Women of Color: We Need You In Leadership. Here’s How to Get There. – Rukmini Reddy, VP of EngineeringFeatured

If you’re a woman (particularly a woman of color) in tech, you’ve probably felt it. That feeling that you’re the “only one” in the room. The feeling that you don’t belong, that you need to prove yourself, that you’re alone. According to a study by and McKinsey & Company, one in five women report being one of the only women in the room. In senior leadership, this is twice as common: 40% of women are the only one. The sad fact is that, despite women -- particularly women of color -- showing up and “leaning in,” many companies aren’t equipped to support us. The good news is that we’re talking about it. Even better news: there are ways for you to build the support you need to grow into leadership. It’s not easy, but I’ve used these tips throughout my career to develop into a VP of Engineering.

Actively Manage Your Career Path (in Writing)

Whether you’re in a start-up or a big organization, it’s up to you to manage your career path. Before you accept a new role, you should ask where it fits into the organizational priorities and where it leads. And at every review check-in you have, you should be able to clearly articulate what your goals were and how you achieved them. This is hard work for women who have been told that talking about their accomplishments is bragging (even when bragging is the way to go). Recently, one of my engineering managers asked me what was next for her career. My response? You tell me! A week later, she put together a document detailing the case for her promotion, sharing example after example of her amazing work next to the success matrix I created to clarify my expectations for my team. What’s better is that she reported feeling more proud of her work and more confident as the worked through her case. She began to see what she wanted me to see and she’s a better leader for it.You have the power to set crystal clear expectations and make good on your commitments to your team. Knowing where you’re going is the first step to getting there.

Say “No” A Lot

As women and underrepresented people, we often carry the feeling that we don’t belong in the room, that we need to prove ourselves and our value. We somehow miss the memo that we’ve finally paid our dues and now it’s time to focus and be the absolute best at our job. So we take on too much, we burn out, we get frustrated and we stop performing. One of my mentees was struggling to say No. As a high performer, she kept getting requests to support people with more work, but she was not receiving the credit for the extra work and, what’s worse, she was having trouble managing her time and her performance suffered. I asked her to get a cup of coffee, pour it in a water bottle and top it off with lukewarm water. Then I told her to drink it all day and to say No to three requests that day. Why? I wanted her to see that her energy was that coffee being watered down by all of the request she was taking on. The next week, she saved five hours of work and felt in control of her bandwidth.It’s up to you to manage your effectiveness and protect your potency. When goals aren’t on your roadmap and don’t lead you in the direction you are working toward, you need to say No. This frees you up to crush your most important work and shows others what healthy boundaries look like for themselves.

Ready Yourself for Sponsorship

My mentors and sponsors are key players on my squad; and my squad is what helps me succeed. Mentors are great -- I’m a mentor and encourage everyone to have and be one. But mentors live outside of your work ecosystem and don’t have the power or influence to actively help you within the organization. Unlike mentors, sponsors are internal champions who choose to get behind you. They are the people advocating for your work behind closed doors and helping you push through internal obstacles that you might not be aware of. Because they choose you and you often don’t know they are there until you have one, getting a sponsor can feel like dark magic. But there are ways to get on sponsors’ radar and become more visible within your organization. One way is by working incredibly hard (which I know you all probably already do). But you can schedule personal time with the leadership to ask questions or get to know them. You can also raise your hands in team meetings, offering questions or comments about big picture thinking. You share your point of view at your company All Hands, whether that’s asking a question or offering your take on the information. You can find something that’s missing at the company and fill that gap. Maybe it’s starting an employee resource group or launching a networking series with industry professionals in your office space. However you choose to become more visible, make sure it feels true and authentic to you, your passions and how you build relationships.

Advocate for Yourself. Advocate for Others.

The best way to become a leader is by acting like one which, to me, means advocating for my team and celebrating great work. I believe in being a champion of my team’s work and helping to set context for why what they’ve done is so powerful and exciting. This is how leaders secure budget for their team’s growth and for the vision we want to create at our companies and in the world. Since this is such a huge leadership skill, demonstrating that you have it is a great way to fast track yourself into leadership. But you don’t have to have a team to start building this muscle. When you see someone do something great, shout it from the rooftops! Pull their manager aside and tell them what a great job this person or team did, post positive feedback on message boards, get up during company meetings and share your point of view.But please, as you implement this remember that not all kudos are alike and no one likes an insincere sycophant. Be authentic! Be specific and contextualize how this achievement contributed to the company’s overall goals. Make sure that your advocacy demonstrates that you’re a team player and someone who can steward higher levels of work on the leadership level.

