends jotting down some information from your conversation on the back of a contact’s business card to make following up easier and more relative to your initial meeting. Following up should be continuous, he says. The benefit in your meeting may not happen that week, but it may happen six months or a year later.

When Angela Morris, a former human resources professional in banking, was looking to enter diversity recruiting, she contacted a former colleague who was working for her company’s rival, Bank of America, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The colleague passed Morris’ resumé to the hiring manager and, though he had nothing immediately, it was the beginning of a relationship that resulted in Morris being hired as the bank’s diversity recruiter. It didn’t happen right away, but Morris kept in touch through periodic phone calls and e-mails asking how things were going. She was offered a job three months later.

Morrison realized early on that it would take time to build and nurture his relationships, so he has always been methodical in his approach. When he first joined Prudential, he made a list of the few African American executives at the firm, introduced himself, and asked for mentors. “Once they said yes, I had free rein to try to engage them,” he says. Morrison cultivated his relationship with each executive through breakfasts and lunches, e-mails, and phone calls—all while continuing to widen his circle at corporate meetings and other events. He would prepare questions to ask the executives about the challenges of working at the company and how they had become successful. “I wanted them to give me specific advice around something,” he says. “They were all very open.”

Morrison later expanded his initial list by asking those executives to recommend other influential employees and officers at the company. He would solicit specific information about backgrounds, perception, likes, and dislikes—useful information that would help him begin the process again. “By the third time they’d seen me, they’d remember who I was.” When Morrison arrived at Cox, a major media and automotive services company, in 2002, he used the same strategies that worked for him at Prudential. He made a list of “key influencers” he might not see regularly in his day-to-day activities, which included senior executives and those on whom an executive might rely. “Depending on the individual, I have them on a monthly lunch schedule or a quarterly lunch schedule,” he says. Morrison also maintains contacts outside the firm. Compiling a list of CIOs at other Atlanta companies, he has created an informal group that meets several times a year for lunch to exchange experiences.

Myth #4: Only people within your professional or social group can help you.
If you subscribe to this belief, you may already have missed opportunities coming from unexpected places. Those looking for a job or promotion often focus only on hiring managers and executives above their level. But experts say employees should network sideways and down, as well as up. “You just never know where information is going to come from,” notes Larry Hollins of the Hollins Group, an employment recruitment company with offices in Chicago, Atlanta, and New York. In addition, you never know where a former colleague may eventually end up in his or her career.

Lance Coachman, CEO of EXI Inc., an Atlanta-based executive recruitment firm, says many people make the mistake of discounting those whom they consider below their professional level. “Don’t ever blow off the secretaries,” he advises. “They are the greatest source of information of any company.” They also handle the bulk of inter- and intraoffice communications. “Some know the whole historical hierarchy of upper management.” When Coachman started his firm, his best sources of information were a secretary and a shoeshine man in a corporate building in Atlanta, with whom he would chat while he was having his shoes shined. In their conversations, Coachman learned when companies were acquiring new divisions and closing others. “They assumed he didn’t understand what they were talking about,” Coachman says of the executives, “and I didn’t assume he didn’t.”

Randy Latimer, a marketing director with UPS in Atlanta, networks down as well as up. In addition to lunches with colleagues, Latimer, 40, typically has three or four lunch engagements a week with people outside the company. He sees networking as a constant exchange and finds that networking with junior employees provides him with information he might not otherwise have. “[They] are the ones that are actually doing the work on projects I’m close to,” Latimer says. “They can give me added insight about what is going on and at the same time I can give them value in terms of how they should proceed with their career.”

For Dr. Heather Neblett Alexander, a pediatrician in Columbia, Maryland, the road to her new position began with friends from church who owned a business in a building where a new pediatric practice had opened. There wasn’t an opening, but months later she was given the opportunity to meet with another practice, thanks to their referral. Soon after her second meeting—during which she was told the practice wouldn’t be hiring for months—she received an offer. Her advice: “Let people know that you’re looking so they can be your eyes and ears. You never know what contacts people have.”

Has career imprinting been good to you?

Out of all the places I worked, IBM made the biggest impression on me,” says Dwayne Crawford of his first job out of school. Today, as chief operating officer of 100 Black Men of America Inc., Crawford admits he runs the nonprofit much the same way he managed branch managers and sales reps when he worked at The Bank of New York and ADT.

“IBM was like a finishing school to becoming an executive at that time. I emulated the senior reps, watching how they dressed, conducted themselves, and handled certain business deals in order to find my pattern.”

Research shows that we are most affected by our early career experiences: the time period from post-graduation through our thirties. “You come in like a blank slate. This is an impressionable time. You are like a sponge and easily influenced by other people,” says Monica Higgins, a Harvard Business School professor and author of Career Imprints: Creating Leaders Across an Industry.

Organizational career imprints consist of four dimensions: Capabilities are the skill sets that we obtain as a result of working at a company. Connections refer to the kinds of social capital or relationships we pick up at an employer. Confidence refers to the specific kinds of efficacy we develop to get work done. Cognition refers to the assumptions, beliefs, and worldviews that we acquire as a result of working for a particular employer.

According to Marlon Cousin, managing partner of executive search firm The Marquin Group in Atlanta, the career imprint on an employee from a company such as Procter & Gamble can prove to be very valuable to another organization that may not have the personnel or money to train employees at that level. “It takes about five years before you become what I call a P&G’er,” explains Cousin. “These employees are very methodical, thorough, and detail-oriented. They’ve been trained this way. When they come to another organization, they bring that methodology with them.”

Trying to transfer capabilities to an incompatible new environment can make it seem as though an employee lacks skill. “Most people don’t fail because they are incompetent; they fail because they don’t get the [new] imprint,” says Cousin. They believe that what was successful in their prior company will produce the same results in a new workplace.

Examine your history. As you assess the corporate cultures of your previous jobs, be certain to factor in the “era” of that experience. If you started your career in a nonrestrictive, free-minded environment during the ’60s or even the ’80s and have never left that environment, you may be faced with huge adjustments as you look for employment in a larger, more conservative company, says Timi Gleason, executive coach and teacher at the Career Coach Institute. Times change and so do corporate environments.

Compatibility is key. Whether someone will successfully fit into a company comes down to their imprint, says Cousin. “People tend to work with people they like and trust,” he explains. If you’re applying to an organization where there is already a strong career imprint in place, you need to determine whether it’s compatible with yours or if you can make the adjustment.

Be flexible. “Realize that you may be walking around with unnecessary filters that would preclude you from being happy in a new company,” says Gleason. If you were hired, clearly they think you can perform. “But maybe your interaction style isn’t appropriate, so you want to do the same thing but in a different way,” suggests Higgins. Some of your behaviors may simply require fine-tuning.