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.”

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