Monday, 10 September 2012

The Young Black Professional in Corporate SA – Is this Reality?

In May 2002, I arrived at work for the first time not knowing what to expect but incredibly excited about the fact that my career had finally kicked off and I was well on my way to making my mark and enjoying “the millions” that would come with it.

Having held one or two “odd jobs” while I was in university, I was suddenly hit by “stage fright” as I walked in. The big company signage that greeted me at reception, the mere posh appearance of my desk, the lighting, the phones and most notably the many unfamiliar faces that surrounded me. I took a minute to soak it all in and for a moment; it appeared to all be happening in slow motion. I remember phoning my parents that evening and they were oozing with pride as they expressed their overwhelming joy at this very significant phase of my life. Was it really that much of a big deal that I had started working?  To them, clearly it was.

Fast forward ten years and four great companies, here I am, still in the rat race, yet to see the millions I dreamt of BUT so much the wiser in terms of what it entails to be a young black professional in corporate South Africa today and make it. There is clearly more to this than just qualifications and experience.

The concept of "job hopping" has become reality in today’s working environment and has created a staff retention challenge for many organisations. Each time I have moved companies, the one question I have been asked without fail is: “Why are you looking to leave your current company”? As far as I can remember, my answer has never been “money”. The assumption for many managers however, remains that money is the primary reason that young black professionals leave their jobs and as a result, the first question you are asked when a resignation letter is presented is “How much are they offering you”? Is this really what it’s all about? To me, its not that simple.

Pivotal to all my learning’s over the years has been the information I have absorbed around the many arguments pertaining to transformation, diversity, culture, stereo typing and managerial or supervisory insecurities; topics that just fascinate me! Time and time again I have seen how corporates make the mistake of “painting everyone with the same brush”, disregarding culture, professing to have values that are never lived, and playing “power hungry” politics. I have also seen how the denial of the new realities of South Africa have literally affected the performance of organisations negatively, a fact strongly denied by many companies.

The purpose of this blog is to ignite a conversation around the realities of corporate SA from the eyes and ears of its occupants.  This, I am hoping, will form the basis of my MBA dissertation as I look to gather information from your responses.

The focus for which I would like to gather information in this particular blog is the corporate cultures that we build and how they contribute to the loss or attraction of what is now termed “black talent”, a term which I resent but have had to tolerate over the years having personally been involved in countless "talent pools", "executive development programs", "mentorship arrangments" and "fast tracking programs", all of which yielded results that can't really be measured. My gripe with these programs is simply that despite the pool of talent that is "identified", vacancies are never filled from this pool, an outright confirmation that organisations do not believe in the so called talent that they develop. This being the case, the question should then be asked, do these programs help at all in staff retention?

The dissertation is centred on what exactly attracts and repels black professionals to and from South African corporate firms. As part of my dissertation research, I would like to get as many views as possible and will use the article below as the basis for my argument.

This article below titled “The other side of the capsule” was written from the experience of two young black professionals who, like the rest of us, left the education system ready to take on the world and leave their mark on corporate SA. Among other things, the article explores the question, "As an black person, Do I need to change who I am to make it in corporate SA?"

From this article, I wish to pose three questions to both black and white employees in corporate South Africa.

1.      To black professionals (African, Indian, Coloured, Chinese etc) Does this article represent the experience of today’s young black professional in corporate SA or are we just being overly sensitive? Kindly give a detailed view.
2.      To white professionals: What in your view stands in the way of black professionals succeeding in corporate SA?
3.      All racial groups: There is a general subtle discontent around how transformation has been implemented. For black people, it is “too slow” while for white people it is “unfair”. How would you propose that transformation be implemented in corporate SA, especially in the wake of the recent Woolworths saga regarding their Employment Equity policy? Kindly note that I am not asking weather or not transformation should be implemented.

At this point, may I respectfully request that this platform not be used to drive agendas other than that which I have outlined.

Should you not wish to respond in public, kindly email me on mwelaamasi@gmail.com

I look forward to your responses.

The other side of the capsule (Written by B. Madikizela & M. Motjope)
As I scan my card and enter through the capsule and come out the other side, I am another. With my suit on, I believe my armour will protect me and allow me to be invincible to the deadly, silent and invisible bullets that are showered at me on a daily basis. I manoeuvre around the maze of “we have to groom you” bullet; to the “there is a limited pool of black talent” bullet. I duck the “don’t focus on the small bonus, rather embrace the opportunity of working here” bullet. The “peer review feedback” bullet is the one that bothers me the least. I know the capsule will conjure all sorts of annual statements from “you don’t smile enough”, “you talk too much”, “you need more projects”, “you need more training”, “you are getting there, maybe next year or maybe 2”. So I duck and dive in my tailored suit and designer shoes.

