Secrets of a Successful Business Career

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

Generic image (Thinkstock)

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

 “Women trade on performance currency,” she said. “We are always very focused on making sure we do a terrific job, our work is beyond reproach, that you can’t ever debate our deliverable, and that is a good currency to have early in your career because that is how you lay the foundation for respect, for people to take notice. But as you get more senior, the relationship currency becomes even more important, making sure you invest in the right relationships, the sponsor relationship, making sure you have good peer relationships. I think especially as women, we don’t invest enough in the relationship currency, and there gets to be diminishing margin utility around the performance currency.”  

She explained that this ultimately determines who gets the plum assignments and the corner office. “I think that for both women and minorities, you need to spend more time investing in the relationships around you, because it will be those subjective things, those relationships, that will make the difference, with someone saying, ‘Let’s give them that stretch assignment. Let’s give them that really important client. Let’s make sure they have an opportunity to work on this important execution.’

“All of which adds to your scorecard that allows you to be supported broadly when we say, ‘We’re thinking about having this person as a partner’ or ‘We’re thinking about promoting this person to executive director,’ because so often it is about the relationship,” she adds. “If you don’t have enough people that know you that are willing to spend capital on you — that’s what a sponsor does. They spend capital on you behind closed doors.”

This sentiment was echoed by Sonnia Shields, managing director of the Leadership Institute at the Council of Urban Professionals, known colloquially as CUP. The organization is devoted to diversifying corporate boards and the leadership ranks of fields such as finance and law. Before joining CUP, Shields spent nearly 11 years as head of pipeline development in the Americas for banking behemoth Goldman Sachs, responsible for talent-development initiatives for women and employees of color.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do at CUP is help people learn to play the game successfully and understand the unwritten rules for success,” she explained in a conversation with The Root. “One of the rules is knowing who the key decision-makers are within your firm … You have to understand who the decision-makers are so you can build strategic relationships with those people, so when opportunities come up for promotion or that high-profile assignment, you’re going to be considered.”

She explained that having a mentor is important, but having a sponsor is key: “Sponsorship is having someone advocate behind the scenes for you, which is very different from a mentor. A mentor can help you navigate the firm, but a sponsor has the power and ability to actually make things happen for your career.”

Start Early

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.