Dear graduating college class of 2021, congratulations! Despite all that’s occurred over the past year and a half, you graduated. And now you’re transitioning into the next chapter of your life, which for many of you, means entering the workforce.
Well, buckle up; the next 12 months will be a roller coaster. Whether it’s moving to a new city, moving back home with your parents, dealing with post-college depression, landing your first job, or adjusting to working a 9-to-5, you will endure some challenges.
Today, I want to address a specific group of you, my black college graduates from PWIs, to prevent you from making a mistake that 90% of us make in our transition to Corporate America. Before we get started, I’ll briefly share my background. But for those who don’t feel the need to validate my credibility on this topic, feel free to skip to the next section.
I had an exceptional college experience at The George Washington University School of Business, where I graduated with a degree in Finance. Let me share some of what I did during my 4 years.
On-campus, I was heavily involved in the business school. My sophomore year, I co-instructed our mandatory freshman business class. Traveled on behalf of the university for the Undergraduate Leadership Business School Conference and won Sophomore of the Year. My junior year, I participated in our school’s study abroad program in Paris. Competed in various case competitions on behalf of my school locally and nationally.
My senior year, I worked for our career center, where I gave presentations, advised students, reviewed resumes, and more. I wasn’t a symbol of black excellence but excellence. Postgrad, I went on to work for PwC in NYC as a regulatory transformation consultant for two years, working with everyone from top-tier investment banks to retail conglomerates.
Now that we’re clear on my background let’s get into the message.
The mistake many black students make is believing that because they attended a PWI and had success that they’re prepared for Corporate America. But this is far from the truth; let me explain.
At most PWIs, black students form a sub-community, “the black community,” where they find friendship and fellowship. It serves as an escape from the “dominant” culture. I had a clear division between my academic/extracurricular life and my social life. The people I spent 99% of my leisure time with were people in the black community.
As a black student at a PWI, you can succeed in college with this approach; look at my resume. The problem is that many of us think this formula works in Corporate America — substituting our white classmates for our white co-workers and having lunch with other black employees to escape the “dominant” culture.
In college, separating your social life and academic/ extracurricular life can work because the people evaluating you for opportunities, professors, administrators, and staff, are not involved in the social component of your college experience. However, in Corporate America, this doesn’t work because the people evaluating you are involved in the professional and social part of your work-life.
Truth: Work is political!
If you think you can avoid office politics and get to the top, quit now before you invest too much. I know what you’re thinking. Does that mean I have to stab people in the back and have low integrity? Well, you can, but it’s not required. While some people play the office politics game dirty, you don’t have to. Maybe this sports example will help.
Good athletes study their team’s playbook and their position. Great athletes also watch game-film. Deion Sanders wasn’t the greatest NFL cornerback because he ran a 4.27 40-time, memorized his team’s playbook, and mastered the fundamentals of his position. Yes, it contributed, but what gave him an edge was how he studied his opponents.
In an interview, he said, “I didn’t just study the receivers, and what they were capable of, I studied coordinators, coaches, and quarterbacks… as a player you have to study yourself, the opposing team, the coaches, the game plan, and the situation. All that will propel you to the next level.”
While studying your opponent may not be mandatory, if you want to be a Hall of Famer, you must. Similarly, in Corporate America, the job description doesn’t include lunch with your co-workers, going out for drinks after work, or asking them about their family, but you should if you aspire to rise to the top.
Let’s look at the numbers. A total of 26,682 players have suited up for an NFL game, and there are 346 members of the NFL Hall of Fame; 1% of players become a Hall of Famer. PwC hires about 4,000 to 5,000 entry-level full-time employees each year, and about 200 people become partners each year; at best, 4% – 5% of people become partners.
Talent gets you in the door, but it won’t guarantee that you’ll stay or progress to the top. Many good players have short careers because of politics. Even the best of the best are not above politics. Terrell Owens, arguably the best NFL wide receiver, was skipped over by the Hall of Fame for two years because of his “disruptive behavior.”
The only people whom politics can’t deny are the 1%, but they can be delayed. So if you’re a “bad-ass,” but the corporate politics are not on your side, you’ll eventually make partner, but it will take you longer than it should. Don’t try to be the exception to the rule. Only 1% of people are in the 1%, so it’s a 99% chance that you’re not one of them.
Note: Playing dirty!
Those who play dirty are like football players who steal their opponent’s playbook. I’d be lying if I said cheaters never win because they do. Sometimes they even achieve great success. But at the end of the day, they have to look at themselves in the mirror. If you’re comfortable with that, do you.
Truth: It’s hard
During my internship and full-time experience, I was fortunate to work with individuals who opened the curtains and showed me the reality of Corporate America. Early in my career, I learned that it’s hard for everyone. Initially, I didn’t want to accept it because it was easier to believe that all white people had a paved road to the top. But it’s not true.
