17 #InvisibleMan : Black Leadership in Corporate America

We discuss the idea of being a black executive in Corporate America with Frost Bank President Michael Williams.

Michael Williams’ LinkedIn

Help Beat Triple Negative DCIS Breast Cancer

October walk is on 10/13/18!


Zach: It was a dream job, the type of assignment that could make or break the career of an ambitious executive with an eye towards the top. “It was my first big promotion,” says Bernard J. Tyson, the 57-year-old CEO of Kaiser Permanente, a health care company with nearly $60 billion in annual revenue. The year was 1992, and Tyson, then in his early thirties, had been named administrator of one of Kaiser’s newest hospitals in Santa Rosa, California. “Everyone knew this was the hospital to lead,” he says. His physician partner, an elderly white gentleman named Dr. Richard Stein, was less excited by the news. “It was one of those “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” sort of welcomes,” Tyson recalls, and it went downhill from there. The two men were constantly at odds, unable to collaborate, with most conversations ending in angry standoffs. “He would say something, and I would react,” says Tyson. “It was the most difficult relationship I have ever had.” Failure seemed inevitable. One day, Stein invited Tyson for a walk. “He said, “I have to confess something to you, something that may end our relationship,”” Tyson recalls. “I have never worked with a black man like this.” He meant as a peer. Stein, it seems, didn’t know what to say, to act, what to expect. Tyson saw it for the opening it was. “It was this moment I realized the majority of the population doesn’t have any sort of mental road map for how to relate to and work with someone different from themselves.” This is an excerpt from Why Race and Culture Matter in the C-Suite, an article written by Ellen McGirt, for Fortune Magazine, and I believe it highlights the reality many people of color in leadership face every day. Being in spaces where few of us are present is challenging enough, but compounding that with the task of leading teams, as in telling them what to do? How does one succeed in that environment? Further, what does success even look like? This is Zach, and you’re listening to Living Corporate.

Zach: So today we’re talking about what it means to be a leader of people while also being a person of color in Corporate America.

Ade: Yeah. So to be honest, I usually get so focused on making sure that I’m good in my career and navigating all the nonsense involved with making sure that my individual contributions are recognized. I usually don’t even think about what it means to lead a team full of people who don’t look, think, or behave like I do.

Zach: I know, right? And to your point, all of those things you just mentioned, they’re critical and of course very important and really don’t change as you become a leader, but it’s interesting because when you look at that article that I read by Ellen McGirt, it highlights Bernard Tyson’s experience about white men having to engage him as a equal. So I’m a manager, so I’m not an executive. I’m not a CEO. Nothing fancy like that. I’m the manager, but even as my managerial experience, I can say that beyond leading a team, being in a position where folks who would typically have to–or typically would overlook me actually have to submit to listening to my ideas and my proposals and my direction. It’s been a really interesting experience. 

Ade: Hm. So I hear you, I get your point, but do you perhaps have any examples for us?

Zach: For sure. So a few years ago I was working on a project where I was dealing with a manager, and I was telling them what the approach should be for a specific task. I was walking them through the methodology and just the reason and rationale behind why we were gonna make this approach, and as I’m talking to him his face starts just turning bright red. 

Ade: What? [laughs]

Zach: Yeah. [laughs] Like, it’s like he ate, like, a habanero pepper or a ghost pepper, and he’s trying to hold it in that it’s not spicy. Like, he doesn’t want anyone to know it’s spicy, right? So he’s just sitting in there, and his head is shaking, and he’s got a little vein bulging out the side of his head. I’m like–

Ade: What in the world?

Zach: I know! And so I’m talking to him, and I’m just kind of–I’m just having my normal–I’m not talking at him, right? I’m just talking to him. I’m having a normal exchange, and I’m trying to, like, keep up the same casual cadence of my talk while seeing him clearly, clearly be uncomfortable.

Ade: Huh. So I’m just curious. Like, was there anyone else in the room who saw this? Who, like, witnessed what was going on and pointing it out?

Zach: Yeah. So I was in the room, then my manager was in the room, and he was in the room of course. So they saw this the whole time, and it wasn’t like a one-time occurrence, right? So for those folks listening like, “Well, maybe it was just a one-time thing. Maybe he had a hard day.” He had multiple hard days, okay? 

Ade: [laughs] It be like that sometimes.

Zach: [laughs] Right? It happened so many times. It happened, like, literally every time we spoke. We spoke once a week for, like, two months, two or three months, and I’m like, “This happens every single time.” So now–even when I spoke to my manager about it, I’m like, “Hey, are you noticing this?” Like, “Do you see what’s happening here?” You know, she was even reluctant to admit and acknowledge, like, “Oh, I do notice this,” and so why she was so uncomfortable talking about the situation and why she was even more reticent to talk to other people about the situation, including, like, our project manager, is for another podcast, but needless to say it was pretty weird.

Ade: Okay. Well, I know that you’ve had experiences as a manager. I personally have not. I am, like we’ve said multiple times, at the beginning of my career, but wouldn’t it be great if we had someone on the show who had about 20 years of experience as an executive within the finance industry, which–

Zach: 20 years?

