Success secrets | Only competence can trump corporate bias

Success secrets | Only competence can trump corporate bias

I am seeking a rewarding career, having recently completed my bachelor's degree in management. What obstacles will I likely need to overcome in the corporate world, being an older, 5ft tall, African-American woman?

—Name withheld, Houston

When we first received your letter, we put it into a file labelled, “How To Succeed In Business While Looking Different".

There, it joined about 15 other emails that have come in recent months, including ones sent by a Sri Lankan immigrant joining a company in Atlanta, a 64-year-old Puerto Rican nurse promoted into management in a Toronto hospital and a (closeted) gay man leading a Fortune 500 sales force.

Every email in the “How To Succeed..." folder tells a unique personal story. But the underlying question is always the same: Can you get taken seriously—and get ahead—in corporate settings without seeming, well, “traditionally corporate": i.e., a straight, white man with a prestigious college degree?

If only the answer was, “Yes". Unfortunately, in our experience, it is only, “Yes, but it’s harder".

Not to vilify corporations. There isn’t a CEO today who wouldn’t tell you that he or she desperately wants a diverse workforce. And there isn’t a global company that hasn’t devoted significant resources to achieving those ends, with diversity councils, proactive hiring and promotion practices, mentoring programmes and the like.

But, deeply entrenched biases persist in society, and many corporations reflect that by remaining most advantageous to the careers of those whom some executives might call “traditionally corporate", as defined above.

As one African-American senior executive puts it: “Hiring managers are often uncomfortable, based simply on a lack of familiarity. They want to associate with people like them."

Which doesn’t put you out of corporate career competition—it just starts you behind. And the only way we know to overcome that deficit is with sheer, unbridled competence. Because more than anything else, companies want to win.

So, while your performance may take longer to be rewarded, if you consistently deliver great results, eventually you will wear doubters down. They will come to need you too much.

Is this system fair? Of course not. Although we both have benefited from it to some extent, due to background and education, we have seen its inequities and the toll it can take on personal dignity. We’ve seen it make too many people feel disenfranchised. We’ve seen it make too many leave. And indeed, that’s a viable alternative for you. Many younger companies—think Google and eBay—do not have the same diversity issues as traditional corporations. Or you can go it alone; the economy is filled with businesses started by “uncorporate" individuals who didn't want to wait for a bunch of middle-aged white men in suits to decide they were worth something. You can't blame them.

But, we wouldn’t advise you—or anyone who feels “different", for that matter—to ditch a traditional corporate career. Big companies are getting better every day at inclusiveness; the vast majority of them are intensely trying to achieve that goal.

And corporations do offer immense opportunity for professional and personal growth. Once your career takes off, you can travel the world, manage teams and even launch whole new businesses. Perhaps most rewarding, you can use your platform to bring in and develop other “different" people like you, making the corporation and the world all the better for it.

So, don’t give up. If you feel you can survive the corporate journey with your sense of humour and humanity intact, know that your performance can ultimately get you to the top of the mountain. Just be prepared for a harder climb.

©2007/By NYT Syndicate

Write to Jack & Suzy

Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmasand challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.