Q&A

Errol Pierre wants to show you ‘The Way Up’

In his new book, healthcare executive Errol Pierre discusses the lessons he learned while rising through the ranks in corporate America.
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Grant Thomas

· 4 min read

Errol Pierre didn’t always have “write a book” on his bucket list. It came to him once he’d ascended the ranks of corporate America and found himself as one of the few to have seemingly figured it all out.

But even if he looked successful—he was a college professor and a healthcare executive—Pierre told us he still felt unsatisfied. Part of the problem, he realized, was that he was one of the few minorities he saw achieving at the highest levels in corporate America.

The data told him this wasn’t because of gaps in education or a lack of experience; there were plenty of people of color graduating from universities and pursuing white-collar work. People who looked like Pierre, he determined, were dropping off in part due to barriers to success, like lack of mentorship and pressure to assimilate into a white corporate environment.

In his new book, The Way Up: Climbing the Corporate Mountain as a Professional of Color, he speaks candidly about the trajectory of his career, how he weighed the personal and professional, and how HR professionals, especially those of color, might leverage his lessons as they make their own way up the corporate ladder.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did it feel to get to the top in your profession and find such poor representation of minorities?

In the book, I talk about the Jackie Robinson Syndrome…it’s when you are [one of] the few persons of color to reach a level…You’re under scrutiny, so there’s a burden to be perfect, so that you don’t close the door to the next person of color…you don’t want to mess up…[so] you are inauthentic to get to those levels. I joke—but it’s not funny—that I probably have a PhD in making white people comfortable.

Can you give me an example?

Laughing at jokes that aren’t funny, that I don’t get, to fit in, because the person who’s making the joke is in a position of power. Culturally, lying about what I’ve done…I would never tell them, for example, for New Year’s, Haitian tradition is to eat a soup made of pumpkin in recognition of our freedom on January 1st. If someone in the corporate office asked me, “Hey, how’s your New Year’s?” [I’d say,] “Oh, you know, just…watched the ball drop.” I was lying. That’s not what I was doing—I was at church the day before for New Year’s Eve and then on New Year’s Day, we made soup.

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You are code switching—you are being someone else for purposes of trying to fit in and assimilate. And similar to Pavlov’s dogs, you get rewarded for it. That’s how you get promoted.

How can HR professionals authentically represent themselves and their organizations?

They can talk about it…People don’t talk about it because they don’t want to be ostracized, they don’t want to be considered “that person.” It’s very hard to talk about bias without someone feeling that you’re calling them racist, so there’s barriers that pop up. Hopefully, it would allow them a vantage point to talk about it. I also say that DE&I cannot be led by HR…it is incumbent on the business to make this a business objective.

Why can’t DE&I be led by HR?

DE&I is retention. DE&I is seeking and finding new talent. DE&I is understanding that the more diverse a company is, the better performance from a profit perspective…So to me, for DE&I to be palatable and for it to actually happen, it has to be business leaders that are running huge organizations. So, I was a business leader…If I wasn’t convinced that DE&I was a thing, it doesn’t matter what HR is saying…It’s never going to work.

How has mentorship influenced your career?

Mentorship is probably one of the most integral ingredients that will cause more people of color to rise through the ranks. Informal mentoring happens all the time in corporate America. What I asked for corporations to do is be very intentional about who is getting access to that informal mentoring, because what happens a lot is bias seeps in and the top leaders are informally mentoring people that look like them as opposed to intentionally thinking about people that don’t look like them that need the same level of mentoring.

I would not be where I am at my age if not for mentors. My best [mentor]...was a gentleman named Jeff Grahling, and he saw something in me I didn’t see. He hired me as an intern to a full-time position, so he took a chance on me. And even though I reported two [or] three levels lower than him, would go out of his way to say, “Do you want to get some lunch?” He would give me stretch projects, assignments I didn’t think I could do, and I found out that I could do them. And it boosted my confidence.

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