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How to Navigate the C-Suite When You’re the Only Person of Color in the Room

June 2, 2016, 3:18 PM UTC

When ADP’s Debbie Dyson was promoted to corporate vice president, client experience and continuous improvement in July 2014, even she was amused. “It’s a big, long title,” she says. “Most of what I do is think about how the customers want to interact with us.” Back in the day, it was the phone. “Now, customers would prefer to never have to talk with you,” she laughs. “So, how do we make those experiences work for them?”

But part of her job is also thinking about how to make the experience of working at ADP a good one. Dyson has been with the company for 28 years, and she first hesitated to enter the leadership track. “Candidly, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me,” she said. “I was concerned.”

Dyson currently sits on the 12-person executive committee and reports directly to the CEO. She’s the only person of color in the room. “But I’m in the room,” she emphasizes. And diversity is a big part of what comes up every month. ADP does not share specific numbers, but Dyson says the company has made huge strides, specifically in terms of women leaders at all levels. “For other minorities, we’ve improved things,” she says, “but there is room for more, and we’ve set specific goals.”

With roughly 57,000 employees and over 630,000 clients, ADP has a big job ahead. Dyson offers three pieces of advice to raceAhead leaders and readers:

Choose your battles. “There’s a natural eagerness to want to do everything tomorrow,” she says. But the smarter move is to look across the enterprise and pick specific areas where small wins can make a big difference. “Narrow your focus. Is engineering underrepresented? Create a specific strategy to get good candidates in the pipeline or hired.”

Make retention a priority. ADP instituted a “buddy system” that matched established employees with new ones to help them navigate a culture that’s rich in tradition and habit, which is a polite way of saying, a bit intimidating for newcomers. “It’s cross-collaborative exposure,” she says, and a great way for millennials to get a sense of other job functions. The program is less than a year old, but pulse surveys and retention reports are promising. “We do everything on computer, including on-boarding new hires,” she says. “The human element means so much.”

Embrace feedback. “This is the big gap for everyone,” she says. “Credible feedback is essential to help people move up in their careers, and nobody does it well.” For minority candidates, a lack of feedback makes them wonder: “Is it because I’m black?” Dyson says minority candidates need to overcome a reluctance to ask tough questions. “We need to get to the substance of how we’re doing at work,” she says. And managers should “recognize the need to create a two-way feedback channel, and humanize our interactions with our reports.”

On Point

It's expensive to be poor.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is proposing new regulations to place limits on payday loans, those short-term loans offered to low-income borrowers who need cash fast but have no other banking or credit options. The loans have long been problematic for borrowers; to crib from the pessimist Thomas Hobbes, they can be nasty, brutish, and short, with interest rates as high as 390%. Among other abuses, the industry has been accused of encouraging cash-strapped lenders to roll over unpaid loans into new ones, driving them further into debt. New proposals, which will trigger a spate of partisan fighting, would force lenders to make sure a borrower could afford the loan.Fortune

Oh ally, my ally.
Ken Wheaton takes his own publication and industry to task, asking tough questions about the lack of racial diversity in the advertising field. He digs into the history: Few people know about the efforts of the New York Commission on Human Rights to hold the industry to fair hiring practices, first in 1978, then again in 2004. The most recent survey showed that any progress made in the nearly four decades of discussion has been lost: Only 5.8% of ad professionals are black, and 3.2% are in the executive ranks. "What's to be done? I'm not quite sure," says Wheaton. "This is a case in which we don't really need more data or frank discussion. We need action." 
Ad Age

Bury my child at Wounded Knee, again.
At least 11 children between the ages of 12 and 17 have committed suicide in the South Dakota county that is home to the famous, and famously impoverished, Pine Ridge Reservation. The epidemic - kids as young as six are making attempts - has gone unabated for years. Extreme poverty, historical trauma, epic unemployment, intimate partner violence, and addiction are all in the mix. Dominique Alan Fenton, an 11th grade English teacher and certified legal advocate in Pine Ridge, shares stories from his work and offers a searing indictment. “Many white South Dakotans are happy to have Native Americans dressed in traditional clothing on the state tourism website or spending money at their businesses. But when it comes to making space for contemporary Native voices, the barricades built around the reservation often don't allow free passage.”

Diversity university.
Demand for diversity consultants has surged in the past year, largely in response to the many student protests focused on race on campuses across the country. Some consultants work on programs that help foster inclusion. Others, like the ones hired at Claremont McKenna College, are brought in as crisis managers and to mediate solutions. In addition to being specialized experts, these consultants are often seen as independent third parties who work outside the often thorny politics of academia. They also can often be seen with puppets. The article is paywalled (sorry), but you can check out Dialogues On Diversity, one of the firms mentioned in the piece.
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Reign on Roots.
April Reign, the writer and commentator who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, explores the inherent tension in viewing the "Roots" miniseries in light of complaints that the primary roles for actors of color are related to slavery or other forms of cultural subjugation. While conceding that the slave narrative is exhausting, Reign makes the point that the involvement of black people in the production offers a chance to correct and own the record. Further, productions like "Roots" keep talented, diverse people moving through the creative pipeline. "Now is the time for a rom-com between two lovers from the LGBTQ community; a buddy cop offering with Asian American and Latino leads; a sci-fi thriller starring a disabled person; a TV mini-series that explores the contributions that First Nation people made to this country and how their land was stolen from them." But until then, tune in to "Roots."
The Guardian

The Woke Leader

Go Fu Manchu yourself.
Mimi, aka Michelle Villemaire, is a DIY personality on TLC's show "What She Said" and a frequent YouTuber. She also has a wicked sense of humor. She recently called out "yellowface" in cinema and literature by recasting herself as famous characters played by white actors. "Growing up, I didn’t see many faces like mine on television and film. And because I wanted to be an actor it was really hard to believe that I could ever be one. Only women who had a certain skin color and eye shape were really allowed on screen, right? To this day, white people are cast as Asians, deepening the message that Asians just aren’t wanted." Her "fixing" of Katherine Hepburn in Dragon Seed is my favorite.
Homemade Mimi

A liar by any other name.
Mike Sager takes us back in time, when unnamed sources were still accepted in newsrooms and the press was not only trusted but relied upon to unearth both good and evil. In 1980, Janet Cooke, an African American reporter for The Washington Post, had won a Pulitzer for a story called "Jimmy's World," which later turned out to be fabricated. "Cooke’s transgressions rocked the foundations of trust the press had built since the post-World War II blossoming of the information age. After centuries of Fleet Streeters, muckrakers, and yellow journalists, the public had welcomed Walter Cronkite into their living rooms; the crusading work of journalists had freed America from a bad war and a crooked presidency." But she also caused a deep and painful discussion on affirmative action and minority hiring, among other things. Sager, her former colleague and boyfriend, offers an interesting snapshot of a troubling event. 
Columbia Journalism Review

The burning of Black Wall Street.
May 31 was the often overlooked anniversary of one of the worst race riots in American history, the burning of the Greenwood, a suburb of Tulsa, Okla. in 1921. Three hundred people were killed, and thousands more were left homeless in a community called "Little Africa," or more affectionately, as Black Wall Street. Josie Pickens walks through the history and reminds us why it matters. "It was pure envy, and a vow to put progressive, high achieving African Americans in their place that would cause the demise of the Black Mecca many called “Little Africa," and its destruction began the way much terrorism, violence and dispossession against African Americans did during that era." She also links to original source material. 


Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
—Chief Joseph