Practice Giving and Receiving Hard Feedback

This is not complaining. It’s not whining or griping. And it’s certainly not bottling something up until it becomes awkward or explosive. Feedback is hard because many of us are taught to think of performance as binary: you’re either good or you’re bad. Performance is not binary. Even the best engineers I know make mistakes -- we all do. What’s important is how to receive feedback and how you grow from it. And yet, it’s the hardest thing ever. I recently blew it with a colleague. I was venting but it was read as indirect feedback that was really hurtful. They were strong enough to discuss this with me immediately so I got the opportunity to learn about my mistake immediately and to hear directly how it made them feel. I was horrified! But I was also wrong, so I apologized. I took ownership and I am growing as a result of that experience. How we receive feedback in positions of power is just as important -- if not more so -- to how we offer feedback to our teams. It’s hard to be patient with ourselves and not feel shame. It’s hard to accept this other person’s view point when our insides feel fight or flight instincts. It’s hard, but this is crucial to building strong teams. Only when we all feel safe enough to practice this can we do it quickly and directly, grow and move on.As a woman of color, I see these lessons and experiences as most relevant for women like me, but I hope these tips will be helpful to anyone looking to grow. What have you done to move into leadership in your career? I’m curious to hear from women of all backgrounds.--I am Rukmini Reddy, VP of Engineering at Abstract. At Abstract, I am doing some of the best work of my life and on a journey to make history in inclusion and design. I lead a remote-first team where 72% of the engineering managers in my team are women. I am mom to 6 year old twin boys and incredibly grateful that they are growing up to see a woman of color - a mother - as an archetype for what engineering leaders look like.
wow, that is so incredible as journey!I am in full leadership of my company as well and I help young girls to get into entrepreneurship
Very well said and I love the contexts you set and the clear directive to be sincere, specific and open. I also think it’s important to add that more or us are having the inclination to show up and speak up just as hard as we work. I’ve found that the environment and culture of a team or organization is also important and the onus is on us to ensure there is openness in the environment for our voice and contributions to be acknowledged and rewarded. Then act decisively and accordingly.
Thank you for your note Marlyne, during my early days as an IC I always believed that all I needed to do was show up and work really hard! It is very important we all acknowledge, that you need to show up and speak up to be in the drivers seat of your career
Great advice, Rukmini!I found out about a Board training seminar here in San Francisco and contacted the organizer to ask if I could volunteer & attend. She said, “Yes”, so I’ve attended the 1 of 2 sessions and next week attend the final session. Taking the initiative is worth the effort! I’ve met women in influential positions from a variety of industries bu attending this seminar! And this will help me when I launch my startup social consulting practice. I’ll be working on projects to help empower women, slowdown global warming and help to reduce homelessness in San Francisco. Watch for me in December 2019...soon!
Thank you for this Rukmini, great and very important read!
Love these insights and suggestions. So proud to be a backer of your leadership at Abstract - thank you Rukmini!!
This means a lot coming from you as you are such a huge inspiration to me and all the Women here in Elpha. Feeling so grateful for my entire team at Abstract and for being a part of the Cowboy family!
As a former corporate HR exec, I spent much of my time coaching women and people of color on just these lessons! Spot on Rukmini! Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for being a coach and a champion for women and people of color!
This was right on the money and something I'm currently attempting to maneuver at my current position. For years I've dug my heels in and was the most productive person on the team while I watched my co-workers get promoted and get ahead. I wander why so many woman make this mistake. Thanks for clearing the air and detailing some actionable insights.
Hi Smitha, Thank you for your note. Step into the mindset that you don't owe anyone anything. You got this 💪🏽
Often times, there is conflict on how we are raised as opposed to how we need to behave to thrive and move forward in the business world.My mother (who is traditional and from China) always said be lady-like, work hard and hold on to your job no matter what. This created a problem for me when I demonstrated my intelligence and my boss felt threatened and would not say a word of praise with respect to my work while my previous supervisor (also his boss) gave me a big raise the 1st year after I started. I had taken a look at the archaic methodology of the group and implemented a software added to our enterprise system to make data transfer much faster. No one ever attempted to introduce technology that resulted in man-hours and materials savings. The group & it’s leadership operated on a status quo mentality. Ridiculous!When in this environment, if management does not recognize your talents and overtime not receptive to your requests to move up, I’d say leave and find another employer who will appreciate you! But do keep an eye on how to maximize your 401(k) or employer matching program. Important to take care of yourself financially. Be well, everyone!
This was nourishing to read.
Thank you!
Excellent tips! Would you be able to share your "success matrix" with me? ThanksK.
Thanks Kanta, I plan on publishing some of those details in a couple of months , stay tuned
Ok, thank you!
This was such a good read. Thank you so much for putting this together and sharing it with us. I'm interviewing for a managerial role at a global VC company and I know these tips will come in handy if I get the job *fingers crossed*
Good luck for your interview, you got this!
Hey Rukmini, thank you for wishing me luck. I forgot to post an update after my comment. I didn't get the job, but I ended up getting an even better role a year later. I was disappointed because I made it to the last interview round. But I'm at a better place so all that's well, ends well :)
Definitely feel you on "proving yourself" and burnout for real. I've been blessed with amazing and sponsors. Thanks for writing this!