Be The Advocate of Your Own Strengths

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The Executive Leadership Council (ELC) hosted the 2017 Women’s Leadership Forum (WLF) on July 19th in Chicago, IL. WLF is an annual career and professional development event for black women executives and features a full day of insightful panel discussions with corporate thought leaders and top business executives. Celia Edwards KaramSenior Vice President & Head of Small Business Banking at Capital One, presenting sponsor of the 2017 WLF, shared the following inspirational story reflecting on her experience at the event.

The ELC will host its first-ever Regional Women’s Leadership Forum (Regional WLF) on Thursday, September 14th at the Time Warner Center in New York, NY. The Regional WLF event is a half-day program that brings the benefits of the annual Women’s Leadership Forum closer to our members. The New York event will focus on increasing the visibility of black women executives in broadcast and digital media:

It was a great privilege to speak at the The ELC’s 2017 Women’s Leadership Forum (WLF) where Capital One served as Presenting Sponsor for the second consecutive year. VOICES, the Black Business Resource Group at Capital One, has partnered with The ELC since 2012 to offer promising leaders professional development and networking opportunities.

Speaking at WLF allowed me to share my personal journey and offer women advice about how to secure next-level growth opportunities within their organizations. After thinking about what I would specifically cover in the presentation, I decided to emphasize that black women need to not only “Yield No More” – which was the empowering theme of this year’s event – but we also need to be advocates of our own strengths.

I began the discussion with the revelation that I’ve always been a harsh critic of myself. In many ways, this trait served me well. It prompted me to work hard, demonstrate with results, be humble and sometimes even vulnerable. This modest nature and openness has proven to be some of my greatest strengths as a leader.

But being a harsh critic is not always productive. In focusing on what I need to work on, those areas of improvement end up becoming my talking points in working with managers, mentors and teammates. I just assumed that the positive traits would speak for themselves – which they did, but not quite enough.

I’m currently the Senior Vice President and Head of Small Business Banking at Capital One. However, about a year ago, I was passed up for a promotion. My first reaction was to think of reasons why others were to blame – whether for unconscious bias or other motives. Then I became my own harsh critic again and sought to figure out what I could have done differently.

When reflecting, I thought back to a conversation I had with a friend who is a chief marketing officer at another company. She told me that in our work we often focus on promoting the one or two reasons why we want a product to be successful. However, it’s equally important to take the same approach to ourselves and incorporate those same points into every interaction.

For instance, when meeting with a mentor I would lead with my strengths and then ask for help:

“There are some things I’m working on that I’d love your advice on but first let me put it in context. Tough problems that require great integrated thinking across analytics, customer experience and risk management … that’s me! I live for those problems! They get the gears in my brain turning because they use my analytic strengths, my ability to connect deeply with customers and my comfort with navigating regulators. Reinventing overdraft? Transforming branch banking? Both were right up my alley.”

“My current work at Capital One is focused on growing Spark Business®, a solutions suite designed to help small businesses achieve their goals – and I want to work on vision setting. Not just leading my team at Capital One to solve the problem, but painting the picture for where we want to go and rallying everyone to go after that vision. That’s what I’m trying to build next. Can we talk about ways I might work on that?”

After these conversations, I still walk away with great advice. We spend most of the meeting talking about where I need to grow so I’m still seen as humble. Most importantly, now when this mentor is asked for her opinion of me, she’s got some credible strengths to leverage. This mentor can now advocate on my behalf and help advance my career.

I concluded my remarks at WLF by stating that I absolutely do not have it all figured out. My advice is simply a lesson I learned recently and one more reason why we shouldn’t ever stop learning, no matter where we are on our career path.

Capital One sent 30 women to the 2017 Women’s Leadership Forum. Photo courtesy of Shavonne Gordon‏ via Twitter @vonnedg

Many thanks to The ELC for creating this forum where we can share valuable lessons learned as we advance our careers. We are fortunate to be a part of a movement of black female executives who demonstrate a commitment to self-empowerment and collective progress in the workplace and beyond.

Celia Edwards Karam is the Senior Vice President and Head of Small Business Banking at Capital One. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Harvard University and MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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