3 Leading Black Female Execs Reveal Their Biggest Career Failures And The Tough Lessons Learned

Gabrielle Simpson Sep, 11, 2018

A moment (or moments for some) of failure at some point in your career is inevitable. But it’s not the failure itself that defines who you are in the workplace, it’s how you learn from those moments and move forward.

Despite missteps in their careers, these women have shattered glass ceilings. The key for each of them, is that they have uniquely acknowledged failure as fuel for their individual success. Learn how each of these leaders have relentlessly jumped back from failure to be at the very top of their industries and how they’re bringing other Black women along with them to the top.

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Nzinga Shaw, SVP, Community and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Atlanta Hawks & Philips Arena
Nzinga Shaw is the first person to ever hold her position at the NBA. She has designed a strategic, cross-departmental program that creates deeper cultural awareness and sensitivity for the league. Nzinga is building a foundation that will advance the Atlanta Hawks & Philips Arena brand and drive the business. This initiative extends to fans, customers, community partners, as well as the entire workforce. Prior, Nzinga was SVP, Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Edelman, the world’s largest and most profitable public relations agency. She has also served at Essence Magazine, the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network, and the National Football League.

What would you say is your biggest career failure?
My biggest career failure was allowing my boss to define my value and tell me what I would not be able to achieve. I was a Vice President of Human Resources and expressed interest in taking on a more defined role to spearhead diversity & inclusion (D&I) within our department. After spending weeks on creating a strategic plan for the ways that this role could benefit our organization, I presented my case to my boss who at the time was Executive Director of Human Resources. She immediately said, “Are you serious? Do you think that you can be a Chief Diversity Officer if I am not a Chief HR Officer? You will never have the title ‘Chief.’” Over time, I assumed the responsibilities of the job, but I never received the job title and I was not compensated for the additional work.

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What is your biggest lesson learned?
Years later, I left the company to become the first ever Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer in the National Basketball Association (NBA) with the Atlanta Hawks. This is a tremendous achievement because I am the first person to hold this C-Level position in the entire NBA and for all North American professional sports leagues and teams including the NFL, NHL, MLB and MLS. As an African American woman who landed this groundbreaking role at the age of 35, I have established myself as a thought-leader in the D&I space at a time when it is critically important in sports organizations and corporate America (more broadly). I was instrumental in leading the Atlanta Hawks out of a public crisis which involved the release of emails and phone recordings of the previous controlling owner and general manager disparaging their African American fan base. Because of my leadership, the NBA hired a league-wide Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer whose been working directly with me to establish D&I jobs at all 30 teams.

I have learned that I am more than capable of taking on a role in the C-suite and that you cannot allow people to project their insecurities and fears in a way that spill over into your life. If you have the potential and ability to achieve your dreams, then pursue them and don’t stop no matter who tells you that you will not get there.

What advice would you give others?
My mom used to say, “Experience is the best teacher.” I wholeheartedly agree and have used the art of storytelling with my colleagues in the hopes that they will be able to take away important nuggets from me and apply these lessons to their own experiences. Rather than preaching to someone, people always remember a story that has a powerful takeaway.

What fuels your career success?
Passion for D&I coupled with the desire to see real change in corporate America fuels me and my success. My grandmother had a 3rd grade education and cleaned white people’s homes for her entire life. She made large sacrifices for our family so that one day, I could hold a C-suite position and be the change that she wanted to see in the world.

Emily K. Graham, SVP & Partner, Americas Co-Lead, Financial and Professional Services Sector at FleishmanHillard
Emily K. Graham, is a 32 year old trailblazer in public relations and corporate communications. She’s the only Black millennial female partner at her firm, FleishmanHillard, an award-winning global PR & digital marketing agency. She is a diversity & inclusion champion and architect of leading programs that strengthen company culture. Emily serves on firm-wide D&I Leadership Team. Her communications career started with an internship at Burson-Marsteller. Currently, she leads the financial and professional services division at FleishmanHillard New York.

What is your biggest career failure?
My biggest failure is undervaluing myself. Early on in my career, I was working in a near-entry level position as the most junior person on a piece of business, but I shouldered most of the execution. I lived and breathed this client. I knew the inner workings, all the players and the subject matter backwards and forwards. I took great pride in the work I did and it offered tremendous growth for me – in fact – some of the work I did in these early days set the stage for my executive career today.

At the time, the person that I reported into resigned. Upon her resignation, she gave the recommendation that someone else who wasn’t on this specific team, take her place. I was to report into this new person and I was furious. I felt overlooked and undervalued. But, it was completely my fault because before she undervalued me, I undervalued myself. I allowed all the pieces to be set in motion, until finally one day I was venting to another team member who was in a leadership role, and she chastised me for not standing up for myself. She made me evaluate why I didn’t feel deserving to speak up for what I wanted.

What did that teach you?
I learned that no one can advocate for you, like you. If you’re not purchasing stock in you, incorporated, why would someone else? I learned to be laser focused on my own career and not set my sights on what anyone else was doing. Never again did I allow someone to broker my career without my input. I recently even told someone that I respect that while I appreciate his or her interest in my career – I didn’t need a spokesperson. I can speak for myself. Champions and coaches, absolutely are necessary, but ultimately that story has to start and end with you.

