One Author's Tactics for Women, Minorities

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In Minority Rules: Turn Your Ethnicity Into a Competitive Edge, Kenneth Arroyo Roldan and Gary Stern identify what they say are key strategies women and minority executives can use to rise through the ranks of corporate America. In an exclusive interview Roldan, chief executive of search firm Wesley, Brown and Bartle, says: "You can't change a company that doesn't embrace the principles of diversity. So, you have to control your own destiny."

In the book, you make it clear corporations won't be looking out for minority or woman employees. But don't you think that's true for most employees today?

I have a client in the advertising world, and she says the reality is that white people are hired for potential, but we, as people of color, are hired for performance. It's a very subtle nuance, but it has a profound impact. For example, a white guy might be hired to run a $10 million business, when he was successful running a $100,000 business. They're hired based on their potential. But people of color are hired based on performance measures. So, if we've never run that type of business portfolio we won't ever get that opportunity.

Executives say they understand the value of a more diverse employee base to service their ever growing and more diverse client base. At the same time, the number of minorities in key positions doesn't seem to bear this out. What should minority professionals do?

Companies talk the talk but by the time you quantify it, not much has changed. Often, the one key minority person goes from one company to another. You can't change a company that doesn't embrace the principles of diversity. So, you have to control your own destiny. Companies have culpability, but the finger points both ways. You need to do the due diligence about the company you may join. You have to be aggressive and find individuals of color who may work there to find out the true story. We're trying to arm the person of color with the right intelligence.

How do you respond to critics who say your book places more of the burden on the individual?

The book is supposed to be provocative enough to get beyond the idea of being a victim. It is predicated on individuals who want to go for a place in the C suite. Many of the (career guides) out there aren't really applicable to women and people of color. The onus is definitely on us and we have to create our own destiny, as it's not going to be given to us.

You mention a five-year limit as the point to leave your company if you haven't risen up the ranks. Why is the five year point so critical?

It's the critical point in anyone's career because it's the point when you should be able to make an impact in your organization. In the first year or two, you're getting acclimated to the role. By the third year, you're into building a team. By the fifth year, you should be getting a buy-in from the leadership. Then, you'll see if there is a propensity for the management to promote women and people of color.

Often what happens is at that mark, the minority professionals might get a wonderful performance review. Meanwhile, the majority candidates will be passing them pretty quickly.

Why are sponsors and mentors so important?

People of color have a propensity to want to do it all ourselves, especially if we're the folks that have graduated from a Cornell or Vassar or University of Michigan, and we might think we're the cock of the walk alone. But, what the book is trying to educate people about are the non-textbook issues in the corporate landscape, one of which is getting a mentor or sponsor. Think about how people usually progress in corporate America: They have someone that they can go to, maybe an Uncle Jimmy or someone at the country club who can give them the tricks of the trade to prevent them from stepping on the landmines.

You advocate moving outside of your usual circle and your comfort zone. Can you explain the value in this?

We have a propensity to gravitate to people we feel comfortable with. But you might be missing the boat. We don't necessarily have to assimilate, but we can't segregate either. We need to integrate, learn, adjust and overcome.

Wanting to stay in the same job and do our best there can create a comfort zone around us. It's not a good thing at all. We, as people of color, sometimes don't want to look at work from a global perspective, for instance. We may not want to leave our comfort zone as far as traveling more than ten or fifteen miles to our job.

If you're in an organization and you're one of the few African-Americans, Latinos or Asians there, how do you avoid feeling like an outsider? Your book even mentions to avoid projecting that outsider feeling. But if you're discouraged, it's hard to feel like a team player. How do you avoid that?

We have to define what we are trying to accomplish. This is work, and at work it sometimes takes sacrifices. It's fine to be the trailblazer. If you don't want to be the only African-American in the C suite or the only African-American senior manager, then you need to look for other opportunities where you feel more comfortable. It's all right to not compromise, and it's alright to be proud of who you are. But if you think you're going to change an operation in some large and sweeping effort to embrace other folks who look like you, it simply isn't going to happen that way.

Networking often goes on behind the scenes, and not necessarily in some formal fashion. Some of it might be through ties developed at weekend golf sessions or at the bar after work. How does a minority professional deal with this situation, especially when they might be left out of this "social" network?

Networking for a majority person is totally different than networking for a person of color. We're having fun just like they are, but their fun might lead to a more definable result. A meeting at the club might turn into an interview. If we happen to get invited along, nothing will ever come out of it. So, we need to go into networking with a more strategic mindset. We need to position ourselves at the event. Go there with a mission, knowing the people you need to speak with. Go there to accomplish something and to position yourself in the most favorable light.

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