Ade: 20. I would argue that the finance industry is one of the most politically-charged spaces, but you didn’t hear that from me. So I’m not sure. I feel like it would be good if we had someone who has had to climb multiple ladders, maybe build coalitions of support, maybe who has had active participation as a leader in his community and has acted as a mentor to other people of color.

Zach: Hm. You mean like–wait a minute, let me check my notes–you mean like our guest Michael Williams?

Ade and Zach: Whaaaat?

Zach: [imitating air horns]

Ade: Never gonna get tired of that. [laughs] All right, so next we’re going to get into our interview with our guest Michael Williams. Hope you guys enjoy.

Zach: And we’re back. And as Ade said, we have Michael Williams on the show. Michael, thank you for joining us. Welcome to the pod, man.

Michael: Man, thank you so much for inviting me.

Zach: Absolutely. So for those of us who don’t know you, would you mind sharing a little bit about your background?

Michael: Sure, sure. I guess–where to start? I’m originally from Dallas, but I moved here and attended Texas Southern University and the University of Houston. Met my wife, who is an only child, and guess what? I was gonna stay a Houstonian. So after school–I had always wanted to be in banking, so I started down that line of pursuing a career in banking, and I have not looked back since. I guess it’s been going on 27 years. 26, 27 years. Somewhere in there. I need to do the math. It’s in there.

Zach: [laughing] That’s awesome. So when did you first start leading and managing teams in Corporate America?

Michael: So I’ve been leading a team of corporate bankers for about eight years now, and I actually–for the bank I’m currently employed, I actually am what’s called a market president. I run the entire [Southwood?] side for the bank. So I have a team of 13 commercial lenders that work directly for me, and the way we’re structured, while I don’t do anything in the branches, I have three branches–excuse me, five branches where my people are located, but all of those individuals have a dotted line responsibility under me as well. So while I in effect manage 13 directly, I have actually management I guess authority for somewhere over about 40, 45 people.

Zach: Wow, that’s amazing. So, you know, this show we’re talking about–we’re talking about leading while black, and so can you explain a bit for the audience–and shoot, for myself as well–the difference between being a manager and being an executive? And in your career, how do you manage that shift?

Michael: Sure, sure. You know, it’s–one of the things I continue to do is just aspire to read. I’m an avid reader, and I’ve read many books on not only how to manage but also–frankly, if someone would have told me management was more about managing the people relative to how they coexist, I would’ve actually got–instead of getting a degree in finance, I would’ve gotten a degree in psychology, because really that’s where the buck stops. If you can understand that you have influence as a manager, you can easily–and I don’t mean just regular influence. I mean you have to understand that everything you do has the ability to set the table up for your future, and those decisions that you make, you need to be calculating because you have the ability to influence people without you even knowing it. And so when I made the switch is when I decided to get an advocate for me at a senior level that allowed that person to see me and my skill set and be able to be my advocate above my pay grade to allow people to say, “Okay, this guy, he not only knows what he’s doing, but he’s also someone that we can actually incorporate into our senior management team.”

Zach: That’s really interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about when you say advocate and really what you mean when you say advocate, and what were some of the things that they were able to do for you as you were able to transition into that next level of leadership?

Michael: Sure. Here’s the one thing we all have to–the people who–the vast majority of your audience needs to understand. As a minority–and I’m African-American, so as an African-American minority, the one thing that we don’t have is direct access to the highest levels of any corporation, and in many instances, as it stands today, there are not gonna be a lot of people that look like us. And so I remember back when I was at another institution and there was one senior-level African-American gentleman there. That individual decided that it was in his own best interest not to uplift and promote and advocate for younger African-Americans. It was a sad–it was a sad sight to see. It was a very difficult experience to go through personally, but what I learned from that, I took away from that is I will never do that to anyone.

Zach: Amen.

Michael: Because people sitting back trying to figure out how to gain more ability–excuse me, more control and/or allow their skill set to show that they have the ability to be at the next table, and he would block them 100%.

Zach: Wow.

Michael: And so my career has been all about making sure that I help those coming behind me who have the requisite skill set and the requisite training. That’s first and foremost. So in terms of–in terms of understanding your point, how you make that switch, the biggest thing is you need to–I said find an advocate, but you also, in my mind, have to bring people up behind you that are highly competent and qualified, and now you’ve got this team of people around you, and if you have that advocate, they see that and they want talent. They want talent absolutely. They just have not been used to having talent, and they certainly–in terms of African-American talent. So they don’t necessarily embrace that, but what they do is they lead those people to the side to try to figure out who’s on first, what’s on second, and how you actually get to tell them you’re on first and John is on second and Theodore is on third or whatever the case is is you have to embrace getting someone to get to know you. So in my–in my (life?) career, when I figured that out in my previous institution, I actually had the chairman of the bank–excuse me, the president of the bank here in Texas as my mentor. Today, I’ve got the president of the bank as my mentor. He is the #2 in the bank. We meet on a quarterly basis. I don’t ask him for anything. I ask him for his time, and I want to share his–I want him to share his thoughts, and he wants to hear my thoughts about a various, just a various amount of things. It has nothing to do directly with “How do I get promoted?” “How do I do this?” It’s all about just communication, because what I’m trying to do and what I have learned, if you break those walls down and are able to communicate, then that allows that person to see you as someone that they can feel comfortable with, and that really is the biggest barrier to any minority trying to break into the upper levels of executive management if it’s not your company because they don’t know us as a people, as a rule. All they do is listen to, unfortunately, Fox News and other similar detracting and negative news accounts about us as a people in general, and they make these generalizations without knowing you individually.

