For many professionals of color, facing down biases in the workplace and feeling as if you have to perform perfectly to get a promotion can seem overwhelming. In this helpful text, former COO and author Errol Pierre addresses these issues head on, and offers wisdom from his 10-year journey in corporate America. Pierre (writing with Jim Jermanok) encourages people of color to pursue upward mobility undaunted. He explains that you can advance in an organization if you put a few secrets to use, like the importance of mentorship and a sense of purpose. His advice: equip yourself with these and the other tools he cites to chart a path to the executive suite.
- Find your purpose, passion and pride.
- Build a support system to help you deal with the stresses that come with leading as a person of color.
- You can’t control other peoples’ racism, but you can control how you react to injustice.
- Find a mentor to open a door to upward mobility.
- Make a strategic plan for the growth of your career based on the kind of work that interests you most.
- Sharpen your leadership skills by giving back to your community.
- Don’t be afraid to move on to better opportunities, but stay on good terms with your current company.
Find your purpose, passion and pride.
For 10 years, author Errol Pierre worked to rise to a C-suite role at a healthcare company in New York City. As a Haitian and a Black man, fulfilling this ambition was no easy feat; and yet, once in the role of COO, Pierre felt conflicted inside. He realized that his job didn’t help anyone; indeed, his company encouraged him to lay people off and to cut the budgets of those below him. He saw that having focused solely on attaining the title of COO during his climb to the top, he’d lost sight of his greater purpose, true passions and sense of pride. Everyone – especially people of color, he feels – must define and incorporate these elements into their careers if they want a fulfilling work life.
Your purpose is your answer to the question, “What have I been put on Earth to accomplish?” Your answer can change with time, but it must always come from within. Pierre defines his purpose as helping other people become the “best version of themselves” – a goal he accomplishes through his work in heathcare. Your purpose guides and shapes your decisions about which jobs and opportunities to take or refuse. It also connects you with the passions that lead to your best career fit. For example, Geisha Williams, the CEO of Pacific Gas and Electric, discovered her passion for the energy sector while working on a summer job at a power plant.
“Just being as good is not enough, you have to be better.” (TD Bank board member Stanley E. Grayson)
Understanding your roots – where you come from – can fuel you with pride and give you the impetus to thrive in the business world and leave a better path for those who follow you. For example, Pierre’s discovery of the works of Haitian author Alexandre Dumas and Haitian artist Jean-Michel Basquiat made him proud of his heritage. Their art made him feel that his upward path was possible.
Build a support system to help you deal with the stresses that come with leading as a person of color.
While making it to the top is already difficult for many people of color, staying at the top also brings unique challenges. Many suffer from imposter’s syndrome, the feeling that they’re not good enough for their high position, despite studies showing that people of color in leadership roles are often overqualified compared to their white colleagues. Both men and women of color often grapple with feeling they must perform perfectly to get promoted, and that can lead to further anxiety about maintaining an unblemished track record to keep their elevated role and move up. These stresses ultimately hinder their work.
“Employees of color can spend so much time trying to exist in the roles they deserve that they do not spend enough time thinking about their future and excelling at their new job in the organization.”
Seeing your diverse identity as a hindrance, rather than an asset, can also lead you to disregard or hide the parts of yourself – like being an immigrant or have a less privileged background – that makes you unique. To combat such feelings and ensure a successful transition from being a star performer to becoming the person in charge, build a supportive team around you. Your “pit crew” might include friends, family members, or even a therapist and an executive coach who can help you see things clearly and avoid stress. Pierre’s therapist helped him separate his identity from his work, thus alleviating his struggles with imposter syndrome. Your support team can also help you deal with racial bias.
You can’t control others’ racism, but you can control how you react to injustice.
Most people of color can recall at least one instance of racism that caused trauma in their lives. In his early 20s, cops wrongfully arrested Pierre because he matched a suspect’s description. They then added a felony charge for “resisting” arrest. The biases you experience in the workplace are likely to be more subtle, but they can still feel exhausting. When you encounter racism, following the “Triple A” process can help:
- “Acknowledge” what occurred and share your story with people you trust.
- “Accept” that putting large quantities of time and effort into trying to convince uninformed colleagues that their behavior is wrong will probably not garner the results you desire and can lead to burnout.
- “Ascend” by not getting mired in trauma. Continue to pursue your professional goals and double down on your commitment to inclusive leadership and an equitable corporate culture.
Remember many of the biases you will encounter are unconscious. For example, one of Pierre’s bosses asked him where in New York he could find the best chicken wings, assuming that because Pierre is Black, he would know. When you feel such “implicit” biases are preventing you from getting ahead, don’t make accusations; instead, frame the issue as an opportunity for higher-ups to help you. For example, note your qualifications as compared to those of people who already have been promoted, state your interest in a leadership role, and ask your manager if he or she could help you achieve that goal.
“The racism you’ll most likely experience will be subtle and hard to define.”
