Updated: Oct 29, 2021
I attended college at a historically black university (HBCU) - #FloridaA&MUniversity (FAMU) and earned my MBA there as well. As a graduate of the world-renowned School of Business and Industry founded by Dean Sybil Mobley in the 1970's - I was specifically taught how to navigate the white corporate world and become more "acceptable" for my future mostly-white employers. You see, Dr. Mobley, as a successful black woman in corporate America in the 60's, understood better than most the significant hurdles African-Americans would have to navigate in order to obtain success in business. Under her tutilage I learned how to dress, speak, and behave in a manner that would help me assimilate into the corporate world much faster and make an impact.
In 2021, we find ourselves at a watershed moment where many people are wrestling with the detrimental impacts of systematic racism on black people in America. There was a time, in the early 2000's, where I was the only black person in marketing in a global pharmaceutical company with over 30,000 employees. I have been the only black general manager outside of Africa and the only black general manager in the entire world in my last posting. I can't tell you what it feels like to walk the halls of these companies and attend global meetings and summits and see no one like me. It has made me question why. Why are so few of us able to matriculate to these levels in business and industry? Why have I been able to? What makes me so special? Have I given up some fundamental aspect of my own blackness to become more palitable to these employers or has my experience and success spoken for itself?
I have come to the conclusion that it is a combination of my own adaptation and track record that has made me successful where so many have failed. But the fact that I had to make the adaptation at all in a so-called modern society is where the true fault lies. At FAMU, most of my esteemed classmates grew up as the only black person in mostly white environments because that was deemed as the path to success. And over time, little by little, you begin to give up your cultural identity and essence to fit in with your corporate peers. Whereas, in many instances, my white counterparts have been permitted to become more of who they actually are - we have to become less. This is the essence of whitewashing - assimilating in order to succeed.
Unfortunately, none of my previous employers in the healthcare industry have fully capitalized on my unique perspectives related to race and cultural identity that could have added significant value - whether it be in clinical study design for African-American populations, product branding, marketing campaigns, patient support programs, and/or physician targeting and outreach. And ultimately who suffered from this whitewashing were the patients who might have come into the funnel more rapidly and avidly had messages been tailored to their needs.
It has been a significant pleasure for me over my corporate career to mentor young black talents in various stages of their corporate matriculation. I have also had the distinct opportunity to return to my university and speak to the student body about how to remain competitive and successful in the evolving workplace. Still, all my efforts have not put a dent in the status quo. That's why I am pleading for my like-minded white colleagues to heed this message and join me in the effort to attract, onboard, develop, and promote black talent.
Diversity and inclusion is more than a nice buzzword of the moment. It is truly good business. By 2032, people of color will become the majority of the US workforce. That doesn't give us much time to transform our practices but transform we must. With that being said, here are five ways to become an advocate for black talent in the workplace.
Purposely attract black talent: Are you going to where black talent exists en mass? Are you attending the annual Black MBA conference or recruiting at the top HBCU's? Is it an organizational or departmental imperative to evaluate and include these talents in the recruiting process? In order to transform your teams and organizations you have to go seek the talent, not the other way around. And if the talent is limited in your space - create developmental programs to attract black students to pursue these career paths. Often times, we are less exposed to the opportunities in these spaces like coding etc and therefore don't see chances down these paths.
Leverage their voice: Race is usually an electrified third rail in business. No one wants to touch it with a ten-foot poll. And as a black professional, I don't want to feel like I was hired specifically because I'm black. However, there are ways to engage your black talents that are complementary and don't create awkward situations. Simply ask for their perspective on different issues or ask them to study a problem from a demographic angle in order to enhance the ultimate solution. This is especially needed in marketing and advertising functions but it can apply in a myriad of situations.
Find them black mentors and coaches: As black talent develops it is important to have advocates, mentors, and coaches that represent them within and outside of the organization. Understand that there are aspects of being black in the workforce that you will ultimately never fully appreciate but you can demonstrate empathy and compassion for your colleague by helping them find voices that can connect with their challenges in a more direct manner.
Empower them: Black talent requires empowerment even more so than other nationalities because in many cases we have been taught to play it safe and not stand out in order to succeed. One of the most important moments in my career came when I was sent overseas on a stretch assignment and the senior vice president told me that no matter what happened while on assignment he had my back. That level of empowerment and belief transformed my own self-confidence and allowed me to give my all to the assignment. Don't assume your black colleague knows and understands how much free reign they have in order to overcome challenges and achieve goals. Don't be surprised if they have a perfectionism complex borne from having to be far better than their white colleagues to be seen and appreciated. Be vocal with them on this and remain supportive so they don't feel abandoned either.
Push them: It's not so long ago that African-Americans could not participate in higher order jobs like medicine and law. As a people, we have been conditioned to play it safe as it relates to employment and opportunities for advancement. Consider this, if a white colleague has a certain fear of failure, amplify this by a magnitude of 1,000 to understand the vantage point of a black person in the same position. So if you manage a black talent, you need to understand this perspective and work to continuously push your colleage outside of their comfort zone. Whether that be via international assignments or matriculating through different departments in the organization, exposure is something we desperately need. Be a strong advocate for diverse experiences and also a parachute if things don't work out.
This was not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means, but it can be a starting point for anyone seeking to increase their allyship during these turbulent times. We need your support, understanding, and positive action now more than ever. Please pass this article through your organization to get the conversation started!
Omar L. Harris is the managing partner at Intent Consulting LLC a firm dedicated to improving employee experience and organizational performance and author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams and The Servant Leader's Manifesto available for purchase in ebook or print on Amazon.com. Please follow him on instagram, twitter, and/orLinkedIn for more information and engagement.