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Are career seminars for black managers worth it?

It's the final day of a recent black managers' development seminar in Atlanta and the participants are in the throes of heated debate. The issue? Those frustrating concerns unique to black managers that keep them from advancing up the corporate ladder.

Eulis M. Nelson, a planning support supervisor for Mason & Hanger-Silas Mason Co., a government contracting firm in Amarillo, Texas, explains: "The hidden agendas of white peers and supervisors are a real problem for many black managers. Just when we think we've learned the rules, they change the game plan."

Despite the flurry of cultural diversity programs being launched throughout corporate America, some perceived stereotypes of black managers remain unchanged. Although African-American financial, marketing and technical wizards can be found throughout industry, racism, hidden agendas and mixed communication signals still pose a threat to the success of even the best and the brightest. That's why mastering the politics of success within a hostile, or perhaps ambivalent, corporate culture is critical to the advancement of black executives. For blacks who are determined to join the company's management team, simply being considered as a potential team member is the biggest challenge of all. And unfortunately, many African-Americans are never given the chance to receive the proper training and development experiences needed to advance. One reason is certainly a result of the lack of access to mentors and sponsors who can "show them the ropes" or promote them into highly visible positions.

For the past 20 years, courses like the American Management Association's (AMA) "Successful Managerial Skills for Black Managers" a seminar that Nelson attended, have offered first-line black managers specific development and coping strategies for success in predominantly white corporations.

"We help people develop their own strategic action plan for success, and then encourage them to refine and implement it in their career development," says John W. Aldrich, president of Aldrich Associates in Shelton, Conn., and developer of the black managers seminar now utilized by the AMA. However, the changing face of America's increasingly multicultural work force poses two questions: Are these seminars still relevant and effective training tools for black managers? And, is there a stigma attached to those who enroll in them?

"In the old days of affirmative action and equal employment opportunity, the struggle was getting in the door," says Ben Harrison, president of Ben Harrison Associates, a managing diversity firm in Oakland. "Now they let us in, but block our access to the elevator." Black managers are still rare in corporate America--they number only 914,000 and are concentrated mostly in goods-producing and manufacturing industries. Still, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are now more black managers than ever. Nevertheless, Rosalyn Taylor O'Neale, president of R. Taylor O'Neale Associates, a San Jose-based diversity consulting firm, notes that blacks throughout the pipeline are asking themselves: "How can I function at top form while I'm struggling with all the issues my race stirs up on a daily basis?"

The premium placed on well-trained team players is even more critical in the current leaner, meaner, more competitive workplace. Management circles and other structured work teams require individuals to overcome differences and pull together to improve quality and productivity. To the detriment of many companies, talented black professionals are passed over because whites often assume they can't become effective team members.

Studies like the recent "Women in Corporate Management," released by New York City-based Catalyst Women's Organization, report on the seemingly perpetual glass ceiling that impedes the advancement of female executives. However, an independent study, "A Blueprint for Success" of African-American business leaders (see BLACK ENTERPRISE, November 1991) goes a step further, by claiming it is a concrete ceiling that is hindering black managers from entering into the senior-level corporate ranks. White managers often consider it a risk to promote blacks into key positions. Unwilling to bet the success of their department or pet project on a black colleague, white managers "play it safe" by putting white males into the visible positions of their companies. And the rare times when blacks are placed in strategic roles, "they often don't get the nuturing and support in those positions that they might need, or that others might get," says Linda A. Hill, associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School (see excerpt of Prof. Hill's book, Becoming A Manager: Mastery Of A New Identity, this issue). Also, these same unenlightened white managers may withhold important information and critical assignments, thereby thwarting the advancement of black execs in predetermined career tracks. Management seminars help black managers over the hump of race-related barriers and up the ladder to promotion and advancement. This frees them to focus on becoming better managers and visionary leaders.

A Crash Course In Change

All across industries, management is finding it necessary to rethink and reevaluate existing operating procedures to keep pace with a global marketplace. "Leadership is increasingly coming up from the ranks, so it's not prudent to overlook anyone who might potentially have that aptitude," says Juwan Thomas, manager of corporate education and training for AT&T in Somerset, N.J.

This means that race, gender, socioeconomic class, etc. are now seen as valued differences rather than stigmatizing ones. Also, a "cheaper-to-keep-'em" mentality wins hands down over the high turnover caused by the dismissal or resignation of deficient or frustrated employees. Most executives will have to learn how to develop the most effective multicultural management teams that produce results in such an environment.

Merciless belt-tightening has forced most firms to trim their operational budgets. However, only one quarter made cut-backs in the training arena in the past year, according to Training magazine, a Minneapolis-based monthly which annually tracks trends within the industry.

But money, not altruism, is the impetus driving the corporate thrust behind employee training. Companies view effective managers with strong leadership abilities as added value to their bottom line.

Industry experts estimate the nation's largest businesses allocated $43.2 billion to train 36.8 million of their employees last year. Outside expenditures, which represent an $8.7 billion niche training market of consultants, seminar promoters and product vendors, accounted for much of the training dollars spent. Seminars and conferences alone ran up a $2.5 billion tab on the corporate training bill, as managers, professionals and salespeople logged in most of the 1.2 billion hours devoted to this activity.

This progressive climate is a boon to African American professionals. Management seminars that equip black managers with communication, motivation and leadership strategies can put them on more equal footing in order to equitably compete.

