"Create, Elevate, and Own the Culture." The Wharton African American MBA Association chose this theme for the 45th Annual Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Conference. This is the second professional conference I've attended this fall/winter, and I'm grateful for the opportunities. If nothing else, I've come away from both experiences with a renewed fervor for the future. I certainly take in my fair share of inspiration through Pinterest quote posts, Instagram visuals, and Twitter articles, but there's truly nothing like the kind of inspiration that comes in living, breathing human form. That in-person interaction really drove the theme home: I saw and heard firsthand the experiences of trailblazers who ARE the culture, and who, in exemplifying the culture in all of the professional spaces that they occupy, are paving the way for the rest of us, intentionally and unintentionally. That kind of work is no funny business, if I do say so myself.
If you follow me on Twitter, the gems below may be true to you, not new to you. If you don't, or if you believe there's no such thing as too much of a good thing, enjoy:
1. Communication is not just the key, it's the front door, the foyer, and the foundation of the house.
Ian Solomon, a well-traveled and highly skilled negotiation, collaboration, and conflict resolution aficionado, delivered the opening address. I had the pleasure of taking a negotiations class at the U of MD as a fellow in the Global Semester program, so, I'm always particularly intrigued to hear more from professionals that live, breathe, and conduct international diplomacy and collaboration activities in this space.
According to Ian, the secret sauce to successful negotiation and collaboration is two-fold and universally applicable. Side A of this mixtape: "Safety." Fight or flight reflexes are natural functions of humanity. In some cases, these reactions follow the possibility of physical threat. In other situations, these reactions result from uncomfortable conversations. In either instance, your body takes no more than a split second after a given interaction to signal whether you should stick it out or jump ship, all based on the level of safety you perceive. In case you're wondering how this works in conversation, think about the last tense discussion you had in the workplace with a co-worker whose personality style isn't your cup of tea. If your inherent reaction to their feedback or opinions is defensive, it's likely that you don't truly feel "safe." Safe to be yourself, safe to be seen and heard, or safe to be understood. On a larger scale, there can be no collaboration without creating that sense of safety - that underlying aura of trust.
Side B is entitled: " Connection." The adage "it's not you, it's me" applies to the professional relationships we forge, not just the romantic ones. Ian used interactive exercises to make it plain that in instances of two-way communication, if one party is attempting to follow another and isn't able to do so, it's the former party that is the bad communicator, not the latter party that's unable to understand. Shocker, right? How dare someone suggest that your instructions or your opinions are as clear as mud. Well, often times it's true: we need to take a step back and consider how the message we're delivering will be received instead of focusing solely on the delivery we hope to achieve.
Safety and connection. Why these two specifically? Because at the end of the day, if you can warm a colleague or business partner up to your presence and/or to your speech and you can meet them where they are from a communication perspective, the magic will start to happen. In the absence of one or both, you have confusion, you have distrust, and you have misalignment. I don't know about you, but I have yet to learn of a well-run organization that survived while any of these three ran rampant and I doubt that that will change in the future. But, exercise caution: unconscious bias is the evil twin of true connection and safety. Find the balance between creating an "us vs. them" mentality when choosing and nurturing your professional relationships within reason and within the bounds of your personal values.
“You have more empathy for your 'us.' This 'us vs. them' aspect of our psychology is both fascinating and troubling. The power of affection we feel toward people on our team is often elevated. The good news is that we can disrupt people's identities by creating new identities."
- Ian H. Solomon
2. We are the culture and we always have been by nature of our upbringing.
There are few things I appreciate in professional conversation more than honesty and candor. The fireside chat with Maverick Carter hit the nail on both heads. Maverick has no qualms about telling it like it is, whether "it" is how the days of his youth paved the way for the activation of the culture he owns and elevates or "it" is the work that he's doing as an entrepreneur and change agent. A 'tell it like it is' aura emanated from the stage during this moderated chat that shed light onto what it's like to create and sustain a successful brand.
