Enablers of Career Success in Corporate America, Part 2

Enablers of Career Success in Corporate America, Part 2

In my study of successful Black professional men in corporate America, they revealed five enablers of career success. They were:

  1. Key relationships
  2. Bicultural strategies
  3. Self-efficacy and personal agency
  4. Education and continuous learning
  5. Spirituality and purpose

In last week’s post, Enablers of Career Success in Corporate America, I discussed the first two enablers. This week, I will conclude with the remaining enablers and complete the series on Black men’s career development by summarizing conclusions from the study.

Self-efficacy and Personal Agency.

Throughout the research and over many conversations, I got to know the 14 men who agreed to participate in the study. I found them to be remarkable men with a high degree of self-efficacy and personal agency. Self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability, is one of the building blocks of career development and the fuel that enables a person to exercise agency. In turn, personal agency is the notion that people are active agents in directing the course of their lives or their part in situations. I found that the participants, above all, believe in themselves, refuse to be defined or limited by the negative stereotypes attributed to Black men, and understand their capacity to act to change their circumstances and achieve the career development they desire. As Steve, the senior vice president and human resources leader, so eloquently stated,

I came from a culture of people who took action. In other words, they did not believe that, and they taught me, that you just stood around and you hoped things get better. You‘ve got to take action. And so, if it‘s to be, it‘s up to me.

I made note of key attributes of these men that enabled them to have the confidence and self-determinism that led to their success. I found them to be ambitious, competitive, strategic, and adaptable/resilient.

Ambitious. These men set their sights high. Mike provides a sense of the ambitious nature of the men. He said:

Why am I going to get up in the morning to go to work if I don’t think that one day I can be president of this sales department at my company? Why not? I guess I’ve always felt that it was possible. I think numero uno, that’s just the way I’m hard-wired. Call it a can-do attitude, call it driven. I mean it’s just why not? That’s really what it comes down to, that’s just been ingrained in me. I mean from an early age, I think you are what you decide to be.

Competitive. The participants often spoke about the need to differentiate themselves, to stand out from their peers. Their love of competition helped shape their career development. Hank’s example describes the innate sense of competing to be the best that I experienced in many of the men. Hank said,

I’ve always been competitive. It’s always been, whether it was sports or whether it was academia…whatever it was that was competitive, I‘d be involved in it.

Dallas was even more forthright in describing his competitive nature. He said:

I’ve always been one of these kinds of people that seize the day, takes charge of my career. So, I’ve always had this innate sense of I needed to be a go-getter and wanted to achieve and I’ve had that since I can remember.  I mean my mom must have instilled that in me when I was in the womb because I just remember I’m going to be the best. I’m gonna beat you out. I’m going to be nice about it; I’m not going to step on your neck trying to get there, but I’m going to be the best. I’ve always remembered having that ―thing.

Strategic. Being strategic entails developing a plan for career development, such that you are able to make deliberate decisions that enhance career mobility. Many of the participants discussed how they navigated their careers, made choices about which jobs to take and which to avoid. Duncan said his success is attributed to the fact that he looks for the right opportunities. He said,

I just don’t want to ask for everything. I just made a conscious decision last year to look for a new job. There were all kinds of positions that were open in our company, but I did my research and I focused on the job that I wanted.

Henry provided an example of how he strategically planned his career development by developing exit strategies from companies when it became obvious that he had reached the glass ceiling. He said:

I had reached a glass ceiling and through the conversations with my wife who was also a professional, we developed an exit strategy. I gave myself a year to put in line things that would allow me to leave. I said January of ‘91 I want to be out and January ‘91, I quit.

Adaptable and resilient. The ability to rebound from setbacks and adapt to different circumstances and sets of expectations was viewed as a critical competency. Steve said:

 I can’t emphasize enough the importance of adaptability. Things aren’t going to happen the way you planned them, and so you have to be adaptable. So, the job might be different, the people might be different, the situation might be different. A lot of times I’ve watched people, they get a map in their head and they cling to their map. I’ve always been willing to change the map and I think that’s been very important and it has served me well.

Jerome shared a story about rebounding from a failure. He had taken a sales manager position and had failed in the role, such that he voluntarily left the company. He called that experience one of the darkest of his careers. Approximately three years later, Jerome was asked to return to the company and take another sales leadership position. After convincing his family to support his return, Jerome returned to the company and built a successful sales organization and later became division vice president responsible for leading over 85 salespeople and generating over $70 million in revenue. Recounting that experience, Jerome said,

But, as I like to tell people, if I hadn’t had that year where I failed as a salesperson and that I couldn’t feed myself much less my family, then I wouldn’t have achieved since that point.

The participants’ stories demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between self-efficacy and personal agency and how they utilized both to facilitate their career development.

black man at desk

Education and Continuous Learning.

