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How You Can Succeed on an Unlevel Playing Field

Imagine there’s a large screen in front of you with different shapes on it: a square, a circle, a triangle and a squiggly line. Of those shapes, which one would you say best fits you?

Now that you’ve picked your shape, I’ll tell you what each of them means. If you picked the square, that means you’re a leader. Circles are the creatives. Triangles are the people who are loving. And if you picked the squiggly line you are inquisitive. In other words, you’re nosey.

Full disclosure: I picked the circle when asked the same question during a recent training session at the Blacks in Government’s 40th Annual National Training Institute in New Orleans. This particular session was about minorities in management and how to navigate on an unlevel playing field. I waited patiently for the scientific reasoning behind the shapes and what they meant, and then our instructor shared more details.

“Understand that I made this up,” said Tony Johnson, an entrepreneur and author who has spent more than 30 years in management. “This has no merit at all.”

But Johnson had a purpose for the short exercise and a nugget of wisdom he wanted to teach us: Don’t let anyone define who you are. “Is that not what I did to you?” he said. “I had you choose who you thought you were.”

How many times have you tried to fit into a mold or been labeled as a particular kind of worker based on someone’s personal assessment? These are the realities for many minorities in the workplace, especially those in management positions, Johnson said. “The playing field is not level.”

Sometimes you may get to play on the level part of the field, but the level part of the field gets shorter the higher up you go. So how do you excel when the playing field isn’t level? Johnson shared several tips — many of which have been said before — but are worth repeating.

1. It starts with you. You have to have the right attitude and realize that your management journey is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. You have to know who you are, including your strengths, weaknesses and your worth. Know what you bring to the table. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and take on new responsibilities because of your lack of knowledge or experience.

2. When life gives you lemons, you give them back. You make life what you want it to be. Don’t let people, whether it’s on your job, at school, or your friends, define who you are.

3. Earn the respect of those you lead and then demand it. Be honest, have integrity and be consistent.

4. Let people know your expectations and hold them accountable. Whatever it is that you expect from people, you have to expect that every day. When you become inconsistent in what you expect, what you get will become inconsistent.

5. Catch someone doing something right and praise them for it. If you want to make a difference and climb onto the level part of the playing field, you have to be different. Praise isn’t always given generously, but you can be the person who changes that and sets the tone on your job.

6. Truly listen to the people you lead; don’t just hear them. Not only that but also create an environment where your team shares the load. When you lead people, you let them follow, make them do and then show them the way.

7. A comfort zone is a nice place to be, but nothing ever grows there. Don’t become complacent. Always strive for more. People are waiting for you to become complacent just to pass you by.

8. Know how to effectively communicate with everyone. It is how you say things that makes the difference. If what you have to say is important enough to say, you have to make sure that it’s heard. If you want to be heard, remember that the way you deliver that message is key.

9. Don’t become average. You get noticed by being above or below average. Average goes unnoticed. To drive this point home, Johnson asked diehard football fans to name all the people on the bench for their favorite teams. No one could do it. Johnson noted that what average looks like changes as you move up. You can’t be above average at one level and think you can be above average at the next level.

10. What you do today can be an enhancement or a detriment to our future generation. We set the tone for the future; not just for today. We have to make sure that we are pioneers for those who are coming behind us.

“We have an obligation to realize that the playing field is not level, and we have to do what we have to do to get there,” Johnson said. “We have to do it ethically, [and] in the right way. What you do today, you’ll have to sleep with tonight.”

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