When I interviewed Renetta McCann in 2003 as Black Enterprise’s Corporate Executive of the Year, the now former CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group in Chicago was, at the time, the only Black woman to hold the chief executive seat at a major firm. When asked about influences in her career, one seemed strikingly odd–it was Don Corleone, the central character in the classic book and movie The Godfather. McCann said following his guidelines were instrumental in her climb to the top. Here are her five takeaways from the infamously celebrated mob boss that women can use in the workplace.
He surrounded himself with good advisors. In corporate-speak these are your mentors and sponsors. Interested, high-level professionals who respectively advise you and advocate for you in advancing your career. Despite disparities between men and women in rate of promotion and salary a 2010 Catalyst survey called Mentoring: Necessary But Insufficient for Advancement, cited that women with a mentor increased their odds of being placed at mid-manager or above by 56% over women without a mentor and women who had mentors at the top got promoted at the same rate as men who had mentors at the top.
He knew his opponents. In the workforce opponents can be competitive challengers in the marketplace with products and services that rival yours. To be successful it’s important to understand and determine how to deliver the highest value to clients and customers. But opponents are also real and perceived challenges at work attributed to an organization’s culture–the idiosyncrasies or unwritten rules of how a company functions. The only way to develop successful strategies and strong allies is to structure your goals in line with how your company operates. Mentors are essential to helping you decipher the company codes.
He worked on quid pro quo. This is your network. And although everyone knows the importance of networking, the focus should really be on network building–strategically developing strong and lasting relationships with professionals in your organization and throughout the industry. At the foundation of network building is reciprocal service: you helping someone, who will in turn be able to help you. The Executive Leadership Council’s report Black Women Executive Research Initiative completed in 2008 sites that of the 150 senior level executives surveyed 31% said that lack of networking was hindering the advancement of black women in the workplace. Because minority women tend to be more private at work, it negatively impacts the potential to develop the informal relationships that happen more naturally for white men and women. These are the relationships that can often be instrumental in furthering your professional goals.
He never made a move before his time This speaks to being prepared for when opportunity presents itself and truly knowing your capabilities. In today’s fast-paced environment it’s important to stay ahead of market trends and continually upgrade your expertise. But this also speaks to knowing what internal battles to fight, which ties to understanding the nature of your organization. A Black female executive once told me that her biggest lesson was learning when to be quiet. “There are times when you speak and there are times when you [should] be quiet,” she offered. “Sometimes, you got to just sit back and listen and not be ready to respond, but just listen. Even if you take a moment and then come back to it, it’s okay.”
Never get emotional. Emotion prevents you from thinking clearly and objectively because the situations become personal. It also increases your stress levels making you vulnerable to rash decisions and retaliatory or defensive behavior. It totally throws you off center and you lose sight of the problems and focus on personalities. As McCann explained at work, “a friend today is a foe tomorrow.” It is sometimes just the nature of business. Those who can, as Aetna Chairman and CEO Ron Williams mandates, “focus on the problem; not the person,” will find greater success at work. Sonny was the emotional character in The Godfather–and he was killed!