Some days it feels like navigating our careers as black women is like deciphering a map to buried treasure. We know that the X marks the spot but there are riddles we have to solve along the way to understand the path to the X. It seems, at times, that black women can’t get the answers to the riddles correct even when we get the answers to the riddles correct. What I mean is that we know there is a certain combination to moving ahead in one’s career regardless of gender or race. You have to perform, you have to network, etc. Once the standard is met white males may advance while women in general, and black women especially, are left to solve answer-less riddles. At the end of the day we own our careers. There are some things that we have to do that we don’t necessarily see our white male counterparts having to do. Regardless, make sure you are doing these five things to take ownership of your career like a boss.
1. Write Your Self Evaluation
Abraham Lincoln said the best way to predicate the future is to write it. So many people do not use the opportunity to write their self evaluation. No one is going to be a better advocate for you than you. During the year be sure to keep an ongoing file of your accomplishments and praise. When it comes time to write your self evaluation you can just simply pull out the file and start writing. Keep in mind you aren’t just doing this for your current review, this document becomes a permanent part of your time at a company. Five years from now if someone reviews your performance, you want a clear recording of what you accomplished. Also, if you go for a promotion or another job, this document is a great way to pull together examples of work you did long after you’ve probably forgotten you did them.
It’s particularly important that people of color take time to write a self evaluation. More oft than not we are susceptible to the “black tax”. Our accomplishments are seen as average but when our white counterparts do the same thing they are exceptional. Having a record of our accomplishments helps us to demonstrate that we are as good if not better. So when we go for a promotion we have a record of success at which to point. This is especially important for women in general and black women specifically. Women are promoted based on their track record while men are promoted based on potential. When a woman is successful it’s seen as a fluke and she must prove she can do the same thing over and over again. When a man succeeds it’s taken on face value. This is according to a report put out by McKinsey and Company.
Also, your manager will thank you. Even if you have a leader/manager with good intent, they can’t remember everything. By taking time to be thorough in your evaluation you give them something to respond to rather than having them agonize over their computer trying to remember what you did over the year. While they might disagree here or there, for the most part they will be grateful to you for making their job easier. Additionally, it might provide perspective on an accomplishment they didn’t have before. For example, one year in my review I outlined the extensive process I went through to accomplish a goal. My manager only saw the end result and didn’t know all of the clever steps I had taken. He was impressed. While being thorough will lengthen the review document given them more to read, most will be thankful. I admit that my reviews are fairly long and detailed. I’ve only had two or three managers tell me it was too long. Those weren’t necessarily good managers to begin with. The others may have thought it but didn’t say it because they understood that this was my time to shine and why I was being so thorough. One manager said to me in all of his time leading people I was the only one who had taken the review process seriously and that let him know I took my career seriously which made him want to partner with me in my professional development.
Lastly, it’s unfortunate that this is the case but there’s another reason to write a thorough self evaluation, to dispute claims of performance issues. We know that when women and people of color begin to ask questions about their career advancement or professional development that they often experience a backlash. An individual who did not have performance issues will suddenly develop them after they begin to ask questions. Those performance issues will appear in the next performance review. Having thorough performance reviews in which your manager signed-off on in previous years will help to guard against this tactic. People rarely develop significant performance issues out of the blue without some extreme life change such as a death in the family or other personal crisis. When this occurs you can point back to your previous reviews thus putting the manager in the position of having to explain why this is suddenly an issue in their eyes and why it was never captured before during the review process.
2. Agree On Goals and Development Opportunities
No one is perfect. Everyone has something they need to work on. But that should be spelled out in the beginning and the manager, if they are a good manager, will help you develop a plan and hold you accountable to that plan during the course of the year. They won’t wait until the day of your review and say you showed no improvement. A manager should be your partner. But again, make it easy for them. Be sure to participate in the process your company uses to create a professional development plan. If that tool isn’t very robust, create one of your own or use something else you’ve seen that works better. Regardless, the idea is to reach agreement on what you will work on and what role each of you will play in achieving those goals. Make sure these goals and plans are in writing and that your manager signs off.
By the way, this doesn’t just have to be about addressing negative feedback. The best professional development plans are meant for an employee to identify where they want to go in their career, provide a clear assessment of their current skills and gaps in order to create a pathway for moving toward their ultimate goal. Where women of color run into trouble here is that the list of gaps becomes bottomless. Often times we will be told to do A, B, and C. When we accomplish those items we are then told to do D, E and F. Instead of being told to do A through F in the first place, it’s pieced out to us while others who did A and B are promoted. This results in a great deal of frustration. Then we go back to our managers and say we did what was asked and now you’re saying it wasn’t enough. The importance of having a documented development plan is the same as writing your self evaluation, you can refer back to it when necessary. However, keep in my mind, the most important reason to have development plan is to understand where you are going and how you will get there, protecting yourself is a secondary reason.
