It takes a village
When I think about growing up, I think about how it took a village. My neighbors babysat me, family-friends drove me to school, friends hung around my house. I came from a community. In my adult life, I love to “do life” with other people. I work within my communities to ensure each person has what they need to thrive. Life isn’t meant to be done alone.
The only one in the room
But in the corporate world, that’s not always the case. It’s tough to be a woman in leadership. It’s tougher still to be an African American woman in leadership. I know how foundational representation is for women, including African American women. Yet often times, I’m the only one in the room. Not only am I the only one in the room who looks like me, but I’m also the only one with my background.
In the past at work, I entered a room and made it my goal to fit in. That meant saying as little as possible or finding ways to align with the group’s overall direction, even if I thought another direction was better. It became excruciatingly hard to suppress parts of myself. But I thought this model was the easiest way forward.
Becoming a disrupter
I quickly discovered that assimilating to fit into the dominant group takes more effort, not less. Standing out to show up authentically is so much healthier than continually suppressing myself. So, I’ve shifted my mindset from fitting in to standing out. I speak up, regardless of my different thought, tone or energy. I challenge the group’s direction. Sometimes that friction can feel disruptive. But whether I offer the best idea or not, I know I have to be true to myself.
The women before and after me
Over time I’ve grown into myself. I’ve become more comfortable being the only one. I view my different perspective as an advantage. I feel an obligation to show up each day as my authentic self, to make the way easier for the women behind me. I also owe a debt to the other woman in leadership before me, and particularly other African American women, for helping forge and chart my path to leadership.
The racial justice movement this summer was a large part of how I realized the value in my perspective. It gave me confidence to show up authentically. It freed me from feeling like an imposter.
2020 was hard for a lot of people. It forced the world to pause and reflect. The resulting racial justice movement coincided with a global pandemic, and I had so many more emotions to process. My heart grieved as I watched the news and our country’s leadership respond to the resulting outrage.
Prior to now, societally we didn’t talk much about racial injustice in the workplace. For my own mental health, I decided I had to make peace. I thought about my brother and other individuals who look like me who may not be in a position of power to speak up for themselves. I focused on my lane of control and transformed my emotions into power and positive energy. I built up my courage and sparked conversations with my friends, shared social justice information on social media and educated my work colleagues. Through education comes awareness. Through awareness we build allies. With impassioned allies, we gain momentum towards real change.
A lot things are broken in my current role. Some problems we can’t solve without the right technology, systems or resources. As a leader, that’s a really frustrating feeling. I’ve had to tackle those feelings head-on by acknowledging that sometimes I can’t immediately fix 100% of the problem. Rather, I might be able to fix 80% of the problem. I’ve adopted a mindset of truly seeking perfection vs. perfect. Where I can’t deliver the final product, I put one foot in front of each other, take small steps and build on progress.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes throughout my career. The biggest mistake I made early in my career was not sitting in the moment and enjoying the journey. I’ve always felt competing pressures to move fast, execute and perform. And as a result, often times I’ve moved a little too fast. I miss the opportunity to interact with colleagues in a meaningful way, slow down and ensure that what we’re delivering isn’t just good, but the best it could be. The momentum robs me of the opportunity to enjoy the journey. I now view assignments not as tasks to complete, but as opportunities to learn. I don’t allow my desire to execute become more important than the learning journey itself.
Building a culture of celebration
Receiving the 40 Under 40 award from my state’s business magazine this year was a great honor. I value stopping to celebrate critical milestones in my journey. But it doesn’t have to just be for large awards. In reality, each of us accomplishes things every day that make the people and work around us better. Don’t wait for the award. Encourage one another, fix each other’s crowns and take time in team meetings and huddles to celebrate the great work others are doing. This is important. In order to be celebrated, you need to celebrate others. Building a culture of celebration far exceeds the moment of an award.
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