Last week, I spent time at Working Mother Media’s annual “Multicultural Women’s National Conference.” This event has provided me more personal development than any other conference that I have attended. I’ve even made a couple of new friends because of my participation and that is an extra special bonus. Imagine being in a room with 500 ambitious, driven, and successful women. The invitation to this conference is especially targeted towards women of color and Working Mother takes this opportunity to create a safe and honest dialogue about what is really going on with women in the workplace.
This year’s theme was powerful: “Vision and Impact: Charting What’s Next.” A brief website description read: “Together through collaborative conversation and vision planning we can launch real progress and ignite action in our careers and in our lives – thus positively impacting the future for the advancement of multicultural women in the workplace.
Our vision, values and goals shape the way we work, along with the expectations we have for our careers, and our lives. Knowing what we want – and being able to articulate that – is vital to live lives and build careers that have impact.”
Given the circumstances that my company has thrust upon the employees, it seems more than fitting. What is next in my career and my life? This conference presented me with time and space to evaluate my current professional career path. I set out very deliberate intentions to consider all the possibilities ahead of me, in the back of my mind. Externally, I agreed to play the role of a “Thought Leader” in the same race and cross race discussion groups.
Participants were asked to choose two topics related to a professional area that they needed to strengthen. My role became “facilitator” and I helped the guide a discussion to explore how the participants approach this area, how the power of their belief system shapes and influences that behavior, impacting career decisions and possibly impeding advancement.
We used a technique loosely based on Open Space Technology. No formal structured agenda existed in the beginning, each group had a topic area and began the conversation from there. The desired outcomes were simple: to raise issues that were most important to the participants in the group, engage everyone in the discussion, and share the findings in the cross-race discussions on the same topic. The six topics were based on six critical components for the career advancement of women:
WORK LIFE BALANCE
What I want to share came out of my same race conversation circle on the topic of Mentoring and Sponsorship.
We were given a few questions to begin our discussion:
Do you have a personal board of directors? A mentor? If so, what is the value add? If not, what are the barriers to enablement? Do you believe someone in your organization is your sponsor—someone who is telling others about your value to the organization?
Do you have a broad range and influential level of mentors and sponsors?
In what ways are you – or are you not – sponsorable?
Goal 1: Ensure race is part of the conversation—how does this group uniquely experience the topic at hand?
Goal 2: Encourage timely and actionable focus—is this something they’re dealing with right now and can impact in the near-term?
Goal 3: Avoid redundancy—seek to build on others’ thoughts, in the same conversation and from the session prior.
Goal 4: Go beneath the surface—use probing questions to uncover the “why”, “who” and “how” of the experience.
As always, I elected to start our dialogue with brief introductions: name, company and why they selected this topic. I find that this helps the participants hear their own voice in the room and therefore, “warm them up” to participate more fully. As an Introvert, I know this tiny step helps me. If I had more time, I would have asked each participant to share one thing they are excited about this summer. Having people talk about something they are excited about helps to elevate their levels of engagement. Adults really enjoy talking about themselves. Little touches like using an adult’s first name when addressing a question to them or following up a comment they made does wonders for an individual’s enthusiasm. This isn’t an ego thing, it is a human thing. Also, I’ve found that the higher one moves up in the organization, the less “human” their interactions become. People seem to lose their minds when speaking to high ranking executives and don’t give them honest and candid feedback for fear of harming one’s career progression. Also, people don’t treat high ranking executives the same way they would treat a person who doesn’t sit in the corner office. This is a ridiculous way to function in corporate America. The world is shrinking and communication needs to be transparent. We do not have time for politicking anymore. Work needs to get done through authentic and meaningful dialogue. Everyone adds value to the workplace -regardless of title, age, race, level of education, sexual orientation, gender and any other aspect of being a human being that people use to divide us into groups. Just keep it real and cut out the bullshit, people. We will all get a lot more accomplished.
Back to my Thought Leader same race discussion group…
We, as a group, decided to define “mentoring” and “sponsorship” before we went any further, I offered two very brief definitions: Mentoring is talking TO someone about career development and that someone is NOT in your direct reporting chain of command. Anyone can find a mentor or a mentor. Sponsorship is when someone is talking ABOUT you when you are not in the room. This usually happens during talent review or when leaders work to identify participants for stretch assignments. Sponsorship is usually earned through showing consistently strong performance and building a reputation for delivering solid business results. Interestingly enough, participants in both of my small groups said that they had never had a problem with finding mentors. However, only a handful of them knew whether they had a sponsor or not. In my mind, that is data worth exploring further. Why don’t Asian women know if they have sponsors? Or do they not have sponsors? Is there a cultural component to this? Is it because across corporate America, most of the key decision makers are still straight, white men? These are things to consider in the future.
The same race groups who were discussing Mentoring and Sponsorship had five key points to share with the cross race groups. This is what the Asian women wanted the other groups to realize about us, as a collective group. I own these findings, as an Asian American woman.
1. We are usually the only woman, the only Asian, and the youngest looking person in the room. Because we look younger, we need to build credibility early in the meeting to establish that we are NOT the junior person on the team. Many of the women reported wearing glasses or very professional attire to look older. And everyone said it was critical to note their tenure with their company so we aren’t ignored or overlooked in the workplace.
2. Being Asian may get in the way of our own self-promotion. Bragging or at least talking about our achievements is very counter cultural to Asians. However, this skill is a critical one when finding a sponsor.
3. As we move up in our careers, it becomes more difficult to find mentors and sponsors who are key decision makers. In numbers, most organizations have less women and less women of color and even less Asian women at the top.
4. In order to be promoted, we must build cross-functional skills. It seems that we Asians are very skilled at being individual contributors and are not usually tapped on the shoulder for key assignments in the sexy departments like marketing and sales. Most of us received messages from our well-intended parents that hard work pays off and the nail that stands up gets hammered down. Well, in corporate America, one needs to learn how to stretch outside one’s comfort zone, take risks and stand out. We must be intentional in asking for coaching and career development.
5. Different Asian cultures have varying levels of comfort with speaking out. We enjoyed a lively discussion about how Indian women seem to have a lot less challenges in asking for coaching and feedback. Many of the participants were not U.S.-born and that adds a layer of complexity to the discussion. The long and the short of it was, not all Asians are alike. One size does not fit all.
The discussions did not bring any new revelations to my mind about being Asian in corporate America and trying to find a mentor or sponsor. The value I gleaned from this conversation was just in being surrounded by people like me. We all shared very openly and freely, things that came easy to us in the workplace and a few things that are barriers to our success. I feel like my course is still uncharted in terms of what’s next but I do feel like I own my responsibility to continue to help other women be successful.