3. Ask For Feedback
Feedback is a gift. However, truth without compassion is cruelty. Hopefully you have a manager that knows the difference between delivering difficult feedback and just being cruel or mean. In my career I’ve encountered both but mostly the former. People who are committed to moving ahead in their career are people who are interested in hearing feedback that helps them. Feedback that is vague or offered without alternate actions is not useful. The best feedback is delivered by being very specific on what action or behavior you want to see or not see again and why. For example, saying someone did well on a presentation, though nice, is not very useful because it doesn’t focus on what the person specifically did well that they should repeat.
Don’t be afraid to ask for a 360 assessment from your peers. The sad truth is some organizations use a 360 as punitive so most people fear it. A 360, if done correctly, is meant to provide insight to your blind spots and how you’re perceived. I happen to believe all managers should have a mandatory 360 it would probably lead to a lot fewer poor people managers. As an individual contributor it can give valuable direction on where you should focus your efforts. Now keep in mind that the feedback can be very subjective and even conflict. This is because people are humans and they value different things. The second sad truth about 360 reviews is that some managers will take it as the gospel truth about an individual rather than using it anecdotally or to provide general guidance. This is another reason it causes discomfort for employees. They fear their managers will use it as a tool against them rather than as a tool to help them improve. Also, have a few allies, whether they be peers or higher ups, that you trust to provide you with honest feedback. You should have a relationship with them where they feel safe to provide that feedback, but can also be your public relations staff. Meaning, these are the people going around saying nice things about you. When someone says something disparaging to them about you, they will counter it.
You should ask for feedback and also demonstrate an ability to accept all types of feedback delivered with good intent. Black women often find it difficult to get feedback and when they do it’s not very useful because white managers, especially males, may perceive that black women are hostile or aggressive. If the feedback is not clear ask for examples – “can you give me a specific example of what I did?”. When given an example ask more probing questions as to why the action or behavior was unacceptable if it’s not clear, then ask “how would you have liked to see me handle that?”. Also ask that feedback be provided at the time something occurs while everything is fresh in your mind. I recall a manager who was really adept at this. I clashed with a Director in another group, short of the long is he did something without proper authority and was bullying me into complying with what he did. He called my manager when I refused because he really thought he was right. Now my manager explained to him that he was wrong and why he was wrong and, by the way, never to bully anyone on his team again (that was my favorite part). After I had an opportunity to cool down my manager provided feedback. While I was right I could have handled the situation differently, here’s why and here’s how. I appreciated the insight and, in fact, thought he was right. When I found myself in similar situations I went back to that feedback. This leads me to my next point – demonstrate a learning from the feedback.
4. Demonstrate Learning
You can write your evaluation, get your development plan and ask for feedback but if you’re not demonstrating growth this is just a yearly cycle. There are some things that we will grow slowly at while we will excel at others. By demonstrating growth you give your manager something to hang their hat on. A good manager/leader is going to recognize your efforts even if they result in small changes. In my example of handling conflicts a different way I was able to quickly show improvement. What showed up in my performance review that year was not the conflict itself but a note about how I had shown growth in handling interpersonal conflicts at work. Let’s say it’s something that you are struggling with. Be sure you are partnering with your manager for help and laying out what you’ve done and the effort you have put in. A good leader/manager, first of all, is going to be in the trenches with you providing you coaching and encouragement along the way. If you don’t have a good manager be sure you are documenting your efforts for your review.
A great way to demonstrate your learning is to teach it to someone else. Seek out opportunities to mentor someone else. If you are a manager, see if there is someone on your team with the same feedback you received. Either coach them on it or tell them it’s an area of focus for you as well and you’ll work on it together. It’s a wonderful thing when you meet people where they are and show them a pathway to the next level. You learn and they learn.
5. Network And Connect
We know that networking is great for a career. However we hear a lot about networking and not a lot about connecting. These are two different things. Think of networking as meeting someone while connecting is getting to know someone. There is a place for both in the workplace. We need to network in order to understand the culture and the environment. It also helps us in navigating our own roles and finding sources for information. Connecting, however, is about two human beings finding common ground and saying “I see you”. People are far more likely to support people they connect with versus people they meet. I witness few black women networking and even fewer connecting. This may be because of a bias when it comes to networking. Men tend to network with other men, women with women, people of color with people of color – according to a report from McKinsey and Company in partnership with the LeanIn organization. Black women need to be networking with everyone, especially white men.
The key to connection is being a bit vulnerable. It could start with having attended the same school but go beyond that to find more common ground. In order to do that you may have to share more about yourself and, oh my gosh, your feelings. We spend so much of our time at work and with our co-workers, you have to admit it feels great when you go in to work and have a conversation with someone you really like and trust. Ultimately these connections can have a great impact on your career. You will find people that will go to bat for you or help you get opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. These may even be people you invite to your wedding or go on vacations with. It just feels good to connect and that’s because when we do oxytocin is released. It makes us happy to connect and the brain gets rewarded for doing it. Some connections may take longer than others while some people will simply remain in your network. Both are extremely valuable and play a role in your success.
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