Starting Tuesday, March 20, Tanisha A. Sykes, Senior Editor of Personal Finance & Careers for ESSENCE, will answer your career-related questions. To kick off this new column, we asked Tanisha to give you a peek inside her climb up the ladder.
For the past six years, I’ve served ESSENCE Magazine’s readers by offering advice on how we, as Black women, can move up the ladder. But even folks who dole out sage advice have to start somewhere, and I’ve certainly had some ups and downs along the way. So before I begin tackling your questions, it’s only fair that I come clean about how I got started, where I fell along the way, and the lessons learned as I picked myself up.
1. I had to start at the very bottom.
I climbed up the writing ladder by doing internships at my college newspaper, regional newspapers, national magazines and Black Philadelphia-based newspapers. No, these internships weren’t glamorous, but getting quotes, carrying storyboards to the printer and covering local pancake breakfasts sharpened my skills as a journalist. Doing the little things built up my skills as a journalist and showed my bosses that I was committed.
2. I got fired once—and it wasn’t the end of the world.
During my first copy editor job at a local Philadelphia newspaper, I actually got fired once after I told my boss that I was pregnant with my son. He gave me that “I’m disappointed in you” look. (Was he my daddy or my boss?) And yet today I’m grateful: Thanks, Irv, for giving me just the push—or should I say BOOT—I needed to stop being scared and start planning my future. Don’t ever wait for your boss, your mama or your BFFs to give you permission to manage your career. Get in that quiet place, figure out what you want, then go in with both guns blazin’. Otherwise, you could be waiting a very long time.
3. I had to push for every promotion.
After interning, I made it big (or so I thought) by landing a job as a copy editor at an, um, ESSENCE competitor—a national magazine that truly treated me like family. Nonetheless, every couple of years I told my bosses, “I need to do something different, something more challenging.” And they appeased me by granting me four promotions (and more cash) within seven years. Not bad for a chick from West Philly, huh? Oftentimes, women, especially Black women, are too scared, tired, beat down, uninformed or busy (I thought that was my middle name for a while) to ask for what we deserve. Here’s a little somethin’ to remember: If you don’t ask the ask, you won’t get the get. Stop waiting for someone to hand you something. You already know how to do the work. And stop being AFRAID. Yes, you, the one struttin’ around the office FAKING like she knows everything. It’s okay not to know. The crime is in never asking. (See the tips in #5 for pointers on how to reap the benefits of your work.)
4. I faced disappointment and kept it moving.
As much as I loved working at that job, my bosses wouldn’t give me the one thing I had really worked hard for: a senior editor title. I was in discussions with my bosses about what I had accomplished — how I had added value to the company and won awards — and the next steps regarding my career. But once the negotiations were complete, I was granted a features editor title instead of a senior editor title. If you take on a position or even a title that you know will not ultimately grant you the rewards you seek, then you are headed in the wrong direction. Some of us say YES too fast, then get mad when we try to retract it. Again, think about what is in your best interest first, then see if the offer meshes with what you had in mind. If it doesn’t, say NO.
5. I learned a lesson about the word “deserve.”
I remember saying, “I’ve done x, y, z and I deserve to be a senior editor.” Deserve is a funny word. It’s not about what you deserve, ladies, it’s about what you can prove that you accomplished. Remember that the next time you go running in your boss’ office screaming: “I deserve a raise.” No, you don’t. You deserve to go sit your behind down, write out everything you’ve done in the past two years, qualify how you saved or made the company money, and then talk about what it’s worth.
6. I experienced that “enough is enough” moment.
Anyway, my former boss said, “We love you, but we’re not going to do anything else for you.” Perhaps I’m embellishing a bit here for effect, but that was the sentiment. Needless to say, it was a game changer. Enough was indeed enough. So I said, “This is the last time that I will come to you about this.” I was in no position to quit — and I don’t advise quitting, especially these days when African-American unemployment is in the double-digits vs. our white counterparts. Instead I decided that I wouldn’t beg anyone for what I had already worked for; I would find another opportunity.
7. I had to figure out what I needed (and what I didn’t).
I made a list of what I was looking for in my next job:
*A position that would advance my skills. I knew how to edit a section. I needed to learn how to edit feature-length stories.
*A company and coworkers that challenged me.
My old colleagues were like family; they still are. That’s a grave mistake. If you’re focused more on where to meet up for drinks than how to advance your career, you won’t get far.
*A much higher salary. Even with the raises, I was woefully underpaid. If you are too, go to to figure out how much your skills are worth. Between taking care of our men, our mama and our extended families, too much of our money is going out the door. Negotiate some extra for your retirement, your rainy-day fund and for a traditional savings account. I now live by a saying from financial guru Dave Ramsey: “When you plan for emergencies, you stop having them.”
8. I linked in my network.
After writing down my thoughts, I contacted my close network of mentors, colleagues and professionals who believed in me, and I told them, “I’m finally ready to move on.” With that, I gathered my cover letters, resume and clips and began to send out packages. Then I got a call from one of my long-time writers who said ESSENCE was looking for a new senior editor of Careers & Personal Finance.
Within a day of that call, I looked on the masthead, figured out if I knew anyone at the company (I did), and asked her to walk my papers over to the editor-in-chief. Ladies, Carla Harris, author of Expect to Win, has always told me that you need to have senior-level people in your corner who can walk your papers in the room. So that’s what I did, and it worked: I was called for an interview.
9. I went the extra mile to prove myself.
After my interviews with ESSENCE’s executive editor and the editor-in-chief, I completed an editing test. Within that test, I showcased all of my skills as a researcher, copy editor, reporter, writer, and editor. Then I hand-delivered the test prior to the deadline. I’m telling you this because yes, there is something to be said about tenacity, but there’s also something to be said about being able to get the job done above and beyond anyone’s expectations. That’s what I did, and it worked: I landed the job I wanted.
Now, every week on, I’ll pull from all these lessons to answer your biggest career questions and concerns. See you at the top!
Got a question for Tanisha about your crazy boss, your next promotion, or anything else career-related? Ask below! And follow Tanisha on Twitter @tanishastips.

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