The other day at my office, I was going to prepare my Milo concoction (don’t ask!) when I saw Simisola, an entry-level analyst, walking to the break room with her head down the entire time as though she was thinking – “this iya had better not bother me.” Being the agbaya that I am, I tried to engage Simisola in conversation regardless. She gave me quick one-word responses in a shy voice, grabbed her coffee, and speed-walked back to her desk. I smiled, because I used to be just like her.
The next morning, I was back in the break room to prepare my Milo, per usual. I saw Connor – a white kid in the office, walking in with Mr. Luke – Director of analytics. Being the gbeborun that I am, I listened to their conversation – how Connor described the workforce gap analysis he was currently working on with so much efizi and extraness. Mr. Luke was so impressed that he suggested Connor presents his work at the next company-wide lunch and learn. I was like, wawu!
As they walked out of the break room, I heard Connor say to Mr. Luke, “hey listen, what are you doing for lunch? What say you we walk to Panera together at noon?” I was like “ah ah, e never do?” Then he continued by talking about the 5K race for autism that he’s planning for the company. At that point, I sipped on my cup of Milo concoction, pretending to mind my business.
What my “younger” self and Simisola are missing, is that these little things matter. So I decided to write this letter for Simisola, for all the young Nigerians, Africans, and immigrants at my office, and really, for anyone just starting a career.
I know that you’re smart, and that you’ll figure these things out eventually. However, I want you to grab opportunities that will save you years of grinding at the office. So here’s my advice for you.
1. Exposure matters. It’s not about how hard you work. Sit in your little cubicle from 5am till 10pm all you want. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. Instead, look for the high visibility projects, schedule meetings with higher-ups and talk to them about the work you’re doing, chat with people so they can get to know your charming self, and attend happy hours and drink your Sprite away. These are the things that count in corporate America.
2. Be confident. Keep your chin up. Trust me, people won’t swallow you. I’ve been at the company long enough to see that Tyler who is now a Director in a corner office was just a glorified Analyst the other day. So why are you intimidated by them? Granted, they have experience that you don’t have, but remember, like our naija parents always say, they don’t have two heads.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even “dumb” questions. Just say something like, “my understanding is that seafood okra is heaven in a bowl, but what I’m hearing is that it’s a bowl of sumptuous goodness only if jumbo shrimps are in it. Am I missing something? Is my understanding correct?” You see how intellectual that ridiculous question sounded? Believe me when I say, people won’t bite you.
Our African parents taught us not to talk directly to our elders. It worked then within our culture, but it’s time to unlearn that behavior if we want to advance in corporate America. So you have my permission – go talk to Mr. Luke! Like tah-day! Set up a meeting on his calendar. Subject? “Brief chat”. Meeting description? “I haven’t had the chance to chat with you in a while. I’d like to bring you up-to-speed on the projects I’ve been working on”. Watch him accept that meeting invite within two seconds. You’re welcome.
3. Jump at opportunities bigger than you. Fake it till you make it, if you need to. I’ve been in meetings with many directors and VPs to realize that sometimes, they too B.S. their way through things.
Recently, I had a photo session shot by my brother. As a pro photographer, he often has people training under him. So on this day, Ugonna was the trainee. She was so sweet and would help hold up the lights, carry our bags, and do any type of busy work. Then it came time for her to shoot, and I was excited on her behalf until I saw her nervousness… “I can’t do this,” “the pictures won’t come out right,” “I don’t trust what I’m doing”…
Dear Ugonna, just fake it, girl! Fake it till you make it! Click away on that camera. Move back, jump up, scoot down, lay on the floor…just keep faking it until the pictures eventually turn out right. Girl, this is your opportunity! Run with it. Ask questions. Watch tutorials. Make assumptions. Then ask some more questions. You don’t get to learn directly from a pro everyday, and handle a camera more expensive than a house.
Do you get the correlation? Jump at the opportunity to lead that task or write that memo or present at the next client meeting. You will do just fine!
4. Take advantage of people in the “community” who are at higher positions. People genuinely want to help. No, you’re not a burden to them. For me, that person was Kofi. He wasn’t exactly my mentor, but he did more than a mentor would do. He was that African uncle that won’t leave you alone until you do something with your life.
I never really used to be a go-getter, I was very chill about life. The SAS certification I got? It was all Oko mi being on my head at home and Kofi being on my throat at work. I didn’t have a choice. Kofi has now moved on to bigger and better things at another organization, and his “grooming” prepared me to step right into his former role. I can’t tell my career advancement story without including Kofi. Now, I’m a go-getter. I go and get it and I bring it back. Find you a Kofi at your organization that is invested in your growth.
5. Make extra effort. Be the first to volunteer for tasks, especially the high visibility ones. Don’t see things as beneath you. Usually, these things give you access to leaders you otherwise may never work with, and makes you appear proactive and smart. So take those meeting minutes, but while at it, observe how your boss addresses the sticky situations with the client; you too, can lead the meeting if you’re intentional about learning. Format that report, but study the heck out of the content and offer suggestions for improvement. Want to know one good way to remain a junior analyst forever? Keep scrolling through Instagram or wandering into cloud 9 during meetings. Come 2025, you will be reporting to Connor’s younger brother, Dustin.
Dear friends, you’re not too young to contribute! Notice Connor asked a question during the meeting? Yep, doesn’t matter that it was a dumb one; his voice was heard, and that’s what counts.
6. A little pride is okay. Recently, I referred Ibrahim to a position at my company. The morning of his interview, I texted him – “You are a pro SQL developer. Come to the interview with that mindset! All the best!” After the interview, Mr. Luke came to my office to debrief, and told me that Ibrahim rated himself a 7/10 in SQL. 7/10 bawo?! You live and breathe everyday in SQL. Dude, you are a freaking 9.5! Let them go argue with whoever.
7/10 is average. That’s like a C. Dude, you are way better than average. You are A+. You are the best resource they can ever hire. I’ll say it one mo’ time – FAKE. IT. UNTIL. YOU. MAKE. IT!
So dear friends, work hard, but also work smart. At the back of your head, ask yourself, “what is Connor or Dustin, or Tyler or [insert white boy name here] doing that I am not?”
The current president of my company is a Nigerian woman – my aunty, Adaeze. Yep, you read that right, not a director, not a VP, but THE president. Every time she steps up to address the staff, all of my internal organs grin with joy, as she dishes out Michelle Obama mixed with Chimamanda vibes – eloquence and full blown, gorgeously styled natural hair and all! She’s my inspiration; if Adaeze can do it, so can we. See you at the top, friends!
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. Colossians 3:23
What has worked for you in your career? Do you have any more points to add to this list?