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The Black Woman's Career Playbook: The Rules of Engagement

To succeed, you must be strategic about every aspect of your venture, from your intent and goals to your network and plan of execution. Here, seasoned execs and entrepreneurs share their top tips.

To succeed, you must be strategic about every aspect of your venture, from your intent and goals to your network and plan of execution. Here, seasoned execs and entrepreneurs share their top tips:


When she joined the National Basketball Association 20 years ago as a game logger, Kori Davis Porter, 43, observed everything and everyone. A long her climb up the ranks, she began modeling the habits of her most successful colleagues. “No. 1: Work hard and stay knowledgeable,” says Porter, named an associate vice-president of NBA Entertainment in 2012. That led to opportunities, recognition and promotions. Plus, she made it her business to know her coworkers and their roles in the organization: “I became a resource. It was, ‘Oh, Kori can answer that.’ Or ‘Kori can point you in the right direction.’ When your name comes up, you want it to be said that you can adapt to any situation. When senior execs are in the room, you want to be named as a problem solver, with innovative ideas that make a difference.”


“I discovered early in my career that if I was honest about asking for and accepting help from others—whether they looked like me or not—people opened up,” says Nicole Jones, 44, executive vice-president and general counsel of Cigna in Hartford. “At one point, I worked with these old cigar-smoking White men, in their corner offices. I’d walk in and say ‘I’m here. I want to learn.’ For me, it wasn’t about being defensive, but rather displaying a positive attitude. Now I’m not naive; I know there are prejudices. I also believe in the good intent of all people and know they aren’t always out to get you.”


In business—as in life— there are risks to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, something Melissa Dawn Simkins, 36, president of Velvet Suite Marketing Consulting Group in Atlanta, learned early in her career. “I was usually too nervous to speak up in meetings. I would get flustered trying to think of the right thing to say,” says Simkins, a former Proctor & Gamble marketing executive. After a bit of trial and error, she found the solution. “Read the room, then assert what’s valuable,” she says. Instead of trying to nail one eloquent response, “offer a solution by stating, ‘I understand where we are today. Is there something we need to do to shift our position over the next 12 months?’ ” she says. “Often we’re so anxious to speak that we’re not adding value; we’re just making noise.”


It’s pure folly not to seek the boss’s input or stay apprised of the boss’s expectations, says Mag Powell-Meeks, 49, deputy director for IT and deputy chief information officer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Ask for the truth and don’t take it personally, because it’s an opportunity to improve. And don’t wait until evaluation time to ask if you are hitting the mark,” Powell-Meeks says. “When my boss says, ‘Nope, I would have done it this way,’ I respond, ‘Okay, why?’ Take that input and say, ‘Here’s what I recommend. Which option do you prefer?’ You’re training yourself, through feedback, on how to exceed your manager’s expectations.”


“I’ve worked with a lot of CEOs, their wives and other people in entertainment who were deemed difficult. But I showed up not expecting them to be difficult. Instead, I bring a grounding, tethering energy,” says Latham Thomas, 34, founder and CEO of Mama Glow, a New York City—based company providing labor support, life coaching and other services to pregnant women. In learning how to deal with different people, she also learned how to value herself. “I’ve had to place my worth at a premium—and be willing to walk away—because it’s too much mentally and emotionally to endure some of this work,” says Thomas, who has forged friendships and partnerships with the likes of model Veronica Webb and singer Alicia Keys. “A friend once asked, ‘What number will feel comfortable for you? Well, start higher than that. If the client is uncomfortable, they can always counter.’ ” She adds: “No one will value something if it doesn’t cost enough. Know your self-worth and purpose, then name your price.”


When international retailer Walmart approached former college professor Lisa Williams about placing her line of Positively Perfect dolls in its stores, “I had to learn how to speak Walmart,” says Williams, 50, CEO of World of EPI (Entertainment, Publishing and Inspiration) in San Diego. “I knew research terminology because I’d been a professor. But I had to learn their terminology, their accounting and their financing.” So she studied the business model and the layout of its stores, chatted up shoppers and became a customer herself. Being steeped in a company’s lingo and other workings, Williams says, has enriched her ongoing business conversations with Walmart, among other clients. But, she adds, “People hear your heart language before they hear your words. So when I walk into a room, I carry the love and mission for this work for our children.”


Dana Hill, founder and CEO of Cocotique, an online purveyor of deluxe beauty boxes in New York City, has always rocked her own signature workplace-appropriate style—from her days as a PR and marketing exec for such urban outfitters as Roca Wear to her stint as an assistant fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar magazine to her current private ventures. That classic black stretch sheath? She bought it in 1993. Depending on the time of day and business at hand, Hill, 48, will sass it up with a pair of stilettos or dress it down with ankle boots and tights. “I’ve kept my authenticity. I’ve known what looks good on me and stuck with that. It’s important to have a sense of self and not be swayed, necessarily, by your environment,” says Hill.


An essential lesson in being managerial for Teresa White, 47, came when she was a 25-year-old manager for a credit card company. “I was the boss and I was going to impart my knowledge, telling everyone what they needed to do,” says White, who is executive vice-president and chief operations officer for Aflac U.S., a supplemental insurance provider based in Columbus, Georgia. It was her first supervisory position. “When I got that 360-degree feedback—a tool for identifying everyone’s view of your leadership style—my bosses and peers thought I was the bomb. But my employees thought I was rigid, didn’t listen and didn’t care about their concerns.” Their myriad complaints made her rethink how to best manage. She responded by explaining how she planned to be a more efficient, exemplary, humane leader. “And I told them, ‘When you see old habits, remind me, Teresa, you’re not being the person you want people to see.’ They were able to exhale.” From there, she kept broadening her skill set, mindful that “you don’t really have the luxury of just knowing what you do. If you’re solving problems and making decisions, you can’t live in a silo. You have to be able to sit among everyone and be inquisitive. Bottom line: Always listen and seek greater understanding.”


In a field dominated by big, extroverted personalities, the secret to Leontyne Green Sykes’s success has been landing a role with a company where an introvert’s quiet leadership is respected. “Earlier in my career, a manager said, ‘You’re great, but you really need to promote yourself and spend more time socializing.’ That was a bit of a struggle for me, and eventually left me exhausted,” says Sykes, 44, chief marketing officer for Ikea U.S. near Philadelphia. She took the current position because Ikea, as a core principle, does not require that everyone think and behave the same way, she explains. “Find an environment that accepts who you are as a human being and a professional,” she says.


Other Black girl bloggers were among the first to help Arsha Jones, 36, spread the word about Capital City Mumbo Sauce, her version of a homegrown condiment from her native Washington, D.C. “Going to conventions like Blogging While Brown taught me how to partner, build a platform and forge some genuine friendships,” says Jones, who spent 15 years in corporate Web design, Internet marketing and social media before her company’s 2011 launch from her Annapolis, Maryland, home.

This article was originally published in the April 2014 issue of ESSENCE magazine.

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