Satisfying A Need

"There's a psychological holdback ingrained in blacks regarding success," observes Harrison. "We're programmed to go to college in order to get a good job, rather than so that we can become a CEO." Such defeatist mind-sets, left unchecked, can become self-fulfilling prophecies of derailment. The discussions, case studies, role plays and personal and career assessments deployed in black management forums can help black managers diminish barriers--be they actual or perceived--to their development and promotability.

One of the many challenges facing black managers is being savvy enough to find and foster career-enhancing relationships with corporate mentors and sponsors. The guidance and support of these individuals is often the determining factor in whether or not black managers reach their full potential.

"Skills alone won't get your promoted. Knowing someone who can vouch for you and open some closed doors is key," acknowledge Frank A. Daniels, a field program manager for Xerox Corp. in Parsippany, N.J., and president of the company's metropolitan area minority employee's of Xerox network. Daniels' organization provides a rigorous mentorship program where stringently evaluated employees are matched with compatible mentors within the company. Program candidates participate in management awareness programs and personal skills development that prepare them for the arduous screening process that Xerox employees face for future advancements.

Picking Up The Slack

In the absence of well-connected, concerned advisers, it's imperative that blacks become proactive engineers in the design of their career blueprints. A group of black employees at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. (MetLife) in New York City recognized this when they formed a resource network to provide personal and professional guidance to the company's minority employees through workshops, courses and seminars. "We saw a lot of blacks missing out on existing company development programs because they weren't in positions where training was offered," says Denise Singleton, a MetLife project consultant who was one of the group's founding members and functions as its chairperson. Anne E. Hayden, vice president, human resources for the company, sees the merit of the group. "It provides the opportunity for African-American employees to gain practical experience in developing organization and project management skills."

Another issue: To assimilate or not to assimilate, is a big question for African-Americans in the workplace. It's a given that the rank-and-file of any company is expected to adapt and conform to the corporate culture of that organization. But while this is basically a procedural issue for whites, it often becomes a moral issue for blacks as they try to maintain a delicate balance between their corporate and cultural identities. "Very early in their careers, black managers in predominantly white organizations have to confront the healthy intergration of their racial and professional identities," acknowledges David A. Thomas, assistant professor or organizational behavior and human resources management at Harvard Business School.

The alternative to this intergration is to polarize oneself at either end of two extremes: either resisting adaptation to the point of being veiwed as hostile or insubordinate or conforming to the extent where your distinctive cultural identity becomes completely diluted. Alienating oneself will undoubtedly jeopardize any prospects of advancement and may even threaten your survival within the firm. Totally assimilating simulating may benefit your career, but will compromise your integrity and credibility among peers, fellow ethnic group members and ultimately, yourself. "The image you hold among your ethnic peers should never be overlooked or underestimated," advises Glenda L. Moore, who engaged in lively debate over this issue within her AMA black managers seminar. "Nobody wants to be labeled as a sellout," says the electronic data interchange business manager for Georgia-Pacific Corp. Packaged Products Division, the wood products company based in Atlanta.

"Something about seminars centered around black issues carries a remedial connotation about them for unenlightened individuals, black and white," says Rosalyn Taylor O'Neale. As a result, insecure and uninformed black managers may shun participating in seminars like these for fear of being labeled deficient or militant. Conversely, nonblacks may misinterpret these courses as being segregationist or simple formal whining sessions, with no real value is positive. Diversity and valuing differences initiatives, however, are giving the boot to these misconceptions. "In companies that have begun the work of diversity, there is no stigma attached to these types of courses," says Barbara Walker, director of diversity for Mountain View, Calif.-based Silicon Graphics Inc., a supplier of state-of-the-art graphic designs. "It's now accepted human resources practice to promote and encourage cultural development along with management and career development," says Walker who, with nearly two decades of experience in this arena, is recognized as one of the founders of valuing differences seminars.

Fear suffocates innovation, assertiveness and risk-taking--elements that separate managers from leaders. A good manager is a good leader, and good leaders get rewarded in business with increased responsibility, bottom line-impacting assignments, exposure and promotions. It also impedes many black managers from becoming good leaders and, consequently, from rising as high and as swiftly within their organizations as their white peers. "The relative newness of our inclusion in the management ranks can make us leery of venturing into unfamiliar territory," says Carlton Lowery, deputy assistant director, public utilities for the City of Houston and a participant in the Atlanta AMA seminar. Black management seminars function as "safe learning havens" where participants can ask questions, flesh out ideas and make mistakes without the fear of reprisal or reprimand. Having test-driven their ideas in a supportive environment, they can then feel more empowered to take their newly acquired strategies and implement them with conviction within their companies.

What's In It For You?

Are courses which focus on race differences the panacea to the black manager's problems in corporate America? Of course not. In fact, some of their drawbacks bear mentioning. Insufficient time for in-depth discussion, basic appeal to only lower level managers and their prohibitive cost are the most glaring limitations to existing seminars of this nature. No one should assume that participation in these workshops is a guranteed key to the corporate suite. However, the opportunities provided for networking, career and personal assessment and improved management skills make attendance worthwhile. And while companies are focused and committed to global, quality and diversity concerns, black executives should turn this tide toward a win-win situation for themselves. In a nutshell, what have you got to lose?
COPYRIGHT 1992 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Baskerville, Dawn M.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:2138
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