At the Eighth Annual Black Women on Wall Street gathering, held July 14 at the Bank of America Tower in New York City, a panel of successful women in finance, services and sports gave tips to an audience of mostly aspiring
executives on how to survive and thrive after they are recruited into a corporate environment.
“We can learn from their stories of exemplary success and professional growth in a year where we have all seen a number of changes,” said Geri Thomas, global diversity and inclusion executive for Bank of America, as she introduced the panel. “We are able to hear how they broke through adversity, grew their careers and showed leadership in tough times.”
The event, which followed the Black Women’s Leadership Summit held the same day, was hosted by The Executive Leadership Council, a nonprofit organization established by African-American corporate executives in 1986 as a support network and leadership forum for Black executives of Fortune 500 companies. The panelists were Kerry Chandler, senior vice president, human resources, at the National Basketball Association; Amy Ellis-Simon, managing director, head of Middle Markets and Multi-Product Sales at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch; Carla Harris, managing director at Morgan Stanley; and Nicole Lewis, vice president, global marketing at Kelly Services Inc. All except Chandler are ELC members.
“These women of color executives not only will tell how to survive, but also how to thrive in the world today. It’s a new era and the times demand a new you,” said ELC board member Westina Matthews Shatteen, managing director overseeing community business development at Bank of America/ Merrill Lynch and the architect of “Black Women on Wall Street.”
The panelists advised aspirants to:
Exhibit leadership. Good leaders assemble a team of smart, subject matter experts and are not intimidated by them, Chandler said. “Employees look to us to steer the ship. It’s important to gather input from a circle of individuals whom you trust.”
As a leader, you must “provide air cover for your employees,” Harris added. “If they know that you will cover their back, they will follow you. You also have to be honest with your feedback. Be generous with your ‘attaboys and attagirls’ so that they can take the hard messages. Then you have to give it to them straight — no chaser.”
Find a mentor and a sponsor. Know the difference between the two, Harris warned. “A mentor is a person to whom you can tell the good, the bad and the ugly — someone you trust will give you advice that is tailored to you and your aspirations. A sponsor has to be someone who has a seat at the table in your organization. This is the person who carries your papers into the room where all the crucial decisions about you are made — the hiring, promotions and compensation. Sponsors must be willing to use their political and social capital on your behalf,” she said.
Sometimes you may not know that someone is sponsoring you — they make a decision to sponsor you based on your performance, Chandler said. “But your mentor must be someone who really knows you. When you ask someone to be a mentor, be aware that a meaningful mentoring relationship is a significant time commitment.”
Matthews Shatteen described a good sponsor as someone who will block a bad move that you are about to make because he or she knows what is going to happen at the company but can’t tell you what it is. “If an executive says ‘stop by my office,’ you need to stop by,” she said.
Strike a work-life balance. When her children were born, Lewis said, she decided to move closer to their grandparents. “Now that my children are older, it doesn’t matter as much that Grandma is only seven-and-one-half minutes away, but it does allow me to have some free time. I also rely on my ELC colleagues for their friendship and perspective.”
Ellis-Simon, too, counts on her family to help her balance her profession and her private life. “My family helps me put my life at work in perspective. It’s about finding the time, making
the time and putting yourself first on occasion. It’s critical to have friends and colleagues who understand that struggle.”
Commenting for the “single ladies” in the room, Chandler stressed that work-life balance is complicated and means different things to different people. “If you can establish that you have a high work ethic, if you can build credibility for yourself, they will cut you some slack. You don’t want your job to become your life.”
Get constructive feedback on the job. It’s important to create a safe space for your managers in giving feedback, Harris said. “Don’t go in ready for combat. Instead, use your power to participate in the direction of the meeting: one-third of the conversation should be about last year, and two-thirds should be about what you want to be doing prospectively,” she advised.
Citing recent research from the ELC’s Institute for Leadership Development & Research on African American women executives, Lewis noted that taking managerial feedback was a difficult area for women of color. “That is why it is so important to get the feedback from your own personal board of directors,” she said. “I had to go to people around me who really knew me to get the feedback I needed to grow.”
Get an MBA. The panel was unanimous that a master’s degree in business administration immediately positions a young executive for success and well into her future. Ellis-Simon, who attained the managing director title at Merrill Lynch at a relatively young age and holds only a bachelor’s degree, still advised the audience to attain an MBA. “Plan ahead for when you are in your 40s, 50s and 60s. If you don’t, your road will be more difficult,” she warned.
Even an MBA is not enough these days, noted Lewis. “I took some time off to see the world before I got my MBA,” she said, adding that she did so in order to have a real-life context for what she would learn during her post-graduate studies. “But today you need a second or third language,” she said. “That is the key to all the big jobs.”