Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Retaining Yourself in Corporate America

The question of diversity in Corporate America has historically been approached from a model of getting more diverse candidates in the door. Recently, retention has taken on a larger role in diversity programming, though many companies still struggle to retain diverse talent beyond the junior ranks.

I often ask my more senior intra-organizational mentors what they like or dislike about their positions, mainly because I'm trying to figure out if I want the job one day. What many companies miss when asking the retention question about us is that retention starts with providing clear information about what it means to be retained. If they see a future for us, then they should show us the vision early and often. Further, the present lack of diversity in the upper levels of many  companies makes it even harder for young, Black Corporates to see themselves in those ranks.

Ellen McGirt recently published an article on about the retention of African-American executives. The article highlights the research of Dr. Lawrence James, Jr., "a Chicago-based clinical psychologist-turned-leadership-consultant." In his white paper Journey to the Top, Dr. James explores the key elements to career advancement for African-Americans on the executive track, which include relationship building, business acumen and self-insight.

The white paper features the following summary:

"If there were one word that could summarize this report, it would be authenticity. For it is the freedom to be truly authentic that maximizes every executive’s organizational impact and contribution to the bottom line. In an ideal world, the business persona or mask would be neither prevalent nor necessary. All individuals would be provided the opportunity to reach the highest level of success through a purposeful development process fueled by their own personal efforts and aided by the vision, strategic leadership, and backing of the C-suite and board of directors and implemented by HR/OD and individual managers as well as trusted outside advisors."

Read the full paper here: Journey to the Top

Let's take a moment to explore the self-insight element of Dr. James' white paper discussion.

So often do we focus on the external factors, like education and networking, that we forget the internal components of corporate success.

Being young and Black in Corporate America can be intimidating and confusing, especially when the early successes come quickly and with little transparency about process. "Good" school + Internship = Entry level position and a decent salary (maybe). The first few years can be engaging, exciting and tiring. Most junior Corporates spend this time learning the culture, developing business acumen and cultivating a persona and a reputation. Towards the middle and later years of a corporate career lifecycle, questions about advancement, pay increases and alternate opportunities arise or prevail. The luster of the golden cuffs dims.

You may ask it differently, but the question is the same: "What am I doing here?" When the question comes, if your answer is not readily at hand, the work can be the first thing to suffer. Missed deadlines, showing up late for meetings, refusing the once common late nights, an indescribable but significant difference in your client interactions or work product... Do not let the apathy or indecision of the moment tarnish your reputation. If you find yourself slipping into bad habits after a few years on the job, acknowledge the difference in behavior, acknowledge the source of your change in attitude and actively work against it. When you can no longer to commit to the job, commit to yourself. If you do not know why you are there, as many young Corporates do not beyond a salary and a vague notion of future career opportunities, taking time to understand who you are and who you want to be will be more productive that starting from what you are doing and what you want to do.

Dr. James emphasizes the importance of the freedom of Black executives to be their authentic selves. As a young, Black Corporate rising in the ranks, a major component to finding a place to stay, i.e. being retainable, is figuring out what your authentic self is. Self-insight is one of the few components of corporate success that is completely under your control at an early point of your career.

Look forward to a follow up post about key questions to ask yourself for greater career self-insight. 

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