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“What ceiling am I going to crack tomorrow?’’

September 11, 2014 Shannon Bayer
Shannon Bayer

The title of Andrew Keh’s New York Times story about how Michele Roberts became the first female leader of a major North American professional sports union—“Smashing a Ceiling and a Lot of Egos”—pretty much sums up what happens when a woman takes over the leadership of a historically male-dominated organization.

“Last month, inside a grand ballroom at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Michele A. Roberts stood before 117 N.B.A. players—towering international celebrities with millions in their bank accounts—and declared that she should be their leader,” writes Keh.

“Roberts confidently ran through her credentials—law school at the University of California, Berkeley; a sparkling trial career; partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, one of Washington’s most prestigious law firms—and then addressed the many problems facing the players union that she hoped to lead as executive director.

“But as the private meeting went on, she sensed an unspoken question hovering over the proceedings. Keeping with her style, she confronted it head-on.

“‘I bet you can tell I’m a woman,’ she said, ‘and I suspect the rest of the world can, too.’

“She said she was all too aware that if she was selected, she would represent several hundred male athletes in the N.B.A.; she would deal with league officials and agents who were nearly all men; she would negotiate with team owners who were almost all men; and she would stand before reporters who were predominantly men.

“She did not flinch. ‘My past,’ she told the room, ‘is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.’

“Hours later, Roberts drew 32 of 34 votes cast and was named the first female leader of a major North American professional sports union, ending a long and contentious search. ‘I don’t live my life saying, “What ceiling am I going to crack tomorrow?’’’ she said. ‘What I have done, and what I tell my nieces to do, is not to worry about whether you’re the only one, but worry about whether you’re the best one.’”

In fact, this story provides a simple road map to advancement for other women and minorities to follow that can be summarized in two general rules of thumb:

  1. When you’re a minority in a group, organization or team, don’t avoid it! The best way to overcome historical bias is to understand it and own it. No one ever got ahead by minimizing or apologizing for who they are or the unique gifts they bring to the table.
  2. Unfortunately, due to unconscious bias, implied standards, and the simple reality that like often attracts like (i.e. I am a brunette white woman who just hired two brunettes of similar stature); it’s sometimes hard to be recognized as the “best.” In fact, being the best usually isn’t enough. The most successful people, the people who actually break barriers, are also recognized as the best.

So let’s hear it. Are you looking to “crack the ceiling” or are you working to “be the best”?

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