PowerPulse

Getting To The Top: Strategies for Breaking Through The Glass Ceiling

By Tracey de Morsella (Formerly Tracey L. Minor)

Headlines detailing the accomplishments of Stan OíNeal, COO of Merrill Lynch; Carlos M. Gutierrez, CEO of Kellogg Company; Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express; Hector de J. Ruis, CEO of AMD; Richard Parsons, CEO of AOL Time Warner and other powerful minority

executives have most of Americans thinking that minorities no longer face discrimination in the workplace. The reality is that these success stories are the exception and not the rule. They are more a result of the perseverance, talent, ambition, and determination of these executives than anything else. Many minorities have been able to gain entrance into the workplace, and often climb into lower and middle-level management positions. However, in many cases, the path to success dead-ends.

Contrary to popular opinion, minorities seeking success in the workplace regularly encounter a variety of roadblocks that prevent them from reaching their full potential.

Many find themselves watched by their superiors. They take a wait and see position with their minority employees while they make sure that their white mail peers are ďfast trackedĒ early in their careers, thus enabling them to reach executive levels fairly quickly. The successes of minorities are more often attributed to affirmative action or luck, and not skill and talent as with their white peers. To overcome these obstacles, minorities often find they must perform above and beyond what is expected in order to get the same treatment of others that have lower levels of performance, and still many continue to earn significantly less than their white male peers.

Many of the minorities that that do overcome these barriers to success encounter a whole new set of problems. Some are only able to do get to senior management by changing companies. A minority climbing the corporate ladder this way is able to do so because many organizations seeking to increase diversity hire proven minority talent from the outside instead of developing it from within. Those coming into these companies from the outside, often find themselves faced with a hostile environment. A large number of minorities that make it into management often find themselves the victims of role slotting - the practice maneuvering minorities into positions that that are not directly related to business lines and away from areas like finance, sales or marketing, where the top leaders are cultivated.

Despite the seemingly overwhelming odds, there are steps minorities can take so that they not only survive, but also become very successful in corporate America.

