6 Ways to fake it till you make it in corporate America – from one immigrant to another

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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.

Dear friends, 

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!

All photos – @corporate_curly

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?

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38 thoughts on “6 Ways to fake it till you make it in corporate America – from one immigrant to another

  1. Great tips, Bisola. I agree with some of them. I however, don’t believe in being visible for the sake of it and asking dumb questions just to be seen. Most senior management can sniff out brown nosers and people who make noise, but do not actually add value. Definitely look for high-visible projects and always make sure your presence is felt, but do over burden yourself, that you cannot even perform the tasks you were hired for.

    As with all things in life, moderation is key. We should all learn to work smarter, and I liked that you empasized this through the points you highlighted

    • True point. My “younger” self would genuinely have a question or comment, and I would keep quiet about it, until of course, Connor raises it up, and I’d be glad that he read my mind and spoke on my behalf. That’s what I was referring to.

    • Ha! Abisola, you know how I feel about this post. Visibility in the presence of those key players at your office who matter most is key. I have learned that o. Getting on high visibility projects and delivering stellar results is koko. Gone are the days of just burying your head in your office and doing your work.

      An incident like this happened to me today. I am working in a new part of my agency and we had our staff retreat today. After the retreat they had us all go out for a planned lunch at this fancy swanky restaurant that would cost an interesting amount out of each person’s pocket that I wasn’t ready to pay. I’m thinking, ‘Sebi I have rice and ofada stew with correct dodo I can eat and derive satisfaction from, why do I need to waste money on oyinbo food that I may not enjoy?’ I complained to my hubby tire, but knowing what I know about corporate America, I knew this was an opportunity for me to show up and network like no man’s business with the ogas in a relaxed atmosphere. I showed up early and kept chatting it up with the oga patapata because I strategically positioned myself to sit next to him (since we were still waiting for others to arrive). In the course of that conversation something came up about my past experience and I was offered an opportunity to be involved in a high visibility project that would get my name out there. So yes, I paid that $$$ for lunch plus the opportunity to network, share more about my interests and be put on a visible project. Now, let’s sit back and watch me work.

      • Hi Abisola! Loved the post. I think everyone needs to take a look at these tips and select at least 3 of them to apply.
        Your thoughts on how we were raised not to talk to older folks is so true. I see this play out among we immigrants a lot of times. There’s a Connor in my office that does the exact things you’ve described here. 🤦🏾‍♀️🤦🏾‍♀️ He does it to the higher ups that he knows will buy what he’s selling and he knows some other higher ups that can smell his BS.

        Enough said, lovely post!

  2. “Come 2025, you will be reporting to Connor’s younger brother, Dustin.” buhahaha but so true!

    All truth here! Vey inspiring! I’m sharing!
    I want to meet aunty Adaeze!

  3. Great post and solid points! I once had an average year review NOT because I didn’t work hard on what I was given BUT because I apparently didn’t work on projects that my manager considered impactful I.e. highly visible .

    It was a bummer but I learnt a valuable lesson on sponsorship in the workplace. This is much harder than getting a mentor like Kofi in your post. Your sponsor sticks their neck out for you to ensure you get on those visible projects and speaks on your behalf being closed doors. A mentor will guide and help you navigate the intricacies of doing the above and more!

    The African culture does hold some back but many are beginning to rise above the impediment it thankfully!

  4. Greatly inspiring article!! Well written!!! Thank you for sharing the tips!! Love the quote “Fake it till you make it” 👍😊

  5. Whoa! I’ve been missing! Need to go back and read the posts I’ve missed. This is sooo good! I especially relate with our culture of not speaking directly to elders or people in higher position. It really shocked me when I moved here. I almost fainted when my college advisor asked me to call her by just her first name. I agree that it has held many people back so I’m glad it’s been addressed.

    Lol @Connor’s younger brother, Dustin!

  6. This is so inspiring! I really needed to read this.

    I was just discussing with some friends over the weekend on how our culture has been a disadvantage to us here in the US.

    I was part of an Antimicrobial Stewardship for infectious disease at the hospital am currently doing my rotation at. The project went well and the pharmacist who led the project was talking to another senior colleague on how I and my friend helped out and bla bla bla… Instead of us to accept the compliment, we both shook our head and said we didn’t do that much ooo (in our mind we were trying to be humble) mind you, we collected all the data of patients from different hospitals in the region. The guy who led the project was so upset with us, that we made him seem like a liar and we need to learn how to accept compliments and get credit for a job well done. To say we were embarrassed was an understatement! I began to wonder on how many opportunities I have missed all in d name of been “humble” (just like we say back home don’t mention when people say thank you)

    • Oh wow, thanks for sharing your experience. What you said is so true. In that scenario, I would have said thank you and expressed how much I enjoyed working on the different parts of the project.

      We’re all learning and growing everyday. I wish you much success!

    • Great post … I can totally relate to this post. It feels like you were a part of a conservation I had with friends 2 weeks ago . About “false humility “ in the workplace. We have to be intentional about unlearning certain behaviors based off our african culture that doesn’t benefit us.

  7. This is so inspiring Bisola. Thank you so much for sharing and you said it all in this Copprate America you have to “Fake it till you make it seriously”. You have to keep pushing yourself never downgrade yourself please . If you were hire to be in a position then you know they see potential in you show them what u re worth and keep climbing the sky is a limit.

    Thanks again
    Bibi

  8. confidence is your friend mehn. we’re the only ones that can show people what we don’t know. sometimes, faking it is just the answer. we cannot come and go and carry last. great post mama.

  9. Bravo! I ate this post up! Literally just started a new job at a big corporate and doing exactly this! I’m the new shiny thing and maximizing the heck out of it!!.. your writing is 🙌🏾🙌🏾 Personable, funny yet informative! Love!

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