Zahida Sherman is the founder of Z Crown Consulting, a U.S.-based company that helps individuals and organizations promote equity and inclusion, and director of Oberlin College’s Multicultural Resource Center in Ohio.
It’s well after midnight and after hours of tossing and turning, my mind races about how I will manage my department and run upcoming programs. I’m two months into my first job as a manager, and after a long-distance move across the country, the honeymoon phase is over. I’m seeing firsthand how much I need to restructure my department. I can feel the entire company’s eyes on me, but failure isn’t an option.
According to a 2018 survey conducted by consulting firm McKinsey, black women are the most likely group to experience microaggressions. This includes having our credentials questioned or being assumed to work in lower positions. Despite this, many black women still succeed by drawing on resilience. Paradoxically, our determination, coupled with our rapidly increasing education levels, makes us attractive candidates for top leadership positions.
While colleagues had challenged my authority and expertise in previous roles, I never felt the pressure for my “black girl magic” to kick in as much as when I became a manager for a college and launched my own consulting business earlier this year. I was often the only manager of colour in work settings and had yet to develop relationships with senior managers, including with other managers of colour. I also heard many of my new colleagues and superiors boast about how failure wasn’t an option for them, so I dared not confess that I was completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t risk being perceived as incapable.
Fortunately, I knew I could count on a former boss and mentor of mine for honest guidance. She had held many leadership positions throughout her career and had her authority as a black woman patronized many times. During my first couple of months on my new job – a job she had helped me land – I was deathly afraid of letting her know my struggles. I didn’t want my inability to thrive to cloud what was supposed to be a fairy tale.
To my surprise, as I poured out my management stresses, my mentor didn’t judge me, minimize my concerns, or make me feel inadequate. She instead shared similar situations she had faced and suggested approaches I might try. Kindest of all, she advised me to be patient with myself. I hung up the phone feeling validated and hopeful. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel so alone.
Feeling brazen, I sent a text to my crew of black women bosses that read, “Ladies, work is crazy and we need to strategize so we can keep our sanity!” To my delight, my friends responded almost immediately with their availability for a conference call and discussion topics. On our first call, we vented our management stresses to each other and talked about the toll that work was taking on our emotional and physical health. We also began to learn about each other’s professional talents. (My friend Candice for example, regularly contacts her Excel list of colleagues at strategic points of the year, while Tai tries to meet with her predecessors to learn from their challenges and approaches). The vulnerabilities we showed each other quickly turned into empowering sessions for us to keep each other accountable and try different approaches in our management.
If I could offer gems to other black women or women of colour who are not sure how to find support in their new position as manager, I would say to give yourself permission to be imperfect and let go of the aspects of “black girl magic” that weren’t serving me. Make peace with the fact that as you adjust to your role and your organization, you will constantly be redefining success for yourself as a manager and for your team. Once you do this, you can let go of the perfectionist aspects of “black girl magic” that aren’t serving you well and begin to incorporate more of who you really are into your management.
After you accept that you won’t be the “perfect” manager, practice asking for help from professionals that you trust. You don’t have to confess your challenge areas to your new boss or colleagues immediately (those relationships may take time to develop), so start with previous colleagues or mentors instead. Put your guard down and allow your friends to support you and offer you techniques that have proven successful. Opening up to your support system may also give you the confidence boost you need to share your management challenges with your boss.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
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