Secrets of a Successful Business Career

Wall Street veterans tell African Americans how to climb the corporate ladder and overcome discrimination.

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Carla Harris' overall takeaway is that laying the foundation for future success is something one has to strategize about early to ensure long-term success. Having the right projects early in one's career is the second priority for professionals of color who want to make it to the top on Wall Street, she said.

Shields also said that it is crucial for professionals of color to ensure that they are working on the kinds of projects that senior decision-makers consider when determining promotions. She noted that in her work, she found that lawyers of color often had fewer billable hours than their peers, which ultimately played a role when decisions were made about who would become partner. But often those hours were fewer simply because of which cases these lawyers took on.

 

The same challenge applies on Wall Street. According to Shields, "Professionals of color really aren't getting the plum assignments. You have to get the right assignment and be on the right project team early on in your career because that really will take you and carry you for years to come. This not only positions you in front of the right senior leaders, but once you're able to prove yourself one time and work on that key assignment, that senior leader will keep requesting that you work on that team. A lot of people get left behind because they're not on the right project at the beginning."  

But What About Racism?

When asked about the role of bias in blocking minority advancement, Shields replied, "It does play a part. Let's be real." The key, Shields and Harris agreed, is to find strategies for maneuvering around it, or in some cases plowing through it. For instance, when asked about Stan O'Neal's deposition in which he acknowledged that some white clients might experience discomfort working with minorities, Harris replied, "If you sense that and are very clear [client racism is] the issue, you should move on to the next client because there are a lot of people out there who want to have the best managing their money. That's where you're going to get the best yield on your time."

Shields explained that much of CUP's leadership-training program is devoted to helping prepare aspiring leaders to overcome some of the unspoken hurdles that can trip up minorities. For instance, minority candidates passed over for leadership opportunities in organizations are occasionally given subjective feedback such as "You lack gravitas." So Shields says that training focuses on coaching candidates on how to command a room and command respect.

She also acknowledged that some of it comes down to the fact that certain clients and colleagues feel comfortable with those who are more like them -- which is a challenge, when so much of Wall Street is white and privileged. That makes the hurdles for a minority from a nonprivileged background even higher. "Diverse professionals have to make more of an effort," Shields said. "If your uncle is not head of [the] investment-banking division and you didn't go to [a] certain school, you have to make more of an effort." She laughed out loud and expressed shock when asked about business writer Andrew Ross Sorkin's defense of nepotism on Wall Street in the New York Times before adding, "Easy to say when you are part of the inside circle."

She concluded, "Does everyone have to play the game? Well, not as hard as diverse professionals."

What the Future Holds