In corporate America, white men have always held powerful positions of authority. From first-level managers to GMs, from senior VPs to C-Suite executives, you'll find white men wielding power and influence.
As a black woman, it would be easy for me to feel contempt for white men and be envious of their status and success. But I don't -- not even a little bit. Early in my career, I realized that I could have one of two perspectives: view white men as the "enemy" or accept that whether by privilege or perseverance, they know how to succeed and maybe they have something to teach me. I chose the latter and as a result white men have been some of my greatest mentors and sponsors, and a few of them have become close friends. And over the years, I've learned lots of lessons from them.
The first lesson took place when I was a junior in college and worked as an intern at IBM. My manager at the time, a white man named Burt Spurrier, was very demanding, mostly encouraging and a little hovering. But he gave me the opportunity to work with senior managers and sales representatives in the office, which gave me great exposure and helped me to hone my skills. I thrived on new challenges and experiences but I was still learning how to navigate office politics. One day a senior sales rep was a bit prickly and demanding on a project I was working on with him and it made me feel uncomfortable and lose confidence so I started to tear up. Burt was hovering nearby and quickly pulled me aside and said, "You don't cry here. You're going to be challenged, you're going to get your feelings hurt, but if you have to cry, you need to go to the bathroom or better yet, pack up your desk and go home." Then he walked away and left me standing there all alone. I hurried to the bathroom and sat in a stall and cried for a few minutes and then I dried my tears and went back to find the prickly sales rep to finish the project because it was due before I left at 3pm.
The first lesson I learned from white men was to develop a thick skin.
I learned another important life lesson from a white man named Todd Cromwell, my favorite manager when I worked at H-P. When Todd showed up to replace my former manager, he looked so young that many employees were dismissive of him. He had this piercing Steve Jobs-like stare that scared the bejeezus out of me but something told me not to write him off so quickly.
Shortly after taking the job, Todd had individual conversations with all the members of our team to size everyone up. A few weeks later he asked to meet with me again and to my surprise, he offered me a promotion. I couldn't believe that in a single conversation he saw that much potential in me and felt I could handle the challenge.
Up to that point, I thought you had to pay your dues and fight for growth opportunities. I'd always expected that I would move up one day, but I thought it would be years down the road. In fact, I almost refused the promotion because I, like many women I've spoken to over the years, felt a little bit guilty that Todd had chosen me. I had only been with H-P for eight months and certainly there were other people far more qualified. I nervously accepted the position and a few months in, I found my sea legs and excelled in the position. And since that experience, I've never ever shied away from accepting big opportunities. When Todd offered me the job he was telling me that he believed in me and knew what I was capable of doing. I was the one who felt doubtful and undeserving.
A second lesson I learned from white men is to always feel worthy.
The third white man who taught me an important lesson was Marshall Goldsmith, my mentor after I left corporate America. During our first phone conversation, we talked about our backgrounds and where I was trying to go in my career. Then I started asking way too many questions and challenging his many insights and he abruptly said, "Shut up." I was shocked and upset and was tempted to overreact, but then I thought, "He has riled me so there must be something here that I don't get."
What I didn't get was that Marshall simply wanted to give to me. I didn't need to show him how smart I was or earn his mentorship. I just needed to accept his generous gift. He didn't expect anything back from me in return and that was the lesson that I needed to learn.
The third lesson that I learned from white men was how to receive.
Throughout my career, white men have taught me many other things. To never have a false sense of security. To see failure as opportunity. And that sometimes you have to use "bravado and balls" to get people to take you seriously.
The truth is white men have challenged, guided, and strengthened me. It hasn't always been easy to work with them, but I can't deny the positive impact they've had on my professional development and for that I'm deeply grateful.
White men are cool with me and when I'm around them I don't feel intimidated or resentful. Instead, I feel powerful and in control. That's because one of the most important lessons I learned from white men is how to be their equal.