How did you recover from this failure?
I knew I’d recover because a long time ago I learned two sage lessons: Remember who you are and whose you are, this mantra keeps me centered. I never want to get too far away from the girl who was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and grew up in Dallas, TX, born from parents who navigated Jim Crow, had big dreams and achieved success. I still call home all the time to be grounded and I’m never far away from my faith. Christ is at the center of my life.

Additionally, lessons are repeated until they are learned: I learned this lesson in college. I repeat it to myself when I find myself disappointed in something I’ve done or when I can’t understand why something keeps happening. I am encouraged because I know the solution lies within me and that conquering any challenge means that I’m growing.

Have you ever taken the blame for someone else’s mistake?
This just happened to me. It was not one person’s mistake, but it was implied that something I did affected an outcome that I firmly believe was set in motion by someone else. I didn’t fight the point. What do I have to gain by locking horns?

I do believe in your career you will lose some, win some and some days, you’ll not want to try at all. I’m at most peace when I know I’ve done all I can to ensure the success of me and my team. With that mindset, the blame game doesn’t matter, it’s a divisive tactic. That being said, I’m no wallflower and as I mentioned in my early career lesson learned, I’ll be tactful if needed on being falsely accused.

I was told a long while ago there’s a difference being who is “in charge” and who is “accountable.” I always aim to be accountable for myself and I challenge my team to do the same.

Have you taught others not to make certain mistakes that you’ve made?
I coach and guide as best I can, I do believe it is my responsibility. I impart anything I’ve learned and am an open book. I readily give my opinion if it is sought after. I do firmly believe some people must learn their lessons best by going through things on their own. When I was younger I learned this way, experientially I’ll call it! AKA a hard head makes a soft behind. Now that I’m older, I want to save myself the trouble and I welcome feedback.

What is your biggest career accomplishment?
I pray that I’ve not seen my biggest career accomplishment yet. I’m still in this journey, but so far I’m very proud tor recently being named to a global role – leading a sector for one of the biggest communications agencies in the world and making partner at 32. When you look up financial and professional services, leaders don’t look like me. Millennial, Black and a woman – and it makes me proud to know that the world is changing, that I am making an impact and that my parents’ hard work and mine really paid off. I came of age during the Great Recession working deep in the trenches of financial services and reputation building for big brands and executives. I still get excited each day about what I do, and I see that as an accomplishment.

Cynthia Augustine, Global Chief Talent Officer, FCB
Cynthia “Cindy” Augustine, is the highest-ranking Black woman at FCB, a global fully integrated marketing communications agency with more than 8,000 people in 109 operations in 80 countries. She leads HR, talent acquisition and development, organization design, change management, compensation, benefits, and diversity and inclusion programs for the network. A member of both the New Jersey and New York State Bar Associations, she’s known worldwide for attracting A+ talent and creating high-performance teams that leverage organizational strength and drive performance. She’s led teams at Scholastic, Time Warner and The New York Times amongst others.

What would you say is your biggest career failure?
I was a Senior Vice President of Human Resources and was on the Company’s Executive Committee. The company was facing rapid marketplace challenges and competitive pressures that required fundamental business model changes. The executive team was very divided on how to proceed as our alternatives advantaged some and extremely disadvantaged other members of team, while overall, confronted the company with a very uncertain future – in other words, there were no clear or easy path.

It was my role to help bring the team together with a forward vision for the company with team building, defining roles, incentives, etc., but I was unable to do so, and the change effort. As a result, the team became even more divided.

What did you learn from this failure and how did it impact your future career?
As many will say, the lessons are in the failures. I learned from a skill point of view, how to develop and implement a successful change initiative, how to navigate in a rapidly changing business environment and what makes for prosperous executive team. The real and true learning for me was personal. The most difficult, and this took some time on my part to realize, I had to look closely at myself to see what I did or didn’t do that contributed to politics of the situation. I had to determine why I was unable thrive in that particular situation. From this I have learned how to lean hard into my own personal values, the non-negotiables, such as speaking truth to power and most of all learning resilience and coming back with grace and understanding, but most importantly, coming back strongly into my own power.

Is it ok to take the blame for someone else’s failures?
I have taken the blame for someone else and I don’t have a problem with it. I’ve done it at times when someone is not in a position of strength and power organizationally, but they’ve worked hard, tried hard, and I think they are talented and just somehow missed the mark or something went wrong in a particular project.

How do you know if you’ve successfully recovered from failure?
You’ll know if you have credibility and trust of your peers, your subordinates and your leaders – whether they entrust you to give you assignments to do the work that you’re there to do. If you’re able to articulate what went wrong, take responsibility for it, show what you would do instead, and you’ve had a good track record, chances are (if you’re working with a good group of people) you’ll have another chance – because no one’s perfect, we all make mistakes.

What responsibility do you find in failure and in making mistakes?
I think it’s all of our responsibilities to mentor and coach others, so I absolutely try to help people avoid mistakes that I’ve made. There are enough mistakes we’re bound to make getting through this life, let’s avoid the avoidable ones!

What would you say is your biggest career accomplishment?
Helping other people be successful. It’s the passion that drives me every day. My teams fuel my career success! I have fantastic teams and we work together hand in glove.