Alone at the Top: How Black Women Can Survive and Thrive in Leadership

Alone at the Top: How Black Women Can Survive and Thrive in Leadership

You made it, sis!

You set your sights on a lofty career goal and worked your butt off to get here. You put in crazy long hours, no doubt made countless sacrifices to your work-life balance — occasionally at the expense of your social life — and even fought against your own imposter syndrome as you (very likely) competed against under-qualified and overconfident peers.

Along the way, you’ve built up confidence in yourself and your organization has shown you in the highest possible way that they have confidence in you, too. And now, here you are sitting at the top of your profession with those very impressive letters in front of (or after) your newly minted title. And as you look around, you realize there’s one small catch. You’re all alone and on your own.

Across industries, there is a dearth of Black women in the corporate ranks, and Black women, in particular, are one of the least supported demographics in the workforce — making up just four percent of C-suite executives, according to a recent report from McKinsey. As someone who was promoted within the past year and received tremendous support along the way, I know my experience is unique. So if you’re not getting the support you need, here are some ways you and your company can make it happen.

Advocate for yourself

Asking for what you need at this juncture isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a strength to be brave enough to ask for what you need. So be bold; tell your leaders what you need to be successful in your role and how your success equates to the organization’s success. When your success is the objective, nothing is off the table. For instance, is there additional education or a professional coaching program that will help you be more successful in your role? Ask for a stipend for educational assistance or a budget to engage with a professional coach. Do you need additional team members to help meet your organizational goals this year? Make the case and ask for the headcount.

If all of your requests are rooted in your growth and success and are tied to the organization’s overall success, your requests should be met with a resounding “Yes!.” Companies should proactively inquire as they hire and promote Black leaders as to what they need to be successful in their roles. The term “lean in” couldn’t be more appropriate here. Black women leaders need their companies to lean into their professional needs and personal needs. Women of color rarely assume the social and psychological safety to open up and share information about themselves at work. At my agency, I have been very fortunate to experience my leaders “leaning-in” tenfold. Working within company cultures where being your true self is ingrained in the company culture is key. Leaders who lean into knowing you personally allow you to be your whole self at work and feel safe asking for what you need, advocating for yourself and feeling like a valued member of the organization.

Build your board 

Let’s talk about building your circle of influence. This refers to the relationships we make and build upon to propel our career forward and make valuable connections in our organizations that help us stay one step ahead. For example, connecting for coffee chats with leaders outside of your immediate workgroup or department helps to build connections and expand your circle of influence so that when you need resources or advice on a project, you have someone that you know, and who knows you, to provide you the assistance you need. Greater than a circle of influence, a board consists of peers, sponsors, leaders, internal and external colleagues and friends that can give advice, help you make connections and can assist with your overall growth and goals.

Who should be on your board? First, find a sponsor. More than a mentor, this is someone who sits in rooms of power and speaks your name loudly for opportunities, cheers you on and offers the sage advice to help you make the calculated moves that will inform your career. A sponsor typically sits within your organization and maybe more senior or a peer that may be more tenured. Whomever they are, and wherever they sit, your sponsor is on your side guiding you through what can feel like an abyss in your new role or new organization.

In building my own board over the years, it has consisted of several key allies and groups. One group consists of strong women leaders at my company who are mothers like me and understand my life experience. Another is a group of peers with over 20 years of experience in the industry who know all the ins and outs of the intricate personal and professional relationships that make this business go. And finally, other Black women leaders who not only have the shared experience of looking like me and facing similar career struggles but have also been invaluable sounding boards and advocates as I’ve climbed the corporate ladder alongside them. Companies can help diverse talent at all levels with this charge as well by creating well-structured mentoring or sponsorship programs. And be proactive about this step. Don’t wait until someone is struggling to try to pair them with someone internally (or externally) to help them navigate complicated corporate structures or come back from a series of damaging professional blunders.

Get your cheering squad in formation

Being alone at the top as a Black woman can feel isolating and it’s easy to feel anxious about your impact if your contributions aren’t being recognized. This can lead to self-doubt, anxiety and those feelings of imposter syndrome settling back in. To combat this, continue to remind yourself that you are worthy of this and all the opportunities that have come your way. You made it here for a reason, so if you need a cheering squad to help you — look to your circle of influence to remind you that you are that girl. And while your cheering squad is cheering for you and you’re cheering for yourself, remind your leadership why they should be rooting for you, too. Leaders can often be removed from the day-to-day challenges we face, the problems we solve and the projects we lead. Update them often and share your wins. Your cheering section will only grow louder and your confidence will triple so you can continue to face any challenges head-on with support.

Take care of yourself

Setting boundaries so those long days and nights don’t affect your personal/professional balance is crucial for your mental health. You are not a machine and although you have likely been taught that you have to “work twice as hard,” you can’t work at all if you are in an environment that is unsupportive or unhealthy. Companies should look for signs of disengagement amongst diverse leaders in their organization and conduct check-ins often. Stay interviews, 90-day check-ins, or monthly development conversations are great ways to build that communication two-way street. Feedback, listening and personal connections help stop disengagement or at least understand when it might be happening.

Ultimately, if the view from the top is too isolating and not supportive of your growth, it may not be the view for you. Do what you must to secure the bag and thrive, but don’t stay seated at a table where nothing good is being served. Ascending to the top of any organization comes with great rewards and sometimes greater struggles. As a Black woman, those struggles can seem poised to take you out — but they don’t have to. Organizations have some work to do to continue to support Black women leaders in their organizations, and this can be done in partnership without laying the burden of work squarely on the leader already trying to navigate from a challenging spot. But remember, sis — engaging in self-advocacy, building supportive connections that keep you grounded, and taking care of yourself are all tactics you can employ to not just survive, but to thrive at the top.

You can do it, sis! We are all cheering for you.

Ashley Kincade is the SVP and Head of Culture at Trade School, an Atlanta-based ad agency and full-service production studio.