by Lindelwa Skhenjana
A review by Ayanda Mbanga
Having just emerged from Women’s Month and all, I’ll probably be eaten alive for saying this: I’m over the narrative of (black) women being victims of some or other unjust system. All I want to know is what we’re all doing about it, wherever we are.
In her book, The Black Girl’s Guide to Corporate South Africa, Skhenjana tries to address just that. She has craftily managed to weave together a sequential flow of her own experiences in corporate South Africa at various junctures of her corporate climb, while honestly acknowledging that there is no one single path for us just because we are black and female in South Africa.
The optimistic best-foot-forward type of personality that the writer is, comes through in her well-captured anecdotes – most of them relatable. For the most part, this was no moaning session. The book is balanced and acknowledges that there are good pockets here and there, and that there are managers who do support and encourage their subordinates. This enjoyable quick read, however, sometimes feels like an academic paper, often peppered with Harvard-style references from published articles and other academic papers to support the writer’s arguments.
From tips on managing your expectations as an intern; building networks to grow your career; managing conflict with your boss as well as navigating a toxic work environment, this is definitely a practical guide for the novice out there. For the experienced manager, it can also prove to be quite as useful in that it provides insight into the thinking on the other side of the corridor.
By incorporating other people’s stories, this well considered and articulated book attempts to project more than a single voice, but just does not go far enough for me. Firstly, I was surprised that in 2021 there is still an expectation for the workplace to be a place of nurture. A work relationship, like any other, is a two-way street. The book tends to infer that the employer/boss has some kind of one-way obligation to the employee. In the same way that the employer must try and understand and make room for the employee, the inverse should apply. Given the scarcity of jobs, one could even argue that the slant should even tilt more to the employer’s favour. It’s great to tell yourself that you’re unique in the corporate world. The truth that nobody wants to accept is that in the corporate world, you actually are not. You are relevant only to the extent that you are useful to your employer. Nothing more, nothing less. When you leave, they forget about you, because there’s someone else (probably better) waiting to take your place. Secondly, none of the people that were interviewed in the book specifically mention individual performance or the results that they delivered. In my view, just because you’re black/young/female with a tertiary qualification does not automatically make you a star performer.
The recently departed businessman Jabu Mabuza quipped at a conference I once attended some seven years ago that when businesses start up, they don’t say we want to create jobs for people. They say, we want to make money. The workplace, by its very nature, is transactional. I’ll give you X if you give me Y. It’s up to you to decide if you can offer what that particular work environment requires. No one owes you anything – whether you are black/white/male/ female. If you stay, it is because it suits your agenda at that time. No one is doing anyone any favour.
In the same way that we can’t all be entrepreneurs, politicians, doctors and so forth, not all of us can thrive in a corporate environment. Like the writer says, find a path that works for you.
It would be interesting to read what experiences a young white female graduate would be able to share around this topic. My personal view as a career coach is that people are people, long before they are black/white/graduate/South African/professional. We are all shaped by our environments and then we get to choose and actively pursue what we actually want to become. This is proven by the fact that even in majority black-led corporates, the prejudices against young black females continue to exist. And this is simply because people pursue and prioritise their own self-interests that have little to do with their gender and colour of their skin.
Having said all that, here are some nuggets I found very apt in the book, useful for all of us, regardless of who and where we are in our career journeys: *Take full responsibility for what you bring to the party *How you eventually fair in the workplace is largely up to you *As long as your intentions are pure, you can trust that what you seek (more money, a promotion, etc.) is also seeking you *Bosses are human too. Young professionals can’t expect their managers not to have a bad day. Have some empathy *Do not speak behind your boss’ back to your co-workers. She/he will find out, and you will pay the price *Work is not necessarily only about technical expertise. It is about understanding people and knowing how to work with them *You don’t always have to stay strong. Just stay true.
I’m from the school of thought that says, you give anything a name (for example, “the boys club”) you give it power and credence, and that’s what propels it. And that is why my personal favourite learning from this book is: Only focus on the stuff that matters.