Trailblazer or token: How to excel when you’re an “only” in the workplace

Many of us have been there. You get the education, you put in the work and you finally get that executive role. It’s been part of your career plan for years. You start the job and it’s everything you thought it would be–almost. But you quickly realize you have very few colleagues who look like you. You are the only one.

This “onlyness” can take various forms. You may be the only woman, the only person of color or the only executive with an accent. These aren’t the only you-specific characteristics that may impact others’ perceptions of you before you’ve uttered a single word. These attributes can’t be turned off, minimized or hidden. Nor should they need to be.

My first experience as an only was years ago, at a small company of 5 people. The other four were young white women, perfectly nice but probably not much exposure to others who weren’t like them. We were a start-up, working long hours to build our organization. After about 18 months into my tenure, I had one of the senior partners tell me that I was “intimidating”. I found this to be confusing, since I wasn’t prone to raising my voice and I didn’t use any profanity in the workplace. I’d had very few professional strategy disagreements with other team members, none more than anyone else. When I probed for details or examples, I couldn’t get any. Not one. It would be years before I figured out what “intimidating” meant (but only a few short months before I left the firm for another job).

Often, when you work with individuals who don’t frequently interact with women or people from other cultures, they struggle to understand the nuances of your personality that may be influenced by your cultural norms. And as a professional you’re left to navigate through some fairly complex workplace interactions. How can you be yourself and not just be accepted in your organization, but excel?

Unfortunately, this is not a new challenge. Recent reports illustrate that African Americans hold only about 3% of executive jobs at Fortune 500 companies, and less than 5% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. So if you’re in one of these demographic groups, chances are you’ll be an only.

And it’s not just corporate America. People of color make up less than 20% of college/university professors. Approximately 75% of the U.S. Senate as well as the U.S. House of Representatives are males. And with African Americans comprising less than 8% of medical schools students, this trend will continue in the medical field as well.

So where does that leave us? Statistically, if you are a woman and/or a person of color, the higher you ascend in your career the more likely it is that you are the only one in the room. How do you continue to climb the ladder, corporate or otherwise, when there are so few of you as you go higher? Here are some practical tips to level up your game as you elevate your career.

Develop strong relationships.

This is non-negotiable and it’s more than getting your boss to like you. Who are the influencers in your organization, both above and below your pay grade? How can you build relationships with these people in meaningful ways? Participating on committees and joining various workgroups is the obvious answer, but don’t overlook the social opportunities to connect. Watch for company events like employee picnics and fundraisers, or informal events like golf outings and professional conferences. These outings offer a chance to get to know key individuals in your organization. Quick tip: Your marketing department may be sponsoring events that require them to fill guest tables, golf foursomes or other ticket distribution, which is sometimes difficult. Let them know you’re willing to participate if they’re looking for a member of the leadership team to attend.

Understand the culture.

To play any game successfully, you have to understand the rules. This includes the informal guidelines that make up the organization’s culture. Do people arrive late at meetings or is everyone punctual? If everyone suited and booted, or is it more of a workplace casual attire vibe? Every organization is unique, even within the same industry. Understanding what the culture of the organization is allows you to highlight those parts of your personality that fit within that culture. Be clear–this is not about changing who you are. This is about understanding what’s valued at your organization, and making sure your behavior and work product are aligned with that. You may have made it to this level through your technical knowledge, but at this level it may be more about who you are than what you know.

Code-switching is key.

Uggh, hate to have to say this in 2020, but this is a critical skill for senior leaders of color. Although many of your white counterparts may consider themselves to be open and inclusive (and many are), cultural differences and unconscious bias may lead them to perceive leaders from ethnic minorities as less professional. Code switching enables you to talk the talk when you’re at work, and be your more authentic self when you’re not in the workplace. As depressing as that may sound, I’ve gotten so good at this particular skill that it’s like a second language I speak fluently. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean you should be “less African American”, “not so female” or “more like white”. It means you have to be mindful of your presentation of self to make sure it’s appropriate for the setting. And here’s a big ole’ asterisk: The longer you’re in a leadership role, performing well and ascending the ladder, the more latitude you have in how and when (or if) you code-switch. Sometimes I throw in a “yes, girlfriend” just to remind them who they’re dealing with. And they eat it up. But I’m mindful of the audience, and I know when they’re not ready for the real.

Don’t feel that you have to represent your entire race (or gender).

When you’re an only, you may sometimes feel a responsibility to represent or defend your entire group. Some of this may be external, as colleagues ask you about a popular rap song or seek insight as to how black women care for their hair. Some of this is self-directed, such as the embarrassment you unnecessarily feel when someone of your race or gender behaves inappropriately in the workplace, “making us all look bad”. This ownership is too much for any one person to bear. Consider how many times you’ve seen a white male colleague take ownership for another’s poor behavior simply because they share skin color or gender—not often. Give yourself a break.

Don’t assume race or gender is always the issue.

If you’re having difficulty managing a work relationship or if you’re not being selected for career opportunities, don’t just assume race or gender is the issue—but don’t rule it out. Get your information straight first. If it’s a challenging relationship, what could you do differently? Have you had a candid, yet professional, discussion with your colleague to resolve the issue? If not, do it. If you feel you’re not getting the same career opportunities as others, how do you stack up against those who win those opportunities? Compare yourself in terms of education, experience and job performance. If all those are on par, talk to your leader about why you weren’t selected and demonstrate a sincere effort to shore up any shortcomings that were identified. Once you’ve given all this a try, if you feel you’re being treated unfairly, quietly document your concerns and have a conversation with human resources. Know that your conversation will likely lead you over bumpy terrain. The sad truth is that sometimes you’re better off leaving.

But we’re going to assume that won’t be necessary, because you didn’t get this far by accident. There’s something you possess that has earned you the lead projects, the attention of senior leadership or the corner office. 

As you continue to maximize your career opportunities, don’t forget to bring others along as you rise. Hiring or facilitating opportunities for women or people of color in an organization that’s short on both can be a challenge. You don’t want to be accused of favoritism or “reverse racism”, but the only way to ensure the next generation of leaders isn’t lightly speckled with onlys is to identify those who bring value to the organization. This makes it clear you’re not just looking for physical qualities, you’re looking for actual quality. And it’s your responsibility to help identify those who look like you, who could be future leaders in your organization or industry. Just sayin’.

Being an only definitely has its challenges. They’re different each day, some more so than others, but they never completely go away. Since my labeling as “intimidating” I’ve held other roles much higher on the org chart, still as an only. My experience and education has been greatly expanded, but I think my core personality is pretty much the same. I haven’t had anyone else call me intimidating, but I realize it’s quite possible that the characteristics I displayed all those years ago outweighed my role as a manager. Now that I’m in the C-suite perhaps those characteristics are more acceptable, even expected.

Who knows? Maybe I was just a leader waiting to happen.

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2 responses to “Trailblazer or token: How to excel when you’re an “only” in the workplace”

  1. This is the story of my life. I have been in many, many only or worse (1st) situations. My Duality is what I call it. My professional speak, my hood speak etc. I have always been labeled intimidating or aggressive. I do speak up & I am unafraid. But despite it all, I hv always excelled. Common Urban dilemma due to lack of respect & understanding of our diverse population.

    1. So glad you’ve been able to successfully navigate through this reality. It’s very real, but often unseen by those who haven’t lived it. We posted an article on personal branding also. I’d be interested to know if that content rings true for you as well, or if you’ve developed other ways of building your brand.

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