Women of Color: We Need You In Leadership. Here’s How to Get There

This post first appeared on Elpha, a community for women in tech to talk candidly online"

If you’re a woman (particularly a woman of color) in tech, you’ve probably felt it. That feeling that you’re the “only one” in the room. The feeling that you don’t belong, that you need to prove yourself, that you’re alone. According to a study by Leanin.org and McKinsey & Company, one in five women report being one of the only women in the room. In senior leadership, this is twice as common: 40% of women are the only one. The sad fact is that, despite women — particularly women of color — showing up and “leaning in,” many companies aren’t equipped to support us.

The good news is that we’re talking about it. Even better news: there are ways for you to build the support you need to grow into leadership. It’s not easy, but I’ve used these tips throughout my career to develop into a VP of Engineering.

Actively Manage Your Career Path (in Writing)

Whether you’re in a start-up or a big organization, it’s up to you to manage your career path. Before you accept a new role, you should ask where it fits into the organizational priorities and where it leads. And at every review check-in you have, you should be able to clearly articulate what your goals were and how you achieved them.

This is hard work for women who have been told that talking about their accomplishments is bragging (even when bragging is the way to go). Recently, one of my engineering managers asked me what was next for her career. My response? You tell me! A week later, she put together a document detailing the case for her promotion, sharing example after example of her amazing work next to the success matrix I created to clarify my expectations for my team. What’s better is that she reported feeling more proud of her work and more confident as the worked through her case. She began to see what she wanted me to see and she’s a better leader for it.

You have the power to set crystal clear expectations and make good on your commitments to your team. Knowing where you’re going is the first step to getting there.

Say “No” A Lot

As women and underrepresented people, we often carry the feeling that we don’t belong in the room, that we need to prove ourselves and our value. We somehow miss the memo that we’ve finally paid our dues and now it’s time to focus and be the absolute best at our job. So we take on too much, we burn out, we get frustrated and we stop performing.

One of my mentees was struggling to say No. As a high performer, she kept getting requests to support people with more work, but she was not receiving the credit for the extra work and, what’s worse, she was having trouble managing her time and her performance suffered. I asked her to get a cup of coffee, pour it in a water bottle and top it off with lukewarm water. Then I told her to drink it all day and to say No to three requests that day. Why? I wanted her to see that her energy was that coffee being watered down by all of the request she was taking on. The next week, she saved five hours of work and felt in control of her bandwidth.

It’s up to you to manage your effectiveness and protect your potency. When goals aren’t on your roadmap and don’t lead you in the direction you are working toward, you need to say No. This frees you up to crush your most important work and shows others what healthy boundaries look like for themselves.

Ready Yourself for Sponsorship

My mentors and sponsors are key players on my squad; and my squad is what helps me succeed. Mentors are great — I’m a mentor and encourage everyone to have and be one. But mentors live outside of your work ecosystem and don’t have the power or influence to actively help you within the organization.

Unlike mentors, sponsors are internal champions who choose to get behind you. They are the people advocating for your work behind closed doors and helping you push through internal obstacles that you might not be aware of. Because they choose you and you often don’t know they are there until you have one, getting a sponsor can feel like dark magic. But there are ways to get on sponsors’ radar and become more visible within your organization.

One way is by working incredibly hard (which I know you all probably already do). But you can schedule personal time with the leadership to ask questions or get to know them. You can also raise your hands in team meetings, offering questions or comments about big picture thinking. You share your point of view at your company All Hands, whether that’s asking a question or offering your take on the information. You can find something that’s missing at the company and fill that gap. Maybe it’s starting an employee resource group or launching a networking series with industry professionals in your office space. However you choose to become more visible, make sure it feels true and authentic to you, your passions and how you build relationships.

Advocate for Yourself. Advocate for Others.

The best way to become a leader is by acting like one which, to me, means advocating for my team and celebrating great work. I believe in being a champion of my team’s work and helping to set context for why what they’ve done is so powerful and exciting. This is how leaders secure budget for their team’s growth and for the vision we want to create at our companies and in the world.

Since this is such a huge leadership skill, demonstrating that you have it is a great way to fast track yourself into leadership. But you don’t have to have a team to start building this muscle. When you see someone do something great, shout it from the rooftops! Pull their manager aside and tell them what a great job this person or team did, post positive feedback on message boards, get up during company meetings and share your point of view.

But please, as you implement this remember that not all kudos are alike and no one likes an insincere sycophant. Be authentic! Be specific and contextualize how this achievement contributed to the company’s overall goals. Make sure that your advocacy demonstrates that you’re a team player and someone who can steward higher levels of work on the leadership level.

Practice Giving and Receiving Hard Feedback

This is not complaining. It’s not whining or griping. And it’s certainly not bottling something up until it becomes awkward or explosive. Feedback is hard because many of us are taught to think of performance as binary: you’re either good or you’re bad. Performance is not binary. Even the best engineers I know make mistakes — we all do. What’s important is how to receive feedback and how you grow from it.

And yet, it’s the hardest thing ever. I recently blew it with a colleague. I was venting but it was read as indirect feedback that was really hurtful. They were strong enough to discuss this with me immediately so I got the opportunity to learn about my mistake immediately and to hear directly how it made them feel. I was horrified! But I was also wrong, so I apologized. I took ownership and I am growing as a result of that experience.

How we receive feedback in positions of power is just as important — if not more so — to how we offer feedback to our teams. It’s hard to be patient with ourselves and not feel shame. It’s hard to accept this other person’s view point when our insides feel fight or flight instincts. It’s hard, but this is crucial to building strong teams. Only when we all feel safe enough to practice this can we do it quickly and directly, grow and move on.

As a woman of color, I see these lessons and experiences as most relevant for women like me, but I hope these tips will be helpful to anyone looking to grow. What have you done to move into leadership in your career? I’m curious to hear from women of all backgrounds.

Follow me on Twitter to connect.


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Michael Berhane, Founder of POCIT
Rukmini Reddy
Rukmini Reddy

VP of Engineering at Abstract. I am very passionate about products and people!

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