Getting the corner office: how to avoid the mistakes women make that put them outside the power circle

Getting the corner office: how to avoid the mistakes women make that put them outside the power circle

Maureen Jenkins

G. Arlivia Babbage Gamble is used to being the only female of African American in high-level meetings at State Farm Insurance Cos. This division vice president knows that her male colleagues–nothing personal, mind you–sometimes ignore the fact that she’s in the room. Gamble goes on frequent business trips and says that there have been times when she’s felt nearly invisible within these groups. Men–often white and at her level–gravitate to each other and, as Gamble says, “speak the same language.” Even though she’s an executive, she often feels left out. “I’ve got reasonable amounts of power, reputation, and results. Sometimes I feel I have to stand up and scream to get noticed,” she says. “When you walk into somebody else’s game, you’re invisible to them if they choose you to be.”

Fitting in is just one of the challenges that women face when climbing the slippery corporate ladder in an attempt to shatter a ceiling that experts now describe as concrete.

“[The ceiling] is more dense and hard to see through. It really is a powerful factor in affecting the experiences of women in corporate management,” says Katherine Giscombe, senior director of research at Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization that works to advance women in business. Giscombe led a 2004 study titled Advancing African American Women in the Workplace: What Managers Need to Know. The study showed that despite advances made over the past few decades, non-Hispanic black women hold just 5.1% of the nation’s total professional, managerial, and related jobs. According to Catalyst, black women constitute just 1.1% of corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies. That’s a mere 106 out of 10,100 corporate officers.

Most surprising, says Giscomba, was the discovery that despite corporate diversity policies and practices, 37% of African American women see their chances for advancement to senior management declining, in contrast to Latinas and Asian women, who see their chances increasing.

Despite the roadblocks in corporate America, black women can–and have no choice but to–play an active role in managing their career development. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. “If you want to win the game, you’ve got to be on the playing field,” says Lois Frankel, president of Corporate Coaching International and a workplace behavior expert whose clients range from the Walt Disney Co. to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. She is also the author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make that Sabotage Their Careers (Warner Books: $19.95). This book addresses the obstacles women of all backgrounds sometimes place in their way.

“It’s a little bit like tennis. If you hit the ball back to the opponent at the middle of the court, you’ll never win the game, because the game is won at the edges. You need to start expanding the bounds, because the wider the bounds, the more field you have to play on.” Women who win, says Frankel play at the edge.

We talked to four high-achieving women about their corporate game strategy and the challenges outlined in Frankel’s book. We also spoke about how these errors could have derailed their corporate climbs and how those coming after them can make adjustments to avoid them.

MISTAKE No. 1: Working Hard Instead of Working Smart

Debra Langford never fell into the trap of toiling quietly in obscurity when she could be out cultivating relationships. The Los Angeles native learned this at her first job, where she handled public relations and marketing for a family-owned restaurant chain. She welcomed every opportunity to attend events on the chain’s behalf, knowing that her bosses valued community exposure.

At one such event she met Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, the cartoon geniuses behind The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Scooby-Doo. “The conclusion of the lunch was a job offer,” says Langford, who launched her 17 year entertainment career that day. Positions with Warner Bros. Television, Quincy Jones/David Salzman Entertainment, Essence Entertainment, and Urbanentertainment.com followed. “All of those were relationship-driven introductions.”

In 1999, when Langford was transitioning out of a job, she decided to attend the BFF/HBO Summit. an annual gathering of senior executives of color in the television and film industries hosted by the Black Filmmaker Foundation and sponsored by HBO. Langford was seated next to Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons. “Instead of trying to sell myself directly to him, I decided to let him know who I was and introduced him to other people at the [event,” she says. “At the moment I was introducing him to people, I realized the real value of relationships with diverse executives.” Three years Inter, a position at Time Warner opened up. “My choice in attending the conference was working smart. Look what it translated into three years later.”

Today, a little more than two years since becoming director of strategic sourcing, worldwide recruitment and executive search at Time Warner Inc., Langford has identified more than 40 top-tier executives who have since joined the company. How many of these corporate fast-trackers would she have wooed by working late hours at the office, mired in administrative details? Probably none.

Langford knows her contact list and ability to build relationships with peers and colleagues areas key to her success as her professional knowledge. In Fact, Langford, 41, says that 90% of her time is spent making and leveraging connections.

“In the entertainment business, there is such a fine line [between] someone’s ability to do the job and the relationships you need to get the job done,” she offers.