Zach: We introed the show talking about and sharing a story from Bernard Tyson, who is the CEO of Kaiser Permanente, his experience in having to deal with individuals who had never worked with a black man as a peer. So I’m curious to know how many instances you’ve had where you’ve said, “Wow, you’ve clearly never worked with a black man before.” Like, has that happened? And if so, would you mind sharing a story or two?

Michael: Sure, sure. That has absolutely happened, and you could see it coming 100% down the line. It’s amazing. I’ve had it happen so many times, but I remember a couple of different instances. I’ll give you a couple stories. One, as a young analyst, you know, all of us who come through commercial lending, investment banking, all of these corporate-type lending groups, we all have to go through this vetting process and this training process, and it’s generally about a year, and we’d learn all this stuff, and then we’re out–we’re put into these groups, and we’re analysts, so we’re at the bottom of the rung, right? We’re [runts?]. And so I’m in this group, and this–[laughs] calling him a gentleman is good. It’s way above where he was in [inaudible], however this gentleman ran the group, and this was–this was in the early ’90s. And so this guy–to give you kind of just an overall view of who he is, this guy would smoke in his office. It was illegal to smoke inside of the building, but he would smoke in his office. But he was an old head, he was a successful old head, and senior management didn’t bother him. So they let him smoke in his office. Well, okay. So this guy, the manager of group, he was clear that he did not like me, and he made himself clear by several different things that he did. And I’ll give you one nice example. So I am in the habit of drinking a gallon of water today, and actually I still do that to this day, and I had my jug that had a lot of water in it, and we were in meetings, and he turns to me in front of everybody and says, “Why do you have all that water?” “Because I like to drink a lot of water.” He said, “Well, you know what? That is so sophomoric of you. It’s like you’re a little kid with a jug.” I was like, “Whoa. Okay, this is just water.” So we go forward. I take that as a note and I keep moving. Of course I didn’t get rid of my water. I just decided to hide it from him all of the time. So there was an instance where when we get into work in the morning we would go get something to eat for breakfast, ’cause typically we’d have to get in early, so we typically would get something to eat for breakfast. My counterpart, the young analyst that was with me, would go–she would check into the office, sit down, turn her computer on, and then go get something to eat. I would go get something to eat, come back, check in and sit down and get something–and start working. I was told that I was habitually late. Now, mind you, I got in before it was the normal working hours all of the time, but because I got breakfast first, came back to my desk, she came to her desk, checked in, meaning face time–and I’m using total air quotes right now–

Zach: Right. [laughs]

Michael: Meaning face time. It was acceptable to do what she was doing and unacceptable to do what I was doing, and these are very small, minor things, right? Well, one thing everyone needs to take away from anything–if you don’t take anything else away from what I’m saying, it is absolutely this – you cannot progress, move up, move forward in any career unless management likes you. Period. Stop. End of story. You could be the most highly-qualified, the brightest–have the brightest mind, have the best work ethic, but if your manager does not like you you will not be able to move up. As a matter of fact, your job is in peril and you don’t even know it.

Zach: So that was when you were, you know, a new analyst. You were coming in. You were getting hired. You’re working for the old head. Was there anybody–was there any instance or experience you had as a leader where you were like, “Wow. Okay, you’ve clearly never dealt with a person of color before.” 

Michael: Oh, sure. Sure. So we’re working on a very sizeable transaction, and my team is managing–I am managing my team, and it’s one of my lender’s opportunities, and this deal is north of $100 million, so it’s gonna be a nice year–

Zach: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa. You said one zero zero million dollars?

Michael: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. I do corporate lendings, so, I mean, I’ve worked on several significant-sized transactions for many publicly-traded companies in my past.

Zach: Wow.

Michael: So at any rate, this is gonna be our year. This deal is basically gonna make our year. So this is my deal. We’re working on it, and unbeknownst to me there was some chatter in the background by a counterpart, so another manager, and this person made some questionable comments about me and my ability to lead us through the closing of this deal. I had never even interacted with this guy, so the things that he was saying about me and my inefficiencies. He went on about being efficient, not having ever done a deal of this size before, it actually needs to be done by him and his group. 

Zach: Wow.

Michael: You know? And I sat back and I said, “Wow, interesting.” For me, one of the things I’m real keen on is documentation, and so along the way of that particular process I was able to have my documentation in order so that the president, who was the final arbiter, came down to find out what was going on and why we were having some discord, and I simply said, “I’m not sure.” And this is another nice little note here. Michelle Obama said it best. “When they go low, we go high.” Never get into the mud when people are throwing mud at you. Never. Never. Because you will never win that situation as a minority. You will never win that situation. Even if you win that situation, you’ve lost. You’ve just lost because they’re already afraid of you, they don’t know you, and then now you’ve got quote-unquote real with somebody, oh, they don’t want you around. They don’t want you around. That scares the living crap out of them.

