A career coach’s best tips for how to manage up as a woman of color

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On the last Friday in February, Cynthia Pong, a former public defender turned self-described feminist career coach, stood before a group of some 100 women gathered at LinkedIn’s New York headquarters in the Empire State building. She had one hour to help attendees at LinkedIn’s TransformHer conference for women of color learn the art of managing up.

“Maybe you want a promotion, maybe you want day to day to be less shitty,” Pong said. Whatever the issue was, she counseled, positive change was within reach if the women in the audience could work strategically with the gatekeepers above them.

Pong began her interactive talk by asking the crowd to name a hypothetical white, male mid-level manager. Someone in the audience shouted “Greg!” and that stuck. Greg should work at a company that would be “easy to hate,” Pong suggested. “Amazon!” came a voice, eliciting cheers.

Next Pong asked everyone to write down three career goals. Then came the tough part: Finding a way to set up a recurring meeting with Greg so that they can start making progress toward some of their aspirations. The problem was that in this scenario, they’d been putting in the work for a long time, and “Greg still isn’t giving you what you need to thrive and excel.”

“You need to make yourself a priority for Greg. He needs to meet you every week, not read your email, not listen to your voicemail,” Pong declared. Greg was going to get to know you.

How to get Greg to agree to a meeting

The Greg jokes kept the seminar light, but the underlying issues were not. Women of color, Pong explained, “are not afforded the same privileges as others. You’re going to be overlooked, you won’t get the same opportunities.”

Pong told the crowd that as women of color, they can’t assume that they are on their manager’s radar, whereas being one of Greg’s concerns was automatic for white employees. Insisting on being seen can feel like a major risk to women of color, Pong said later. The most common pushback she hears from clients are questions about how self-assertiveness could go wrong, “because they’ve been treated so poorly in professional and other contexts, they have lots of fears based in lived experience and based in their reality. You don’t want to jeopardize your job, or your pay, or your reputation.”

Indeed, the so-called agency penalty is a hazard for women at work generally, but perhaps more so for women of color if they face a stereotype bias connected to race, too. In that case, however, Black women who take forceful positions with Greg may actually be wisely playing into expectations and therefore face less backlash, Pong said, citing research about intersecting identities in the office.

Understandably, people in this position may feel resentment about the added obstacles they encounter because of race and gender, but Pong urged the women in the audience not to let that get in the way of interfacing with Greg to ask for this meeting. “I know you might be feeling upset because Greg passed you up for that promotion,” Pong told the LinkedIn audience, “but I need you to put your feelings aside; you can process them later.”

Pong believes in negotiating by building empathy with the other person, not engaging in antagonism. She tries to send a message that says: “This is the chance for us to problem-solve,” she told me. Unfortunately, that requires the person who is facing the discrimination to do a lot of work ahead of time “to avoid going to an angry place.”  

Cynthia Pong, public defender turned feminist career strategist
Cynthia Pong, public defender turned feminist career strategist
Image: Courtesy Cynthia Pong/Embrace Change

She doesn’t think any of this is fair, as she told the crowd a few times. And she certainly believes it’s up to the people who have privilege to help change power structures and be allies, she told me later. The Gregs of the world, in particular, need to educate themselves about what the women of color on their team are dealing with and what they’ve accomplished to get to where they are despite structural biases. Women of color are also less likely to have the connections or family money that allow more privileged white employees to take unpaid internships and gain entry in competitive industries.

But the women in the audience were there to learn more about what they could do to navigate unjust systems in the meantime, with a Greg who is perhaps totally unaware of his own unexamined prejudices. “Engage in enough pleasantries to build a rapport with Greg,” she told the crowd, and eventually work your way toward: ‘I’ve been thinking about how I can be a better asset to you.’ Finally, set up the first one-to-one.

Make your meeting with Greg “awesome”

When the day finally comes for the meeting with Greg, Pong has a simple three-part agenda “to make your meeting awesome,” she said.

First, say, “This is what I’ve been doing at the company,” and get Greg up to speed on your life in the firm, she told the audience.

Then, tell Greg what you’re doing right now. “Only then is Greg ready to gaze with you into the future,” Pong continued.

Finally, tell him where you’d like to be and where you see yourself in a few years. Then ask Greg for some advice. She cautioned against using the word “feedback,” which has official HR-ish undertones that she said could make Greg stiffen. Instead, try, “What do you think? What should I do to get there?”

It’s crucial to get a date on the calendar for the next meeting before you step out of his office, Pong said. For this, she has a script too: “This was really great, Greg. I really appreciate your time and advice. I want to get started on all of these things. Would it work to report back to you in two weeks or so, same day, same time?”

Get a meeting on both of your calendars, Pong said. Do not space out the meetings a month apart, because that would make it too easy for the topics to be forgotten. Meeting more than once a week wouldn’t be productive, either.

At every meeting, she told the seminar audience, use the same basic format—discussing the past, present, and future—to give your conversation some structure.

Women of color are welcome to tweak the scripts and format to make it their own. “Everyone has to take it and adapt it to their own situation, their own politics that they’re dealing with in the workplace,” Pong told me later. “I’ve talked to clients who are trying to get a meeting and the boss just keeps kicking the can or refuses to meet with her.” That’s why she spends so much time on the moves to get to that first meeting.

Who is Greg, really?

The attendees at the seminar were invited to take turns roleplaying themselves and Greg with a partner in the crowd, all of which left Pong little time for what she called her “deep dive into who Greg is.” For this, she shared a series of personality and communication style assessment tools on the screen in the room, hinting at the kind of work that she’d do with a client, and what she’ll cover in her self-published book Don’t Stay in Your Lane: The Career Change Guide for Women of Color, which will be available later this month.

When she worked as a public defender, Pong had several dozen clients at once, and not enough time to get to know each one. She did get to know the judges, however, and she would prepare her cases based on that knowledge. “Who’s this judge? How do I need to frame this argument to get what I want? Does this judge have a specific bias against crimes that involve cars?”

That line of strategic thinking may be the common thread between Pong’s job then and her work now: showing the women she coaches how to strategize in the workplace, managing the personalities that have the most influence on their career.  

Then came March…

Two weeks after the TransformHer conference, New York and much of the country went into lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Six weeks after that, the death of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers in Minneapolis changed the country again, rekindling the Black Lives Matter movement and pushing far more people to investigate anti-Black discrimination across all dimensions of life.

In July, I called Pong to ask how the events of the spring would have changed her seminar in February. Was she optimistic about what Black Lives Matter would mean to the careers of Black women?

“I’m cautiously optimistic, as I am wary of performative, empty measures,” she said in an email. “But I do think there is capacity for us to do things a different way moving forward,” if people of color can hold the powerful accountable over time. “It’s going to take a lot more than hiring a chief diversity officer and instituting a few anti-oppression workshops. We will see if people are really willing to do the work and invest the resources into creating more equitable workplaces.”

She also has mixed feelings about the new all-remote normal for office workers. Although it’s something that many clients have wanted in the past, she’s “concerned about the added pressure on employees to keep increasing their productivity,” she said, particularly because women of color often play active roles as organizers in their communities. “If we aren’t able to budget in enough protected time for rest and self-care, this trend could definitely take a toll,” she said.  

But little about the seminar would change, she said, except hopefully Greg and other managers and leaders will now be “more cognizant of the need—and actually committed—to support, elevate, and amplify the voices of people of color.” A management force that’s more self-aware about how race plays out in the workplace would make setting up those one-to-one Zoom meetings that much easier.