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Confidence and A Foot in the Door is Key to Leadership

Confidence and a Foot in the Door is Key to Leadership

May 27, 2021
Sophia Neal of Saint-Gobain North America talks about her success as a Black leader.

The focus on having diverse leadership to ensure all talent is included requires closely examining preconceived ideas.

An excellent example of this is the story Sophia Neal, senior vice president of human resources at Saint-Gobain North America, tells of one of her earlier job interviews. As she sat waiting in the office lobby for an interview as a manager, dressed in a business suit,   another applicant, dressed more casually,  sat next to her. The hiring manager approaches the other candidate asking if she was Sophia. It was because Sophia is Black, and the other candidate was white.

“I always assume positive intent, so instead of being upset over this bias, I accepted the job,” Sophia explains. “I was there for eight years and had an excellent relationship with that manager.”

It is both this ability to understand that many people have bias, which often is unconscious and the confidence that Neal has in her abilities that have propelled her up the corporate ladder.

This confidence was built over her career as she chose to enlarge her breadth of knowledge at every turn. “I never said no to any opportunity or any project. So, as I moved through the ranks, others around me who might have had a bias toward me, changed their minds when they realized what I brought to the company.”

At Saint- Gobain, Neal found a company that was working hard, prior to this year’s events, to uncover bias. Back in 2014, the company added training to seek out and remove any workplace barriers. And this year as the world became pointedly focused on this bias, her company pushed further. “The key is having authentic discussions that start at the top of the organization and spread throughout,” says Neal. “Talking about racial bias is difficult for everyone. Many people have no idea that they are evening thinking this way.”

The first discussions, called Real Talks, started at the executive level. A group of 25 executives and eight Black employees, who came from all job functions, shared their perspectives. “The key was for the Black employees to share their personal experiences,“ says Neal. “If you have never experienced this you can’t understand it or feel connected to it, it, so it was important these stories came out. Some people were unaware that these things were happening, and this discussion opened up an important dialogue.”

Neal received support from the company and was active in having discussions with key executives that she feels further pushed awareness moving forward. “Diversity at our company is a top priority,” says Neal. “It’s a genuine effort and not an exercise in checking off a box.”

In fact, at every leadership meeting diversity is talked about making sure that it is top of mind. Leaders are held accountable for the efforts they are making in this area and share best practices.

Part of the reason that these dialogues could take place is that Saint-Gobain had a process already in place that addressed the different needs of its workforce. The company has employee resource groups, which are run by employees, to raise awareness. ERG groups at Saint-Gobain include a veterans’ network, a women’s network and an LGBTQ network.

The Leading Efforts for Ancestral Diversity (LEAD) Network,  which is a multicultural group that focuses on supporting awareness for ethnic minorities, is sponsored by Neal. “A couple of employees came to me in 2016 asking me to sponsor this group,” says Neal. “My role is to help the group get the resources within the organization that it needs. The group sets its own course and formulates its own projects.”  Neal feels that it’s important that employee resource groups are run independently, as it reflects the company’s culture of openness.

An open culture is essential to welcoming leaders from any group, but the path to leadership presents some challenges. “You have to have confidence in yourself and your ability,” says Neal. “When faced with situations where assumptions are made about you, either from a  gender or an ethnic perspective, you need to have courage. Put your foot in the door and say that you want to be part of what is happening. While you might need a steel-toed boot, it doesn’t matter. Speak up. You have a seat at the table and you need to own that seat.” 

About the Author

Adrienne Selko | Sr. Editor

Focus: Workforce, Talent 

Email: [email protected]

Follow Me on Twitter: @ASelkoIW

Senior Editor Adrienne Selko has written about many topics over the 17 years she has been with the publication and currently focuses on workforce development strategies. She is also a senior editor at Material Handling & Logistics and EHS Today. 

Previously Adrienne was in corporate communications at a medical manufacturing company as well as a large regional bank. 

She is the author of  Do I Have to Wear Garlic Around My Neck?, which made the Cleveland Plain Dealer's best sellers list. 

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