Zach: But this is my thing. So Michael–like, for those–you know, I’ve known you, or at least I’ve known of you for a while, and so I know–but you are a keep it real type of dude, and you’re definitely not, like, a back down kind of guy. So let’s talk about this documentation and how you stood up for yourself, right? ‘Cause I know that’s not who you are, so let’s keep it real, right? Like, let’s–

Michael: [laughs] Oh, you are so real with it, and I will admit 100% to have always been an enforcer. I’m just gonna be clear about that. I’m not gonna lie about who I am as a person. 

Zach: Amen. [laughs]

Michael: I grew up–I didn’t give you all of the background, but I grew up in the projects of south Dallas. So I grew up fighting. I know how to fight, man. That’s not even a question. These hands are real good. These hands are real good. However, what I’ve–what I’ve learned over my career is that in order for me to be who I want to be–and now, maybe earlier on I probably would’ve put hands on him or done something that probably would have not allowed me to move forward as far as I have today, however he caught me at a time in my life where I know better, and I know that I am–my level of intelligence taught me early on, through my mistakes probably, but I wanted to be able to be smarter, more intelligent, and more calculating. I can’t say that enough. Here’s my phrase that I say all of the time. “I play chess, not checkers.” And in life and in Corporate America, it’s always chess. If you think you’re playing checkers, you’ve just lost. It’s always chess. You’ve got to think two to three steps ahead and why is that going on and why did that just happen? See, it just didn’t happen for a reason. Something happened. And oh, by the way, there are multiple conversations going on without you even knowing about it. You don’t even know conversations are happening and they’re happening. So it’s not about trying to be paranoid or being paranoid. It’s all about realizing that they’re having these conversations, making these judgments, making some assumptions about you without you even knowing about it. So go back to your question. I have always documented what’s going on, and I’ve always done that to the point of understanding two things. One, it helps me to make sure I’m clear about what’s going on, and then two, there’s a little saying–although I’ve never been soothed, there’s a little saying that says, “Everything is discoverable,” meaning I look at–I look at every situation like there’s a lawsuit pending, and as long as I’m looking at it like there’s a lawsuit pending or this could promote a lawsuit, I make sure that not only am I keeping my ducks in a row, but I make sure I limit the things that I say that are a part of public record, be it in writing or orally, because I want to limit my exposure while documenting and keeping up with what everybody else is doing.

Zach: See, the thing about it is I’m kind of–I’m kind of shook, to be honest with you. Right? [laughs] I’m kind of like, “Okay.” Like, I’m listening to you, and honestly I’m hoping that my sound man puts a little bit of House of Cards type music in the background because I’m hearing what you’re saying. I don’t disagree, right? So this is just good information to have, and I’m a few rungs down the ladder, and so politically understanding how to navigate these spaces–and there are plenty of people who are listening to this show who are aspiring to get there. I’m curious though. We have folks in our spaces, and I think as you know when you look at the history of civil rights and just black liberation, you have to have allies. You have to have folks that don’t look like you who are advocating for you. You talked about advocacy at the beginning of our interview. I’m curious to know–you know, there are people who do look like us, but there are people who don’t look like us also who listen to this show who are passionate about diversity and inclusion, who are passionate about being supportive and really leading that next generation. What advice do you have, right, for our non-Wakandan brothers and sisters listening in?

Michael: As I cross my arms and let my fists down.

Zach: And bounce your shoulders a little bit. [laughs]

Michael: [laughs] Right, bounce up a little bit. Let me tell you this. The thing that I can say is judge people–I mean, it’s funny. MLK said it best. “Judge people for the content of their character, not for the color of their skin.” Yes. Are there people out there that have–are trying to run a [gang?] Maybe not as qualified but have snuck into the door, yes, but guess what? That’s on both sides. 

Zach: Hm.

Michael: That is not exclusive to minorities, and in particular African-American minorities. That’s on both sides of the equation. So judge people for their content, their capacity, and their intellect. That’s how you–that’s how someone with aspirations of being an advocate can do–get work in whatever their chosen field of human endeavor is, because there–first of all, there’s not enough room at the top for everyone. Period. Stop. End of story. Full stop. However, people get passed over for reasons that, in a lot of instances, didn’t have to be necessarily. But it happens because that’s life, right? You know, life is truly Mike Tyson’s big ol’ heavy hands. It just keeps coming at you, and you’re gonna get your butt knocked down, and you gotta figure out whether or not you can get up and/or have the will and the power to get up because they gonna come right back at you. Those people who get up, those people who have that fighting instinct, who are intelligent, who are hungry, those are the individuals. If you can just look at them for who they are and what they bring to the table, that’s a good deal.

Zach: Absolutely. I’m curious–I’m curious about this, kind of as a follow-up to really what you just said. You know, are there any–are there any specific experiences or points of advice you’ve received in your career that have stuck with you and really helped you drive and continue forward to the place where you are today?

