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How to Build an Executive Career Path in a Diverse Workplace

February 17, 2021

How to Build an Executive Career Path in a Diverse Workplace

Don’t think of your career progression as climbing a ladder, but more like scaling a rock wall.

That’s the advice that Andrew Gray, DTCC’s Managing Director and Group Chief Risk Officer, offered to aspiring executives during a “fireside chat” led by DTCC and The National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA) and The Black Ivy Alumni League, an alumni association representing graduates of the eight Ivy League institutions.

“In rock climbing, sometimes you have to go sideways or down before you can go up,” Andrew explained. The same often happens with careers. Sometimes¬, he said, it takes some unexpected moves before you get to the top.

The virtual program, “A View from the Top: Lessons from the C-Suite,” was moderated by Jodi Brockington, DTCC’s Director of Diversity & Inclusion Sourcing, and included about 150 participants. Keisha Bell, DTCC’s Managing Director and Head of Diverse Talent Management and Advancement, joined Andrew for the discussion.

Keisha’s role was created about two years ago with the goal of building a pipeline of diverse talent. She credited President and CEO Michael Bodson with creating the position and with the dedication to push forward with diversity and inclusion. “He gave me the leeway to create the department and the funding to create programs to recruit, retain and promote diverse talent,” she said. As a result, DTCC’s diversity and inclusion efforts are intentional and focused.

“It really starts with a commitment from the top,” Andrew said, “and I think we’ve been very fortunate with our CEO, who is consistently committed to inclusion.”

Keisha advised ambitious professionals to look for companies that are similarly serious about building diverse pipelines. And she said not to worry if their experience and education doesn’t exactly match a job description.

It’s common for prospective applicants to eliminate themselves by assuming they don’t have the right qualifications, she explained. “There are a lot of stringent and sometimes unnecessary requirements that are not aligned to a role but are aligned to what imagined leadership or imagined requirements are,” she said. “I don’t have a degree in finance, but that hasn’t stopped me from being successful in financial services.”

How does someone develop a career path that can lead to executive offices when there are so few spots at that level? Keisha and Andrew offered several key steps that those who hope to make it to the C-Suite should take:

  • Start with ambition

    Not everyone really will be a good fit for an executive position, Andrew said. When crafting professional goals, it’s important to do a “gut check,” making sure that you have the desire to do the work it takes to get there. “Do you really want to ascend to the C Suite?” he asked. “Recognize what that is and what that means.”

  • Overdeliver” in your current role

    “Do the best you can in the role you have today,” Andrew said. Do your current job well and go beyond the narrow scope of the tasks you’re given. Reaching the top level requires having demonstrable impact. “You have to make sure that in addition to doing as excellent a job as possible, you are also making that work visible as much as possible to others, and not just your boss,” he added.

  • Know who the decision makers are and make sure they know you

    It’s naïve to believe that “work speaks for itself,” Andrew said. “Our work doesn’t have a mouth.” Making sure you have visibility across as broad a section of the organization as possible will put you in a position to be considered when those decision makers are choosing the next promotions.

  • Sharpen your leadership skills

    “To be a leader, you need to establish vision and mobilize resources to accomplish that vision,” Andrew said. Technical skills help, he said, but recruits can learn those skills.

    Softer skill sets are more important for advancement -- from strategic thinking to strong communication and persuasion abilities, to knowing how to build and manage a team. Keisha said she focuses on how prospective hires treat people. “If you don’t know how to develop staff, if you are not innately aware of how to develop the next you, or how to develop your successor, I don’t want you.”

    In addition, it’s important to show that you can deal with adversity and overcome obstacles. Be able to demonstrate adaptability and show how you can deal with change and disruption, not only in the current environment, but across a wide range of challenges. “What kind of adversity have you already faced?” Keisha asked. “Personal? Professional? How did you handle it?”

  • Be willing to take risks

    Both Andrew and Keisha said they took risks in their careers that required leaps of faith in themselves, including taking on roles that they unsure about.

    “Sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone, because that’s the only way you’ll grow and develop,” Andrew said. “And overcome the self-doubts.

    There’s always the imposter syndrome that you have to overcome when you’re in a new role.”

    Keisha, who once stepped away from her career in financial services to take a shot at culinary school, only to realize it wasn’t the right path for her, said it’s also important to take time to reassess goals.

    And sometimes it’s necessary to seek new opportunities, because moving to a new role can kickstart a career path. “Know when it’s time to move on and cut your losses,” she said.

  • Make continuous efforts to build your network

    Getting to know people across organizations, especially those in departments you don’t regularly interact with, through Employee Resource Groups or similar associations is one way to build a strong network. DTCC’s ERGs frequently draw senior executives to their events, which can give members and particularly leaders in those organizations a natural way to interact with decision makers. Broader professional organizations can offer similar opportunities to meet people who can help you advance.

    “If you have a network of support, there’s a place you can go to when you’re looking for a good role,” Keisha said.

  • Establish a relationship with mentor or a sponsor

    “I’ve had lots of different supporters and advocates over the years,” Andrew said. “Those relationships grew out of the fact that people were exposed to the work that I did.”

    Working closely with someone is one way to build a relationship that can develop into a mentorship or a more formal sponsorship. Executives who recognize talent will often offer support, guidance and often new opportunities.

    Look beyond your position to wider opportunities at the company as well. Keisha said her promotion to executive director from director was a direct result of her work with the LGBTQ ERG. “I can’t stress enough that that is a wonderful opportunity to get that exposure,” she said.

    Another possibility is creating a mentoring circle with members from across different parts of the organization, which can help you connect with people who otherwise don’t have a chance to see you in action. “It’s important to find ways to establish those relationships,” Andrew said. “Use those corporate events or those corporate initiatives as a way to establish connections with people and to make sure that people are aware of what you’re capable of.”

  • Be yourself

    Even when you have setbacks, be it a botched presentation before the board or a project that’s unsuccessful, you can learn from your mistakes and remain confident in who you are. “Authenticity is key,” Keisha said.

    The event also included a meet-and-greet with the DTCC talent acquisition team, who noted the more than 100 open positions and continuing efforts to recruit during the pandemic. “We are one of the best kept secrets in fintech” said Tiffany Williams-Payne, Director of Global Talent Acquisition and Optimization.