As Long As You Tolerate Me, I'll Shine.

Almost two decades ago I scored a pretty sweet gig as a glorified wedding singer in Japan. Like many, I was a casualty of the dot-com 1.0 bust and couldn't find a job to save my life. Plus, I just needed a break from the dumpster fire that was San Francisco at that time. Weddings in Japan are a huge business. They often take place on these beautifully curated wedding campuses that are completely self-contained. Chapel. Reception hall. Numerous, beautiful locations for photos. And, in my case, "Your very own Black, pop singer all the way from America to sing at YOUR wedding!" At the time Titanic and The Bodyguard were the top movies so the 60+ weddings I sang at that year featured "My Heart Will Go On" or "I Will Always Love You" as their big musical moment. I'm a Tenor so I belted both songs in the key they were written and always did a mental countdown as I descended the grand, marble staircase of exactly when the mothers of the bride and groom would completely lose their shit, come flying over to me balling their eyes out in joy, and clinging to me until the song had ended. It was always quite a spectacle and I quickly became the #1 requested singer for the wedding company, who peddled me up and down the island of Japan to sing for weddings at their numerous, highly profitable campuses.

Looking back, I received a piece of advice from an American friend who'd lived in Japan for a few years.

"You will be tolerated, but you will never be accepted. As long as you remember that you'll be fine." 

And sure enough, he was right. Despite all of the adulation I received when I was performing, the second the suit came off, the mic went back on the stand, and I was on the street I became virtually invisible. At that time, the Japanese culture was very closed. The elders were adamant about preserving the culture and baked that into their kids. Sure, American culture was pervasive around the world, even then. But as I stated, it had a level of toleration, but not acceptance in Japan. The clearest evidence was how few people spoke English compared to other major, highly populated countries. A Japanese friend of mine confirmed that it was cultural and that English wasn't even taught in her school as a means of preserving the culture and native language.

I barely spoke Japanese and was often holding up lines at my local convenience store miming what I wanted from the confused and annoyed clerk. Pleasantries on the street went largely unrecognized. Sure, I made a ton of money and socked it away. But after a year, the celeb/not celeb dynamic threw me into a bit of a depression so I called it quits and moved back to the States.

Funny thing is that piece of advice that my friend offered up was a harbinger for my chosen career path and the number one reason why I became successful (and hyper resilient) as a Top 1%, career Executive Assistant. Black, gay, male Assistant working for older, White, heterosexual, Ivy League educated, male Execs...who historically hired gorgeous, White, 20-something female Assistants to support them...in investment banking. Acceptance or tolerance? Do the math.

It's been made clear to me, in no uncertain terms, that my presence in many of the boardrooms that I've sat that my presence was tolerated, not an accepted. It's also been made clear to me, in no uncertain terms, that as a male Assistant representing only 5% of the entire US population of Executive Assistants, that I would be tolerated, not accepted by the female majority. Much of the BS that I've endured in my 26-year career as an Executive Assistant at the top of the game will be shared in my book that drops next Spring, so keep licking your chops in anticipation. But my goal, here, is to impart a little wisdom gleaned from all of the years biting my tongue, being stabbed in the back, being the subject of jokes and comments, low key racism and homophobia, even in-your-face hatred and sabotage by EAs who felt I was impeding on their territory and stealing their thunder.

Being a high achiever should be something that is celebrated. Sadly, that's often not the case. They're often looked at as a threat or overstepping their perceived authority. They're often the ones who grind it out, do the research and are the most prepared in the room only to be silenced or having to endure eye-rolling from middling-at-best co-workers and managers who like things just the way they are. In every company I've worked I've seen high achievers become frustrated and often throw in the towel because they can't break through the defensive line of idiots to get to the end zone, despite numerous attempts and approaches. And that's sad and only hurts the business and morale throughout the company.

I'm especially saddened by the treatment of women in business by men in positions of power. I've witnessed more incidences of blatant misogyny and "bro culture" than I'd ever care to. And that's only within the last decade. And as much as we'd like to believe it's getting better and that women are quickly making strides toward parity in White male dominated boardrooms, I'm gonna go ahead and call "bullshit." Yes, some headway is being made. But not nearly enough and it's pathetic that it's taken #metoo to, essentially, force this call to action.

