I had been working in business for about 10 years and in 2017 I reached a turning point in my career. It was brought on by a lot of things – fatigue and frustration being the main factors.
I’m ambitious, which means I’m always looking for the next thing to conquer. I spent two years wondering – what next? Where do I go from here? In what position do I see myself next? Without clear answers, I decided to take a 12 month sabbatical and resigned from my job. I wanted to reflect and understand how to move forward and what steps to take next. I needed to figure things out without any outside pressure.
On my break, I spent hours on my couch or in cafes, reading ferociously — trying to find nuggets of information that would help me chart my next career path.
Reading 24/7 meant I spent a lot of time at Exclusive Books, browsing the career and personal development section. That’s how I came across Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené. I had never heard of it before, but I was immediately intrigued by its bright pink cover. What also caught my attention is “The Black Girl” which is part of the title.
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I’ve read most of the professional self-help literature including Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office, #GirlBoss, and Lean In. What I’ve found is that while they offer helpful tips on how to navigate the workplace as a woman, they don’t address the black woman experience. And the question that came to mind when I read the blurb on the back cover of Slay In Your Lane is, could this book be for #BlackGirlMagic?
Two chapters and many “Yass Girl!”, “Oh my God, it’s me!” and ‘And it happens outside my circle?’ moments later, I was sold! Even though the book examines the experiences of black women in the UK, who are a minority there, it presents many points relevant to black women everywhere. It examines scenarios of being the only black woman at the table, navigating the world of work as a black woman, and the reality of discrimination and how race plays a role in our lives. There’s a lot to take from this book, especially if you’re just entering the working world.
For the more experienced looking to advance their career, here are the four gems that can help take your career to the next level.
1. Navigate the “concrete ceiling”
We’ve all heard of the glass ceiling women face at work, but black women face an even harsher reality, which Adegoke and Uviebinené call the “concrete ceiling.” Why concrete? Because the added layer is discrimination. How many times have you been the only woman, and especially the only black woman, at the table? The glass ceiling, the couple claim, is penetrable and can be broken. Or, you can at least peek through to see what’s going on at the top. The “concrete ceiling”, on the other hand, is impenetrable and only a handful have managed to break through.
The reality is that black women are still in the minority in leadership and leadership positions. When we are given a seat at the table, we are expected to simply be there to echo the current status quo or to represent the realities of all black people. Both scenarios are frustrating – I know that because I’ve been there. I was at the table where impostor syndrome got the better of me and instead of talking I toed the company line. Or, when I’ve been outspoken on issues related to representation, I’ve been singled out by my white colleagues and labeled as an “agitator” or having a bad attitude. So how do you navigate the “concrete ceiling” to advance your career?
While hard work is important – which means working twice as hard as your male counterparts and making sure your work speaks for itself – it’s just as important to understand your own personal brand and work values. In other words, having self integrity. This will ensure that your values and those of the organization you work for are aligned. “Don’t knock on a door that isn’t going to value you,” advise Adegoke and Uviebinené.
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2. Mentoring, coaching and sponsorship
I’ve always assumed that mentoring, sponsorship and coaching are the same thing, but that’s not the case, Adegoke and Uviebinené explain. “Mentoring is support and advice. The sponsor is someone who actively seeks out opportunities for you and offers you for them. Coaching actually teaches you the skills: how to influence; how to communicate; how to get out; this is how you have to organize the meeting and so on,” they state.
All three are essential to your career progression and you will need them at different stages of your career. When looking for a coach, mentor, or sponsor, don’t look too far beyond the circle of people you work with, relate to, or socialize with. I found my coach in my job as an entrepreneur in magazine publishing. I reported directly to the publisher, and she took me under her wing during a critical time for the company due to a major restructuring. She taught me the basics of managing people and business under high pressure circumstances. I felt like I was taking a crash course in MBA. His help was invaluable and boosted my confidence.
At my last workplace, sponsors were essential to career progression. I found one at a company I served. The company was a multinational company and the sponsor was senior and well placed. He had contacts locally and abroad, and was a mover and agitator. Although we never officially had any conversations about him being my sponsor, I developed a good working relationship with him and his team – ensuring that I provided reports, feedback and any another requirement he needed well in advance. I became his right hand in communication. Therefore, if I needed help with project approval, he was always ready to help and support me.
3. Be visible — sell yourself
It’s very easy to become complacent once you get a job, but your primary responsibility isn’t just to sell yourself for a promotion, but to constantly publicize your accomplishments in your current position. Adegoke and Uviebinené advise that when you get a seat at the table, take advantage of it. Speak up in meetings – express your point of view. Don’t be afraid to stand out. Find internal outlets to bring your contribution and your seen achievements. For example, if you need to write monthly progress or status update reports, as I was in my last post, feel free to share them with senior colleagues in your division who would benefit from know the information.
In the multinational organization I worked for, there were many silos and not everyone was aware of what the other was doing. The reports helped keep co-workers up to date with what my division was doing on a monthly basis. It helped raise my profile. I dreaded doing them, but I understood that it was a necessary evil. In fact, some of the business partners used the reports at board meetings to show what was being done in their business units in terms of PR and communication.
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4. The reality of the pay gap
“Don’t apologize for asking how much money you deserve,” advises rapper Nicki Minaj. There’s tons of research that shows women earn less than men, and even more studies that show women don’t negotiate their salaries. In many cases, black women earn less than their white counterparts. Some people think discussing money is corny. I’ve been like that and haven’t advocated my own raises or even my base salary. As Adegoke and Uviebinené advise, you need to be aware of your earning potential.
When applying for a job, look for the market rate. Do this through recruitment agencies and check salary ranges in job postings. If you’re looking for a raise in your current job, make an appointment with your manager. Be candid about the subject of the meeting. It is important not to get personal and to remain objective. Make sure you’ve done your research, then highlight specific examples of how you’ve demonstrated your experience and expertise in your current position. Don’t be modest.