Is Being The Best Good Enough?

Surviving the double standard in your organization

It often seems that black executives must be supermen and superwomen just to remain at the same level as their white counterparts. And if they make a mistake it could prove to be the equivalent of Kryptonite to their careers.

An example of this phenomenon is the double standard that Marlon Cousins faces when he’s asked to recruit black executives.

As managing partner of The Marquin Group, an Atlanta-based executive search firm that focuses on diversity recruitment, Cousins recalls a conversation he had with a white executive who had 20 VPs working under him Cousins asked the executive, “If you left the company today, how many [vice presidents] would you take with you?”

“Five,” replied the executive.

“So the other 15 are just average players?” asked Cousins. The executive agreed, saying that he was relying on Cousins’ firm to identify African Americans who were among the best and the brightest. Cousins countered: “If you’re comfortable with 15 average players, why do I have to be exceptional?”

Cousins says that white managers are often satisfied with mediocre white employees, but black executives must be among the cream of the crop.

To make matters worse, black employees can demonstrate exceptional performance in 90% of their job functions, but “[their managers] focus on the 10%” that may require improvement. Cousins says that 10% equation often serves as a stumbling block that prevents black professionals from moving up within their companies.

“We all know that we have to work twice as hard as our white counterparts,” acknowledges Raphael J.D. Sebastian, a VP at Workplace Diversity in Livingston, New Jersey. “Some of us get [to corporate America] and forget where we are. We go to the right schools, get the job and forget [it's] not that you look twice as good [on paper], but you need to work twice as hard.” Sebastian is not talking about assigned tasks. His concern is that black professionals do not put enough effort in developing their profiles and spotlighting accomplishments.

Adds Cousins: “That’s where we fail. We have to create an internal vehicle to communicate our successes, our wins, and what we’re doing within our organizations.”

Knowing that a double standard exists is the challenge, and the frustration of being a diverse candidate in corporate America. What can black professionals do to increase their opportunities for advancement? Here are a few pointers:

Network strategically Sebastian believes that employees often bump their heads against the ceiling because of three main reasons: politics — not knowing how to play the game; development — They’re waiting for someone to develop them or they don’t know how to get it; and failure to network, which is intrinsically tied to the previous two points. “Everyone knows it’s important, but it’s a lost art,” says Sebastian. “Unless you go out of your way to learn, or unless you have a mentor in place who teaches you how to network, it’s not something you’re just going to know how to do.” Informal meetings over lunch or dinner as well as social activities like joining the company’s softball

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