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This post is a reaction to Black Enterprise’s recent article on the state of African American women’s apparent inability to get the corner office in corporate America. The resource is a study from the Executive Leadership Council and the Executive Leadership Foundation.

I suggest you read the article first before you read my post so that you can get a better sense of the content.

In not so subtle ways the findings don’t say anything that I didn’t already know – but what really annoys me is how these findings don’t provide any meaningful insight into how Black women can push through the corporate America log jam…if they so choose.

Find a White Guy

According to BE, Black women severely lack “strategic” relationships in their relationship arsenal. Such relationships are defined as connections with senior level officers most different from themselves. 

In other words, they don’t hang out with enough white men. BE tiptoes around the idea that Black women are probably not aligning themselves with enough of them (or anybody who matters) to make a difference in their career.

And, depending on where you are in the corporate food chain – you’re so far removed from them, your best bet is to hope they trip over you at the next all-staff meeting.

Get a Cheerleader

The first point was about finding a specific mentor. This second point is more about finding someone who can:

  • Give you feed back
  • Understand your strengths
  • Scream your holy praises right through the glass ceiling

Essentially, existing in a professional vacuum is not ideal. Duh. We get that. Do the white men get to wear cheerleading skirts?

Hire a house manager – or find a house husband

Aiming for a cushy senior level position may demand that your strong black motherhood  (or attempts at it) go out the window (I guess Michelle Obama is the only exception to this?).

I’m not sure what ELC means by this since college educated and professional Black women are already marrying and having children later in life (compared to their white counterparts). 

Avoid the secretary route at all costs

I’m cheating a little bit here because this “strategy” (and the next one) come from an interview Workforce Magazine did with Carl Brooks, president and CEO of the Executive Leadership Council. I couldn’t get the link for it, so here is a portion of the interview: 

WM:

Another problem for African American women is a misunderstanding of their capabilities. How do the jobs they hold influence that perception?

Brooks:

The advice in this research is that if you seek an operational position at the top level, you need to stay focused on that and not move so easily to staff or administrative positions in corporate America.

Your network already sucks

I’m sure Penelope Trunk would love this one. Brooks states that a Black woman’s network is highly social versus professionally strategic. Because this is so, Black women lack the options for opportunistic entry into valuable and professionally strategic relationships.

WM:

What is holding back African American women?

Brooks:

The networks for African American females were considered social than strategic. They know each other , they know the family makeup of each other, they socialize together. But they didn’t have the strategic ingredient that would allow them to advance and ask each other for support and endorsements. Without that, no one moves to senior levels in any corporation.

In short, your momma’s church friends, cousins, girlfriends at old jobs and your lunch buddy can’t do crap for you, jobwise that is.

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Photo Credit: julsatmidnight @Flickr

Photo Credit: julsatmidnight @Flickr

Choosing industry over a certain type of job

If your career is important to you – you won’t fence yourself in by rigidly sticking to industries (advertising, marketing, finance, etc.).

Pay attention to the the type of job (and the skills it demands) and worry less about what industry it is in.

You show more flexibility and value when you can maintain relevance – no matter what the professional discipline.

A good example is someone who takes their skills and can apply them equally across the board –  Desiree Rogers.

The woman went from the Illinois Lottery to the gas company and then to insurance – now she plans the social and events calendar for the First Lady. 

Food for thought: Specialize in skills – not industry 

Use the online job hunt against itself

Online job seeking is like a bad joke. Monster and Careerbuilder aim to have you mindlessly apply to the glut of “open” positions with seductive lures that employers  will actually get your resume. All you have to do is wait for a phone call.

Puh-leez.

Use your network to get your resume in the hands of people who are hiring at these places. Online job hunting at best is a referencing tool.  You’d be more productive hunting down companies that are not “actively” recruiting  (read: the hidden job market).

Pitchfork Mob Mantra: Monster must DIE! Monster must DIE!  note: flaming torch optional

You’re not doing a non-job thing – like temping… or working for free

It may not be ideal, but temping can lead to larger opportunities – like (temporarily) keeping you financially afloat. Or, if you have time (and you do have time) – create projects that will develop a shift in your resume.

For instance, I’ve become the project lead for a new exhibit focusing on the drug addiction and treatment of women and children in Afghanistan (side note: I’ve never done anything like this before).

I will have to dust off my rusty research skills, find funding and develop advocacy connections. But, I’ll be creating a project from start to finish. And, I’ll be doing something I’ve always wanted to do: using artistic methods to raise political awareness and ignite action

New motto: Your resume is not just a piece of paper

Go virtual

You don’t need to be in an office to get work done (and be paid for it). Places like Elance provide opportunities for would-be workers to hone (and maintain) their skills in cyberspace. Jobs range from web and graphic design to freelance writing.

Anything goes – you can be a ghost blogger or virtual assistant.

Nudge: Cyberspace is your friend…really

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Photo Credit: Inju @Flickr

Photo Credit: Inju @Flickr

You’ll do what comes naturally – or not

Folks who blog are folks who want to blog. Fellow bloggers, quit wasting your breath (or blog posts) on telling people they should blog for a better career.

