Intersectionality is a Shared Responsibility
by Jeff Henderson·
Early in my design career I learned to be an advocate for myself. Just because people say that they are supportive of you doesn’t mean that they will actually do anything for you once you walk away. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I say it so people don’t expect me to help them because I like what their work. Most of the time that’s not a problem. But when your leadership fails to act on your regard, you are screwed in a corporate setting.
My first position within Nike didn’t pay as well as my first design job paid, but I was just happy to be a Nike Designer. My guardian angels forced me to go into negotiations armed with all of the numbers I needed to place me in the salary range my position paid.
I was off by almost 25% and I was told that I would have to be patient because budgets and finances and rain and whatever.
But I was too afraid to go back to my guardian angels and say I didn’t fight.
So I smiled and essentially said, “May I speak to the manager.”
The conversation became more difficult the further up the ladder I proceeded, because you needed to showcase your worth beyond your position and it’s corresponding ‘salary range’.
‘Show Your Work’ is what I tell young creatives when they feel like they are under-appreciated. When I was in a position where my leadership didn’t support me I went out of my way to quietly show others my skills.
The first hurdle in growth was realizing that my skills needed more development. This was a good thing. My team was telling me I wasn’t good enough but they weren’t fully assisting me in getting better in ways that I understood. Maybe they were trying in their own way, but their efforts weren’t working. So I looked for help outside of my group and improved on my own.
Next I began placing my improved work on every blank surface I could find. I didn’t wait until someone dropped by my desk to look into a portfolio. I didn’t wait until the quarterly concept presentations. I didn’t wait until leadership showed off their edited assortment of my work at a seasonal review every four months. I displayed my work like I was at the Louvre.
The radio wasn’t playing my songs so I had my mixtapes on the corner — pre-SoundCloud reference.
My efforts paid off because other teams and higher leadership positions understood that I was just a bad fit on my current team. Both my skillset and understanding of how the game was began to grow.
One of my supporters was the VP of design. I met with him a couple of times a year and he helped me navigate the politics while maturing as a leader. At one point I had a complaint about hurdles that a growing group of designers had with some policy or another. I don’t remember what the issue was because I didn’t think it was a big deal.
He stopped me cold.
“Have you ever had a problem scheduling an appointment to talk with me?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. Every time I wanted to connect I asked his assistant for a thirty minute block of time and she squeezed me in within the next few weeks. In corporate time that’s almost immediately.
“My office is always open. Folks know where I sit and I encourage positive conversation and feedback. You don’t have to fight their battles,” he explained.
At the time I understood his pushback as a way to focus the conversation away from petty gripes that a dramatic creative community may have. I do remember that the concern that I was sharing was pretty minor — which is why I can’t remember what it was.
I also understood that I was being celebrated for my self-advocacy. I’d be rewarded for pushing creative solutions that put design first. I learned that being a good designer at Nike meant knowing that your rose needed to include thorns if you were going to get anything done.
Unfortunately, the logic that helped me fight for my individual design success was also the logic that ignores the truths of intersection.
Sure, there were plenty of petty gripes that any workforce may have with leadership. Sometimes those petty gripes aren’t so petty. Sometimes the answer comes in the form of unions. Some folks take it upon themselves to stand up for others.
Women and people of color typically don’t focus on self-advocacy. You’ll find thousands of thinkpieces arguing the chicken/egg theories with respect to being ignored/reprimanded for requesting a bigger seat at the table or not requesting a bigger seat at the table for fear of being ignored/reprimanded.
“Articulate, but arrogant” or “angry and bitter” are adjectives applied in larger proportion to black men and women in the workplace. “Lacking courage or personality” might actually be verbalized for Asians applying for college. If they aren’t said out loud, they are often implied. Competitive environments mean that people that may not share these views may still take advantage of situations to get ahead, divide budgets or horde projects.
But that’s not where the problem occurred.
