During a recent business trip, I stopped in to visit my god-daughter who was attending one of the local universities. As we sat and talked about her life at school, her classes, and her friends, I became excited for her and the opportunities that lie ahead of her.
I was also anxious for her. I remember how I felt at that stage of my life. I was excited, optimistic, and sometimes a bit overwhelmed, but I looked forward to my career and the life that stretched out in front of me. When I stepped into corporate America, it was very different than it is today. Young women of color were few and far between in the C-Suites and in upper management levels. I didn’t have close family members to talk to or to guide me through the inner workings of corporations. I set out perhaps a bit naively on my path early on in the corporate world. I made mistakes—which I tried to learn from—and kept going, learning lessons along the way.
There is a clear difference between my experience and that of my goddaughter; she has family that she can reach out to for advice because the landscape has changed and today there are more women of color in managerial and leadership positions than there were when I was coming out of school.
So what would I tell my goddaughter – and any other young person starting out on their journey?
1. Be authentic.
Look for a career and a path that will enable you to be your true self. When I was young in my career, I remember being told how I should behave while in the workplace, what I should say and how I should say it, and who to emulate. At times, I felt there were many different versions of myself and some of them were not really me. As I matured, I realized that I needed to be true to myself. There is a lot of truth to the quote from Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “this above all, to thine own self be true.”
2. Don’t limit yourself.
This generation’s women of color have opportunities that were not available to many in my generation or the one before that. The world literally is their oyster. In today’s global economy and technological advances, young women of color can aspire to be and do things in not just traditional roles, but those that have been primarily held by men over the years. You don’t have to be type-casted, stereotyped, or forced into a career or role that doesn’t suit you. You have many opportunities, take advantage of them.
3. Find your voice.
The evolution of the women’s rights movement is one in which we should all be aware. And, the evolution of the civil rights of persons of color is one in which we should all be aware, but it is an evolution, it is consistently evolving, stretching, twisting, and turning. Things will not be static; they will not be flat, black and white nor cut and dry. It will be important for women of color to speak for themselves to ensure that their voices, rights, passions, thoughts, and desires are heard and respected.
I know that this next generation of young aspiring women of color will be a powerful force in shaping our ever-changing global landscape. I look forward to watching my god-daughter and all these young women of color flourish and grow!
We all understand the important role that mentoring plays in strengthening the workforce within companies. Mentoring provides an opportunity to cultivate strong leaders and professionals within the organization.
So I don’t appear to be presumptuous, I’ll level set on how I define mentoring. Traditionally, mentoring is a relationship between a more experienced leader and an employee, focused on supporting their professional growth and development. Typically, the two meet to discuss issues, challenges, and opportunities the mentee may be facing.
In times such as these, this is an important aspect of mentoring that sometimes is ignored in traditional mentoring programs.
In this day and age, mentoring relationships can become strained. For example, in the #MeToo era, men have voiced concerns over mentoring women for fear of false accusations of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. Business leaders might be hesitant to mentor employees from other countries for concerns of cultural and language challenges. White leaders may have concerns of mentoring those of different ethnic backgrounds for concerns of offending or being insensitive to concerns they face in their respective communities. Baby Boomers sometimes shy away from mentoring those from different generations.
On the surface, these concerns may seem extreme, but nonetheless, they are valid to those experiencing them. Here are a few suggestions to help overcome these challenges.
Address them head-on, through courageous conversation and inclusive dialogue.
If you are a mentor reach out to a peer (or a D&I leader) who you trust to talk about your concerns. I have had males talk to me about their concerns mentoring women and we start with understanding the basis of the fear and then expanding the conversation from there until we can get to some solutions.
If you have a longstanding mentor-mentee relationship currently, talk to your mentee about how you are feeling and listen to their perspective on the situation. There is no rule book that says that a mentor can’t learn from their mentee.
Look for opportunities to stretch your inclusive muscles as a leader.
There are plenty of articles, books, webinars, and podcasts on inclusion and inclusive leadership that you can learn from.
Set up coffee with an employee who is “different” from you and get to know them and learn from them, contract with them ahead of time as to your purpose and I’m sure they would be proud to talk about their heritage, their culture, their background (and while you’re at it, ask them about their career aspirations as well to make it a two-way conversation).
The mentoring relationship is too important as a component of a company’s inclusion strategy to be eroded. The mentor is a critical source of support and a valuable tool to helping to grow our future leaders. We must do whatever we can to preserve this aspect of our employee development practices.
I won’t forget March of 2020. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would be living in a world where we had to take shelter at home, shut down offices and for most of us, work virtually from our basements, attics, living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchen tables. We have been working virtually for over a year now and as unbelievable as it was, we survived. We made it through the summer, we pushed through the fall and winter with hopes that we would return to something resembling a normal existence.
Then we heard our leaders say “we will be inviting employees back to the office” during the summer months. The day that many were wishing for months ago has arrived, and many of us are looking at each other and asking, “how is this going to work?”
It’s a natural reaction to the world around us, but I would venture to guess that as we started wrapping our heads around returning to the workplace, we had many questions. Many of those questions are issues involving diversity, equity, and inclusion.
There are many concerns and needs of our employees that need to be considered. These concerns will vary across different populations. For example, persons with disabilities might be concerned about considerations for accommodations. Considerations will have to be made for moms and dads who are wrestling with decisions from school districts about plans for fall. Managers may require additional training to support their teams. Concerns around favoritism shown towards those who opt to return to the office as opposed to those who can work virtually will have to be addressed.
These are just a few of the concerns to be considered. These concerns have diversity and inclusion implications. Safety, unconscious bias, equity are all areas that will need to be addressed for employees who are most at risk across the many dimensions of diversity that exist among our employees.
One way to address these concerns is to listen to the voice of your employees. Provide regular opportunities to hear from employees, gain feedback on how the work environment is or isn’t working for them, and try to adjust where possible along the way.
We are moving to a hybrid reopening model. With these types of situations, some employees will be coming to the workplace on some days while others may be able to and opt to continue to work virtually. If this is the case, it will be important to try to mitigate “Distance Bias,” which is our brain’s natural tendency to put more importance on things and people that are closer to us than farther away. The impact of distance bias, if not dealt with properly, can seep into all aspects of the employee-manager relationship, from onboarding and orientation to performance assessment and development.
We have developed a lot of those skills to mitigate distance bias over the past year working virtually and we can continue to practice them with those colleagues who will continue to work virtually.
Demonstrating inclusive management practices is essential during this period of transition. Clear and transparent communications of expectations, providing for ongoing feedback during regular intervals, allocating individual time to each of your employees to discuss specific needs and questions are some actions to ensure that you are fostering an inclusive work environment, hybrid or otherwise.
As we look to implement a workplace reopening strategy, we have opportunities to redefine the ways we work and engage with each other. We have a unique opportunity to learn from the past year and create a version of the “next normal,” a version that will be enhanced by making diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority. We must ensure that our workplace strategies are inclusive of the needs of all the employees, not just the chosen few.
We have come through a very tumultuous time over the past year, as we transition and begin reopening our sites and facilities, let’s make sure that we take the time to eliminate as much stress as we can. Doing so will ensure a successful transition to this next phase of our professional journeys.