Michael: One, have that drive, have that inquisitive nature. Always ask the question. You don’t ever know what the answer is, nor should you think you would know the answer, but you’ve got to be willing to ask the question. And once you ask the question? Oh, by the way, learn and don’t repeat whatever it is you did before. Okay? So I’m a big one-time guy. Ask me the question or let me ask the question one time or tell me one time, I got it. I’ve got to move forward. Now, the responsibility thereafter is on me ’cause you told me. So now I want to demonstrate whatever it is. I have the capacity not only to remember what’s supposed to happen here but to incorporate it into what I’m doing and move forward. That’s one. Two, more important than anything else, never ever lose yourself. Whoever you are, it is you. God brought you into this world. Your experiences up to whatever that point is have made you who you are. Never lose yourself. Learn to navigate within the political world that we live in, especially in Corporate America, and refine your edges. Like you said, you’ve known me. You guessed that I was a fighter, [laughs] but I’ve learned to smooth my edges out and to be able to be–to walk in any room and strike up a conversation. Insert name here, insert title here puts his pants on every single day like I do, one leg at a time. So he’s no more special than I am in that regard. All he has done is he has made himself or have been able to get the breaks to make himself–put himself in a leadership position. Maybe at the top of the company. Maybe at the next level. It doesn’t matter. He’s still a person who puts his clothes on–his pants on one leg at a time, therefore I have the ability to interact with this person and find maybe some level of commonness that would allow us to engage in conversation and then, again, continuing to erode any kind of preconceived notions and ideals about who I am simply because I showed up and my skin was a little bit darker than yours. 

Zach: This is just so helpful, Michael. Thank you so much for joining us today. Before we let you go though, do you have any plugs? Any shout outs?

Michael: Oh, what could I shout out? I could shout out my wife’s foundation. I lost my wife now seven years ago to breast cancer, and I started a foundation for her in an effort to help find a cure for this dreaded, horrible cancer called triple negative DCIS cancer. It is one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer for–unfortunately for African-American women, and we have an annual walk to celebrate her life, but also to raise funds. We raise funds through corporate giving as well. The website is www.YEF.org, and that stands for Yolanda E. Williams Foundation. YEF.org. You can go on the site. We’re preparing for our October walk now. The date has not been set. We will be doing that in a matter of weeks, and you can go on the site and check that out. And so my plug is help me figure out, through raising funds and donating to research, how to get rid of this scourge called triple negative DCIS breast cancer. I don’t want anything else.

Zach: Amen. So this is what we’re gonna do. So first of all, we’ll make sure that we have that website in our show notes, and we’ll shout that out when we publish this, and then what we’ll also do is when you confirm the date, Michael, let us know, and we’ll make sure that we shout that out on the podcast as well.

Michael: I will do just that.

Zach: Okay. Well, first of all, just thank you so much for joining the call. I appreciate you joining the show. I appreciate the insights and just stories that you’ve been able to share. We wouldn’t have had you on the show if we didn’t know and trust that you would give us honest, frank, transparent conversation, and I believe we’ve had that today. We’d like to think you’re a friend of the show, and I want to thank you again, and we hope to have you back real soon.

Michael: I look forward to it.

Zach: All right, Michael.

Michael: Count me as a friend.

Zach: I will. All right, now. Peace.

Michael: All right. Thank you.

Ade: And we’re back. Zach, that was a great interview. One thing it did remind me of though was the fact that we interviewed a black man, but because the way the system is set up–you know, sexism, racism, and all of the other -isms–I believe that if we had had a black woman on the show talking about this we might’ve had a slightly different conversation due to the relationship of being a black woman in positions of authority.

Zach: You know what, I agree. If you don’t mind though, go ahead and expound on that.

Ade: Right. So I’m sure you’ve heard of intersectionality, although for those of our listeners who haven’t, it’s simply the idea that there are–that your identity form different axes of the way you relate with the world, and so that means your relationships with the world and with certain aspects of the world such as Corporate America as a black man differs from mine as a black woman, and there are different aspects of that. So your sexuality also interacts with that. Your age interacts with that. Your class interacts with that. And so all of that said, I think that if we think about things like the angry black woman trope and how that would reflect in being a leader and how, for example, black women usually aren’t allowed to get angry or to express dissatisfaction with anything, otherwise it’s “Oh, she’s so bitter. She’s so angry,” as opposed to “No, I’m rightly disappointed in your work product,” and all the other ways in which that could affect, you know, the final outcome as a–as a leader. I definitely would like to have that conversation with a black woman in maybe a part two, you know?

Zach: You know what? That’s a good point, and I agree. Let’s make sure that we get a part two on the schedule and get going on that.

Ade: Most def. I definitely want to interview, like, an Oprah. Trying to get my auntie on the show. Maybe a Viola Davis. Let’s see what we can pop on. How are you feeling?

Zach: I feel great about that. You said a Viola Davis?

Ade: Or an Oprah. You know, I’m not too picky.

Zach: An Ava DuVernay, perhaps?

Ade: Ava DuVer–see? [inaudible]

Zach: Maybe an Issa Rae?

