Advancement Tips For Black Women

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An African-American female executive should pay special attention to leveraging and properly maintaining her network, and understanding the company, its culture and the role she is interviewing for, experts say.

The sixth annual "Black Women on Wall Street" event, held June 19 at Merrill Lynch headquarters in New York, drew top minority women professionals from across the financial services industry and beyond to discuss career advancement to the C-suite.

Welcoming the crowd of close to 300 mostly African-American women executives, Merrill Lynch Chairman and CEO Stan O'Neal emphasized the power of networking as a "key element of success for all executives, but especially for women of color."

Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, listed key elements for choosing a place to work as set out in an article in Essence Magazine. Among those desiderata: strong employee networks and affinity groups, black executives in top leadership roles, focused recruiting efforts, pro-active leadership training, flexible work opportunities, community support and charitable giving in communities of color, and the targeting of black consumers and clients. Such practices represent essential efforts for companies looking to recruit, retain, and advance women executives of color to key management posts, Ebanks said.

To Exercise Control, Look Forward and Backward, Up and Down

Panel moderator Westina Matthews Shatteen emphasized the importance of having black women in the upper levels of management. "Diversity is no longer a moral imperative," but a chief business decision, she said. Shatteen is a Merrill Lynch managing director responsible for community business development.

The panelists emphasized the importance of black women executives taking control of their career trajectory. Challis Lowe, executive vice president at Dollar General Corp., urged candidates to utilize the interview process to learn about the company they are looking to join, by asking relevant questions. While candidates should do their homework beforehand, Lowe said it's essential to continue the research during the interview to determine if the firm will be a good and lasting match. Polo Ralph Lauren CFO Tracey Travis added that candidates interviewing for a senior role must determine why the company is hiring, in order to anticipate what sorts of challenges you will face on the job. "Leverage your network to understand the corporate culture, so that you can understand the fit," she said.

Former Verizon vice president Jeri DeVard advised plotting an exit strategy from one's current employer before accepting an offer, so that previous networks will act in your favor after you depart. Melody Hobson, president of Ariel Capital Management, said executives transitioning to a new post must "dazzle people on the way out," because former bosses and co-workers will act as your references in the future.

After transitioning into a new post, "There's a window of time to impress" the new boss and management, said Travis. She said it's important to build relationships with peers and subordinates, as well as superiors. Rita Sallis, New York City's chief investment officer, said that executives need to sensitive to the culture, and remain at all times "politically savvy, but not political."

"Black Women on Wall Street" was one of a series of networking and leadership events held during a three-day Black Women's Leadership Summit. It was co-sponsored by Merrill Lynch and the Executive Leadership Council, a nonprofit networking and leadership organization representing senior African-American corporate executives in Fortune 500 companies.

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