The issue of gender disparities and the increasing African-American ratios in management consulting firms have rightly become important issues. Yet, the latter is a frighteningly narrow interpretation of racial prejudices.
Let us be honest about this, the color of your skin will have a material impact on where you can work, which clients you can serve and your relative enjoyment in management consulting. Since the 1970’s we have seen a massive rise in Indians taking up senior positions, and eventually leading, the most eminent firms. They, along with most minorities, have faced all kinds of prejudices and there is a reason you will not find an Indian or African leading the Seoul, Tokyo or Beijing offices.
Moreover, racial prejudices within countries, like North and South India, and within regions, like Burma and Thailand, play a distinctive role in shaping careers. We routinely counsel clients who face prejudices due to their accents, backgrounds, gender or skin color, usually the latter. I can assure you that if you are not blonde-haired and blue-eyed then you will face some form of racial prejudice as a consultant. That is not to say Europeans do not face their own intra-region prejudices – think of Romanians seeking employment in Germany, Britain and France.
This podcast focuses on what you should do when you face racial prejudices. I am going to focus on my very own experiences and how I dealt with them. The key takeaway is to, first, not attack someone or feel you need to punish them for prejudicial treatment, and, second, to remember you are there to add value despite the client’s personal behavior. If you wanted to pick clients who were not prejudicial in some way than you could do work in no country in the world. And if you think about this carefully, you are also prejudicial in some way so there is no point in pretending you are perfect and should only engage with such noble segments of the population. They do not exist, and if they do not exist, you need to find a way to turn any person to your side. That is a powerful skill to have versus getting on a soap-box and preaching about moral rectitude.
Not a single person wins in this situation of blaming and attacking. Many times, what appears to be a deliberate prejudicial slight is actually a person’s default behavior of responding to a situation. They do not mean to offend, but were trained to act in this way. This does not make it better. It just means you need to reprogram the way they handle such situations. This comes down to what I call the competency test, which you need to pass.
This is not to say that I have been very successful at this. There are some clients who have dismissed me from their attention and their are times when I have surely said offensive things inadvertently. The point is that your intent must be sincere and it is better to have a few meaningful client relationships than all average relationships.
The client who shaped my career and really put me on the fast track, at first appeared to be prejudicial, yet became my close friend and a huge champion for my career. By willing to understand why he did what he did, I not only learned so much but became a better person for it. It is crucial to not let the baggage of your past negative experiences blind you from the possibilities of new positive experiences.