The real trouble occurred when I applied for a leadership position outside of design — product marketing. I had no intention on waiting for my turn. Self-advocacy. Nothing was promised and folks were asking me to apply. So I applied.
Shit hit the fan.
Another individual in leadership didn’t like that I didn’t wait patiently for my turn. That individual decided to tell the larger leadership team misleading information about my abilities and experiences. Whether he was believed or not, the other leaders didn’t want a toxic situation, so ‘they’ passed on letting me migrate from Design to Marketing.
When ‘they’ pass on you at Nike, you usually don’t know where in the chain ‘they’ weighed in. You are simply told that ‘they’ want to go in ‘another direction’. Now, the person that got the job was more than qualified to do the role. The position was a stretch in skillset given the definition of my existing job. But the person that recommended me was the person leaving the role and had already run my name up the flagpole. I wouldn’t have interviewed if I wasn’t already vetted. I understood how the game was played. Someone with an axe to grind would have needed to kill the conversation.
My immediate director talked me off the ledge and gave me space to settle down. I didn’t go to work for two weeks.
When I returned I worked as though nothing had happened. Four months later I finally received a lesser promotion and that individual in leadership praised me for doing the right thing and focusing on making design great. Within that position and the next I delivered ‘the biz and the buz’ — shoes that sell and shoes that wow — but I understood that ‘they’ didn’t see me as someone worth fighting for.
Later, others would suffer under the same conversation — many of them white males.
This incident wasn’t about color.
But you have to add that to the equation.
Over the next few years that individual in leadership was slowly extracted from all of Nike, leaving a wake of pissed-off creatives along the way. Eventually, those types of individuals peter out. It is what it is.
The competitive nature of Nike often rewards those that advocate for themselves and for those that simply never go away. But there is a reality in watching those that actually ascend the leadership ladder and realizing very few of them look like you. Being ‘twice as good and making half the money’ is a real thing.
Don’t get me wrong. My post-Swoosh career and others outside of the berm have a very positive vibe. I learned to play chess at a high level in Beaverton. I use those skills daily. And being alumni does not hurt my LinkedIn profile one bit.
But the reality of the larger picture speaks for itself.
I can’t say that I wasn’t listened to as an individual trying to grow. I fought for opportunities for myself and my teams and we did some pretty amazing work. That VP that told me to focus on myself changed my career by placing me in the Tokyo Design Studio and letting Sergio Lozano coach me from afar.
Personally I have nothing but respect and love for the opportunity.
What I would ask from them and every employer is for the advocacy of under-represented groups when the data clearly shows there’s a necessity to do so. This is not just a Nike problem. I’ve watched traces of this behavior at most places without true diversity at the higher and middle levels. Pointing to that one black guy or that sole Asian woman is a crutch. If you asked me if I ran and I told you, “Yes, it was on a Saturday,” then I don’t really run.
If you started counting and questioning the number of black people in creative leadership positions when I mentioned it ten paragraphs ago, then you, my friend, might be part of the problem.
I write this not because those of us who want advocacy need to hear or read about it. Again, it’s not a Nike thing. That just happened to be where I worked. That just happens to be my story.
I write this for those individuals that lead the people that need fighting for. Understand that we may not believe you when you fight for us. We may not jump up and down when you do the right thing. We might not appreciate your effort at all. Some of us may not even want it because we feel it lessons our personal efforts. If you’ve been ignored for 10 years and someone acknowledges you in year 11, you might not jump up and down with joy.
However, if someone gives you credit for the deed, simply say you’re welcome.
Though you may not receive the accolades you may think you deserve, I urge you to support them anyway. That diversity that’s obvious in every Target and Nike ad is going to be expected in your leadership if you expect to navigate business in the near future. Consumers expect to see a change and the business will follow. You’ll be fiscally rewarded by their insights and presence.
Models in the ads and collaborations on shelves are a great start.
Not the destination.
Then you will be able to ‘Show Your Work’.