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Lessons on how to navigate the workplace from Ella Bell Smith

Nov 6 2017

This fall, the Clayman Institute invited the renowned Dr. Ella Bell Smith, Professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, and one of the leading experts in organizational change and the management of race, gender, and class in organizational life, to share her expertise with the Stanford student community.

Over lunch with approximately four dozen Stanford students at the Black Community Services Center, Bell Smith offered lessons to women and underrepresented groups on how to navigate the labor market. These lessons were intended by Bell Smith to enjoin Stanford students to take the reins of their professional lives and career trajectories despite the professional barriers and biases that they may encounter along the way. By helping the young women and men in the room recognize the assets they bring to the labor force, this practical advice on how to approach the labor market served to advance the Clayman Institute’s dedication to gender equality through the framework of mentorship.

With nearly three decades of experience as an organizational scholar dedicated to the advancement of women and minorities in the workplace, Bell Smith enumerated her criteria for success on the job market and in the workplace during the event. Most important, she emphasized, was the necessity of self-reflection prior to entering the job market itself. Bell Smith encouraged students to reflect upon their needs, After determining these needs, she continued, candidates should develop workplace and community criteria that are non-negotiable. This self-reflection extends from the job-market stage to the employment stage, Bell Smith said. In this capacity, employees need self-reflection in order to determine what they need to thrive in the workplace: What management styles do I prefer? What level of engagement do I need with my supervisors? With my colleagues?

Prior to accepting a job offer, Bell Smith recommended that jobseekers learn about the regional location where they will live if they take the job. This includes what resources are available, from information about the housing market, to the accessibility of public transit, to proximity of museums and public parks. This information, to Bell Smith, is just as important as what is provided in the job offer package, because it helps a prospective employee decide whether the community allows her to thrive outside of the workplace.

One criteria for success in the workplace, Bell Smith said, is knowing the history of that workplace, especially the history of its diversity efforts and retention rates, so that an employee can evaluate where she stands in relation to these data. She further encouraged employees to seek access to criteria used to evaluate employees, and learn the criteria for high evaluation scores. Doing so helps employees develop an informed understanding of how to perform at an outstanding level. 

Also critical to one’s success is building strong relationships in and outside of the workplace. These relationships can be leveraged both to learn the informal and formal rules of an organization and to negotiate personal and professional goals. Finally, Bell Smith concluded, it is imperative to remember the contributions of predecessors who pioneered diversifying workplaces. The challenges an employee might believe are unique to her circumstance are not, in fact, unique but have been faced by others who worked for the company. Understanding the work of predecessors serves not only as guidance but as solace to those who may feel isolated or alone in the workplace.

Bell Smith’s advice highlighted the fact that constructing a successful career involves continuous self-reflection, learning, and a network of professional relationships. Learning, she pointed out, is a lifelong process and does not stop upon the completion of one’s formal education. 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.