Book Aims To Help Black Women Succeed In Corporate America
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, Raul Midon tells us what's playing in his ear.
But, first, we want to talk more about black women and success. Earlier in the program, we told you about the passing of civil rights leader Dorothy Height. It wasn't the only thing she cared about, but it certainly gave Dorothy Height no small pleasure to note that some of today's most visible American women are African-American.
A new milestone was reached last year when Xerox Corporation named Ursula Burns its CEO, making her the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. Still, many women of color believe they are bumping up against a glass ceiling in their careers, both on the basis of race and gender. Now there's a new guide for breaking through. It's called "The Little Black Book of Success: Laws of Leadership for Black Women."
And we're joined now by two of its three authors, Elaine Meryl Brown, she's the former vice president of special markets in the Cinemax Group at HBO. She's also an Emmy award-winning writer and producer. And Rhonda Joy McLean is the deputy general counsel of Time, Inc. They're both with us now. Welcome, ladies, thanks so much for joining us.
Ms. ELAINE MERYL BROWN (Co-author, "The Little Black Book of Success: Laws of Leadership for Black Women"): Thanks for having us.
Ms. RHONDA JOY MCLEAN (Co-author, "The Little Black Book of Success: Laws of Leadership for Black Women"): Yes.
MARTIN: Now, Elaine, let me start with you 'cause you wrote about how this book kind of arose from your own personal girl group.
Ms. BROWN: Yes. Actually, it was the result of a leadership class that I took. And one of the - I actually took the class' advice by starting my own network and getting together a group of senior executives across the Time Warner family. And we called ourselves Girls Night Out. And we would get together on a quarterly basis, you know, have dinner, have fun, talk about life, talk about work and just issues that were important to us. And everything that we discussed, you know, when we got together, stayed within that group. So, there was a great sense of safety and security and trust.
MARTIN: Well, what made you want to then take it further and put it into a group since part of the appeal of that group was that it was private?
Ms. BROWN: One of the things I discovered taking this leadership class was that leadership was not only something that people are born with, that leaders can also be made. And just the thought of all of us, all black women who are in working situations have an opportunity to tap into their leadership potential and develop and maximize their leadership potential. And so, we've all sat down and thought of a great way to do it, which is "Little Black Book of Success."
MARTIN: Rhonda, there are lots of management books out there, you know, self-help books, what do you think this book provides that the others don't?
Ms. MCLEAN: When we started our project, what we found is that there are thousands of books about leadership, you're quite right, but very few by us, for us, about us. And one of the things we wanted to provide was a unique clarification of our history, our opportunities and some practical suggestions for how to move forward, even beyond our own self-sabotaging tendencies, if I can say that. And all of us mentor, all of us have been working at least 30 years or more in many different genres.
And one of the things we learned is that we keep seeing young women, fabulous, brilliant, beautiful young sisters making avoidable mistakes, either because they don't seek out support or they do but don't heed it. Or, I had one lady say to me as she was about to, you know, go on probation and just about to lose her job, I had known her for several years, I said, well, honey, why didn't you come to me? She said: I didn't want to disappoint you. So that said to us, you know, we really we decided to write the book that we wish we had had when we were starting out in our careers.
MARTIN: Rhonda, give me an example of the kind of advice you think that African-American women specifically need to hear. And I'm particularly interested in what you called self-sabotaging behavior.
Ms. MCLEAN: Yes. One of the things we know is that we may have a little bit of insecurity in there, particularly where we're their first and only, which we often still are. And...
MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about the self-sabotaging business that you're telling me about. Like what?
Ms. MCLEAN: Like, they don't speak up or they speak up but in a way that makes people then consider them to be the angry black you-know-what. Because by the time they do speak up, theyre so upset because they haven't spoken up for so long and their ideas have either been passed over or attributed to someone else, that they're angry, rather than keeping what we call a personal leadership notebook where you track your own accomplishments.
One of things weve noticed and that we ourselves have certainly done is to clump together when we find that they are very few of us in an environment. Nothing wrong with getting together; we're not saying that you shouldnt. But what we are saying is that from time to time youre going to have to step out of your comfort zone and go seek out resource people who may not look like you, sound like you, be your age, gender, religion, whatever. And we really try to prescribe some things you can do, questions to ask yourself and steps you can take.
