As African Americans attempt to confront the issues that surround them at work, it is important to recognize that there is much they can do to improve their leadership journey," says Ancella Livers, co-author of Leading in Black and White: Working Across the Racial Divide in Corporate America.
As an African-American leader in corporate America, consider the following guidelines and strategies. These suggestions - addressing self-development, education and behavior - can provide you with a starting place for thinking consciously, comprehensively and constructively about race and leadership.
Know yourself. Knowing yourself can be the best foundation for leadership. Having an awareness of your talents, development areas, values, beliefs and dreams can help you define who you are. This self-definition is important because so many others are willing to define you and, potentially, to define you negatively. Knowing and being comfortable with yourself allows you to lead from a position of strength.
Understand others' expectations of you. Know the various expectations others may have of you and learn why someone or some group has invested in you. To do this, you may need to diplomatically ask about the "whats" and "whys" surrounding others' plans for you. Thus armed, you can decide whether you agree with these expectations and whether you are willing to take on others' beliefs about what you should do.
Seek out feedback. You cannot afford to be uninformed about how people see you or your work. The benefit of the doubt some people are willing to give you is often not as expansive as it is for others, and the band of acceptable behavior some people see for you may not be as wide as it is for others. With a clear sense of how you are perceived by others, you can make minor corrections that may be needed, in midcourse, rather than facing major corrections later.
Understand your context. Familiarize yourself with the written and unwritten rules of your organization, and use that information to govern your attitude, behaviors, and reactions. With an understanding of the context in which you are working, you are more likely to correctly anticipate and interpret what is going on around you.
Don't be naive about racism. There are many people who have conscious or unconscious racist notions and many organizations that have subtle racist practices. Although these beliefs and practices are rarely overtly articulated, they can subtly affect how African Americans are judged and the opportunities they receive.
Demand and enforce equitable treatment. You have the right to be treated equitably in your workplace. If you feel that is not happening, check your perceptions with others, document the different treatment, and then take your concerns to the appropriate company personnel. If your issue is not adequately addressed within the organization, you may have to go outside for help or guidance. When you are in charge, make sure that you set equal standards and enforce equitable treatment for everyone in your sphere of influence.
Support the vision of the organization. As an organizational leader, you need to publicly support the organization's vision, mission and the decisions or direction of your superiors. This does not mean that you have to agree with every decision made or the overall strategy, but after you have adequately and appropriately expressed your disagreement, you should be able to communicate the decision to your staff without seeming disingenuous.
Don't be preoccupied with racism. Racism exists. That's a fact. However, your being preoccupied with racism will not cause racists to lose a moment's sleep. What will disturb their peaceful slumber, though, is your success. Your determination to excel, in spite of racial barriers, can armor you against unfair onslaughts in the corporate arena.
Build trust. Trust is the cornerstone for building and maintaining relationships and cultivating professional interactions. However, it is also one of the most difficult hurdles for blacks to overcome. African Americans who have trouble trusting whites have to find ways to build trust if they are to become more effective in the workplace. By being willing to engage in meaningful relationships with whites - usually by taking small steps such as encouraging friendship and granting trust incrementally - blacks can build a foundation on which trust can be grown.
Don't label other blacks. One of the major issues that blacks face in corporate America is being labeled by others. However, blacks also engage in labeling one another and add to the dilemma by labeling non-blacks as well. The challenge and opportunity for black leaders is to set an example by recognizing, accepting and promoting the rich diversity within the organization.