How I learned to be okay with bringing my full self to work in Corporate America

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.

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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.

Stineology: Prepping for the CISSP Exam

Becoming CISSP certified is something that many security professionals strive to achieve. It is an internationally recognized credential that enables all security professionals around the world to speak the same security language and understand the common fundamental best practices of information security. With an average salary of $100,000 (in large U.S. cities) and a greater demand than supply of qualified security professionals around the world,  its a great credential to have no matter what country you are in. Here’s more on my experience in the journey to CISSP.

Preparation

I decided to take the exam a few weeks before my final dissertation defense in my PhD program, with only about 2 weeks of preparation time (thought I’d spice things up and challenge myself a little more lol). It helped that I had already worked in the field for a few years and also completed an extensive amount of formal education in the topic.

I did 3 main things to prepare in the 2 weeks leading up to the exam:

  1. Pre-tests: I took a practice test to first understand what kind of shape I was in and which domains I needed to focus more on. I found that similar to my experience, I did well in the security management domain for example, but didn’t do so well in software development where I had absolutely no educational or professional experience. Once I understood my weaknesses, I knew where I needed to work the hardest to ensure I was up to speed.
  2. Training and Prep: Next, I registered for the ISC^2 boot camp, which included 5 days of reviewing a textbook and many examples. While I paid attention to all of the content, I used this opportunity to really focus in on those areas where I knew I needed improvement. Every evening, I spent a few hours rereading the domain content and coming up with systems/analogies to help understand and memorize some of the concepts. One of the biggest lessons that I learned from training was the importance of separating realistic practice from security “best” practice, as recommended by ISC^2. I quickly learned that if I answered the questions according to how we do things at my company or based on my experience, I would fail the exam. I had to separate the two and look for the best practice answer if we worked in a perfect world. This is not to say that your company does not follow best practice, but your companies’ practices may take into account a specific technology and its limitations, the availability of funding, and more. I had to remind myself that the CISSP exam is not based on me or my current environment, but instead aims to teach universally good security.

Most people in the training took the exam on the 6th day. I waited a few days before taking the exam just to let the information soak in and re-review my weak areas twice. I also did more practice exams to make sure I was confident in each and every domain.

Exam Day

On exam day, I did not do any additional cramming or studying. Anytime I study something, I always like to allow a night of sleep for my brain to program and soak in. So, if I didn’t review it the day before, I would not stress myself out with a last-minute cram session the day of. During this time, I was also a full-time senior security analyst. That day, I worked my normal job during the daytime, and then headed to my exam in the evening. I walked in the room, confidently thinking I would breeze through the exam in 3-4 hours, based on how my practice exams went. Ha! I was wrong. I finished with about 54 seconds left on the clock. It’s a 6 hours exam, and I took all of 5 hours and 59 minutes.

One mistake that I did make, was not eating enough prior to the exam. Halfway through, I found my stomach growling, which was a huge distraction. I was able to take a break and snack on pretzels at one point, but would encourage all to make sure you eat enough to sustain yourself for 6 hours beforehand. Or, if you are like me and find it hard to eat leading up to high pressure moments, have some fulfilling snacks available so that hunger is not a distraction during the exam.

After the exam

One great thing about the exam is that you get your results right away, so there is no extended period of nerve-wracking uncertainty. The anxiety I felt when my results were immediately printed off by the test proctor was almost unbearable. I took the folded sheet of paper, got on the elevator, and covered my eyes with my hand while sheepishly unfolding the paper. I squinted towards the results through a small crack between my middle and ring finger, and read “We are pleased to inform you…” and the rest was history. What a rush of relief and happiness I felt in that moment. I celebrated for a few minutes (did a happy dance in the elevator and then called my mom) before bringing myself back to the reality of PhD defense preparation I also had to complete that week. I went home and the real work began!

Taking the CISSP exam is not an easy feat, but it is one that is definitely attainable and well worth it! Good luck to everyone pursuing a career in security and/or planning to take the CISSP exam.

Helpful Free Resource: cybrary.it