What Black Leaders Bring to the Table

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

We all know some of the key skills you need to succeed in business: perseverance, empathy, creativity, focus. But how do people build them? Today’s guest argues that Black Americans do it from childhood and that organizations, large and small, need to start recognizing them for it, because when you’re up against systemic racism and constantly navigating classrooms and workplaces where you’re in the minority, you learn grit. You pay more attention to what other people are thinking and feeling. You get resourceful and you work a hell of a lot harder than everyone else to prove you deserve your spot at the table.

Chad Sanders began his career in corporate roles at Google, and then helped lead a technology startup before becoming a writer and musician. For his new book, he talked to 15 Black leaders from diverse fields about their experiences at home, school and work. He wanted to figure out what helped them get to the top, and to showcase those skills for everyone else, not just aspiring leaders of color, but also white peers and bosses. His book is called, “Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Trauma and Triumph.” Chad, thanks so much for being here.

CHAD SANDERS: Thank you for having me.

ALISON BEARD: So I’d love to first talk about your personal story. You grew up in Maryland. You went to Morehouse, which is a historically Black college. You started out at Google, which is one of the world’s most prestigious companies, in a pretty cool job, but you had trouble at first. Why?

CHAD SANDERS: I was unadjusted to whiteness as a cultural setting to be specific. I went to very mixed schools growing up. My high school was about 50% white, 40% Black, 10% other races. So I was very much adjusted to sort of white culture and white social cues at that point in my life.

But I went down to Atlanta, Georgia to Morehouse college, to an HBCU for college and Atlanta is a very Black city. My school was 97% Black. So when I got to Google and I saw that the operating system, it was so different. It was this sort of preppy, prestigious, but sort of a dressed down casual bro-code type of environment. I had just forgotten how to acquiesce to that sort of world. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I got sad and I got confused and I decided that to get into the club and to be included and to feel like I had a chance to be promoted and to be a leader at that company, I needed to make myself whiter.

ALISON BEARD: So that’s like the ultimate code switch; being one thing to a certain set of people and then becoming another for a different group. Why is that so hard psychologically and did you find it to be successful?

CHAD SANDERS: Well, it’s hard because you’re trying to make yourself be someone that you’re not, and your body and your mind and your spirit can feel the jarring transition between identities every day as you dress yourself up to be someone else, which includes the way that you talk. It includes the way that you dress. But I think with more depth, it includes what you say that you like, what you say that you’re familiar with, your music tastes, your food tastes, the way that you talk about friendships and travel. In my case, the way that you make up places that you’d been so that you sound like you have had a privilege culture upbringing similar to your Ivy league colleagues.

But if I pull it even further a layer back, it’s painful because it feels so necessary. As a 22 year old in my first job at this huge company that at the time was about 15 years old, Google was my chance to enter industry at the highest level. I wrapped my entire identity around, how can I be Google-y? How can I be someone that fits in here, someone that they want to keep around? Because it seemed like that was the key to industry. I tried to emulate as best I could, whatever behaviors I saw that would make me appear that way. It was a losing game.

ALISON BEARD: And so it didn’t work?

CHAD SANDERS: It did not work. What it worked to do was to make me feel inadequate. What it worked to do was to make me feel like I had a job on top of my actual job, which was to present myself as someone who was harmless, safe, reasonable, likable to white people and it dulled so many of the sort of things that are core and most intrinsic to me in nature. It dulled my Blackness, which I see as something that’s been a very positive part of my identity. Now, I see it that way. I learned, as a six year old, as an eight year old, as a middle schooler, how to think quickly on my feet because of the nature of the risky and high stakes nature of being a Black kid in this country.

I learned how to have empathy for different people early on in my life because as a Black person thrown into environments full of white people, Asian people, Latinx people, people that didn’t look like me and people that looked like me, I had to be able to pick up on social cues very fast and on what people liked and didn’t like, and what made them feel safe and what made them feel afraid very quickly because again, the stakes for a Black kid, if you don’t pick up on those things, are that someone could see you as unsafe and someone could cause you harm or call the police to cause harm to you in that way. So those were the things I was giving away. Those were sort of the built and learned abilities that I was giving away by pretending to be somebody else. Eventually, when I came to realize the value of those things, they have benefited me very greatly in business and in art.

