“Conform! Is that what you expect me to do to?”

When I became an Associate Vice President, I was given some unsolicited advice that was shocking to me. I have sat with this advice for a few years and I’m finally ready to share my thoughts with you on how it negatively impacted my esteem and my performance as a leader.

Ok, let me give you some context. I’m a black woman, and after 20 years in higher education, I have finally found my voice, my strength, my purpose and myself.

I have always wanted to be myself as a leader, not a watered-down version of myself. So when I was basically told to conform, be the status quo, and not be myself… well, I can’t tell you how disappointed I was by the advice.

And the advice came from more than one person. A typical conversation during that time would start off with “I’m so happy for you but……. I’m going to need you to fix your face.”

Other advice that was reiterated:

  • You know you can’t be yourself
  • You know you can’t say everything you think, now that you’re an AVP you have to act like an AVP!
  • You have to be “professional”!
  • Watch your facial expressions!

There were other “words of wisdom” but I think you get the idea. The general message was, “Congratulations on your promotion. If you want to keep it, become someone else.”

I have taken my time to dissect the impact of this advice over the years. First, I was disappointed by my colleagues that they felt that I had to change now that I had a new title. What would be the gain for me if I did change? Let me flip this, what would I lose if I did change? I would lose me.

“Fix my face”… what does this even mean? Look, I am not a person who walks around with a smile on my face, that’s just not me. If people want to judge me because I’m not all smiles all of the time or they want to assume something and paint me in a negative light… that’s nothing I can change. Nor do I want to. And if I’m being honest, I actually don’t think I can. That just wouldn’t be me.

“You have to professional.” Just what is the definition of professional? Who dictates what professional is? I’m professional, real and authentic. Yes, it’s true I don’t sugarcoat things because I want and expect people to give their best because students need that from all of us. So, I’m professional, I just don’t feel like I have to do it the way others do. That’s not a judgment, that’s just who I am. And I’m ok with that. Being myself allows me to do my best work and focus on the work. As a woman of color, these words of advice are offensive and disappointing.

Do we need to conform to how the world has defined “the model leader” from the beginning of time? I’m not a white male so the words “professional, watch your face” lets me know my colleagues believe there is only one way for me to be effective, successful and accepted, and that’s for me to be more like the “model leader” than my version of being a leader.

Well, I chose not to listen to any of this advice and be myself instead. I don’t think I’ve ruffled too many feathers and I think my staff and students know I am on their side, fighting the good fight on their behalf.

I’ll leave you with this thought:

“Unsolicited advice is usually more about the needs of the giver than the receiver.”

  • Charles F. Glassman

Debra Y. Griffith

Dean of Student Equity and Success at West Valley Community College

Consultant | Speaker | Coach |Strategist |Trainer

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