Playing the Corporate Chess Game: Mastering Strategies for Career Success

jcarterphoto1Contributed by Jessica Faye Carter

Success strategies in the corporate world bear a surprising resemblance to those employed in the game of chess. There’s a reason for this: corporate contexts and chess share certain commonalities.  Both are games of strategy and patience, of mental dexterity over physical strength, and combine offensive and defensive measures to achieve the desired outcome.  In other words, they’re both “mind” games, which require the employment of strategic efforts for advancement and winning.  These strategic efforts are often described as “corporate chess.”

Such strategies are of particular importance to the career development of professional women of color, because they have made markedly less progress in the workplace than their ethnic male and white female counterparts. According to Catalyst, women are 15.7% of corporate officers, but only 2% of them are women of color. 

The board level isn’t much better. On Fortune 500 boards, just over 15% of director seats are held by women, compared with 3.2% held by women of color.  Further, out of the 28 women chief executives in the Fortune 1000, only 4 are women of color.  These are hefty disparities, considering that women of color account for 30% of all U.S. women.

So what’s different about the challenges facing professional women of color in the workplace?

The primary issue is that women of color are distant from the power structure, a structure predicated on whiteness and maleness—because women of color are neither.  Groups having an attribute in common with the power structure have tended to fare better, such as men of color (who share maleness but not whiteness) or white women (who share whiteness but not maleness).

The lack of commonality between women of color and white men has tended to disadvantage the women in two areas: access issues, and racial and gender challenges. Access issues refer to women of color’s lack of participation in informal networks, with influential sponsors and mentors, and high-visibility assignments at work, according to research.

Access matters because corporate careers are made from the top-down and not from the bottom up. Without access to information, colleagues and people to guide their progress, as well as opportunities to showcase their abilities, it is extremely difficult for women of color to rise to the upper echelons of the corporate world.

These challenges are not insurmountable, but they require efforts from the companies and the women in order to close the relationship gaps that exist between women of color and their colleagues. Some of this can be done through education, training, and relationship-building programs. For their part, women of color can take small risks like sharing innocuous information about themselves (“I’m a marathoner”) while avoiding the too-much-information syndrome (“my husband and I had a big fight”).  Then, as the relationships develop, it is likely that women of color will find themselves needing to educate others about certain aspects of their identity or background, and should be prepared to do so with as little defensiveness as possible.

Women of color also face racially gendered challenges on a daily basis from stereotyping, off-color jokes, and denigration of their cultures to having skeptical managers and co-workers invalidate their feelings and experiences by suggesting they are overly sensitive.  Such behaviors often demoralize women of color and lead to employee disengagement, increased turnover, and a host of other employee issues.

Handling these situations is challenging, to put it mildly, and there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Companies should be aware that unpleasant situations occur and provide a mechanism that allows employees to express their concerns anonymously, without fear of retaliation.  Providing education and training around diversity issues is another important step companies can take. What is most important for women of color is to find ways to respond effectively in difficult situations. Being prepared is a good first step; developing a list of responses and practicing their delivery can also be helpful in this regard.

Finally, mastering corporate chess requires an understanding of “unwritten rules,” some of which are not obvious at all, and most of which are pre-existing and virtually unchangeable—as in any other game.  As if this isn’t complicated enough, corporate rules generally don’t apply to everyone in the same way. Think about a situation where a man yells at someone at work; now think about a woman doing the exact same thing. Is it perceived the same? Of course not.  And if you add race into the mix, it changes the situation even more. So it’s important for women of color to ascertain the rules that apply to them by observing role models and using mentors to help them learn and navigate the rules of the road.

Women of color will continue to make progress in the corporate world and rise to its senior levels. The most effective success strategies to develop such women will focus on broadening their access to colleagues, managers, mentors and sponsors, and will provide constructive ways for the women to address racial and gender challenges in a way that won’t torpedo their careers.

Jessica Faye Carter is the chief executive officer of Nette Media and the author of Double Outsiders (JIST Works, 2007), an award-winning business book on professional women of color. She is also a contributor to True/Slant.