MARTIN: Elaine, you also say in the book, though, youre not crazy, so accept that youre not crazy.
Ms. BROWN: Right. Well...
MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about that.
Ms. BROWN: Well, you know Michel, to add what Rhonda said, one of the chapters that stands out in my mind is, "Dont Let Your Emotions Get the Best of You." And sometimes we as women, and sometimes we as black women, tend to be emotional in the workplace if things dont go in our favor, if things dont go our way. So one of the suggestions we mentioned in the book is the, sort of, a 24-hour rule - is take a step back. You know, think about what was just said to you. Dont react emotionally, because you dont want to give off the perception that youre the angry black women, because that's one of the things we have to begin to separate ourselves from, because that stereotype does exist. And because it does exist, we have to be careful how we communicate and the body language that we use when we do talk to our boss and when we're just in the work environment in general.
MARTIN: Can I just push a little bit on that, Elaine, because some who would say that that's stereotype and that people have heard enough of this from the majority culture. Why are you, you know, perpetuating it...
Ms. BROWN: Right. Well, youre absolute...
MARTIN: ...by saying that black women are emotional or that women are emotional and so therefore, they need to especially check themselves.
Ms. BROWN: Absolutely Michel, there have actually been studies based on this -a Harvard study in particular - that indicates that managers, even though they consider themselves to be fair-minded managers, they do on a subconscious level associate things. This Harvard University study indicated that even the fair, the most - I mean if you were to ask a manager whether or not he or she thought that they were prejudice, they would say, no. But on a subconscious level these things do exist.
MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about "The Little Black Book of Success." Our guests are Rhonda Joy McLean and Elaine Meryl Brown. They're two of the three authors of "The Little Black Book of Success." It's a leadership guide specifically geared to African-American women.
Well Rhonda, just to pick up on this idea...
Ms. MCCLEAN: Yes.
MARTIN: ...if I may, speak for a number of women...
Ms. MCCLEAN: Yes.
MARTIN: ...particularly black women, who feel that they're damned if they do, they're damned if they dont.
Ms. MCCLEAN: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: If youre very driven, demanding of yourself and your colleagues, you know, believe in that old adage, youve got to work twice as hard to be half as good, that kind of thing.
Ms. MCCLEAN: Yes.
MARTIN: Or to be considered half as good, then youre an angry black woman.
Ms. MCCLEAN: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: If you try to build consensus, be the ultimate team player, follow the adage that it doesnt - there's no end to what you can accomplish. If other people take the credit - if you dont care who gets the credit, then youre invisible, your credit for work for work goes to someone else and youre likely to be angry because you didnt get credit for your work.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: So how do you strike that balance?
Ms. MCCLEAN: Youre right. Youre absolutely right that youre damned if you do and youre damned if you dont. And we tried to address both damnations in the book. You actually do have to be able to stand on your own and take the fact that you may be called many things. But, you know, leaders need to be respected, not necessarily liked. So it's not that we're saying that black women need to check themselves in a way that makes them betray their own personalities.
In fact, we are saying almost the opposite, that it is the unique you that you bring to the table that you need to value first and that you need to help other people understand is valuable in your workplace.
MARTIN: One of the things that intrigued me is that you talk about the fact that the values that youve been taught in church are not necessarily the ones that are most appreciated in business, and that that sometimes sets up a challenge for people. They feel that the way they were raised and the way they were raised to conduct themselves was not necessarily valued, appreciated or even productive in the business world.
Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Ms. MCCLEAN: Yes, this is Rhonda and the first thing I will say as a woman who grew up in the Bible Belt, in North Carolina, in a very tiny town in a Baptist church, okay, is that youre certainly taught often to turn the other cheek. For example, to forgive and forget. And what we say is, in the business world, whether it's for profit or not for profit, you certainly may need to forgive but you should never forget. Because if you do, often you may not have learned from the situation that youre in, such that you can prepare yourself, and if need be, protect yourself moving forward.
And Elaine, you want to chime in?
Ms. BROWN: Well, one of the things we may do as a result of that is just sort of give up, just, you know, become frustrated, just not, you know, pursue our goals when in all reality we should really continue to be strategic and have goals. And Rhonda talked earlier about having a PLN, a personal leadership notebook. And in this notebook the individual has an opportunity to track his or her accomplishments on a monthly basis, on a weekly basis - so when it does come time for that review or to ask for that promotion or raise, there's evidence of the individual's accomplishments.