ALISON BEARD: I know it’s hard to generalize. You’ve been talking about Google because that’s where you worked, but you seem to be suggesting that a lot of institutions and organizations and cultures around the United States feel the same for Black Americans and maybe people of color more broadly. There’s this emphasis today on bringing diversity in, but at the same time, the culture tends to overwhelm those diverse viewpoints and stifled them really.

CHAD SANDERS: Yeah, that’s right. Google was not unique in that way. Google was, in a lot of ways, aspirational to other companies that wanted to be more inclusive. They saw Google as a shining star of inclusivity. So if we just sort of break it down, Google, Facebook and JP Morgan in my research for this book, I saw that they all reported fewer than, let’s say to be safe, under 6% Black employees at entry levels and far beneath that at leadership levels. Of the Fortune 500 companies in this country, five of them have Black CEOs. So that’s 1%. This diversity problem, and frankly, this Blackness problem exists at the biggest companies, at the shining star companies that other companies want to be like all the way from the most entry level jobs, entry level practitioners, all the way up to the C-suites of these companies and the boards of these companies.

In my opinion, it is safe to generalize that we, as Black people, have a toxic relationship with the corporate workforce in this country. In order to change that, you don’t tell someone with a toxic relationship with a partner or with drugs, I’m talking about a really bad relationship, you don’t tell them to –

ALISON BEARD: Keep trying to make it work.

CHAD SANDERS: Yeah. You don’t tell them to just change the type of tequila that they drink. You tell them to quit. You tell them to go cold turkey. You tell them to go find something else that makes them happy, or it brings them joy, or sustains them or gives them livelihood. So, in my opinion, because this relationship is toxic, I think we’ve talked ourselves blue in the face with diversity and inclusion programs and programs to hire Black folks at the entry levels. I think Black people are going to have to start building our own companies. We have done that. We’ve seen the number of Black owned and Black started companies in the last 30 years double. I think that trend is going to continue if we continue to see corporations, big corporations as a place that’s not healthy for us to work.

ALISON BEARD: I definitely want to delve into entrepreneurship, but I first want to ask as you recount in your book when you embraced your own Black magic and started being more authentic, you actually became more successful in this large organization, Google. So why not take that approach? And you interviewed lots of people who were successful at big companies, too

CHAD SANDERS: I would recommend that approach if your dream is to, and if your reality is that you need the safety and the salary of a big corporation. I would recommend that you try the boldness of being yourself at work. I found when I made that sort of switched to my own persona as a very entry level person working at a big company, that it changed the way people responded to me. When I started to speak of my own voice and throat, when I started to really call out colleagues when I found their behavior or the way that they treated me to be objectionable, when I stopped feeding into company consensus and just echoing the loudest or most powerful voice in the room and started to speak with my own keen eye of opinion, things were different for me.

I became a little bit more polarizing as a colleague, but the people who liked me and who vouched for me and who wanted to put their energies behind me really felt strongly that way and they helped me get new opportunities. I think what I learned was you don’t get brownie for being a sheep, even at a corporation. You might get to stick around a little bit longer, but the people who have made it to the top layers of some of these businesses, a lot of them have done it by taking big risks, even within the corporation. They’ve done it by building their leverage by doing something bold, by doing something a little scary. That change for me was important.

ALISON BEARD: So I want to dig into your research, your interviews with all of these Black leaders. These are people who’ve been successful at corporate jobs and as entrepreneurs. If there’s one skill that you would point to that all of them had, they developed it because of their experience growing up Black in America and then were able to flip it and use it to their advantage at work, what would it be?

CHAD SANDERS: Oh, that’s easy. The answer is faith. The answer is faith.

ALISON BEARD: Tell me more.

CHAD SANDERS: I don’t mean that in the religious sense necessarily. Although, many of my subject in the book did learn their faith in church, but these people, to a person, every single interview subject, at some point in their careers, for many of whom this point came in their mid twenties, they stopped making decisions based on what they thought and they started making decisions based on what they believed. Those two schools or worlds of decision-making live in different places, even in your body. People talk about… They used words like, “When I went to Howard University, I felt like I could breathe.” “When I went and started working at Goldman Sachs and realized I was the only Black person there, I felt suffocated.”

They talk a lot about what they felt in their bodies as they were making decisions along the way, and then they start talking about listening to their guts and their hearts. That, to me, is about belief. I think that to be a powerful or successful entrepreneur, to be a powerful or successful or effective leader in an organization, at a company, at a corporation, whatever the case may be, you have to sort of form yourself around a belief in a product, a service, a way of thinking and ultimately, yourself in order to get from A to B.

