Executive Coach L. Michelle Smith on Navigating Corporate Environments

Woman in white background smiling
Executive coach, speaker and author L. Michelle Smith

In a piece from Harvard Business Review, Zuhairah Washington and Lauren Morgan say that “women of color don’t need to be told to “lean in.” Research shows that the vast majority of them have confidence and ambition, determination and desire.” Stated in the article’s title, women of color simply “get less support at work.”

This concept is not lost on executive coach, author and speaker L. Michelle Smith. Her new book, “No, Thanks: 7 Ways to Say I’ll Just Include Myself,” chronicles the work she does to help women of color navigate corporate America and become the business leaders they are destined to be.

Chock full of advice from noted women business professionals such as Cynt Marshall, CEO of Dallas Mavericks, and Cheryl Grace, SVP at Nielsen, the book offers affirmations, coaching and viable solutions to workplace discrimination, C-Suite aspirations and more.

We caught up with Smith recently to talk about her journey, and her advice to women leaders.

TNJ.com: What prompted you to write this book? 

LMS: Professional women, Black women especially, began to approach me about four years ago for career advice.  I have always been a mentor to some, and have been mentored as well, but at some point, complete strangers began to ask about leadership and career advice.  So, while I was contributing regularly for Black Enterprise and writing on that topic among other business topics, I launched a mentoring service in 2019 while still working in corporate.

Ultimately, I would launch my private, certified coaching practice, which provides culturally nuanced, accessible executive coaching. The conversations I had with the women I met on the road while speaking with my coaching community were ultimately my inspiration. Executive coaching is that perk that many Black women stuck in the middle of the leadership pipeline never get to see, in general.  So, it made since to pierce that veil because lack of access to prime resources like these is one of the prime reasons why many Black women are stuck.

TNJ.com: During your time spent in the corporate workplace, did you learn a particular lesson that helped you better navigate and stay on course?    

LMS: One phrase that sums it up: Relationships are everything.  No one goes at it alone.  I learned that much sooner than I did to bet on my own brand, but having people in rooms where I was not who had my particular interest as advocates has been the biggest breakthrough for me in my career in corporate and as a small business owner.

TNJ.com: The book includes a section on “self-talking” your way into the C-Suite. Tell us a bit about that.  

LMS: The entire book is an executive-coach-in-a-book.  Effective coaching relies on powerful questions that move the client to think through the answers, accelerate their forward movement, provide clarity and accountability.  These women want to move forward, and most importantly, up into executive leadership.

So, in addition to coaching questions at the end of every chapter, there are also seven affirmations that are the North Star for the book.  Affirmations, of course, are a way to beat back all the negative voices, including your own, so that you can accelerate success.  I have yet to find a business book that combines tenets of applied positive psychology, coaching, cultural nuance, storytelling, and advice to support women of color on their journey to executive leadership.  We have only seen so far, books that identify the challenges they face extremely well, and provide advice and tips.

My hope is that No Thanks helps the business book category to evolve a bit in this way, especially when it comes to intersectional audiences like women.

TNJ.com: I know several women who have fled the corporate workplace to become their own bosses as entrepreneurs. Are there challenges that go along with that route as well? If so, how are they different from challenges that take place in corporate environments?  

LMS: Running a business is not easy, and I do believe that sometimes women see other women do this and decide immediately, “If she can do it, I can too.”  That works for cake baking better than entrepreneurship. There is hardly one recipe that everyone can follow. Yes, there are basics, but entrepreneurs are a different breed.  We run to the risk, and if you are risk-averse, or don’t understand that it takes money to make money, or if you don’t know how to market to build your clientele, I suggest that perhaps they should stick to their 9-5.

A huge caveat, however—an entrepreneurial mindset is a core remedy to the many hurdles we face inside of corporate, and I make that clear in the introduction and throughout the book.  This is the transformational leader that companies are looking for—people who can instigate and manage through change.

Intraprenuership is a practice, coined by Xerox some time ago, that I suggest professional women should take.  Intrapreneurship is learning how to build business ecosystems within an existing company.  And if she still has the itch, I’ve coined the term “extraprenuership.”

That is a way that you can build a business while still working for a company from 9 to 5. There is a safety net there, and you begin to learn the skills and insight it takes to build a business in a safe space where your livelihood does not hinge on your success.  It is how I suggest Black women lean out to lean in.  That skill building and entrepreneuerial experience will only make you a better leader when you are working that 9 to 5.

TNJ.com: What do you want women to walk away with after reading your book?  

LMS: The biggest takeaway from the book is that relying on one role to satisfy every desire and need is a fallacy, but it is the way many of us have been conditioned to think.  It is a generational mindset, and it is core to the corporate mindset of many industrial companies. The newer ones, not so much.  And you will find that Gen-Zers and Millennials were born knowing better.  That “analog” mindset, as I call it, says loyalty to one company yields great benefits.  In fact, loyalty to one company is much riskier than betting on yourself, your skills, your value and then continually exploring ways to nurture that.

Studies are showing that companies do not plan to keep workers more than 3-5 years, and with COVID-19, all the rules are going out the window.  Now, job seekers can look for positions at some of the hottest companies without regard to geography because most are working remotely.

We will find that there is far more opportunity to explore, and more rewards to reap if we are willing to first remember our dreams and passions, align those with our value and our story, then seek the opportunities that give us the return we deserve, surrounding ourselves with a tribe that will act on your behalf and pour into you.

That probably means you won’t stay at one company all of your career, and the way the new fractured, digital and cultural economy is shaping up, high-performing, over-credentialed, professional Black women with cultural IQ as a secret and potent weapon are in high demand. We should not simply take a chief diversity officer role, and call it a career. We should seek those CXO roles with P&L responsibility when we can.

These women who are stuck in the leadership pipeline or spewing out have another chance at the career they actually dreamed of.  They have been at plenty of tables.  They want to talk succession and be the one in the seat to drive those conversations.  It is our time.  The current social, political, and economic upheaval combined with Black women’s influence across every spectrum of society, from politics to movements to trends, is pointing to this.

Now is the time more than ever to answer the call.  Sitting at your desk and waiting for someone to recognize us or waiting for companies to get their diversity & inclusion programs right so that you can move up will not get us there.  Retirement will come much faster.