MARTIN: Is there a one piece of advice in this book that each of you really wished that you had had when you were starting out in your career?
Ms. BROWN: I would have to say the whole book.
MARTIN: Elaine, I'm going to start with you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BROWN: Im saying the entire book - all 40 principals.
Ms. MCCLEAN: Yeah.
Ms. BROWN: If there's one piece of advice in particular, I would say for me, perhaps networking. because when you begin networking that's when you begin to find your mentors and that's where you begin to establish your quote/unquote "Success team," which is what we talk about in the book. And, you know, I'm guilty of, as many of us are guilty of, is going to work, doing a great job and going home - getting paid, going to work, doing a great job, going home, getting paid. I mean we're so tied in and do a great job with the daily responsibilities, and we're into our routines, that we need to sort of step outside of the work that we do and learn as much as we can about our industry.
MARTIN: Let me ask you this though, Elaine, on that point; do you think that your failure to do that or your not being aware of the importance of that was a black thing, a woman thing or a black woman thing? Let me tell you why I'm asking?
Ms. BROWN: Okay.
MARTIN: One of the reasons I'm curious about this is that I think that a lot of people of color in the workplace; and a lot of women, and particularly I will say, people of color who are women, feel that they have responsibilities or are held to expectations in the community and in the family to which white men are not held.
Ms. MCCLEAN: Mm-hmm.
Ms. BROWN: Right.
MARTIN: But there are cultural expectations that are often placed on people of color. And so you say to yourself okay, wait, am I going to this conference or am I going to go and help my nephew write his college applications? That kind of thing.
Ms. BROWN: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: So I want to ask you about that. What about that?
Ms. BROWN: Well, you know, I do think you need to balance Michel, as in everything we do in life. You know, being strategic I think is the main point here. I think all I'm saying is to be competitive in the work environment, because a lot of us are first, second generation, you know, college graduates -and we didnt grow up, necessarily, with this kind of knowledge and information. In fact, I remember in the class that I took, there was a professor who said he had taken his son to a garden party, for example and, you know, behind the hedges he had actually heard the father pointing out to the child who the various individuals were and what companies they worked for.
So and so is a manager, you know, IBM, for example. We dont necessarily do that. We dont really grow up in that kind of environment. And this is information that we need to learn. In fact, I was in a conversation with a young lady the other day who works in a high school, and she said this book would be fabulous even, you know, to help high school girls, you know, sort of prepare for the next level.
MARTIN: Okay. Rhonda, how about you? What's the one bit of advice you really wish you had had when you were starting out?
Ms. MCCLEAN: This is actually a Muppetism(ph) from the book itself: You can do anything but you can't do everything. And we speak very frankly about mental health, spiritual health, the fact that we are supporting you as you create your own unique career pathway, no matter where you find yourself. So... And I do just want to get to the office memmy(ph) because we're always asked about this.
We really are never saying dont be true to yourself. Weve all been reared to be these super nurturing women and we know our history. We know that we often took care of other people's children, whether we wanted to or not. We're very good at this. However, we dont seem to be as good about taking care of ourselves. And what I've learned about leadership is that if you can't lead you, you can't lead anybody else.
So you better take care of yourself and not be seen as the person who's going to pour the coffee, go outside, get the donuts, put up the charts. There's nothing wrong with that, but I have found that youre often not tapped to get promoted into the next slot if youre seen as the server and not the leader.
MARTIN: Oh-oh. I'm thinking about all the donuts I've brought in here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MCCLEAN: You know what I'm saying. You know what I'm saying here, okay?
MARTIN: I'm kind of in charge of - what am I in charge of? Cupcakes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I'm kind of the cupcakes person. Okay, well I dont know.
Ms. MCCLEAN: Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with that.
MARTIN: Well, all right. Well, Elaine Meryl Brown and Rhonda Joy McLean are two of the authors of "The Little Black Book of Success: Laws of Leadership for Black Women." And they were both kind enough to join us from NPR's New York bureau.
Ladies, I thank you so much for joining us, and continued success to you.
Ms. BROWN: Thanks, Michel.
Ms. MCCLEAN: Thank you.
Ms. BROWN: Thanks for having us.
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