They won’t do it and they’ll give you dumb excuses. And, if they do blog – it’s not because you advised them to. The blog-curious only need validation of what they will (inevitably) decide to do. 

Just like a writer will try to use any outlet to showcase her creativity or a marketer that wants to highlight his insights– people with ideas will already have pursued blogging.

They’re doing it now.

Which brings me to my next point.

More blogosphere for me

The blogosphere can function in a vacuum. There are all these seperate blobs of communities that crop up around bloggers (read: personalities). There’s lot of opinions on how to engage non-bloggersor get more folks to blog or get respect for blogging blah blah blah.

I say: stop.

Granted, there are a ba-jillion crappy blogs, but there are just as many good ones as well. Your relevancy to the blogging community isn’t going to instantaneously diminish because you didn’t get more people to blog.

It only diminishes when you aren’t able to share, develop and reconstruct ideas and connections. People who don’t know how to connect with that possibility have no business blogging.

I’m not telling you to rob a liquor store

Blogging is like a dirty word to some people. If you suggest it, they start gasping like you’re trying to convince them that prostitution is merely speed dating. These notions are fine when you’ve at least tried blogging (or speed dating). 

Non-bloggers only seem to concentrate on the irrelevancies of blogging, how it has nothing to do with them (or the “real world”) and insist on questioning it’s usefulness. But value and relevancy are not always one in the same.

They intersect at different points. And, I’d be more interested in engaging people who are trying to figure that out.

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Photo Credit: Offbeat Photography @Flickr

Photo Credit: Offbeat Photography @Flickr

They’ve been out of the job market for years.

Parents mean well, but they can give a lot of useless advice to their kids.

Especially when it comes to job searching. If your parents have been at the same place since you were in high school – they most likely haven’t had to actively look for a job in quite some time.

That being said, when they gripe at you about not finding a job – their perspective is referenced from a job market that existed 1o to 15 years ago.

Of course, they’ll bring up anecdotes about that time they were unemployed for a year in 1983 or how they had to look for a job in the bubble of the 1990s – it still won’t compare to your job search.

Why? Because they haven’t had to look for a job now.

Their contacts are in the same boat

If your parents are in the same boat as this guy – their connections may not be as strong as they once were. Since older job seekers entering the market haven’t had to look for a job in ages, they’ve probably become a little lazy and insulated from the necessities of keeping a fresh (and relevant) network.

Despite building up powerful contacts – there’ s no guarantee that your Baby Boomer parents can capitalize on them like they could several years ago.

And, by the time your Mom or Dad hits the job market – their contacts may have dwindled (if not disappeared).

The same places that won’t hire you will hire your parents

Nowadays, employers are taking advantages of the blood fest going on in the job market. Seizing upon the opportunity, they can now doubly trade in on getting cheap experience – even if it means hiring baby boomers to work at a fraction of what they could really make.

So why hire you when cheap labor comes at a better price by hiring an applicant that has twice the experience?

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Photo Credit: Lutz-R. Frank @Flickr

Photo Credit: Lutz-R. Frank @Flickr

Creating complexity, meaning and autonomy in your professional life is not done through the 1-2-3 step process. For the best results, steps 1 and 2 may occur simultaneously while step 3 may not be readily achieved until you finish a part of step 4.

Generally, if you are interested in gaining meaningful employment, you will have to do more than utilize brains and talent. Additionally, you will have to create work for yourself that is beyond your usual 9 to 5 job.

Develop a Curriculum

This means that even though you are no longer in a classroom (or…maybe you are), you are not exempt from teaching yourself new skills or honing present ones. There are several ways to touch upon your desired area of expertise.

One way to get an idea on what an industry is studying (or learning) is check out trade magazines and professional associations. Decide what area you want to concentrate on (Research? Sales? Development?).

This doesn’t necessarily mean going back to school formally – but you do need to develop self-discipline (especially if you find yourself in a career rut). Libraries and public lectures are other great ways to connect with (free) learning.

Upside: You get to pick and choose what subjects interest you and focus on learning them

Downside: Reading, listening, learning – rinse, repeat.

The proof is in the pudding

Do work that naturally attracts your interests. This can range from performing projects outside your scope of responsibility at your present job to extensive volunteer work.  Career multiplicity is about juggling the interests with the ideas – don’t be too caught up in specific roles (for example, only wanting to concentrate on marketing or only performing “management” type work).

Set projects up for yourself that reflect what you want to learn and do.  As a result, you’ll have a distinguishable set of work that is tangible to prospective employers and shows evidence of your (extremely marketable) skills.

To begin, develop a Project/Skill Wish List. Essentially, divide your skills and talents into two categories – things you want to create and things you want to learn.

For example, you may want to create a community garden in your neighborhood (project) and want to learn about grant writing and research (skill). Keep writing out ideas (don’t worry about how ridiculous or prosaic they seem). Sort out the ones that seem relevant to your immediate interests -start working on those first.

