I big portion of my work involves teaching really talented and high performing black women how to navigate personal challenges while working for corporations.Over the last couple of years, we’ve all seen an increase in the number of stories about the perils of living while black. One of my mentors, told me many years ago…

“If you’re the chocolate chip sitting on three scoops of vanilla … just know all eyes are on you. You can either learn to live with that fact or you can let it deny you opportunities to excel.”

In my latest podcast, Nathaniel “Nat” Alston, CEO/Founder of the Horizons Group, Board Chair for the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources and a 50-year veteran of “working while black” shared with me what it takes to get to the executive levels, stay there and thrive both professionally and personally.

As I re-listened to the podcast, I was reminded of a client I had a few years ago whom I’ll call Emma. Emma and I met at her office bi-weekly to talk about the people issues on a project she was leading. Emma is black and in her late 3O’s. She was recruited for her IT project management expertise.

For Emma, and anyone who’s a minority, she had to consider how being black and female impacts her leadership style and progress on an implementation project.

Too intense…

…risk getting a reputation as too emotional, being “the angry black woman or worst case scaring your white direct reports, co-workers, colleagues or customers.

On this particular day, Emma told me about her first senior management meeting. It was the first time she saw Tim Gerber, the new CIO who was white and in his mid-forties. As she moved through the room, Tim caught her eye and walked towards her. Emma said, her mind raced as she wondered what to say. Wondering should she start out talking about her latest work assignment or talk about something personal.

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Tim made the decision easy. He smiled and said I’m so glad to finally meet you. Emma was stunned. She said her mind raced … How and why did he know her? Was that a good thing? Was it because she was the only Black director in his department? Since they hadn’t met before, someone was talking about her. So what were they saying… was it good, bad or wrong?

The conversation turned out pleasant and Emma was relieved. As they continued to talk, Mike, a white colleague, walked over and interrupted Emma in mid-sentence saying “how about the game last night? Was Donovan Mitchell on or what?”

Tim laughs and the conversation turns to what happened during the playoffs. Emma recalled feeling slighted, angry and confused when she notices Mike moving in front of her blocking her from Tim’s sight.

She excused herself and walked away thinking any response would just play into the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype.

Have you been there?

If you’re a black woman, the answer is a loud YES!

For every person of color and particularly a woman of color; it’s not a matter of IF but HOW to respond to acts of discrimination, slights, comments designed specifically to demean or disempower them.

Nat says “you have to think of your career as a marathon not a sprint to be played as a chess game not checkers.” If you follow that logic one of the keys to success is hearing the stories of those who’ve gone before, using their lessons to develop the insights and skills to succeed in the long run.

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I hope you’ll click over to hear Nat’s story, the choices and trade-offs he’s made to achieve his personal and professional goals. Our goal is to share what we’ve learned in the hopes of helping you be the best you can be.

Share you story in the comment and if you do listen, let me know what you take away from his many life lessons.

*I take my clients privacy very seriously and therefore never publish their real names. The story is true but I’ve changed their names in order to protect their careers.