Twenty Strategies You Can Use To Smash Through The Glass Ceiling

  1. Create an Adaptable Strategic Plan for Success. Do not sit passively waiting to be noticed, or for opportunities to drop in your lap. Map out a blue print for your success and then follow through with your plans to achieve your career goals. Make sure that your career plan is not based on the paths and actions of white males, as different rules for success apply to minorities, and doing so will likely lead you to career stagnation. So, it is important to study the careers of people of color that have made it to where you want to be in your industry, company, and in your career specialty to figure out what they did to get there so you can duplicate the process. When you uncover the needs of your superiors, donít forget to amend your strategic plan for success to include tactics that will address those needs. Be proactive in seeking out opportunities for training, work on high-profile projects, assignments and serving on committees. Donít let no sway you from pursuing your goals. Those who have come before you have succeeded because they persevered.
  2. Do Work That You Enjoy. Pick work that you really enjoy and jobs in companies with cultures that compliment your strengths and personality traits to make it easier for you to endure the possible isolation, bias, prejudice and other obstacles that you might encounter. If you encounter obstacles as a result of bias, you will be more likely to stay motivated and driven, as well as excel in your work and get noticed for your accomplishments, in companies meeting these requirements. If your motives for your performance are not solely due to promotions or salary, it will be easier to maintain the momentum in your performance when you encounter these obstacles. Otherwise, you will be more likely to respond by quitting or working less diligently. Ultimately, job-hopping and less-than stellar work will be attributed to your inability to succeed and not any issues of bias you may face.
  3. Stay Visible By Promoting Yourself. To crack the glass ceiling, minorities must be extremely visible. Raise your professional image by learning to see yourself as a marketing expert, and develop the ability to promote your skills and accomplishments. Raise your visibility and showcase your knowledge by writing articles, serving on high profile boards and committees, having your name submitted for awards, and seeking out speaking opportunities. Enhance the impact of your image building efforts by keeping your organizationís intranet and Internet managers, in-house publication editor, diversity council, and public relations department informed about your achievements, so that they can get the word out. Make sure local media and editors of publications of organizations with whom you are affiliated are notified as well. You can also stand out and get your name proposed for promotions by seeking out increased responsibilities and taking on difficult challenges and risks. Another way to raise your profile, is stay active in both minority and mainstream industry and professional associations by participating in committees and seeking out leadership roles. Once you learn how to tout your own horn, you will become in demand, and race will soon decrease in importance to the people who are in positions to help you climb the corporate ladder.
  4. Apply Problem-Solving Skills To Workplace Racism. When confronted with workplace racism, put aside blame and focus on how to deal with the immediate problem in a way that won't jeopardize your standing with your organization. Dwelling on the problem and how upsetting it is will only serve to pull you down. it will also have a negative impact on your performance, all your interactions with others and your outlook as a whole. Whatever workplace bias problems you encounter, put your past away so that you can address the immediate issue in a calm and rational manner.
  5. Develop a Plan For How to Deal With Discrimination In The Workplace. When faced with discrimination, evaluate the situation and use it as a learning experience on how things work in your company. Develop a plan for how to deal with it successfully in the future and incorporate it into your strategic plan for success. Be careful not to label every roadblock as one resulting from racism. Your peers and superiors will sense this. This perspective could make them uncomfortable and less likely to trust you. If you are not trusted, you will not get the assignments you need to move up the ladder. It will also make it difficult to lead others. When coping with severe cases of racism, seek out support within employee affinity groups, minority professional groups and friends. Do not rule out professional help, as long-term exposure can wear on a personís psyche and have a negative effect on performance.
  6. Be Aware of Obstacles You Could Face If You Are Fast-Tracked. Some minorities are fortunate enough to gain the attention of their superiors for being fast-tracked for leadership opportunities within their organization. While being fast-tracked is an honor and a great career opportunity, be aware and prepared for possible backlashes from some managers that may have issues with race. You could also encounter resentment and resistance from other employees that feel you obtained this honor unfairly. Another consequence that minorities who are fast-tracked face is that they sometimes get excluded from the informal networks. You can overcome these obstacles by working throughout your career to be noticed for your achievements and making connections to those in power, so people will see you being fast-tracked as a result of those achievements and your connections, not affirmative action.
  7. Understand The Importance of Identify and Culture In Minority Success. Learn how to blend your identity, culture and value systems with the realities of the workplace. Self-awareness, self-confidence and belief in oneís abilities are very important leadership. They can help you to form a bond a trust with those you seek to lead.
  8. Pick Your Battles Carefully. When you encounter problems, avoid addressing every issue to steer clear of being labeled as a troublemaker. So, pick your battles carefully and know what the stakes are when you do. Make sure you have facts to back up your claims and that your record in the matter is impeccable. This will also serve to help you gain credibility within your organization.
  9. Demonstrate That You Are Executive Material. Demonstrate that you are executive material by identifying key issues in complex situations, showing respect for the expertise and perspectives of others, acting quickly and decisively to get a plan moving, discussing business issues with authority, making sure people directly affected by a decision know what is happening, and explaining reasons for your decisions.
  10. Make Sure Your Expectations Are Realistic. Many minority professionals go into the workplace with unrealistic expectations. When those expectations are not realized, they give up and often accept their failure, attributing it to racism. Blaming others will make you look as if you do not want to take responsibility for your actions. While bias is often a contributing factor, it is still important for you to look within to determine what actions and behaviors that they have that may be holding them back, evaluate how you could have handled things differently and determine what you will do in the future to prevent it.
  11. Learn The Unwritten Rules of Your Organization. The majority of people who make decisions in corporate American are white males, so it stands to reason that they set the standards for behavior. Whenever you begin work within a new firm, set out to learn the unwritten rules of the organization. Donít forget to study any nuances regarding norms concerning minorities.