Why is it that I need to step in another persona? Am I not good enough the way that my mother raised me, am I not good enough just the way my community raised me? From the way I pronounce my words I am ridiculed, from the way that I respect my elders I’m told it’s a sign of a lack of confidence, but my mother who knows it all told me, “you don’t look at into an elder’s eyes, it’s a sign of disrespect”. Then what is it “lack of confidence” or “sign of disrespect”... I am forced to choose.

My parents granted me the opportunity to get a white man’s education, they granted me the opportunity to go to an institution of higher education and through the way they raised me allowed me to be able to be confident in seeking employment in a white man’s company. Up until then I was good enough just the way I am. On the other side of the capsule I am taught “Business Etiquette” which I support 100% however in the process I am silently and invisibly forced to change who I am in order to fit in, in order to be considered a “team player”. I still ask but why am I not good enough just the way I am?

I figure this is how it is when starting out at work, things do get better, once they get to know what a lovely person I am then I don’t have to pretend to be what I am not...but for now let me just continue. I see my brothers and sisters in the capsule, manoeuvring around the bullets. I ask myself if they don’t see the psychological warfare against them. They seem to be taking it along in their strides very well. Fancy cars, townhouses, designer bags and imported shirts, you name it they got it and they can’t wait to tell me all about it, day in, day out. But they don’t talk about how they are on conveyor belts while their white counterparts are on escalators. The conveyor belts move in and out while escalators move in and up.

Years down the line I don’t recognise me anymore... A younger me came through the capsule with hope in her heart and now sees an older version of herself and asks, “How do I survive this capsule, how do I make sure I’m an executive in 5 years?” Sheepishly I’m taken back to the choices I was forced to make in order to survive the capsule. Was I really forced? Oh the sweet taste of money, the privilege to be part of the townhouse brigade, to drive a luxury car, to wear the best designer suits and the joy of having a booming social life at 25. Besides there’s a price to everything...at what cost did I want to be a “team player”.

I have a goal and that is to be an Executive, have I become that Executive? Yes I have. Am I who my mother and my community raised? The young girl who had all the confidence in the world, the type of confidence that was brewed from basic human principles of ubuntu? The principle that said “umntu ngumntu ngabantu”; “do unto others as you would like them to do unto you”; “humility and respect of another human being”. The African principles that moulded African thinkers like Bantu Biko. I don’t think so. What my eyes have seen and my ears have heard in my journey to be that Executive should not be seen or heard by the younger version of me. The constant emotional and mental struggle of who I am and what I want to be in the backdrop of an environment that borders on amorality. Did I become that Executive honestly...or was it a figment of my imagination? I have become what they want me to be “the different black” and besides what is the big deal (I think to myself) I have my townhouse, my luxury car and my designer suits. It is a big deal because I am not who my mother, my community raised me to be.

As age and wisdom sets in on my journey, in and out of the capsule, my beautiful black spirit consistently begs me to find my purpose. My contribution to my people is questionable. I can only see glimpses of my courage to stand by that which makes me a proud African. I have spent 8 hours of so many work days letting go of me and clutching onto what is good for the capsule. I now see through the illusion of the capsule in its entirety and how many have fallen for it. The creation of the misfit well educated and trained to continually adapt to be the other. I see through the illusion of only allowing blacks to be the chocolate sprinkle of white corporate coffee, whose coffee beans are the products of ill gotten gains of black labour and land. I see how my being here dealing with these bonus coated bullets, peer review feedback bullets is a bogus plot to make sure I don’t find the fire in me. The burning fire that made Biko get up, walk and talk black pride.

The other side of the capsule has been built on models that only benefit those that are like them or become like them. I want to be me and still succeed with my best shining brighter than ever. It is possible only if the basic human principle form part of the model. I have found the me that my mother raised, that my community raised and I have a choice to remain on the other side of the capsule and fight for change for the younger me or to leave and be with others like me or establish the other side of the capsule whose model is based on the basic human principles. I will then no longer be forced to choose.

But I am still here in the capsule. I write what I like from this capsule. I am a bipolar case at its best, two extremes in order to survive, at home I am one and through the capsules I am another. Yet when all is silent and when it matters I am not able to sleep because I am not ONE