“Tennis, opera, and golf.” -Unknown Conference Attendee
I sat back in my seat, giggling with the rest of the conference attendees. We just wrapped up the Media and Entertainment Panel at Columbia Business School BBSA’s 35th Annual Elevate Conference. This year’s theme was Building the Black Community from the Boardroom.
The moderator had opened the floor for questions and comments about 15 minutes before. Right when it looked like the moderator would close the floor and prepare us to move to the next program, a well-dressed African American woman, probably in her mid-50’s, hustled on up to the microphone. In a message to all of us, but especially the younger black professionals and students in attendance, she told us to get to know tennis, opera, and golf. She said she didn’t know how many times an older white colleague or supervisor was pleasantly surprised at how much they had “in common.” Many of the meaningful relationships with peers, sponsors, and mentors she’d had in her life, she said, most likely came about as a result of following those things avidly.
This is the kind of information that those who are first-generation or low income miss out on, unless they are able to get it from elsewhere in their networks, like an elite secondary school or university. Today, recruiting in areas like law, business, finance, human resources at elite firms, and other spheres can definitely have a technical bent, but to get in the door in the first place, relational intelligence and a willingness to reach outside of your network is key.
Code switching is the fabric of daily life for most African-Americans and other POC, which is why we all had a knowing, intimate laugh when that attendee made her comment. Innately, we know that the way we speak in class or in the workplace isn’t how we’re going to answer the phone when our bestie, mom, or partner calls. The question is, how can we begin expanding that innate relational intelligence to attract and relate to non-POC peers, colleagues, and prospective mentors/sponsors? On an even more candid level, how do we move past simple tolerance, awkwardness, or even discomfort and towards meaningful connection in our personal, academic and professional networks?
I believe the answer lies in a combination of negotiation, intention and goal-setting: The answer lies in having a target, an objective, and a strategy.
Maybe you’ve never approached relationships in this manner, and at first glance this system could appear incompatible with building the intimacy and openness needed to establish meaningful relationships. Here’s why it works. This system requires a perception shift that does the relational equivalent of ‘cleansing your palette,’ allowing you to approach your academic and professional relationships with new eyes.
I had a very interesting conversation with a colleague recently. We were discussing our philosophical approaches to the law, and how our unique backgrounds played a role in forming them. I, a transactional type, understood the criminal justice system in a black-and-white way that had none of my colleague’s hard-earned nuance. If someone is guilty, I argued, justice is served if they go to jail, and if someone is innocent, they should go free.
For me, fair representation played a primary and yet off-center role in those outcomes. In response, she began to talk about situations in which clients cried to her. They expressed despair, remorse, shame, and pain to her, knowing that sharing those feelings wouldn’t help their cases. As she spoke, I realized that for her it wasn’t about the guilt or innocence of her clients. It was about their inherent worth, dignity and entitlement to the best possible legal representation. It was about moving past anger, outrage, disdain or any of the usual reactions to those who are accused of even the most heinous crimes.
Without knowing it, my colleague was using this system. Her relational targets? Clients. Her relational objective? Representing each and every client to the best of her ability. Her strategy? Focusing on their humanity and not their mistakes.
This is how we build relationships with those outside of the spaces and communities to whom we find it most safe and comfortable adhering.
Since a spatial change can often provide a much-needed opportunity to recalibrate the way you lead, relate and manage, next time you transition into a new school or workplace, try this. Shift your perception and begin looking at your peers, supervisors, teachers or professors with new eyes.
Begin looking at them with an eye for your target, objective and strategy.
Everytime you do so, you do two things: you gain access to the limitless resources and potential the people around you represent, and you honor the value of your own resources and potential.