Ade: Stop it. I have a girl crush on her. I have a crush crush on her, but I also have a girl crush on her.

Zach: I have an artistic cross on Issa Rae for sure. I was gonna say Issa DuVernay, which would be an amazing combination if both of those, like, fused into one person. My gosh.

Ade: Oh, my God. Think of awkward black girl but [shot by?]–

[Sound Man throws in a swerve sound effect]

Zach: What?

Ade: [laughs] Okay, now we’re going down different tangents. Okay, anyway. Today we have a listener letter, so as a reminder to everybody at home, we encourage conversation, and so we’re looking forward to reading any letters, comments, questions from everyone. So let’s get into it. So today we have this letter. We’re gonna call this listener Nicole, and let’s read Nicole’s thoughts. Okay, so it says, “Hi, guys.” Hi. “I love your podcast and your insightful advice. This is a career question.” All right, let’s go. “I usually don’t ask anyone I don’t personally know about advice, but when I told my circle of friends about this particular situation they were stumped. They didn’t know what to say, so here we go. I’ve been at my job for close to three years, and I’ve adapted to the many changes that came within my department. A year in, I got switched to a different sector of my department, which meant that I was part of a team of two – the manager and I. My manager has been working with this company for close to ten years and is jaded by all of the politics that comes with working at a large company and in our department. She’s much older than me and has been working in this particular industry for decades. My manager and I obviously make for a small department since it’s just the two of us, but we’re overloaded with work and last-minute projects, which sucks, but it’s part of the inner workings of the culture. Anyway, very recently my manager was having a meeting with the director during which the convo switched to me. I was not attending the meeting, but my name came up. The director then asked my manager, “How are you expanding her role?” It seemed as though it was a slew of questions about my potential and what my manager was doing for me in order to make that happen. This didn’t seem to go over too well. When I came back from lunch, my manager was venting to me about this meeting. She basically told the director that if she, being my manager, is unclear of her own role and didn’t see how she could advance in the company, how could she advance me? And this is just a paraphrasing of the events. And so while she was venting I was simply nodding my head because what else could I say to someone who feels stuck in their job and is managing me? For someone who is much older, I thought she was gonna be a good example, but I’ve come to realize she isn’t. Lately I’ve been looking for new jobs that pay better because even though my department seems to make millions for the higher-ups, they’re stingy when it comes to raises. I’ve only received one raise, which equated to pennies in my paycheck.” Pennies? Oh, Lord. Okay, all right. Anyway. “Should I hit the pavement looking for a new job that pays more or should I try to stick it out and work with my jaded manager? Thanks again, and I hope to get some encouraging advice. Nicole.” My goodness. Okay, Nicole. There’s so much happening here. I don’t–I hate to sound like a typical situation, but this really did rock Zach and I when we gave this a first read-through. And so, Zach, if you don’t mind, I’m just gonna go ahead and give my thoughts on it. Or did you want to go first?

Zach: The floor is yours.

Ade: Okay. So as I see it, there are, like, several different layers of suck here. I’m sorry that–first of all, I’m sorry that you’re going through this. It’s not a fun or funny situation when you feel as though your career is in the hands of someone who doesn’t care about you, but like I said, there are several different layers, and I think it would be best to separate all of those things. So on the one hand, you have a situation where–and at the beginning of Living Corporate, we actually had–I believe it’s our very first episode–where we were talking about separating your sponsors for your mentors, knowing the two and leveraging the two. Currently I believe what you need is a sponsor, not a mentor. Your current mentor isn’t doing her job. And then the other issue is the matter of your money and getting a new job. So I’m just gonna address them one after the other. So I believe you need to go on the hunt for a sponsor, whether that is within your company, somebody who has a role that you eventually see yourself taking. So obviously this requires first figuring out what you want your trajectory to be at this current moment. That doesn’t mean that it can’t change, but I believe that everybody needs a five-year plan for themselves. And so in five years, where do you see yourself? In ten years, where do you see yourself? And find people who have optimized their career and go talk to them, whether it’s within your company or without. Go on coffee dates. Hit people up on LinkedIn. And I promise you that’s not a weird thing. I just came to realize that myself. Like, I’ll hit up people on LinkedIn and just kind of ask them to go for coffee or, you know, get their thoughts on certain things. So that’s one. The other is that, you know, I understand that you might be feeling hurt, but what your manager is going through is about her and not you, and so although it feels as though she’s kind of set herself up as a barrier instead of helping you in your career, I wouldn’t take that too personally. Don’t let that reflect in your work. If anything, allow that to spur more conversations with, again, those sponsors that you’re looking for because they’re the ones–within your company, they’re the ones who will be putting you on new projects, who will be putting you in places, in rooms, in situations where they feel you have the potential to progress. And outside of your company, those sponsors are the ones who will slide you those job links like, “Hey, I saw this come up. I think you’d be a perfect fit in this situation. What do you think? Go ahead and apply,” which brings me to my next point. Any raise that’s pennies per paycheck–

Zach: Yeah. If that’s literal then yeah, that’s a pause-worthy statement.

