4 lessons on how to take charge of your career growth

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I had been working in corporate for roughly 10 years and in 2017, I reached a crossroads in my career. It was brought about by many things – fatigue and frustration being the leading factors.

I’m ambitious, which means I’m always looking for the next thing to conquer. I spent two years asking myself – what next? Where do I go to from here? What position do I see myself in next? With no clear answers, I decided to take a 12-month sabbatical and resigned from my job. I wanted to reflect and figure out how to move forward and what steps to take next. I needed to figure things out without any external pressure.

During my break, I spent hours on my couch or in coffee shops, reading ferociously – trying to find nuggets of information that would help me carve out the next path of my career.

Reading 24-7 meant I spent lots of time at Exclusive Books, browsing the career and self-help section. That’s how I stumbled upon Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené . I’d never heard of it before, but I was immediately intrigued by its bright pink cover. What also caught my attention was “The Black Girl” part of the title.

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I’ve read most career self-help literature, notably Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office, #GirlBoss and Lean In. What I found was that, while they offer worthwhile advice on how to navigate the workplace as a woman, they don’t touch on the experience of the black woman. And the question that popped into my head when I read the blurb on the back cover of Slay In Your Lane is, could this book address #BlackGirlMagic?

Two chapters in and many ‘Yass Girl!’, ‘Oh my God, that is me!’ and ‘And, this happens outside of my circle?’ moments later, I was sold! Even though the book examines the experiences of black women in the UK, who are a minority over there, it has many relevant points for black women around the world. It looks at scenarios of being the only black woman at the table, navigating the working world as a black woman, and the reality of discrimination and how race plays a factor in our lives. There’s a lot that can be taken from this book, especially if you’re just entering the world of work.

For the more experienced looking to further their careers, these are the four gems that may help you shift your career to the next level.

1. Navigating the ‘concrete ceiling’

We’ve all heard of the glass ceiling that women deal with at work, but black women face an even harder reality, which Adegoke and Uviebinené call the ‘concrete ceiling’. Why concrete? Because the added layer is discrimination. How many times have you been the only woman, and more especially the only black woman, at the table? The glass ceiling, the pair argues, is penetrable and can be shattered. Or, you can at least look through it to see what’s happening at the top. The ‘concrete ceiling’, on the other hand, is impenetrable and only a handful have managed to break through.

The reality is that black women are still a minority in executive and leadership positions. When we are given a seat at the table, the expectation is that we are either just there to echo the current status quo, or to represent the realities of all black people. Both scenarios are frustrating – I know because I’ve been there. I’ve been at the table where the imposter syndrome got the better of me and instead of speaking up, I towed the company line. Or, when I was outspoken on matters that relate to representation, I was isolated by my white colleagues and labelled a ‘stirrer’ or having a bad attitude. So how do you navigate the ‘concrete ceiling’ to further your career?

While hard work is important – which means working twice as hard your male counterparts and ensuring that your work speaks for itself – equally important is understanding your own personal brand and work values. In other words, have self-integrity. This will ensure that your values and that of the organisation you work for are aligned. “Don’t be knocking on a door that’s not going to value you,” Adegoke and Uviebinené advise.

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2. Mentoring, coaching and sponsoring

I always assumed that mentoring, sponsoring and coaching were the same thing, but they’re not, Adegoke and Uviebinené explain. “Mentoring is guidance and advice. Sponsoring is someone actively looking for opportunities for you and putting you forward for them. Coaching is actually teaching you the skills: how to influence; how to communicate; how to get by; this is how you should run the meeting and so on,” they state.

All three are essential in your career progression, and you’ll need each one at various stages of your career. When searching for a coach, mentor or sponsor, don’t look too far out of the circle of people you work with, report to or socialise with. I found my coach at my job as a business manager in magazine publishing. I reported directly to the publisher, and she took me under her wing during a critical time in the business due to major restructuring. She taught me the basics of people and business management in high pressure circumstances. I felt like I was getting an MBA crash course. Her assistance was invaluable and boosted my confidence.

At my last place of employment, sponsors were essential for career progression. I found one at a business that I serviced. The company was a multi-national company, and the sponsor was senior and well-placed. He had contacts locally and abroad, and was a mover and shaker. While we never formally had the conversations about him being my sponsor, I developed a good working relationship with him and his team – ensuring that I supplied reports, feedback and any other requirements that he needed well ahead of time. I became his communications right-hand woman. As a result, if I need assistance with a project approval, he was always willing to assist and back me up.

3. Be visible — sell yourself

It’s very easy to get complacent once you get a job, but your primary responsibility is not only to sell yourself to get a promotion, but to constantly make your achievements in your current position known. Adegoke and Uviebinené advise that when you get a seat at the table, do take advantage of it. Speak up in meetings – put your point across. Don’t be afraid to stand out. Find internal outlets to make your contribution and achievements seen. For example, if you’re required to do monthly progress or status update reports, like I was in my last position, don’t be shy to share them with high-ranking colleagues in your division who’d benefit from knowing the information.

At the multi-national organisation I worked for, there were many silos and not everyone was aware of what the other was doing. Reports helped keep colleagues in the loop of what my division was doing on a monthly basis. That helped raise my profile. I dreaded doing them, but I understood they were a necessary evil. In fact, some of the business partners used the reports in board meetings to show what was being done in their business units in PR and communications.

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4. The reality of pay gap

“Be unapologetic about asking for how much money you deserve,” advises rapper Nicki Minaj. There are tonnes of research that show that women earn less than men, and even more studies that show that women don’t negotiate their salaries – we take what’s offered first time around out fear of being seen as ‘pushy’ or arrogant. In many instances, black women earn less than their white female counterparts. Some people think discussing money is tacky. I’ve been that way and didn’t advocate my own salary increases or even basic salary. As Adegoke and Uviebinené advise, you must be aware of your earning potential.

When applying for a job, research the market rate. Do this through recruitment agencies and check the salary scales in job ads. If you’re looking for a salary increase in your current job, then book a meeting with your manager. Be upfront about what the meeting is about. It’s important not to get personal and remain objective. Make sure you have done your research and then highlight specific examples of how you’ve demonstrated your experience and expertise in your current position. Don’t be modest.

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