And each one of these leaders pointed to that sort of ability to believe and make decisions boldly without being lost in thought or lost in regret or lost in fear about what could happen if they made these decisions as sort of the intrinsic learning from Blackness that allowed them to propel. I think that that faith and that belief comes from realizing at some point that you’ve already beat the odds just by being alive, well, having a little bit of money in your bank account, being free as a Black person of a certain age because the statistics will make it seem daunting for you.

In a lot of ways, the media and the way that Black people are portrayed, and even the sort of tales of fear and tragedy and domestic terrorism and horrible atrocities against Black people, it can make you think that you don’t really have a shot here. But to just get through all that and end up on a trading floor, or at an insurance company, or selling automobiles, or working at Cisco, or Netflix, or Google, you have done something incredible. I think that ultimately gives people this foundation of belief in themselves and their work product that’s outstanding.

ALISON BEARD: And one of the other aspects of, “Black Magic,” that you point to is perseverance, and it seems like the perseverance is creating the faith, and then the faith is giving people the ability to persevere further, to achieve more, to keep working, even when they’re still being discounted.

CHAD SANDERS: Yeah, that’s right. My friend, Garth, he’s a Black man, CFO of a company called Latch, which they make smart locks. It’s a sort of a growing and hot tech startup. He said something to me the other day, I guess something he’d bred, which was “Success is stamina,” and I think that’s absolutely right. To make anything important happened in this world, it’s going to be a slog. It’s going to be a long, painful journey in some regards, and that is the experience of Blackness for so many people.

ALISON BEARD: So let’s talk a little bit more about being the only. Whether it’s in a middle school gifted and talented program, or a college fraternity, or research lab, or a boardroom, it can feel awful. Some of the stories that recount in your book are painful, but can it also be an asset? Are there other ways that you stand out because you’re the only one there, or have more of a voice because you’re the only one there?

CHAD SANDERS: Well, two things. So first, it can be both physically and figuratively painful. The stories in the book portray moments where people were treated terribly by, “friends and colleagues,” where people were forced to live under and differently than the people around them. That’s figurative. Quite frankly, it can be physically painful as well. There are moments of violence portrayed in the book. Then to answer your question, it’s dangerous and I have to be very specific about how I represent, “advantages.” The net summation of all of this is that you are still not at any advantage by accessing these gifts of Black magic. The net summation is syou have a chance to navigate a maze that is built to work against you. That’s not the same as an advantage.

So, yes, if you take advantage of the fact that you are noteworthy at your company because people are going to remember your name, they’re going to be watching you, there’s going to be pressure on you, if you take advantage of that sort of notoriety, if you use it to build influence, if you use it to act boldly, if you use it to speak up at a company all hands and know that everybody’s going to remember who said that thing because they looked different than everyone else, that is empowering. That is taking initiative on what you have to work with, but to call it an advantage when what you are up against is the sea of cultural comforting that is whiteness that underpins most company cultures, no, it’s not fair to call it an advantage. But it’s a tool and you have it. So you might as well use it, and that’s really what I’m trying to say in this book.

ALISON BEARD: One of the phrases in the book that I highlighted was from Shelley Stewart who’s a partner at McKinsey, “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” which is really hurtful, but something that he was able to seize upon. So talk a little bit about how he did that and how you see other people doing it.

CHAD SANDERS: Yeah. Well, what Shelley’s saying there is that as a Black person at a company, it is likely that people are going to expect you to be able to do less. It is likely that people will see you as a diversity hire, as some form of corporate affirmative action, as someone who probably had lower test scores, or came from a worst school, or came from a lower positioning in their class at a, “good school,” but got this job because companies have quotas to fill.

When you enter a company on those terms, the messed up part, the part that it works to your disadvantage is it dulls your voice. People don’t hear you as loudly when they think that you didn’t come in with the same sort of accolades or skill set or abilities as them.

So when you are presented tasks or objectives to fill that are of lower priority because people have less of a faith in your abilities, it’s likely that you’re going to be able to knock those things out of the park really quickly early on because you do have the an equal to or favorable skill set to everyone that you work with, not necessarily the same skill set. If you do knock those things out of the park, you are going to start building momentum as someone who is seen as a doer, . If you make yourself and your boss and their boss look good by getting things done, it’s possible, if you are ravenous and if you are vigilant about seeking out greater opportunities, that you’ll get those. If you execute those too, now you start having a track record and that’s something that you can leverage at a company.