Behind the curtains, I saw it all. I won’t name anyone specifically but:
- I saw a woman of color who was not smart beat white men because of her social alliance.
- I saw a black woman who was equally as smart as her white counterparts beat them out because she played the politics game better.
- I saw white men beat other white men who were smarter and better than them because of their relationships.
Most people overlook the social/ relationship-building component of work for the first 3 — 5 years of their career because the early promotions skew towards hard work. But there comes the point where it switches, and now you have to play catch up.
Note: Don’t be fooled.
You don’t know what people are doing behind closed doors. They could be going out for coffee, reaching out for mentorship, calling people on the weekend, paying for career coaches. Don’t be fooled by someone making things look easy. They may tell you it’s luck, and you might think it’s because they’re white; I say believe neither.
Key Takeaway: self-disclosure
Self-disclosure is the communication process by which one person reveals information about themself to another. And it’s the primary means by which we increase the intimacy of a relationship.
Research has found:
- Disclosing information to people increases how much they like us.
- We like people more after we disclose to them.
- We disclose more to people we already like.
In essence, there is a strong connection between self-disclosure and likability. Also worth noting, you damage trust when someone discloses information to you, and you don’t reciprocate. This is seen as a violation of the norm of reciprocity, which says if I tell you something, you must tell me something of equal intimacy.
When I reflect on my time in Corporate America, I realize how much I violated social disclosure norms. In fact, I prided myself on listening to people and having them disclose information to me without having to share anything about myself. At the time, I didn’t realize the difference between the desire to be heard and the desire to be seen.
At a networking event, people engage in conversations to be heard. Skills like active listening and mirroring work well in these scenarios because they demonstrate you’re listening. Without disclosing anything about yourself, people will walk away from the conversations fulfilled because they were heard.
But the goal of relationships is to be seen. And being seen requires reciprocity. I pull back a layer; you pull back a layer. When you don’t engage in reciprocity, people don’t trust you, and ultimately, it limits the intimacy of the relationship.
I’ll share a specific example. I was working on a large engagement, and one Friday, about 10 of us went out for drinks. One of my co-workers said, let’s go around and give a fun fact. One person talked about performing at Carnegie Hall. Another revealed their college nickname and shared some details on their time at Yacht Week. Someone else talked about a wild experience during their backpacking trip in Europe. All Level 2 on the intimacy chart.
Then I gave a Level 1 fact, “I studied abroad in Paris for 4 months.” Looking around, I could see they wanted more. Sitting next to one of the senior people on the team, he jokingly mentioned that I could do more. I thought I’m not telling y’all about my life. At the time, I didn’t realize he was saying, “Nathan, you’re violating the norm of reciprocity.” We’re sharing intimate details about ourselves, and here you are, giving us resume information.
Many black professionals in Corporate America violate the norm of self-disclosure without realizing it. During the Black ERG events, when catching up with other black employees, I heard so many variations of, “my team is complaining that they feel like they don’t know me enough.”
You have to keep that same energy! Match people’s intimacy. It doesn’t have to be in the same category. If someone tells you about how they went crazy Memorial Day weekend in Miami, maybe you tell them about your first stand-up comedy show.
Before I go...
1: Seeing the importance of people liking you doesn’t mean you are seeking validation from others. While developing a pleasant personality will take you far, seeking the approval of others will never work in your favor.
2: If you think you’re going to “fake like” your co-workers to the top, quit while you’re ahead because this mindset is not sustainable. Obligations soon become burdens. So it’s best to build real relationships. Not everyone has to be your best friend but having real relations are important.
Fun Fact: It's levels to this.
Level 1: The fun fact is informational.
- I’m a first-generation Sierra Leonean American.
- I studied abroad in Paris for 4 months and visited Italy, England, Netherlands, and Belgium.
Level 2: The fun fact has a story behind it that’s embarrassing/funny or cool/interesting. It generates the “tell me more” reaction. The subtle difference between Level 1 and 2 transforms you from "a number" to "as person."
- I got into Pigalle’s Paris Fashion Week party and was on stage with Virgil Abloh and Travis Scott. My friend and I met Pigalle’s mother outside the club, and she told the bouncer to let us in.
Level 3: The fun fact is a vulnerability that people may not expect from you. Something that humanizes you. Level 3 is where you want to engage with the people you work with and interact with daily.
- Not many people know this about me, but... I hated reading and writing until my senior year of college. I would drop a class if there were too many papers. As a writer now, sometimes it makes me feel like a fraud…
- One struggle I’ve had that has made me who I am is...
- The bravest thing I’ve ever done was...
Level 3 is probably the highest level you’ll go to in a group setting. Levels 4 and 5 generally occur in one-on-one conversations with your manager, coach, and close work friends.
Level 4: Work intimacy
- Openly express the challenges you’re facing at work. Whether it be struggling with being the only black person on the team or an issue you’re having with your manager.
Level 5: Personal intimacy
- Openly share the full spectrum of your personal life.