line. My job then became to develop one-on-one relationships to build the strength, which took away
some of the power that person had. I very deliberately went about building a team that was more collaborative and that he couldn’t afford not to support.”
During her 17-year career at State Farm, Gamble has worked mostly with men. “I can’t remember being in a room when there was more than one female vice president,” says Gamble, who is often the only African American at high-level meetings. A well-connected mentor is also important for a rising executive. Mentors will outline the political structure of a corporation and offer guidance for effective maneuvering. Mentors are also allies who will speak on your behalf, clarify speculations, and trumpet your efforts. According to Catalyst’s 2004 study, 43% of black women surveyed said “not having an influential sponsor or mentor” was one of the greatest obstacles to their success, while 36% cited a “lack of informal networks” as one of the most common career barriers.
Adds Gamble: “You have to make lots of deposits in order to have any returns. You have to realize that not every battle is a war.” But you do have to make sure you’re well positioned:
Build alliances with subordinates as well as executives. Last year, when she had 80 employees reporting to her, Gamble scheduled each one for a one-hour, get-to-know-you session. It was worth the time investment. “I have felt many times that [my staff] protected me from things I wasn’t aware of. So getting to know my employees gave me inside intelligence. The people who get the job done are the ones below you.” They have to know that you are supportive of them and their concerns.
Approach your boss first when you fear you’ve made a mistake. Known for being direct, Gamble remembers ruffling the feathers of some fellow male executives during a meeting several years ago because of her persistent questioning of the presenter. Confronted later by one meeting participant, she went to her boss to “solicit feedback and coaching.” While the incident did no permanent damage to her reputation, Gamble earned points with her boss by being willing to seek counsel.