Having supported male CEOs for most of my career, reading all of the email chains, overhearing all of the conversations at the urinals, and decoding much of the language being spoken among them, I can assure you that not much is going to change in the next decade or more. Lasting change, especially in business, will have to start at the colleges where future executives and CEOs are created. It's not going to happen with this "plug-in" approach that's all the rage at the moment. Sure, you can throw several high profile, highly qualified women or persons of color on a Board, send out a couple of press releases and call it [diversity] problem solved. But let's be honest here. Unless the mentality, perspective and motivations of the men on that Board changes it's really only a placation. I'd be curious to hear the REAL experiences of "the only's" on Boards of Directors around the world. I'd safely wager that they've had to choke down more than a few misogynist/sexist/racist/-phobic comments just to maintain the peace. I've sat in many Board and leadership meetings and have often had to clench my teeth for fear of losing my shit at some of the most culturally insensitive jokes and comments I've ever heard from the mouths of the very people I supported.

So here's the thing, and back to my original point. I came to the conclusion that the best way to ensure my success, especially in today's business and political climate, and especially as a triple minority in this nation, is to remember my friend's advice from all those years ago: "You will be tolerated, but never accepted." Some may view this as sad or defeatist. I actually find it quite empowering for a number of reasons. 

  1. I don't seek acceptance. Acceptance is earned...or not. And, to be frank, I find it to be a distraction from my goals. It's too externally focused and dependent on the changing whims of strangers; something I cannot control. I'm only interested in what I can control, contribute to and benefit from. The rest is far less important to me. Acceptance is icing. Not the cake.

  2. I often DGAF. Caring too much about the opinions of others will often lead to you doubting or questioning yourself, especially when something you've vetted as sound goes against the consensus. I've made the critical mistake of going with the group many times throughout my career only to find that my way was the right way because I had actually done all of the research and "extra credit" to substantiate my findings. Business is full of sheep, from management level on down. There's nothing more gutting than not fighting for an idea, relenting, and going with the group, only to go down in flames and be associated with said group. That's not for me. I'd much rather be an outlier and piss off the sheep than be one of them at the expense of my own convictions. If being a team player requires lowering my standards and agreeing to something everyone knows is sub par, but accepts as good enough for now, count me out. You mad, bruh? I DGAF.

  3. As long as you tolerate me, I'll shine. Since acceptance is off the table, we're left with tolerance. And since I don't own the business, I'll take it. I have a very unique approach to my role and, pretty much, everything I do in life. I take nothing for granted, rarely accept handouts, favors, or offers for collaboration and prefer to earn everything that I get. That way I'm beholden to NO ONE except me. When I support an executive I do my best to crush it...FOR ME, not them. Sure, my success makes them successful and vice versa. But my incentive isn't based on their success. If I am completely engaged, confident, and putting my very best effort forward every single day, then I will be incredibly successful at my role. Which, in turn, will make my boss' life cake and allow him/her the time and focus to be incredibly successful in their role. For me, our success as a partnership is not based on us becoming besties. It's based on mutual respect, knowing that we're both crushing it in our respective roles and responsibilities. You give me the latitude to do my job and I'll crush it. Which will allow you the ability to do even more of your job and crush it. If the respect is there, by both parties, it's heaven. When it's bogged down by emotions, perceived overstepping, or bias for not applying ample Chapstick for a one-sided ass-kissing session, it falls apart. Again, I'm not motivated by anyone's acceptance. I've yet to see it listed on an offer letter and it's yet to pay a single bill of mine. As long as you tolerate me and allow me to do what I'm great at in my own, unique way, we'll be golden. All else is sprinkles on top or a distraction.

I don't expect everyone to agree with my approach to business or to life, really. It's mine and mine alone and has worked very well for me so far. However, I believe that what I've said above is quite applicable for many reading this article. I see it every day. People practically pimping themselves out to be accepted by a group of people who never will, and are low key devastated when they're not. A great life isn't built on the acceptance of others. Sure, it's great to earn it. But it shouldn't be a focus. Focus on what you do amazingly well in the way that you do it. Continue to learn and grow your knowledge in as many directions as you can. Show up with the intent to put your very best foot forward every single day and let your results and effectiveness do the talking. This is especially valid for minorities working in non-diverse environments. Stop actively seeking acceptance. It will happen when it happens...or it won't. Until then, work the tolerance angle and continue to kick ass in your own, unique way. Let that be your validation as it's something you have complete control over. Not the unpredictability of others' acceptance. Especially when the others look nothing like you.



Phoenix Normand