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Career Advice

‘Leaders Are Not Just Born, Leaders Can Be Made’ — Here’s How

Posted by Amy Elisa Jackson

Last Updated March 14, 2018

The Dalai Lama once said, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” And while he may not have been speaking about the world of business, in particular, there is perhaps no place where it’s more important to know the rules. No, these are the rules to abide by — protocols and procedures. The rules we are referring to are the laws of leadership and the often unspoken standards of success.

Navigating the workplace, whether it is corporate America or not, can be tricky, especially if you don’t have a mentor or sponsor who can help guide you past the potholes and traps. Enter “The Little Black Book of Success Workbook.”

Written as a follow up to the 2010 “The Little Black Book of Success: Laws of Leadership for Black Women,” the workbook offers insightful and actionable exercises and quizzes to help you to get ahead in your careers, change careers, find a new job, or start a new business. Think of it as your personal call-to-action plan, whether you are an entry-level worker, mid-career professional or senior executive.

As we celebrate Black History Month and Women’s History Month, Glassdoor spoke to co-authors Elaine Meryl Brown and Rhonda Joy McLean about the workbook, their advice for job seekers and the lessons they’ve learned in their career journeys. Here’s what they said!


blackbook of successGlassdoor: What made you want to write this insiders’ guide? There are so many books in the space, but they, arguably, do not speak to or speak from the experience of Black women.
Elaine Meryl Brown: We wrote the kind of book we wished we had while growing up, transitioning to, and working in corporate America. Our parents encouraged us to get good grades, go to college, get a great job, but that’s where their guidance stopped. They didn’t know how to help us beyond that. Our book picks up where our parents left off and speaks directly to black women. it’s a book by black women for black women, yet has strategies that are universal to everyone.

The Little Black Book of Success: Laws of Leadership for Black Women Workbook also provides leadership guidance to those who don’t have the access, opportunity, or resources they need to tap into and maximize their leadership potential. Leaders are not just born, leaders can be made. Our Workbook helps readers put leadership strategies into practice. We say it’s like having your “personal-action-plan”.

Glassdoor: In crafting the workbook, what were some of the sections and action plans that you knew you had to include? Why?
Elaine Meryl Brown: The Workbook complements the chapters in our original book. Emotional Intelligence in chapter 11, “Don’t Let Your Emotions Get the Best of You”, and Chapter 20 “Regardless of your Position, Learn About Your Department, Your Company, and Your Industry”, where we talk about the Ostrich Syndrome, are two of my favorite chapters. For example, in the emotional intelligence chapter, there are exercises and quizzes where women can look at ‘self and social awareness’, and examine ‘self and relationship management’. There are also questions about behaviors that women can work on to improve their emotional intelligence (EI). EI is important because studies have shown that the higher your (EI) the better your chances are of getting promoted. As for the Ostrich Syndrome, it’s important that women take their heads out the sand, so to speak, and step outside their comfort zone to learn about their companies and industries. The Workbook provides strategies to expand network relationships and raise industry visibility so that women can feel empowered to connect with the people they need to know and those who need to know them.

Glassdoor: Navigating challenging situations at work isn’t easy for anyone, and some would say that it’s doubly hard for African-American women. What advice do you have for mid-career women who are successful but still caught in that web of “she’s a hard worker, but…” or “she’s talented, but…”? Reviews and talks of promotions can be fraught with phrases and feedback like this.
Elaine Meryl Brown: In our recent Workbook event, I advised a woman about navigating a challenging situation around feedback. Giving feedback isn’t always easy for managers to share, which makes it sometimes difficult for us to receive honest feedback. My advice; be proactive. Ask the supervisor specific questions like, “What specific things do I need to do increase my performance?” “What special projects do I need to take on to help the department?” “What skills do I need to add or learn so I can add more value to the team?” “What areas do you see that I need improvement?” Questions like this should change the conversation so that women can get the feedback they need to move fwd.

Glassdoor: How can women of all ages eliminate the preconceived thoughts that we may be carrying around that are holding us back in salary negotiations? Any advice?
Elaine Meryl Brown: Women need to feel they are adding value to their company and when they are meeting and exceeding expectations, they need to realize that their contributions impact and/or play a role in the company’s bottom line. So with regards to salary negotiations, by keeping a Personal Leadership Notebook (PLN) and documenting assignments, projects and accomplishments, any feedback, accolades, etc., can also be useful in salary discussions. This information will also help women formulate a practice pitch for a raise.

Glassdoor: One of the chapters that really captured my attention was “Don’t Be the Office Mammy.” For those who have not yet bought the workbook, who is the “Office Mammy” and why is she the person you don’t want to be?
Elaine Meryl Brown: The Office Mammy is the woman who gains a reputation as someone who serves others as opposed to someone who is recognized for her professionalism, performance, ability to do the job, and meet or exceed expectations.

