Here’s how I beat the black tax and achieved business success

I am the first person in my family to work in a company. I had to learn how to be successful there. Now I teach others.

I come from a long line of ministers, teachers and social workers. I didn’t grow up with people who worked in business or spoke the language of business. My father was a social worker who counseled other Vietnam veterans, and I grew up on the campus of a historically black college where my mother taught sociology. I was so removed from the private sector that I had no idea Wall Street was a real place. I thought it was just the name of an 80s movie that starred legendary actor Michael Douglas.

So I was completely clueless with a capital ‘C’ when I entered the business world. The saddest thing is that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I thought I had it all figured out. I had been told all my life that I was smart and that as soon as I got as many degrees as possible, the world would roll out the red carpet for me and welcome me with open arms.

But the early career welcoming committee here never showed up.

In fact, a quote from Mike Tyson more accurately sums up the start of my career: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

The heartbreak for me was realizing that I was miserable and the job was not at all what I thought it would be. The happiness and world domination I was promised had eluded me. I was so unhappy that I vividly remember wishing I had a car accident so I wouldn’t have to go to work. I didn’t want to die. I just needed a break and a day off seemed too temporary.

Plus, I was paying what I called the “black tax”—the reality that black people have to work and perform regular tasks twice as much as white people. The black tax is real. It’s unfair and, unfortunately, it affects us in ways others will never understand.

But while we can’t control what others expect of us, we can be empowered enough to maximize our time, our relationships, our learning, and our impact within an organization.

How did I get from that feeling of utter hopelessness to where I published a book giving advice to others on how to thrive in the corporate world?

I boil it down to what I call the 3 Es: Empowerment, Exposure, and Examination.

Accountability

I had to accept responsibility for the beliefs and choices that got me to where I was. I was not a victim, and although I couldn’t control everything, there were things I could control or influence. I needed to focus on those.

I had to admit that I had made career decisions solely based on compensation. I ran from job to job without having a clear vision of what I was running towards. Once I took ownership of my mindset and my career choices, I could own my brand, my relationships, my development, and the quality of my delivery.

Exam

I had to look at the advice given to me and determine if it served me well. People often tell you to “keep your head down, work hard and you will be recognized for your work”. Where do the other people appear in this advice? Absolutely nowhere. I worked in extremely collaborative, fast-paced environments with high performance standards and tight deadlines. I learned that anyone who succeeds in these environments has done so in collaboration with others.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on my beliefs, observing where I went wrong in my working relationships, and figuring out how to get along better with people who have different working styles, strengths, and motivations from mine. I learned that the better my relationships were, the more people would be willing to invest in my development and advocate for me to get various opportunities.

Exposure

I realized that my peers came from families whose backgrounds were more exposed to the corporate world. The more I learned, the more I realized what I didn’t know.

I made a conscious decision to put myself in high performance environments so I could get the exposure I needed to fill in the gaps. I went to work for the biggest management consulting and accounting firms in the world. I graduated from Harvard Business School with my MBA. I decided to take the plunge and settle in South Africa for 10 years. All these experiences, although sometimes uncomfortable, have allowed me to broaden my perspective and my network. These experiences gave me the confidence to believe that I could thrive in any environment.

If you don’t see many successful people in your space who come from backgrounds like yours, don’t panic. Develop and execute a plan to close the gaps. You haven’t come this far to stop now. You can’t change the past, but you can create your future.

For those of you who work with underrepresented groups, spend time understanding their 3 E’s and help them fill those gaps so they can take control of their destiny and reach their full potential.

Carice Anderson is the author of Intelligence Isn’t Enough: A Black Professional’s Guide to Thriving in the Workplace. She wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.

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