By Andrea Lawful Sanders
I have an amazing friend whose friendship I have cherished for almost two decades, and I have had a front row seat, if you will, to her trajectory from programming manager for a large non-profit, to a C-Suite executive today.
She is well under the age of 50, and has sacrificed much personal time with family and friends so she could learn and grow with each job transition and the relocations necessary, and is sitting in a place today that many would covet. And she did it with such humility and grace.
Those of us who are her friends walked with her through many of those phases, and so I can speak coherently about her journey to this place in her life.
She told me many years ago to always work hard without seeking recognition, because people will eventually see what you are doing. Hard work does indeed pay off.
She has faced all kinds of challenges and roadblocks, as you can imagine, and has refused to let them define her. In fact, she has resolved to working even harder and has developed a solid reputation for building teams in ways that border on the enviable.
In short, she gets results.
Her biggest challenge to date are some other Black women who are older, the “firsts” in many aspects of their lives, thwarting the younger woman’s efforts by dismantling — wherever possible — her good work happening. She calls it the “death of a thousand cuts.”
What makes it even more unimaginable is that these older women are making troublesome decisions to their own demise, but are so laser-focused on being the one needed, that they fail to recognize it.
What these self-serving actions created was a gap between what was possible — had they worked amicably together — versus people watching in dismay while seeking new positions elsewhere.
It makes for a toxic working environment.
We already know that women are paid less than men in many instances; so when they are in power, this is the opportunity to leverage and sponsor brilliance to work beside them.
There are horror stories of Black women making less than they were worth, hiring men that would work for them at almost double what she is being paid as his boss.
We have seen Black women seated at a table of influence, but who would refuse to open seats at that table for their peers, quite content to be “the only one,” wearing it like a badge of honor.
The biggest sponsors of elevating other Black women into leadership spaces by mentoring and opening doors are White men.
I fully recognize the valiant efforts of older Black women who knocked down barriers by putting themselves in harm’s way time and again to open doors. They — like the ancestors before them — were the first in many ways, and Black women have a solid reputation for out-working and outpacing in performance, which has led to sponsorships from men in high positions who sought and saw the value of their work ethic.
The problem with being the first with your shoulder blade to the door is that it leaves little to no room for others to learn and grow as well.
In some instances, these women in powerful positions will sit in meetings where they openly challenge another sister by snapping at her, and turning their backs while being spoken to — much to the consternation and amusement of those watching.
We must find ways to retain our professionalism in these spaces. We are often made to feel like there is only room for one of us at the top. But if we work with integrity when we get there, we find ways to mentor and leverage others to grow, too.
Do not forget, standing on values made of sand will ultimately cause your house to crumble.
My challenge to anyone who seeks to lead groups of people is to work on your own leadership skills. Know not only your strengths, but your weaknesses, the threats to your leadership made by your own decisions, and opportunities for growth.
Arriving at the top simply means you have to work just that much harder to maintain that space.
Humility and a team spirit goes a long way.
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