Leadership Lessons for Women of Color


By Marshall Goldsmith

Stephanie Chick is a friend and fellow San Diegan who has impressed me with her passion for helping African-American leaders – especially leaders who are women. After 15 years of corporate experience at IBM (IBM) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Stephanie took the leap and began her own coaching practice. Today, her mission is to help her clients unleash their personal genius and effectively share their gifts with the world.

According to most studies involving 360-degree feedback, women leaders are considered either equally or more effective than their male counterparts. From our experience as coaches, Stephanie and I agree that, while every woman leader is different and unique, many face one challenge more than most men – the burden that comes from being too hard on yourself. Or as author Erica Jong humorously noted, “Show me a woman who doesn’t feel guilty and I’ll show you a man.”

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Burdensome Leadership

African-American women are often given an extra helping of guilt by being repeatedly told of their unique opportunity to be wonderful role models for both African Americans and other women who haven’t been given their level of responsibility in the past. The higher up these women leaders go in the organization, the more this message can be amplified. While at one level this message may be intended as a compliment, on another level it can become a burden.

Failures or basic human mistakes can result in feelings of having let down other women and even more so, other African Americans. In fact, this guilt can come from an obligation to those who have come before – the ones who have paid the price to make your opportunities possible – and from a fear of letting down future generations by diminishing 

their leadership opportunities. No one should have to carry around this much weight.

Stephanie notes that she, an African-America woman, was brought up with the expectation of having to be “150% as good” just to break even with her white male counterparts. Many women in her generation have felt the same pressure. Whether this expectation was rooted in reality or perception can be debated. What can’t be is the additional stress and worry that this pressure brings.

Coaching Corner

After brainstorming and sharing our experiences, Stephanie and I came up with a few coaching suggestions. We hope these are useful to many readers, but they may be particularly relevant for African-American women.

Pick a career path that stirs your soul. 

Trust what comes from inside. Don’t let the opinions and actions of others hinder your success and happiness. After all, it does happen to be your life – not theirs!

Realize that any path you choose will involve trade-offs. 

Understand the trade-offs and accept the price that comes with any career decision.

Make peace with your own humanity. 

Do the best you can, but don’t feel like you have to be a role model for all of the women and African Americans who have ever lived. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and ask for help when you need it. Give to yourself as much as you give to others. That’s all anyone should be expected to do.

Recognize that you have your own unique genius. 

That is, your special blend of values, passions, and strengths that can significantly affect your company’s success. Take risks and seek out opportunities to best utilize your skills and talents.

Some coaching suggestions for managers of African-American women:

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Tell them the truth. 

Don’t overstate problems. On the other hand, don’t be so overcautious that the women you manage don’t find out what they need to do to improve until it’s too late. Be honest and helpful at the same time.

Be sensitive to their experiences. 

As a higher-level executive, realize that the African American women leaders you manage may not have many counterparts in leadership roles. Realize that this can feel very isolating. Show genuine interest in their challenges and concerns. How many white males know what it’s like to walk into a room to pitch a new business idea to an all-black female audience? You get the point.

Demonstrate your faith in them. 

Encourage them to do what they think is right, and to make peace with the mistakes that any human is going to make. Encourage their creativity, recognize their contributions, and help them find the right role models and mentors who will support their career advancement.

We hope that if you’re an African-American woman, or if you manage African-American women, these suggestions are helpful to you. Our guess is that there are probably many other readers who may benefit from these suggestions – people from various backgrounds who either have too much guilt or who manage people who have too much guilt.

Marshall Goldsmith is the New York Times best-selling author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. He can be reached at marshall@marshallgoldsmith.com and loves to read your reflections and questions. His Web site, www.MarshallGoldsmithLibrary.com, features more than 200 articles, columns, interviews, and videos. Stephanie Chick can be reached at Stephanie@DeliverThePackage.com. You can find out more about her on her Web site, www.DeliverthePackage.com.

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