I’ve always thought I had a strong support network, until I saw what that looked like for others. I wondered how my peers were able to navigate these corporate streets, arriving on time and unscathed. They were climbing the proverbial ladder and progressing in ways I wasn’t; even the ones I outperformed – by far. I learned it was because they had active sponsorship. They had someone advocating for them, saying their names in spaces which they didn’t have access, providing opportunities for authentic visibility, and making room for them at tables I never knew existed.
I had none of that.
I was consistently told I was a rockstar. I had that “hi-po” glow. But somehow that never translated to mobility, at least not meaningful mobility. It was all just words. Where were my flowers? Where was my invitation to sit at the cool kids’ table? And if I was invited, was I ready? Could I deliver? Am I hungry enough? So many thoughts swam around in my head.
Then I found a mentor in my VP. She poured into me; signing me up for training classes, executive coaching, seminars, and more. She dangled a path for me to Directorship. I wasn’t ready. My brand wasn’t fully baked. I’d never seen Directors show up like me; I’m quirky, vocal, passionate and direct. This can be off-putting to some; seeing a black woman show up unapologetic and unafraid.
But continuing to see my peers advance ahead of me, securing promos that should’ve been mine fueled a fire in my belly like never before. I added more mentors, coaches, and certifications to my bag. It was my time and I wanted it now. My VP/mentor exited Cisco, shrinking my network and making my path to Directorship narrower. But I possessed everything I needed to get what I deserved.
With Cisco’s Customer Experience transformation to a recurring revenue business, in came new leaders and new opportunities. Two leaders stood out: Tony Colon and Steve Cox. I had direct access reporting dotted line to them as their Strategic Operations partner. They both asked to sponsor me through their multiplier effect pledge. Conversely, my direct management chain showed little interest and confirmed they saw no career progression in my path, despite all my peers performing the same function as Directors … hmm, interesting. I thanked them for their transparency and told them I’d be pursuing a new role. My role no longer fit; it was a too tight dress busting at the seams. I had to get out.
I threw a fresh pair of fishnets on my resume and put her out into the world.
I forged a tighter bond with my matrix managers-turned-sponsors. I pursued. I courted. I created org charts of their teams with my face in it – this could be us if they played their cards right. Tony Colon frequently said he wanted more diverse leaders on his team. I thought, “time to put the money where your mouth is, buddy”! I continued to show up authentically, my brand was now baked. This awkward black girl with purple dreadlocs planned to test out Cisco’s tag line (you know where it says “So, you have colorful hair? Don’t care … Be you, with us!”) It’s my time and I want it NOW!
Tony created a Director, CX Cloud Portfolio Management role for me – for ME?! It was finally happening. I felt seen. I felt… sponsored. And though I didn’t require external validation, it felt damn good to get a co-sign. I thought, “so this is what it’s like to have someone put themselves out there for you?”
My executive presence didn’t look or smell like others I’ve seen. I knew my quirkiness and purple dreadlocs coupled with my passion and directness, would be a challenge for others to accept me in this space. I did not care. I found a strong network in the Connected Black Directors cohort, I leaned into my Executive Coach, and I dug deep within. I now had a nice meaty role with visibility. I should’ve been satisfied, right? I wasn’t. I didn’t feel empowered nor was I granted the authority to match the meaty role. It felt like I had training wheels on, like a Junior Director, a Grade 12 ½ . Something had to change. I talked to Tony and shared my concerns. He listened. Novel concept, right?! I also sought counsel from my other sponsor, Steve Cox. I even encouraged Tony and Steve to talk to each other on my behalf to see what options exist.
This was new to me. I had sponsors that cared (like for real, CARED) about how I felt and my success. They came through and delivered, again! My sponsor, Steve Cox was starting a new function and a new team. He asked if we could meet weekly so he could share his vision, get my input, and if along the way I saw an opportunity that interested me – say the word. Whoa! That was powerful to me. We met weekly and I said “the word”.
Now I report to my sponsor Steve Cox. My cup is full and I finally feel like a full grown Grade 13, fully empowered with authority to deliver in big ways: establishing operating rhythms, defining engagement strategies, delivering a robust portfolio prioritization cadence, empowering leaders to make data-driven decisions while cultivating empathy-designed, inclusive experiences for our globally dispersed hybrid workforce!
Earlier in my career, I believed myths like:
- If I deliver consistently, someone will notice and I’ll get promoted.
- My manager is responsible for my career growth and trajectory
- Executive presence shows up in a suit and tie
Not the case, in my journey.
I’ve learned that being proactive, hungry, and having allies to help ease the burden is essential. Every day I show up and I pay it forward. I pour into my mentees and sponsees. My job isn’t done until I see more people that look like me sitting around the table; and neither is yours.
Shalida Armstrong is the Strategy & Planning Director for the Employee & Community Engagement organization charged with delivering empathy-designed experiences, where every human can be themselves, do fulfilling work, and have fun. Shalida is a servant leader with 20 years of experience leading a variety of teams including Engineering Portfolio Management, Change Management, and Strategic Planning and Operations. Under Shalida’s leadership, her teams have designed robust analytics platforms, ruthlessly prioritized development portfolios, and established balanced operational rhythms.
Shalida holds undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Management Information Systems as well as an MBA from East Carolina University (Aaaarrrrghhhh!). Originally from Philadelphia, she’s a die-hard Eagles fan and a travel fanatic who now lives with her boyfriend Devin and aussiedoodle, Whisky, in Durham, North Carolina.