Ade: Yeah, that’s not it. That’s not the lifestyle that I’m hoping and praying for for all my people. I was actually just having this conversation with a group of my friends that closed mouths don’t get fed, and it’s very typical, particularly of people of color, particularly of women of color, to feel as though we should be grateful for, you know, the pennies as opposed to asking for the thousands, and I don’t know if that’s gonna, for you, look like–and this is all gonna be personal to you, whether you feel as though you need to be in this company and so you need to figure out how to have the conversation about raises or if you need to step outside and start looking for new jobs. And to that I would say optimize your LinkedIn, get your resume together. If you need to find a professional to look at your resume for you or if, again, those sponsors that you’re looking for can take a look at your resume and help you in that regard. But I would definitely say you should start networking. Go to industry events. So whatever your industry is, Meetup is a really good place to find organizations or groups where you can network and meet people and kind of–if you have business cards–give your business cards out, ask people out to coffee at those events. People there are open and willing to mentor you, but you just have to ask. And so those would be my two biggest recommendations for you, and definitely, definitely, definitely keep your head up because this is something that I can relate to personally, and I’m sure Zach has, in some form or fashion, been in a position where he’s had to advocate for himself, but you are always your own best advocate, and so this is just a matter of fine-tuning the language and finding the people who are willing to listen to you. Zach, what you got?

Zach: Yeah. I mean, one I absolutely agree with your point, right? With all the points that you’ve made. Ultimately, just to keep it a little bit more succinct, I think it comes down to two things. First of all, you are your best advocate, and then two it’s your own career. So it’s really one point, right? So you have a couple things here, right? So you have challenges internally where you have your manager who’s a bit frustrated and jaded to the language that you’re used to, and you now have concerns if they’re going to be able to advocate for you. Well, like to what we’ve been saying, rejecting the premise that anyone else is responsible for advocating for you and that you own your career, it starts with you saying, “Okay, what is it that I want to achieve here?” And then just talking to people, knocking on doors inside your company and being like, “Look, this is what I want to do. This is how I want to do it. Can you help me?” And be comfortable with the people who say no. And they may say no by just flat out saying no. They may say no by just not following up. They may say no by some long-winded answer, but just be comfortable with the people saying no ’cause eventually you’ll find someone saying yes. Now, if you can’t find the yes internally then it is time to leave, and you already were talking about the fact that you’re looking for–you’re exploring another opportunity. So your salary–like, your salary is a personal problem. So what do I mean by that? Your salary is a personal problem, meaning you having an issue with your salary, that’s an issue between you and you. So you need to figure out a way how you’re gonna answer that question. So are you going to get put together a case internally and say, “Hey, look. This is the number I’m looking for because I haven’t had a raise in this many years,” or “I’ve only had this one raise,” or whatever the case is, or are you going to find another job, right? So plenty of studies show that when it comes to job hunting, you know, you’re gonna get a bigger bump transitioning away from a company than you are staying inside. And I’ll–there might be people who argue or disagree with me on that. If you do, please send in a letter, send in your comments. And there’s more to a job than just your salary, but my point is you have to figure out a way to address that for yourself, right? And, like, I’m not attacking you. I definitely understand where you’re coming from. I’ve definitely been there, where I’ve got caught up in the illusion of waiting for people to advocate for me, but I realized that people only advocate for you as much as it helps themselves. And so your manager who has her frustrations and things of that nature, that’s perfectly human, and she shouldn’t be shamed for that. At the same time, that’s not your problem. Your problem is how are you gonna make sure that you take care of yourself? So Nicole, like, we’re really excited about you sending us another letter, like, letting us know what’s going on. We definitely are praying for the best. There’s definitely a lot going on for sure, but yeah, advocate for yourself. And we actually have an article dropping on Living Corporate soon about strategic self-advocacy, so keep an eye out for that. If you have any additional questions, just reach back out and we’ll make sure to chop it up. Offline.

Ade: And definitely thank you for writing us and trusting us with this. So that about wraps it up for our listener letter portion of the segment. As a reminder, we do encourage conversation, so please reach out if you have any questions, comments, or concerns for us.

[segment break]

Ade: All right, y’all. It is another episode of Favorite Things. So I have a confession actually, guys. Please, please, please keep this on the downlow, as I say this on a podcast. I had my first bite of mac and cheese recently. I know. I know.

Zach: Your first bite? Like, you’ve just now–you’ve just now tried–

Ade: I just–like, I literally just tried mac and cheese, and it was–and I feel like the only real reason that I liked it was because it was a seafood mac and cheese because I’ve always been really, really averse to cheese, but I’ve only recently started being okay with it. Like, it doesn’t automatically make me nauseous. And so, like, I had my–my friend made–there was a kickback, and my friend made seafood mac and cheese, and I was like, “Seafood? I guess I can give it a shot.” I don’t know what that voice was. [laughs]  But I gave it a shot and I ate it, and it was good. Like, it was really, really good, and I was like, “Hold on, wait a minute. Are you telling me that I’ve been missing out on deliciousness this whole time?” I was like, “No, this is probably a one-off. It’s because of the seafood.” And then I went to another event with friends, and my friend made just regular old mac and cheese, and I was like, “You know what? I’m gonna give it another shot,” and it was astounding.