I always want to be clear to use the word, “leverage,” because I don’t believe that at some point in all of this, goodwill is going to get you passed on to the next level, to the next promotion, to the next bonus. I think for us, we always have to seize it with leverage with track record, with dollars earned for the company. Nepotism is not going to work in our favor, and that is clear by the fact that so many companies are in a crisis where they say, “Man, we hire 5% Black people into the entry level jobs here, but we just can’t get them up to the director level.” People get their friends up to the director level. They get people that remind them of themselves up to the director level. If you don’t have leverage, that’s not going to happen for you.

ALISON BEARD: Right. Do you feel that we’re making any progress in the United States, particularly after the corporate response to the killing of George Floyd, many other deaths at the hands of police, all the Black Lives Matter protests? Are people getting hiring better? Are they getting promoting better? Are we getting to a point where Black people, other marginalized groups can really be themselves in predominantly white organizations?

CHAD SANDERS: Progress is tricky. If I zoom far in and I were to work with a statistician or an economist to figure out, did we go from 5% hiring to 6% hiring at entry-level jobs at Fortune 500 companies? I am sure that in some way we could claim a victory in the last nine months. That feels like incrementalism, and I am a millennial and we are entitled about the things that we want, wanting them now. We don’t believe, I’m talking about all of us, white, Black, whatever, we don’t believe in incrementalism. We believe in restructuring. We believe in fast change. We believe in disruption. My point of view is that I don’t want to measure entry-level jobs for diversity and inclusion anymore.

What I think is important is if we look at the tops of these companies, if we look at the boards, the C-suites and the majority shareholders of these companies, have the faces up there changed? Because if they haven’t, these are just members clubs. If those faces haven’t changed, the culture is not going to change and therefore, I don’t think we should try to claim progress if we’re just sort of doing a rinse, repeat on hiring and firing people of color, Black people at the bottoms of these companies. So I think in short, the answer is no, but I do think that we have the information and a little bit of the attention of the national agenda right now to make progress. So this is an important moment for all of us. I think it behooves us to educate ourselves on what’s happening right now and make some moves.

ALISON BEARD:So what exactly should organizations be doing?

CHAD SANDERS: Well, they should have, in the same way that they will set hiring quotas at the low levels of companies, they should have representational quotas for C-suites, boards and majority shareholders. That is a point of view that people will shout me down on from the rooftops because it doesn’t sound like a capitalist point of view, but I think it is. I think that the net benefit to the points of view of these companies, to their vision, to their understanding of their audiences and their consumer bases, and the cultures at those companies, and the ways that they’re able to foster talent, it’s my opinion that when you hire someone who is just different from the other people that they work with, and that doesn’t mean that they’re Black, that could mean they’re a woman, that could mean that they’re gay, that could mean that they’re trans, whatever it is, I think it ultimately does lend to a more inclusive workspace for other people that don’t share identities with those people either.

So I say all that to say, I do think that that’s a capitalist vision. I do think that’s going to improve the companies that we’re talking about. I do think that’s going to be good for our economy. That’s what the organizations should do.

ALISON BEARD: Particularly, if those people are also able to be their authentic selves at work.

CHAD SANDERS: That’s right, but nobody gets to be their authentic selves at work, except for the people at the very tippy top of these places. So if we change what those people look like, I do believe that it opens the doors for more types of people all over those businesses. That’s what the organization should do. Now, am I counting on it? Of course not. So what I think the people who work at those organizations should do, and not just the Black people, but again, anybody who doesn’t feel like they have a healthy relationship with their workplace is they should pay attention to the entrepreneurial movement that is happening in this country right now where people are taking back the value of their own time, of their own goods and services that they can produce and finding ways to start their own businesses where they get to decide what the culture is. That’s, to me, a more practical solution or outcome to what’s happening here. I think the companies will then adjust because that’s about leverage.

ALISON BEARD: Chad, thanks so much for talking with me today.

CHAD SANDERS: Thank you. I really appreciated the conversation. I hope I wasn’t rambling too much.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Chad Sanders, the author of, “Black Magic.” This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.

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