‘Lift As You Rise’: Here’s Why It Matters

Diti Bhasin, MBA, Principal & Chief Strategy Officer

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’” – Toni Morrison

As we enter Black History Month, this quote by renowned author Toni Morrison has been on my mind – maybe because it speaks so powerfully to the ongoing (and long-overdue) conversation in America about diversity. More than that, I think it strikes a chord because it speaks of roles that we must all play to create concrete change.

Like many others, my career journey has not followed a traditional path – much of it has been shaped by people who were willing to take a chance on me.

Here’s an example.

Long before I joined the team at Flexability, I worked at a non-profit. I came in as a part-time admin assistant, worked my way up to full-time, and, before long, I was managing logistics for a multimillion-dollar federal contract. My immediate supervisor was great. She advocated for my job title to change to “coordinator,” which sounded better than “administrative assistant” and was something I could leverage to grow. She’s the person who believed in me. But when she left the organization, I found there was no one else to advocate for me.

So I went to speak to the president of the organization. I thought I deserved a raise for the amount, and level, of work I was doing. She told me flat out: “I don’t understand how you can even ask me for a raise with your credentials.” This, even though I was doing work well above my paygrade and well above my title. I didn’t have a formal piece of paper, so she did not want to pay me for all the work or promote me to a different level.

So I left, and I found another job. But here’s the thing: I was bored at that level. I was still a coordinator and would come to work and complete my tasks in an hour. I had very much outgrown that position and was looking for a new challenge, but somebody had to give me an opportunity and take a chance on me to get to that next step. Mainly because I had that very non-traditional background.

This experience stuck with me; it illustrates the kind of gatekeeping that often happens in the working world. You’re judged more by your paper qualification or the school you went to than your track record. And it’s the kind of experience I think about when I consider that Toni Morrison quote. I needed someone to take a chance on me. And, by that same argument, I have to take a chance on someone else. Not only those of us who have non-traditional backgrounds, but all of us, must do things differently.

So how do we do it?

1. Look at hiring with a different lens.

Personally, whenever I have an opportunity to hire, I always look at my own networks where women, Black and Brown people, and people with disabilities are very prominent. Networks are important, make sure you are thinking of other places than LinkedIn and Indeed to find talent. I also don’t focus so much on credentials. My own experience is clear: things accomplished at work (and in the community) count just as much, if not more, than those pieces of paper. When you can ask questions, try to learn more about the person, not just their work history. You never know what non-traditional experience is timely and relevant to your hiring role.

2. Don’t feel like you’re taking a risk.

Here’s the thing: every time you hire someone, marginalized identity or not, you’re taking a chance. Yet this antiquated view still exists in some places that hiring someone “different” is somehow a more significant risk. That’s bias talking. Don’t listen to it. Study after study has shown that when you strip away things like names or schools from a person’s résumé and go purely by track record, you end up with a more diverse team. That diverse team will be better decision-makers, more innovative, and better performing.

3. Get your workplace culture right.

Culture is everything. You can have a million diverse candidates coming into your organization, but if your culture is not inclusive, if it’s toxic, they’re not going to stay. They don’t need to stay.

You have to have that culture piece in place. You see it with younger generations. They prioritize their happiness, mental health, and just what they feel is right, above all. If you don’t get this right, your talent will leave. So your culture is critical. Develop within, promote within, and invest within.