Upside: You’ll get in the thick of things by creating goals

Downside: Deciding between workable skills and doable projects

Find a Sponsor

You don’t have to create a start-up if you don’t want to (or, aren’t ready). On a smaller scale, if you have an idea that you want to test out – but need financial backing, research opportunities through entrepreneurial incubators.

Also, sponsorship doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of money – it can be in the form of providing space (a venue/facility), time (mentoring/networking connections) or materials (donating goods/services that will help promote or develop your idea).

Upside: Connecting your work with others  (sometimes on your terms)

Downside: Running into naysayers (who won’t connect with your work no matter what)

Critique Thought Leaders

Emerging fields, old stand-bys and everything in between all have thought leaders. You won’t get far (in your own intellectual thinking) if you nod your head in agreement with every last one of them. Challenge yourself by instigating an alternative viewpoint.

The easiest way to express those ideas? Blog it. And, while you are at it – create a community that can rally around your ideas.

Upside: Becoming a thought leader

Downside: Pissing off a thought leader

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Photo Credit: -bast- @Flickr

Photo Credit: -bast- @Flickr

Last week in D.C., I learned what bitter disillusionment can do to the unsuspecting professional.

While pitching AWP’s work to an agency, we got the usual questions about who, what, when, where and why

Yet, one particular person insisted on asking us questions to try and make us look stupid or, worse yet, useless.

When that happens, that person is not interested in finding out  what you’re about. They are trying to prove a point about something that has little (if anything) to do with your work.

There are always two groups of people who gather in response to new ideas: people who love it and people who want to find reasons not to love it.

Granted, nothing is perfect.

Nor, is it meant to be.

But, if you find yourself in the latter camp – do yourself a favor: initial (and unwarranted) bias has little, if any, use.

Ask a question. A real question.

You’ll be surprised how often real questions don’t get asked. Real questions find out value. They probe for purpose and insight. The odd thing about that? People forget what they are looking for in the first place.

Therefore, they’ll meander around until they think they find out what they want to know. If you want to know about the “value” of someone’s work, ask this: Why did you create this?

Airing dirty laundry

When this happens, you lose credibility with the person you are questioning. For example, in one meeting, one of the members chose to bring attention to the fact that there are other advocacy groups and projects that campaign in the name of human trafficking (the project we were pitching).

OK – and? Is there a quota? From the gist of his not so subtle and completely hostile statement – he was doing the following:

  • Airing his dissatisfaction of (what he deemed) the effectiveness of such campaigns
  • Questioning the usefulness of our work

There’s very little tact in such a tactic. When you take that route – you unavoidably do this:

  • Lessen the likelihood of me wanting to collaborate with you
  • Cause me to question your own professional validity in the project

If you are genuinely interested in what makes someone’s work different from others (or if it makes a difference) be simple, ask: How does it work?

Apples and Oranges

Despite the fact that AWP is an arts organization – the art part is actually secondary and the social justice advocacy work is the primary definition of our projects. What’s that mean? No matter what, we can connect with lots of agencies that work in the realm of our initiatives. We create advocacy tools.

So, instead of focusing on how we’re different, let’s try: What are your goals?

Just because I am an apple and you’re an orange – we’re still fruit.  So to add, ask: Who do we want to connect with?

What should you keep in mind as the answerer?

  • No return volleys allowed
  • Respond with a question if you are not sure what they want to know
  • It’s not necessarily personal – they’re probably just bitter
  • Stick to the facts
  • Beggars can be choosers – you can always choose not to answer

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The Importance of Serendipity

Photo Credit: babelita @Flickr

Photo Credit: babelita @Flickr

During open gallery hours, L is talking to a woman about the Congo Women project. She came in after seeing a sign detailing our exhibit in one of the space’s windows.

L is telling her about all the other work she hopes to fund, specifically, our forced labor initiative. 

The woman calls L a few days later. Over the phone, she tells her that someone is interested in funding the work needed to produce the case studies and the photography. It turns out that the woman is a donor advisor to an anonymous family.

Now, as a result of learning about AWP, the family will donate $50,000 to our Human Trafficking project.

Will $50,000 finish the work?

No.

But, it will give us a great start.

At tonight’s meeting, L says the bank called her to confirm the address of our organization. So, it’s real. Really real. No applications, no forms or LOI’s to muddle through.

Earlier on the phone with the donor advisor, L asks, “Just like that?”

Yep. Just like that.

No knock on wood. No crossed fingers. Not one piggy flying in the sky. In a world where balance sheets can dwindle to zero in the blink of an eye, it’s more than miraculous to believe that money can fall out of nowhere… and right into your lap.

Opportunities arrive when you most need them or when least expected.  So, just to keep yourself sane, hold out a little expectation for serendipity as well. And when that happens, you can feel a lot better about what luck truly means.

Just like that.

Update: Our Human Trafficking Project (recently renamed “At what price…?”) got additional funding from the International Labor Organization – so we are fully funded to pursue and finish the case studies and photography. I’ll keep you updated on what happens next…

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