Glassdoor: Everyone, man or woman, should read the chapter “Don’t Let you Emotions Get the Best of You”. Many of us know how to control emotions in the workplace but learning from emotions is a different skill. Why is learning from emotions a key to being an effective leader?
Rhonda Joy McLean: We have all learned throughout our many years of work within (and in my case, also without) Corporate America that if we are not mindful, our emotions can move us to react to challenging situations in ways that take away our controls and may damage us and our standing in the workplace. We have all had to face inappropriate remarks, been ignored in meetings while others (usually men) say the same thing and are heralded, been left out of important conversations but then been expected to handle assignments out of the very conversations we missed, and much more. Our first advice, which we all follow, is to wait at least 24 hours before responding to a difficult situation to make sure you have calmed down. It is important to acknowledge your emotions. It is certainly understandable to be angry, frustrated, etc. when these kinds of circumstances present themselves. We believe that you should wait and think about what your most strategic response should be, if any is needed.

Sometimes, offensive remarks will be shouted down by others who are present and/or handled privately by the manager of the offender. When you are confident in yourself and your work, you will be less likely to “lash out” at the person, who may be ignorant, intimated by your competence, or something else that could bode well for you. In our book, we write a lot about respect and say that Aretha was right, you must be respected, if not liked or loved in your workplace. One of the strongest strategies for commanding respect is to respect yourself first and don’t let crazy people get you down.

You should have friends on your Success Team (also known as your personal Board of Directors) whom you can consult when you are feeling overwhelmed. Hopefully, you will include diverse team members – men and women of different ages, races, and backgrounds – so that you can avail yourself of some wide-ranging options when you need to address a prickly situation at work.

We believe that you can learn to make difficult situations (and even “crazy” people) turn around and work in your favor. One resource is your local bar association, like the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, which offers regular workshops on how to success in your workplace, whether it is corporate, government, non-profit or entrepreneurial. Be sure to search out organizations like the MBBA and other industry organizations that may have mentoring programs in place that you can use.

Glassdoor: Glassdoor speaks to millions of jobseekers each month. How important is the Little Black Book of Success when it comes to searching for a new job or upleveling in your career? 
Rhonda Joy McLean: Our books have been identified by thousands of readers as resources they continue to use to move them forward in their various career trajectories. We believe that the 40 Leadership Principles we have identified are “color-blind,” so that these principles can be used by anyone in any situation. However, our research has shown us that the way the leadership principles manifest has a great deal to do with the leader’s culture, morals values, religious beliefs, past experience, unconscious bias, gender and more. Therefore, we spend a lot of our speaking time at engagements talking about ways we can avoid sabotaging ourselves and counter any efforts made by others to sabotage us and our careers.

Glassdoor: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in your own career about how to step into your greatness and being the leader you knew you could be? Any anecdotes from your own journey?
Rhonda Joy McLean: I have learned that I, like many women of all stripes, have at times undervalued my skill sets and experiences and not applied for executive positions because I felt that I needed to know more, or to have personal experience with all of the duties that reported up to that post. We now know that this expectation of ourselves is unrealistic and unnecessary. Many male leaders constantly apply for positions where they have no or little experience and expect that they can learn “on the job.” Women are usually just the opposite in their thinking and miss out on key opportunities. We encourage your readers to “go for it” and learn along the way. I eventually became confident to create a position that did not exist and write a proposal for it, which over time led to a promotion and raise. You CAN do this!

Being successful is the best revenge! —Rhonda Joy McLean

Glassdoor: Now for a couple of fun questions that we ask all of our interviewees. What was your first job and what did you learn from the experience?
Rhonda Joy McLean: My first job, after babysitting, was serving as the secretary in our small-town funeral home, answering calls and giving out price lists for funeral home services. I was ten years old and made 50 cents an hour. It was a great job as I learned to listen to what was not being said and to offer comfort as well as information, even at such an early age. I have had many other jobs – clerk I a five and dime store, selling parakeets, goldfish and making keys, teaching piano (I had to stop as I was a senior in high school and was not so patient with the young students – smiles). Every job I have held taught me important lessons that I have applied throughout my career as an educator, administrator, classical musician, government and corporate attorney and law professor. Our positions (no matter what they are) can teach us many helpful skills to help us move forward.

Glassdoor: Lastly, what’s the worst career advice you’ve ever heard and how did you respond?
Rhonda Joy McLean: Some of the worst career advice I have received came from high school counselors who did not think I was college material and suggested that I attend a local community college. Instead, I applied to and was admitted to over 50 colleges and universities all over the country and won a four-year full scholarship to take with me to any college of my choosing. You must believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you! I am grateful for my family, friends, and even the challenge of some of those teachers who didn’t think I had smarts and gumption. I used their disbelief to motivate myself. I tend to do that with racist and sexist remarks as well. Being successful is the best revenge!


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