I'll correct myself here: Maverick is responsible for the come up of two successful brands, Uninterrupted and Spring Hill Entertainment. As a leader in both of these spaces and an originator of the #MoreThanAnAthlete movement, he's gained an understanding of what it takes to stay relevant in the constantly evolving market of 2018. But, his success didn't start with these two ventures - instead, it was the natural byproduct of the "foundation of sensibilities" and the "external experiences" he developed and encountered growing up. I'm a firm believer in the impact of our villages; in fact I've written about the village that raised me on more than one occasion. So, this point spoke to the choir (me, I'm the choir). Maverick took this concept one step further for me once he connected it to the concept of our individual culture. How often do you think about the fact that we are the culture: we are the pieces that make up black culture, or we are the pieces that make up the other racial and ethnic and religious and socioeconomic and professional and orientation-specific cultures that we attribute our experiences to? How often do you realize that you are a piece of that culture because of a personal culture all your own?
“If you're seeking to do something great, you take this mix [of your foundation and your experiences] and that becomes who you are, your culture. Things that you know to be true, that you know to be you."
- Maverick Carter
The last key point Maverick made re-introduced the audience to real and served as a nice segue into the next speaker's discussion on creating and sustaining personal wealth. That last piece of the theme about "owning" the culture? Well, according to Maverick, if we're going to own the culture, we need to think with the mindset of owners, not the mindset of passersby. Securing the bag is temporary, but long-term financial freedom should be forever. JAY-Z has not been the first, and will not be the last, to remind us of the importance of considering legacy, whether for our families or for our communities.
One of the ways that Maverick has been able to establish credibility for himself and for his companies is by making it plain, day in and day out, that he's serious about his [expletive]. He's not in it to secure a bag for a day, he's in it to secure long-term equity value for the visions he's executing on. He knows what he's good at and he knows what he wants to dedicate his energy to: two points of clarity that so many of us think we've mastered, but truly haven't. These realizations are difficult to come by, but necessary to achieve success. It's okay to decide that you don't feel like pursuing something further, or at all, in the same way that it's okay to know what you're good at and what you aren't good at and to proceed accordingly based on the effort you do or don't want to put in to get better. The most important part is not what it is that you decide - to do or not to do - but simply that you do make a decision and run with it.
“It's very hard to have that [long-term equity] mindset when you don't have shit, but it's the only mindset that will eventually lead to having shit."
- Maverick Carter
3. Scared money don't make no money.
If I ever go broke, shame on me. That's not how the song goes, but that was the onus Valerie Mosley placed on us as attendees of her talk on personal wealth. It's no secret that we all start at different points from a personal and familial finance perspective. It's also no secret that as life goes on, financial standing is often tested by unforeseeable life events, both good and bad. Finally, it's common knowledge that the black community in the US consistently falls behind other groups on the wealth scale. Part of that position can be attributed to the impact of countless years of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and institutionalized wage gaps. Another part of it is constantly exacerbated by a widespread aversion in our community to leveraging investment vehicles that can yield uncertain, and often volatile, outcomes. So, it is true that "scared money don't make no money," but what is it that we're afraid of?
“We as a culture don't invest regularly. It is risky to invest, but it's riskier not to."
- Valerie Mosley
The markets. The banks. The bankers. And all for good historical reason. To bridge the eye-opening gap in mean and median net worth by race/ethnicity, we'll have to work to banish the distrust that we so rightly hold. The cell phone-embedded investment applications that we can use and the unparalleled access to financial charts and market trends that we now have access to are not perfect in eliminating the bias that has stifled our access to means of advancement, but they are two steps in the right direction. Spending all, or almost all, that we receive will do nothing but reinforce, and even deepen, this long-standing gap. It's not up to society to give it to us - wealth, that is - but it is up to us to hold onto that which we earn tooth and nail and to grow it instead of throwing it to the first material purchase that calls our names.
Valerie didn't stop at monetary wealth, though. In a voice that exuded both calm and conviction, she drove home the importance of investing in your spiritual, mental, and emotional wealth in the same way that you should invest in building financial wealth. One way to build yourself up is by occupying the spaces you're in and sitting at the tables you earn a seat at with authenticity and without shame or reservation. Judgement will always come, that's nothing new. It's up to us to protect our health and our emotional wealth by working to rise above the judgement of those who don't have our best interest at heart. To take that a step further, it's up to us to understand and to remain acutely aware of, but to not be defined by, what other people think. In rising above, we are, and have always been, stronger.
If I haven't sufficiently talked your head off by this point, allow me to thank you for reliving this experience with me. There's nothing new under the sun, this I know to be true, but in my humble opinion, there is also no such thing as too many reminders to be great, to change the world. And to be reminded that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made to do just that.