Zach: [laughs] It was astounding?

Ade: Astounding. Astounding. Are you kidding me? And so now I am mad that I have wasted all of these years of my life not eating cheese, specifically not eating mac and cheese, especially since I apparently make good mac and cheese, but I’ve never eaten it because I’ve always been afraid of what it does to my life afterwards–of what cheese does to my life. And so now I’m just trying to spend all this time, like, making up for lost time.

Zach: With cheese.

Ade: With mac and cheese, to be specific. 

Zach: With mac and cheese, to be specific. Okay. First of all, that’s very funny. 

Ade: [laughs]

Zach: Because mac and cheese is–first of all, it’s just such a common dish from my perspective, right? But at the same time I’m excited for you, and I actually think what we should do is maybe add a fun segment from time to time just called Ade’s Cheese, right? Like, where you try, like, a new cheese, right? So, like, maybe next time you try Gouda, and then another time you try feta. 

Ade: Actually–it’s so funny you say that because I bought a smoked Gouda from the Amish [inaudible] market in my apartment, and it’s in my fridge right now, okay?

Zach: Okay. So okay, great. So look, let’s take a note ’cause the next time–the next time we’re together we’ll bring up your review on Gouda. 

Ade: Look, listen. I actually already took a slice of it with some pepper jelly, and I want to fight every single one of my friends who did not inform me that cheese was this good.

Zach: Right. Now, look, cheese is–cheese is good. Like, it’s a seller for a reason.

Ade: I want y’all to know that there’s no way you love me and left me out of the secret for this long.

Zach: Nah, see–actually, I challenge that, right? I challenge that because they could’ve been holding you back from cheese purely for the health reasons, right? Like, there’s no–

Ade: Nah, forget all that, because, like, they watch me eat three slices of cake and they actually encourage me. Like, “Here, have my slice of cake.” 

Zach: Okay. Well, then I understand your frustration.

Ade: See? Mm-hmm. They’re not loyal. Not a single one of ’em. [laughs] My only other thing this week, it’s a book called Perfect Peace by Daniel Black. So it’s a book about what happens–there are several different themes. Part of it is gender. Part of it is, like, family betrayal. And so, like, the plot is it’s this family in the rural south. Mama has six boys already, and she’s pregnant with her seventh, and she, the whole time, is thinking, “Oh, this is gonna be my girl.” She has a lot of issues surrounding her relationship with her mother, and so she wants to really, like, nurture a girl, a daughter. Turns out that she has a son, and so what she decides to do is raise her son as a daughter, and so she names this boy Perfect. Their family’s called Peace. And so Perfect is raised, up until he’s 8, as a girl. It’s just this really, really gripping story about, like, love and family and what it means to–like, what gender means and what family means and what truth means and all of these other things, and you find yourself just, like, shocked every other page. But yeah, that’s my favorite thing, and that was a whole lot, but I hope y’all take a look. What about you, Zach?

Zach: Well, first of all, that’s cool. We’ve got to make sure that we add Perfect Peace to our reading list.

Ade: Oh, yeah.

Zach: That’s right. Make sure you check out our reading list. It’s great. So sticking with my record of aggressive book titles, my favorite thing right now has to be this book I’m rereading called This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed by Charles Cobb. It explores the history of nonviolence during the civil rights era and its function. It also breaks down the history and culture of gun ownership for black people in America. It’s a really interesting read. Academic while not being too heavy. It’s just a really approachable book, and it’s also on our reading list, so make sure you check that out.

Ade: And that’s our show. Thank you for joining us on the Living Corporate podcast. Make sure to follow us on Instagram at LivingCorporate, Twitter at LivingCorp_Pod, and subscribe to our newsletter through www.living-corporate.com. If you have a question you’d like us to answer and read on the show, please make sure you email us at livingcorporatepodcast@gmail.com. Also, don’t forget to check out our Patreon at LivingCorporate as well. And that does it for this show. My name’s Ade.

Zach: And this has been Zach.

Ade and Zach: Peace.

Kiara: Living Corporate is a podcast by Living Corporate, LLC. Our logo was designed by David Dawkins. Our theme music was produced by Ken Brown. Additional music production by Antoine Franklin from Musical Elevation. Post-production is handled by Jeremy Jackson. Got a topic suggestion? Email us at livingcorporatepodcast@gmail.com. You can find us online on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and living-corporate.com. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned.

Support Our Mission of Amplifying Underrepresented Voices...

Living Corporate’s mission is singular in purpose, but diversified in approach. From our podcasting, to live events around the US, to our giveaways. 

Through Our Podcasts

Our podcast garners over 10K downloads a week and reaches black and brown executives, millennials, college students, creatives and influencers. 

Through Our Visual Media

We host a variety live, interactive web series for Black and brown early, mid, and late careerists that have a global reach. 

Through Our Resources

We connect our audience with valuable resources from resume services, certification prep materials, conference,  attendance sponsorship, and Living Corporate merchandise. Join our newsletter to learn more.


Select Payment Method
Personal Info


Donation Total: $10.00 One Time


Join Our Community

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

Living Corporate will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.