If you encounter more overtly hostile interactions, start by documenting the problem. Don’t react or retaliate right away. Speak to the other person about how his or her remarks or actions made you feel without trying to change his or her point of view. Request that the other person refrain from using those words or carrying out those behaviors in the future. Bring the incident and your conversation to the attention of your superiors and your human resources department. If nothing changes, you must decide if you should leave and find a different job – either elsewhere in the company or at a new organization.
Find a mentor to open a door to upward mobility.
Most people believe that they can succeed through hard work alone, but that’s not how corporate America works. You need connections to move up: people who will help open the doors of opportunity for you.
“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the higher part of yourself when sometimes it becomes hidden to your own view. (Oprah Winfrey) ”
Pierre once mentored a frustrated Black employee named Edwin, who had been stuck in a job as a senior claims analyst for 12 years. Edwin had hit a “concrete ceiling” at his company: He couldn’t land a management position despite being overqualified. But Edwin lacked a network of colleagues in high positions. He didn’t have the kind of relationships with influential managers that would facilitate a promotion. Most significantly, he needed a mentor who could vouch for his hard work and praise his leadership capabilities.
Finding the right mentor is difficult, especially if your career goals are unclear. Start with these steps to get on the right path:
- “Identify the problem” – What do you want to improve on or change at work? Do you want better public speaking skills? Would you like to switch industries? Your concerns will dictate the type of mentor you need.
- “Cast a wide net” – Don’t pursue only top executives as mentors. People just a few promotions ahead of you can help just as much, and their advice often resonates better because they were in your shoes not too long ago.
- “Build a rapport” – First develop a professional, friendly relationship with a potential mentor. Get to know him or her as a person and build a trusting relationship, so if you decide to ask for help, your request won’t come out the blue.
- “Make the ask” – Too often, people of color avoid asking for help, though building professional relationships can give you the confidence to approach a potential mentor. You won’t know if someone is willing to help until you ask.
Once you have a mentor, embrace his or her help and work hard to be a source of pride. You represent your mentor in your company, so be professional and uphold his or her standards and reputation as well as your own.
Make a strategic plan for the growth of your career based on the kind of work that interests you most.
Once you start your first corporate job, plan how you want to grow at the company. Ask yourself what daily activities suit you best. Do you want to work mostly independently, with fewer meetings and less oversight, or do you thrive amid team dynamics with lots of meetings and group activities?
Also ask yourself what kind of work you want to do. Usually, companies have three main areas: strategic, operational and technical. Those in strategic roles focus on planning for corporate growth. People in operational roles work to improve employee efficiency, and those in technical roles build the structural tools employees need for their work. For example, during the pandemic, strategic teams figured out how their companies would survive any loss of profits, operational teams organized remote workers, and technical teams created software to connect those workers with the company and with one another.
Take on projects outside your normal role to boost your resume and prove your leadership capabilities. It often pays to get involved socially with your upper management colleagues, even if you don’t think you have a lot in common. While taking an interest in what your colleagues like to do, remain authentic. Never fake it. It’s almost impossible to maintain a high level job and be two different people without burning out.
Sharpen your leadership skills by giving back to your community.
Occupying a managerial position doesn’t automatically make you a great leader. Great leaders bring out the best in their teams by facilitating collaboration, growth and honesty. They use their influence for good purposes.
“Leadership is action, not a position.” (TV executive Donald McGannon)
Take Donald McGannon, a former president of the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company (WBC) and perhaps the most influential TV executive of his time. He used his position of power to improve the lives of many TV viewers and he championed Black businesses and colleagues. He banned cigarette ads, promoted educational programs and hired George Norford as a Westinghouse vice president, making him the broadcast industry’s highest-ranking Black executive. McGannon later became president of the National Urban League, which was founded by US civil rights leaders. His election was an unusual honor for a white person.
Volunteering and giving back can boost your leadership skills. As a young man, Pierre volunteered at the West Side YMCA in New York City. He eventually became a board member. As he handled the YMCA’s payroll, staffing, maintenance and strategic planning, Pierre learned what it meant to lead people well. Later, he used those skills to move up in corporate America.
Great leaders need honest teams. Much like the foolish ruler in The Emperor’s New Clothes, if you surround yourself with people who don’t tell you the truth, you can make embarrassing mistakes. Seek the truth, even if you don’t like it. Hearing the real story is better than being caught naked in public like the fable’s king.
Exemplify honesty. For instance, mindlessly or falsely agreeing with your boss doesn’t help anyone. Telling the truth takes courage and can have consequences, but it earns respect.
Don’t be afraid to move on to better opportunities, but stay on good terms with your current company.
Many Black people fear leaving their employer or changing jobs. They worry that they won’t find better – or even worse – prospects elsewhere. But staying in a position if you feel stuck and unappreciated can atrophy your mind, skills and potential. Moving up in corporate America as a person of color is not easy, and statistics still show an alarming lack of diversity in C-suite positions. Yet, to open the path of upward mobility, you need the courage to seize great opportunities.