  12. Perform Above Others Before You. Most minorities that have risen to the top report that their performance was required to be beyond what is normally expected. Therefore, it is important that you work constantly to improve skills and exceed all previous levels of performance. You should also look for ways to constantly quantify your contributions in terms of profits, sales, productivity and savings.
  13. Develop a Diverse Network and Cultivate Stratigic Allies. It is important to align yourself with the right people within your organization and your industry if you want to succeed. So, proactively seek out mentors and strategic allies. During these times of company reorganizations, mergers and massive lay-offs, minorities are often twice as likely to be impacted negatively. Consequently, it is important that you ensure that your resources and opportunities have been broadened through the cultivation of a diverse network of people on a variety of levels, in a variety of professions and industries, and with diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. It is also crucial that you have a strong network of allies outside of your organization, because the higher you ascend through the ranks, the harder it is for minorities to establish career-building relationships. Limiting your network to a select few will only serve to severely limit your opportunities.
  14. Cutltivate A Variety of Mentors. To succeed as a minority in the workplace, it is likely that you will need more mentors than your white counterpart because you are likely to encounter more obstacles to success. Seek out mentors of all colors, both within and outside your organization. Look to these people to not only teach you necessary skills, but those that are willing to introduce you to others in positions of power, recommend you for high-profile projects, but also help you develop strategies to advance your career, counsel you on the political landscape of the organization, advocate for your upward mobility and provide career counseling. You should also inquire about out formal mentoring programs in the workplace and professional associations, but do not overlook informal mentors as well. You can gain more from these relationships if you cultivate the ability to accept and act on negative and positive feedback from mentors and strategic allies.
  15. Use Documentation To Obtain The Rewards You Deserve. When completing projects and other assignments, seek out via email your superiorsí feedback. After basking in the praise, inquire about areas that they think you need improvement. Apply those suggestions in future efforts and let superiors know that you have done so. Save copies of this feedback and make sure you have a copy at home, in case you are let go suddenly. When new positions, projects and performance reviews arise and you feel that the assessment of you is unfair, ask for a meeting to discuss your growth and development in the company and use this documentation of their praise and official documents that track your performance to explain in a non-confrontational way why you feel that you deserve more. Keep in mind, that most bias in corporate America is unconscious, so it is important to not accuse them of bias when you meet. However, it is crucial that you point out how they have praised you for the work that you have done in the past. This will enable managers be able to reassess with more accuracy and correct any unconscious acts of bias. Cultivating this feedback, not only protects you against negative performance reviews and being overlooked for assignments, but also ensures that your superiors are aware of your achievements.
  16. Actively Seeking Out Opportunities For Training and Education. Pursue educational opportunities to help you learn and develop the right profile of an executive. Constantly work to develop your communication, self-management and decision-making skills, as they are critical to you climbing the corporate ladder.
  17. Conduct In-Depth Investigations on Potential Employers When Job Seeking. When job seeking, thoroughly investigate the organizations, and if possible the superiors with whom you are considering employment. Workplace culturecan have a significant impact on performance, so talk with the minorities within the company that do work similar to the work you will be doing. Pay particular attention to organizations that have women and minorities in high-ranking positions throughout the organizations, as they are likely to have a culture in which minorities are more likely to thrive. Be leery of companies that do not have women and minorities in senior level positions, or those that hire minorities into senior positions but do not promote those from within.
  18. Identify Common Bonds That You Have With Those You Work. Minorities are often viewed as outsiders in corporate America. To overcome this barrier, it is critical that you seek out ways to bridge the gap and find the common bonds that you have with the people with whom you work. Help others that you come into contact with understand that you might not fit the narrow mold that society often defines for most people of your particular race or ethnic group.
  19. Don't Job Hop or Leave On a Sour Note When Things Get Bad. Sometimes things may get so bad, that you might feel you have no choice but to leave a job. If possible, try not to on a sour note. This can have more of a negative impact on a minority professionalís career than a white personís and ultimately could leave a bad mark that could follow you throughout your career. However, minorities that stick with the same firm tend to move up the ladder slower and have lower salaries than those that periodically change employers, so it is a good idea to always keep your eyes open for opportunities.
  20. Avoid The Role Slotting Trap. Most companies cultivate their key leaders in areas directly related to business lines like sales, marketing, operations and finance. Until recently, a disproportionate number of minority managers were placed in areas like affirmative action, personnel and public affairs positions which are measured subjectively. Others were given assignments that focused only on dealings with minorities. To break out of this role-slotting trap, consider taking a lateral move in a position dealing with business lines or moving up by switching to a smaller division within the firm. Since job openings are scares these days, your can also get noticed and avoid being pigeonholed by seeking out projects and opportunities directly related to business lines whenever possible.

Most people of color wishing to rise to the top in the workplace face a steep uphill battle filled with many seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They can understandably get discouraged. Those that persevere, strive to learn, accept challenges, gain a deep understanding of the cultures and unwritten rules of the organizations for whom they work, create an adaptable game plan that they follow, build alliances, and develop refined people skills, will find the climb up the corporate ladder, one filled with rewards and achievements.

Tracey de Morsella is the Managing Producer of The Multicultural Advantage, a web site that provides resources designed to help minorities succeed in the workplace and employers increase their diversity staffing effectiveness. Her articles on diversity staffing strategies have appeared in over 100 publications and web sites, including: Monster.com, Society for Human Resource Management, Workplace Diversity Guide and Cultural Diversity At Work. Her diversity recruitment workshops have been attended by human resource professionals from Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, non-profit organizations and institutions of higher learning.

Contact Tracey:

Copyright 2006 Convergence Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved. This article first appeared on The Multicultural Advantage web site, a leading online global resource specializing in diveristy staffing, diversity opportunities and diversity careers.

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