Langford suggests these network-building tips:

Reach out and develop rapport with colleagues. Langford often e-mails professionals she reads about in the media. “If I see a notice about them in a [trade magazine], I will send them an e-mail congratulating them.” As for colleagues you feel uncomfortable approaching but need to know, she says: “Find a topic that would give you insight or crease a casual dialogue.”

The Catalyst study reveals that 75% of black women are resistant to, and limit, disclosure. But such resistance often puts women on the periphery. When colleagues don’t have a personal sense of who you are, it tends to color their professional perceptions.

Schedule time to build relationships. Langford will arrive as early at 7 a.m. so that she can enjoy a conference lunch later in the day, rather than “having a 15 minute lunch in front of [her] computer.” she adds. “Build in more time at the beginning or end of your day that so you can get out from behind your desk,” she adds.

MISTAKE No. 2: Doing the Work of Others

Jenny Alonzo is a self-proclaimed type A professional who, early in her career at WNBC-TV in New York City, insisted on doing it all. “Being a production executive, that tends to be part of your makeup. We’ve got to get things done. That was part of my [modus operandi], to do not only my job, but to take on colleagues’ chores, too. People depended on me to do that and expected me to do that.”

Alonzo, 39, who’s had eight different bosses during her 10 years at Lifetime, says. “I was always seen as the good ol’ Jenny who will get it done. Meanwhile, different people were getting promoted in different areas of the company, but no one was recognizing my input.”

Alonzo was several months pregnant and the mother of a young daughter when she finally went to the division’s senior vice president. She had been managing the creative services department for six months. “I said, ‘Let’s talk about me, and what I’ve been doing, and my recognition. It was difficult, because you learn to defend the interests of the company you work for and yon forget that you have to be as vigilant about making sure your own development is taking place. There was a concern from my division head that I might not come back after maternity leave.” She was promoted to vice president before she left to have her baby.

“It taught me if you find yourself doing the work of others. assess why you’re doing it,” she says. “If you’re doing [it] because there’s a void, make sure you are recognized and acknowledged for that contribution.” Alonzo is now vice president of production and inventory operations for Lifetime Television. The Dominican Republic native oversees a 27-person staff in New York City.

According to Nice Girls, Alonzo made the right moves. “While women are doing the grunt work, men are building their careers. They’re no fools. Promotions are rewards for getting the job done, not necessarily doing the job.” writes Frankel.

Black women in particular often find themselves in the role of “superwoman,” battling perceptions imposed by white co workers. The Catalyst study found that 32% of black women say their white colleagues perceive them as “under-qualified.”

“This whole issue of working too hard and doing others’ work is a function of that,” says Kumea Shorter-Gooden, a California psychologist who with Charisse Jones coauthored Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America (HarperCollins: $25.95), a book featuring qualitative surveys and interviews with 399 women. “We heard from many women that they work extra hard to keep from being seen as unintelligent and incompetent,” she continues.

Alonzo offers this advice to do-it-all types who hope to get ahead:

Get your fair share of visible work. As a promotion coordinator at the NBC network 15 years ago, Alonzo got stuck working weekend and evening shifts. “Meanwhile,” she says. “all the decisions and important meetings were la king place during the week and in the mornings.” After seething for several months, she suggested to her boss that the work shifts be distributed differently, saying, “‘I wan L my fair share so that I also get the same visibility. I want to be exposed to the early-morning assignment meetings. I want to know what goes on so that I can learn.”

Learn to delegate not only to manage your workload but also to strengthen your team. “I saw those who did not delegate and what happened to them,” she says. “They would burn out, and the people under them didn’t learn. They’d be stuck because there was no one there who could take on the stuff they did. If you don’t empower those under you, they’re never going to be ready and you’re never going to be ready to move on.”

MISTAKE No. 3: Waiting to Be Given What You Want

L. Renee Richardson has always been adamant about sounding the trumpet for African American consumers and the $618 billion market they represent.

Backed with supporting statistics, she pitched a new concept for educating clients to her Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG) bosses. The result was last year’s “Living Beyond the Boundaries,” a one-day media expo and panel discussion that introduced Starcom clients and the media buying industry to the power and influence of the African American marketplace.

“If we’d been waiting around for someone to say, ‘Go do it,’ it probably would not have happened. That had a lot to do with me getting this position, They could see this was my passion,” says Richardson, a 15-year industry veteran who, last November, received her dream job–director of African American markets for Tapestry, the multicultural division of Chicago based SMG.

“Passion determines purpose,” says Richardson, who’s also a motivational speaker and teacher. “You are responsible for your career. You have to let people know these are your needs and that you are expecting these things to happen.”