When I asked the men what had been the biggest differentiator for them, they resoundingly said that education has been their ticket into the game. In terms of formal education, 10 of the 14 men have advanced degrees and two of them have doctorate degrees. The men also engaged in more informal learning and professional development. When I asked the men what advice they would give to other Black professional men to help them achieve success in their career development, participants highly encouraged learning continuously through company education and training programs, including tuition reimbursement; learning through professional associations; and learning through key experiences, such as international assignments and job rotations.

Spirituality and Purpose.

When the men talked about their greatest career accomplishments and satisfaction, they talked sparingly about the extrinsic accomplishments (promotions, financial status, etc.). Most of their conversations centered on intrinsic values, which included such things as staying true to themselves or being authentic, being able to develop others, making a difference or leaving a legacy, paving the way for the next generation of Black executives, and giving back to their communities. These responses represent traditional, Africentric values of collectivism that place a high value on community. There is a deep seated belief culturally that a person is not successful if he is not bringing others along. The men in this study embraced that belief. Most often, the participants’ responses included references to spirituality, church, or faith. David’s comments reflect this connection to spirituality and purpose. He said,

I’m a believer that you’ve got to take life as it comes and say, one, did I make the decision that I am still comfortable with today even though it may have been a mistake at the time, but I learned from it. Was I true to myself? Was I true to my religious beliefs? And was I true to – my whole thing is trying to do the right things for people.

Celica added:

I’m always taken back to my Christian beliefs and what my family instilled and that is that we really believe that these experiences have a purpose. And that purpose is to show that despite what the majority or others do to you, race being a key element, that you can still succeed.

Summary and Conclusions.

Over the past several weeks, I have shared the methodology and outcomes from my research on the career development of Black professional men in corporate America. My inquiry was directed there because I began to notice fewer Black men in succession for key roles and in the leadership pipeline altogether. As it turns out, my suspicions were not off base. According to prior research, Black men have slipped from being the most courted diverse hire to the least likely to be hired or promoted. Even when they reach mid-manager to executive level positions, they still encounter discrimination in the form of slower promotion rates, pay disparity, fewer roles with P&L responsibility, and fewer selections to critical development assignments and high visibility projects.

Through the study, I found there were four roadblocks to their career success with stereotypes attributable to Black men mentioned more frequently by the men. Other disablers included: subjective and disparate career development practices, different opportunity structure for the acquisition of sociopolitical capital, and the changing priorities in companies’ workplace diversity targets. All of these roadblocks have structural and individual accountabilities.

Despite the roadblocks, the 14 men in the study accomplished successful careers. How did they do it? There are five enablers identified for success with building and leveraging key relationships being at the top of that list. Learning to employ bicultural strategies, having self-efficacy and personal agency, learning continuously, and have a sense of spirituality and purpose were also instrumental in enabling these leaders to overcome the roadblocks and achieve careers they are extremely proud of.

People are inherently biased and programs like unconscious bias training help leaders become more self-aware. But, unconscious bias training is not the silver bullet.

This study also shines a light on structural practices and processes within corporate America that need to change to bring about more equity and equality in the workplace. Training people leaders, at all levels, on unconscious bias may seem like the “in” thing companies are doing; but it is the basic thing to do. People are inherently biased and programs like unconscious bias training help leaders become more self-aware. But, unconscious bias training is not the silver bullet. Structurally how things get done also needs examination. Requiring diverse slates to fill openings for critical roles will force organizational leaders to broaden the talent pool. A recent article in Fast Company magazine also suggests that names should be removed from resumes before providing to hiring managers so that prospective candidates are being evaluated on the merits of their work, not on any gender or racial biases.

Talent processes should be made more objective and transparent. The criteria needed for success within a company should not be a secret or this nebulous set of expectations. Be clear and create equal opportunity for all people to meet those criteria. The most important thing is be intentional about creating a more diverse and inclusive environment. The workplace is a microcosm of the larger society and race and gender equality issues penetrate corporate America just as they do all of our institutions. To have equity and equality in the workplace, we must all work together and hold one another accountable. As a human resources professional, I challenge my colleagues to be on the front line of reimagining their organizational cultures and working to stamp out discrimination, bias and inequities wherever they are.

To have equity and equality in the workplace, we must all work together and hold one another accountable.

I want to thank the 14 men who, through their candor, provided stories of challenge and frustration and stories of triumph and inspiration. My hope is that there are other young Black men, or any other young professionals, who can read the stories of the Black men highlighted in this study and apply what they learned to their own career development.

Comments (2)

  1. John Mixon
    Apr 15, 2016

    Sorry for my delayed response but I wanted you to know that your summarization is on point with the experiences of so many African American men and people of color in general. Keep up the enlightening work and lets keep in touch. If you’re back in Atlanta anytime this summer, let’s try to connect. Now that I am retired, my schedule is a bit more flexible. I hope all is well with you and your family.

    My best,


    • Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.
      Apr 20, 2016

      Hi John, I didn’t know you retired. Congratulations! Thanks for reading the blog. Please continue. I welcome your feedback.


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