In 1969, as the first black woman to earn an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, Lillian Lambert thought she was destined for a brilliant career advocating for social justice. But after a couple of dead-end jobs with federally funded programs, Lambert felt she’d make more headway as a businessperson. Her intuition pushed her into the cleaning industry, where she launched Centennial One Inc., a commercial cleaning business in Landover, Maryland. The company grew to $20 million in annual revenues and employed 1,200 people before Lambert sold it in 2001.
“When I went to work for a janitorial company [first as a consultant and later as a manager], I can’t say it was because of the attractiveness of that particular industry,” Lambert recalls. “I just had a feeling this was the place for me.”
Karol Ward, a licensed psychotherapist based in New York City, says flashes of insight like the one that led Lambert into a successful yet unintentional career should be part of every businessperson’s decision-making process, especially now as the economy continues to push many businesses into uncharted territory where they can no longer rely on what were once tried-and-true business practices. “If we can trust more that there’s a scientific basis to what we perceive, why not give that feeling a little bit of weight,” she says. “Pay attention if feelings seem to appear out of the blue. Literally, sit with it. See if you can see what it means before discounting it.”
Ward, who is also the author of Find Your Inner Voice: Using Instinct and Intuition through the Body—Mind Connection (Career Press; $14.99), likens the physical sensations or gut feelings to a primal language that can communicate vital urgings and warnings if we learn to listen to and interpret them. That was certainly the case when Lambert went out on a limb to fill a key position at her company. “It was an investment I didn’t feel comfortable making, but I had an intuitive feeling he was the right person for the job,” she recalls. “I had no guarantee it would pay off.” But it did.
Although 18 months passed before the new hire’s efforts resulted in a contract, he stayed with Centennial One Inc. for 10 years and was instrumental in diversifying its client roster. The expansion saved the business from collapse.
And intuition can be refined over time. Lambert trusted her instincts when hashing out a book contract. One of her first requests was to sit down with her editor face-to-face. The 69-year-old explains: “You get a reading of a person through eye contact, hand movements, physical things.” The collaboration was successful and her book, The Road to Someplace Better: from the Segregated South to Harvard Business School and Beyond (John Wiley; $25.95), will be released in January.
But remember, intuition enhances thoughtful decision-making; it do esn’t replace it. “In business, you can’t rely strictly on intuition,” urges Lambert. “You have to deal with the facts of the situation too.”
STRENTHEN YOUR INTUITION
Get in the habit of asking yourself, “How do I feel?” Ward says. “Taking our emotional temperature, our baseline mood, helps us notice when that shifts or changes in a business situation.”
Take a time out
“When you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed with information, push away from the desk or step away from the situation,” advises Lynn Robinson, author of Trust Your Gut: How the Power of Intuition Can Grow Your Business (Kaplan Publishing; $18). “Stop external stimuli and ask, ‘What’s right for me to do right now?’ Sometimes people will get an answer as a voice, image, or physical sensation.”
“If you’re not sure and following your intuition is all new
to you, take small steps in the direction it’s taking you,” Robinson suggests. “If it’s a good decision, doors will start opening.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.