Minority Superpowers

Many diversity conferences and corporate affinity groups that I visit are busy solving a similar problem: What’s keeping us from getting to the top?

Inevitably, part of the conclusion is that cultural differences amount to a disadvantage, either legitimately or unfairly.  In my experience, minority professionals often feel under-appreciated for their skills, and are preoccupied with the obstacles that make it difficult to conform to the mainstream.

I’ve listened to members of an Asian affinity group describe how the traditional value of deference to authority makes it challenging for them to engage in constructive conflict – a behavior that is expected from leaders in their organization, and throughout the US.  In another instance, I’ve heard a group of African American professionals ponder how they might relate to conversations about sailing, when neither they nor anyone they know outside of work owns a sailboat.

Professionals from every minority group, not limited to race, are acutely aware of what makes them different, and seek ways to reconcile those differences while retaining a sense of authenticity.  Language, hobbies, dating, appearance, values… Identifying points of divergence from the dominant culture is easy work.  And surely, it can feel disconcerting when you struggle to relate over simple pastimes like vacation destinations or music, let alone substantive attributes like persuasion, impact, and collaboration.

Having been a minority in corporate America, I understand the challenges well.  However, my experiences have taught me that professionals with diverse backgrounds are at more of an advantage than we often think.  Rather than focus on the challenges, I encourage people to leverage their unique experiences as an asset, not a hindrance.

For many diverse professionals, the path to success is not formulaic and presumed.  Unlike their counterparts who are raised in families with corporate role models and indoctrinated with the rules of the game at an early age, most minorities have to figure it out for themselves.  Yet, facing unfamiliarity and resistance produces some powerful attributes that should be recognized when thinking about the nature of being different.  Without the benefit of legacies and fast tracks, minorities have to develop a key set of competencies to navigate the unknown early in their professional development.  Not surprisingly, these abilities, which I like to think of as superpowers, are also relevant to leading a successful business.

Here are some of the superpowers that should be recognized and leveraged by minorities within their organizations:

Intuition: In the absence of previous experience or traditional safety nets, diverse professionals must often listen to their gut instincts to determine which opportunities to pursue, whom to trust, and what is right.

Adaptability: Unlike those in the majority who set the norms and rarely need to deviate, minorities regularly move between their personal culture and the dominant professional culture.  Such adaptability enables minorities to offer a balanced and inclusive point of view that can be calibrated to meet the needs of a given situation.

Competition: Without the benefit of an inside track, diverse professionals compete against the general population for coveted opportunities. As a result, they possess a tolerance for competition, and are skilled at recognizing threats and sizing up their competitors to gain an advantage.

Vigilance: Given the need to conform to established norms, diverse professionals constantly scan the environment and read subtle cues, looking for opportunities to assimilate new information to close gaps.

Objectivity: Having started their careers as outsiders, minorities are able to think critically about their organization and industry without taking the status quo for granted.

Now, if I had called this list of “leadership competencies” rather than “minority superpowers”, would you argue? Given the increasingly global business landscape, cultural adaptability is more relevant than ever.  And in what industry is competition not a differentiator? While it is easy for diverse professionals to focus on what they don’t have and how to get, I say they should focus on the unique abilities they do have and how to apply them.

- Renee -


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