When Richardson began working at Starcom 15 years ago, she was a “nice little Christian girl expecting that if you just work really bard, people will look out for you.” But she got frustrated every time she received a green memo sheet announcing the promotion of another colleague.

Finally, she marched into her boss’s office, the latest green memo clutched firmly in hand. To her surprise, her boss became her advocate. Richardson was promoted to media supervisor two months later, and finally saw her own name on one of those infamous green sheets.

“Once they learn you have a voice,” she says, “they’ll listen to you more. The Scripture says, ‘You have not because you ask not.'” That’s especially true when it comes to matters of promotions and compensation.

A 2004 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research says that full-time employed women still earn just 76 cents to every dollar their white male counterparts earn–while black women earn just over 62 cents in comparison. “Although part of this discrepancy is clearly due to discrimination,” writes Frankel in Nice Girls, “another part is because disenfranchised groups are less likely to ask for what they want.”

In her Catalyst research. Giscombe discovered that black women see white peers as members of the “in group,” receiving perks and greater leeway than they do. Adds Giscombe: “Perhaps women of color don’t have the same sense of entitlement that would make it easy to be demanding.”

Even at her current level, Richardson admits that she is still learning to be more assertive. Here are some of her tips:

Be persistent. “When we ask and [higher ups] say ‘no’ the first time, we don’t go back,” she offers. “If you believe in what you’re asking for, it’s your personal responsibility to keep on asking. We often don’t ask for clarification. Do they mean no for now? No for the next six months? Or no forever?”

Learn the art of negotiation. “You have to understand what you want,” says Richardson. “Second, know who can give it to you. And third, develop the strategy to get your mission accomplished.”

MISTAKE No. 4: Avoiding Office Politics

If there’s one thing that State Farm executive G. Arlivia Babbage Gamble regrets, it’s not learning how to play golf, despite her successful rise through the ranks of the Bloomington, Illinois-based insurance giant.

“I’ve never felt I was left out,” says Gamble, the agency’s division vice president. “[Still,] there certainly could be an opportunity I might have discovered to have something in common.” The golf course is where strategic alliances can he formed-relationships with co-workers, supervisors, and executives who can further your cause.

Gamble may not be sports-minded, but she’s known for years that office politics is a game that she can’t afford not to play. Frankel says that it is actually impossible to avoid. “Politics is how things get done. If you’re nut involved in office politics, you’re not playing the game, and if you’re nut playing the game, you can’t possibly win.”

If Gamble needed a refresher course, she got one a couple of years ago when leading a team. The team’s objective was to solve a distribution problem that was affecting State Farm’s 17,000-agent network. Fixing the problem was tough enough, but what made it worse was a white male colleague who constantly shot down Gamble’s ideas, undercutting them to whoever would listen. Plus, he had the ear of one of the company’s most senior leaders.

“It was the most difficult thing I had to do, because I am a harmony seeker,” says Gamble, who wrestled for over a year with this issue. Her subordinates warned her that this colleague was out to get her. “It became so serious that my credibility was on the line. My job then became to develop one-on-one relationships to build the strength, which took away some of the power that person had. I very deliberately went about building a team that was more collaborative and that he couldn’t afford not to support.”

During her 17-year career at State Farm, Gamble has worked mostly with men. “I can’t remember being in a room when there was more than one female vice president,” says Gamble, who is often the only African American at high-level meetings. A well-connected mentor is also important for a rising executive. Mentors will outline the political structure of a corporation and offer guidance for effective maneuvering. Mentors are also allies who will speak on your behalf, clarify speculations, and trumpet your efforts. According to Catalyst’s 2004 study, 43% of black women surveyed said “not having an influential sponsor or mentor” was one of the greatest obstacles to their success, while 36% cited a “lack of informal networks” as one of the most corn men career barriers.

Adds Gamble: “You have to make lots of deposits in order to have any returns. You have to realize that not every battle is a war.” But you do have to make sure you’re well positioned:

Build alliances with subordinates as well as executives. Last year, when she bad 80 employees reporting to her, Gamble scheduled each one for a one-hour, get-to-know-you session. It was worth the time investment. “I have felt many times that [my staff] protected me from things I wasn’t aware of. So getting to know my employees gave me inside intelligence. The people who get the job dune are the ones below you.” They have to know that you are supportive of them and their concerns.

Approach your boss first when you fear you’ve made a mistake. Know n for being direct, Gamble remembers ruffling the leathers of some fellow male executives during a meeting several years ago because of her persistent questioning of the presenter. Confronted later by one meeting participant, she went to her boss to “solicit feedback and coaching.” While the incident did no permanent damage to her reputation, Gamble earned points with her boss by being willing to seek counsel.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group