When young professionals enter Corporate America for the first time, especially first generation corporate workers, the transition can be somewhat overwhelming. There are so many unwritten rules, biases, perceptions, and challenges you end up facing no matter who you are or where you come from. For me, one of my biggest challenges was being able to be my true self at work.
After 8 years in corporate America, I am finally at a place in my career where I am totally comfortable being myself and have learned that the great companies actually celebrate the very qualities I was trying so hard to suppress. You see, I am a somewhat reserved Nigerian girl who will take on any challenge head on and either dominate it or fail fast and learn quickly. I am also an avid philanthropist, social butterfly, scholar, world traveler, hip-hop lover, fashionista, and diversity advocate. Yet, early in my career I didn’t really plan to bring most of these traits to work. I didn’t want them to jeopardize my career in any way. So much so, that I work very hard to separate the two. I had two very different personas both in person and online. I went to work wearing a “mask” that helped me blend in as much as possible, and I cringed at the thought of anyone I work with seeing me outside of the office. The effort that it took to be two different people at work vs beyond become exhausting. As time passed, I realized that I could not do my best work if I was trying so hard to hide who I am.
How my employer of choice made a difference
Thankfully, I work for a company that increasingly makes a conscious effort to honor and celebrate diversity. Whether it’s through business resources groups or general events where employees have an opportunity to share their cultures with others, as each day passes I feel more seen for who I am, understood, and valued by my company. For example, my employer hosted a global diversity celebration where employees were able to set up booths representing their counties of origin. From Nigeria and Ghana to Mexico and India, the festival was filled with so many vibrant colors, tantalizing scents from international dishes employees brought in, music and cultural performances, and much more. Employees even came dressed in their native traditional clothing.
Can you imagine, a young Nigerian woman who was once afraid to let people in … bolding showing up to work in corporate America looking like a extravagant queen in a traditional abuba and a head tie? It was a magnificent feeling! Even more awesome, was the fact that this was celebrated by my corporate family! The experience always makes a huge difference for me and all who attend because it creates a greater sense of belonging and understanding between us all.
It’s also important to remember that diversity is about much more than cultural differences. For example, this year the diversity and inclusion team took the event a step further to celebrate people with disabilities. We had the pleasure of watching an interactive dance performance from a deaf dance duo, and even learned some sign language in the process. This was very informative for me to understand how deaf people can feel music even when they can’t hear it.
I would encourage all companies to continue to find ways to empower your employees to trust in you and bring their full selves to work. That is where the magic happens!
What I did personally to further evolve
My employer didn’t always have the aforementioned programs. In the beginning, I started my evolution through self discovery and trial and error. I found that the most important first step was learning who I am. You cant bring your full self to work, if you don’t even know what that means. I had to really think about my values, what was important to me, what I willing to compromise, and what I’d be willing to walk away for. This can be tough to identify, but it’s extremely important. For example, I absolutely love fashion so much so that if I worked in a place that required “boring” uniforms or limited me to casual attire I may think twice about whether it’s the place for me. On the other hand, if my companies culture didn’t condone bright green hair that’s something I am willing to live with. Some people may not be willing to compromise on green hair, and that is totally okay. It’s up to each person to know and stand by their limits.
Once I identified the things that I cared about, I thought about how they fit into the corporate culture. I looked for people in positions that I eventually want to be in and I studied how they look, behave, speak, etc. If there are people who are successful and hold the same values I do, great! That means that for the most part I could bring those to work and I had role models to learn from. I also kept in mind that everyone is not on a level playing field and the same thing that may work for some, may not work for me. If after searching, I didn’t find any leaders with common behavior or values – all was not lost. This just meant it was trial and error time! I’d set up personal experiments to test what I could get away with.
For example, I grew up a proud tomboy and I always keep a part of that with me. When I wanted to try coming to work with Nike Jordan sneakers, a bold t-shirt that says “Young and Powerful”, and drastic changes to my hair (all of which I have done at some point) knowing that this isn’t “normal” in my workplace, I had to find creative ways to test this out. I usually take the subtle route and introduce one abnormal element at a time. This makes it a “controlled” experiment, where I have an opportunity to notice reactions, get feedback from trusted mentors, survey how it even made me feel to show up at work with each of these traits and whether it’s what I really wanted. Having this understanding of self and boundaries, along with the bravery to explore was critical to liberating myself at work. From my experiments, I learned that drastic yet balanced hair changes didn’t have negative impact on my brand, that I didn’t really care to wear Jordans to work and actually liked being a boss girl in heels, and that my bold t-shirt paired with a bright pink blazer made a fashion statement that I cared about and was willing to stand behind.
Throughout my journey, my biggest take away is best summed up by the quote “There is only one you and THAT is your power.” Hiding who I am is not only exhausting work, but it does a disservice to me and to my company. Instead, I’ve decided to be the realest Christine Izuakor I can be. I know that as long as I am true to that, I can operate at unimaginable levels. I couldn’t have come to this realization without the courage to experiment and the support of my company in celebrating our beautiful differences.