To prepare for a job change, work on your personal brand. Create a blog or website that showcases your experience and expertise. Highlight your education. If you don’t have a master’s degree, you may want to earn one – perhaps in a field like law, accounting or computer science. Continually update your resume and turn to your network for inside knowledge, such as new or unlisted job offers.
“If you can’t fish, cut bait.”
When you decide to take a new position, leave your current one on good terms. Burning bridges is never smart. Keeping a professional, respectable reputation is pivotal to your success, because executives talk to each other across industries. Some executive at the company you want to join may have worked for your current company in the past. If you find a better job, and the time to leave comes near, follow these steps:
- Write a letter of resignation thanking your boss, team and company for all you’ve learned. Mention your positive experiences.
- First thing in the morning on the day you plan to send out your letter, have an exit conversation with your boss. Express your gratitude to the company and explain that you are resigning.
- Tell your boss clearly and promptly if a higher salary or better job would persuade you to stay. Have an answer prepared ahead of time in case of a counteroffer. However, if you’ve resigned and accepted a new job, following through is a better choice. SHRM reports that 60% of workers who take a counteroffer instead of quitting still leave within two years.
- Come prepared with an exit date – two weeks’ notice is the norm, but longer may be more considerate. Prepare organized plans for your projects to continue and recommend someone to take your place.
- Be transparent about where you’re going – including to a competitor – but also be prepared to leave immediately if asked to do so.
- Tell your colleagues a proper goodbye. Share your contact information and get theirs so you can keep in touch with friends and mentors.
- Take a vacation to relax and recharge before starting your new job.
As a person of color, you’re often seen as a representation of your entire community, especially in a corporation where you’re outnumbered. Look to those who came before you for advice and guidance, and realize that those who come after you will do the same. Lead with grace, dignity and professionalism to keep the path of upward mobility open for everyone.
About the Authors
Dr. Errol Pierre is a business executive, healthcare strategist, public speaker and professor.
“The Way Up: Climbing the Corporate Mountain as a Professional of Color” by Errol L. Pierre and Jim Jermanok is a timely and impactful book that sheds light on the unique challenges faced by individuals of color in the corporate world and offers practical advice for navigating these obstacles. This comprehensive review aims to provide a detailed analysis of the book’s key themes, strengths, and weaknesses, making it an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to advance their careers while fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
- The Importance of Identity: The authors emphasize the significance of understanding one’s identity and how it intersects with race, gender, and other aspects of personal and professional life. This self-awareness is crucial for professionals of color to navigate the corporate landscape effectively.
- Intersectionality: The book explores the intersections of different forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, and how they impact the career advancement of professionals of color. By acknowledging these intersections, readers can better comprehend the nuances of their experiences and develop strategies for addressing them.
- Tokenism and Invisibility: The authors discuss the prevalence of tokenism and invisibility in corporate settings, where individuals of color are often overlooked or relegated to marginal roles. They offer strategies for coping with these challenges, including creating one’s own opportunities and building a network of supportive peers.
- Microaggressions and Implicit Bias: The book examines the ways in which microaggressions and implicit bias can hinder the career advancement of professionals of color. By recognizing these forms of discrimination, readers can better navigate difficult situations and advocate for themselves and their colleagues.
- Leadership and Mentorship: The authors emphasize the importance of leadership and mentorship in fostering a more inclusive and supportive work environment. They provide practical advice for professionals of color seeking to develop their leadership skills and find mentors who understand their experiences and challenges.
- Empathetic and Authentic Voices: The authors’ voices are empathetic and authentic, grounding the book in their own experiences and those of their peers. This personal touch makes the book more relatable and accessible to readers.
- Practical Advice: The book offers practical advice and strategies for navigating the corporate landscape, rather than simply relying on vague platitudes or generalizations. This focus on actionable tips makes it a valuable resource for professionals of color seeking to advance their careers.
- Intersectional Approach: The book’s intersectional approach acknowledges the multiple forms of oppression that professionals of color may face, providing a more nuanced understanding of the challenges they encounter. This comprehensive perspective is essential for creating a more inclusive and equitable workplace.
- Limited Scope: While the book provides valuable insights into the challenges faced by professionals of color, it may not fully address the experiences of other marginalized groups, such as women, LGBTQ+ individuals, or individuals with disabilities. A broader scope would have further enriched the book’s perspectives.
- Lack of Case Studies: The book could benefit from more case studies or real-world examples of professionals of color who have successfully navigated the corporate landscape. This would provide additional inspiration and practical advice for readers.
- Overemphasis on Individual Resilience: While individual resilience is crucial for success, the book may overemphasize this quality to the detriment of other factors, such as systemic change and collective action. A more balanced approach would recognize the importance of both individual and systemic efforts in fostering a more inclusive workplace.
In conclusion, “The Way Up” is an invaluable resource for professionals of color seeking to excel in corporate environments. Errol L. Pierre and Jim Jermanok provide a comprehensive guide that empowers readers to embrace their identities, confront challenges, and navigate the path to success with confidence. This book is an essential read for individuals looking to make their mark in the corporate world while contributing to a more diverse and inclusive future.