Playing “The Game” in the Professional World

My first professional job in the States was at a university. I recently turned 25 years old, and I was in that special transition period of “fresh out of college” to “professional functioning adult.” 

I had no idea about The Game.

The Game is the ability to navigate the professional world, the white world, and the other (i.e., Black; Hispanic; LGBTQIA.).   

The Game is pushing your patience and putting on a smile when you want to scream. 

The Game is giving a diverse perspective but feeling the weight of being the spokesperson for all people of color.  

The Game is exhausting. Unfair. Annoying. But The Game is educational.

The Game teaches you the importance of having “receipts” (meaning, have proof and save those emails!), having allies across departments, building an inventory of favors, and the importance of mentors. 

In my first professional job, I had amazing strong female mentors. My mentors taught me how to conduct myself as a Black professional and how to have a voice in challenging situations. These were valuable skills needed to be successful in The Game.

My mentors taught me to listen. Listening allowed me to learn about people’s habits and mannerisms. How are people communicating in the workspace?

Is that one coworker a gossiper? Be cautious when sharing personal information. 

Do you have a coworker who complains to you in private but never advocates for themselves when it matters? They may not have your back if you need to go against the grain.

Listening shows you who can be an ally, who to go to for specific tasks, and who to avoid. 

My mentors taught me to challenge bad attitudes. I had a conflict with someone who rudely dismissed and tossed papers at me when I needed them to answer some questions. Frustrated, I went to my mentor, who taught me how to force people to reflect on their actions while articulating my preferred communication style. 

“Bob, it appears this isn’t a good time for you so that I will send you an email with my questions. Next time, it would make me more comfortable if you could simply ask me to come another time. I felt you were dismissive of my request and it was offensive” 

Yes, I did get an apology. 🙂

My mentors taught me the importance of attending after-hour gatherings. 

I was on a group project with a work nemesis. Mid-project, my nemesis had a party and invited everyone. Her invitation to me was a formality, and there were no real expectations for me to attend.  After telling my mentors about the invitation, they thought it would be more impactful to attend and to show I was a team player. After-hour gatherings were the perfect opportunity to learn who were allies, hear the gossip across departments, and to network. In the end, I attended the party and the look of surprise on my nemesis’ face made it worth it! Checkmate! 

I was lucky to have strong Black role models when I started my career. My mentors “keeping it real” advice and occasional tough love were skills I needed to grow professionals and skills I teach others.

Dr. Shawntia Key is the CEO and Founder of URep Abroad. She has an Ed.D. in Higher Education Management, completing her dissertation on Black American Undergraduates Studying Abroad: What Are Their Intentions and Behaviors?  She has more than 10+ years of experience in international student programming and advising, program development, curriculum design (cultural studies), and intercultural competency.

Connect with Shawntia on LinkedIn.