When you think back to five years ago, would you have thought you’d be where you are today?
What kind of unexpected opportunities, events, or experiences have you had?
I’m sure you can think of a few—life is unpredictable that way.
Cassandra Knight joined us on episode 11 of Unlocking the Club to discuss some of those beautiful and exciting experiences and opportunities. As she’s learned to live life more openly, allowing newness to break in, she’s been able to build a fulfilling career and personal life.
Together we unpacked what it means to “fiercely guard your time,” be open to new opportunities, and navigate the “club” as a black woman in an executive role.
Being Open to Opportunities
Today, Cassandra’s reached executive-level positions after a decades-long career in complex litigation, lives happily with her husband and stepchildren, and still finds time to connect with her family heritage through a quilting hobby.
None of these are what she expected to happen. She didn’t manufacture these opportunities or do something specific to make them happen.
But, she was open.
Cassandra describes herself as a typical high-achieving, Type A personality that thrives on routine. But over the years, she’s worked on loosening the grip of routine to make space for other opportunities.
And, through that openness, she’s now living a beautiful life she didn’t dream of! Through her reflections, there are a few key steps to cultivating more openness in life:
- Take it step-by-step: You don’t have to change everything at once, but just take the first step. For Cassandra, it was signing up for a quilting class to meet more people and engage in a hobby.
- Be open to shifting identities: Cassandra didn’t see herself as a wife and mother, but when she met her now-husband, she was open to it. Instead of holding on too tightly to the identity of a single woman, she allowed space for a shifting identity.
- Be intentional: Being open-minded to new opportunities doesn’t mean saying “yes” to just anything. You still need to be thoughtful and measured about it. When Cassandra had the opportunity for a big career move in New York, she considered it deeply before making the decision. That decision, though, opened up continued opportunities for career growth.
There are many ways to get out of your comfort zone and embrace new opportunities. Being open with your life not only leads to new opportunities and experiences, but it helps you become a lifelong learner.
No matter where you go, you can learn, grow, and develop as a person because you’re open to change.
Fiercely Guarding Your Time
We all have demands on our time, whether it be in work, family, or social lives. As Cassandra moved up in her career, she, naturally, became busier and felt the pressure all around her.
Just one example she gave is the ongoing requests to be part of DE&I initiatives. As one of the few senior-level black women at PayPal, she was asked all the time to be part of DE&I talks or programs.
But like what other black executives want, she’s not interested in things that just pay lip service to DEI with no real change. She has to be selective in what she chooses to be part of—you can’t be part of everything and you can’t say “yes” to everything.
So, Cassandra has learned to fiercely guard her time, something a mentor encouraged her to do. It means saying “no” when necessary, without shame and without guilt.
Here are some of the ways Cassandra guards her time:
- Keep focus on what “winning” is: In her role as a litigator, winning might feel like pummeling the opponent. But that might not be winning for the relationships at hand or her firm. Focusing on big-picture winning lets you narrow in on what really matters to achieve the outcome you want instead of being distracted by other things.
- Define what work-life balance is to you: Everyone has a bit of a different definition of work-life balance. One of Cassandra’s colleagues believes that “it’s all life” so you best build a life with the kind of work you love. Define what it means to you and aim for that.
- Throw off other people’s expectations: So often as black women, we say “yes” to things to prove we can do it or because we’re afraid of missing out. But you need to get out from under the weight of what you think you should do and do only what you decide is the best path for you.
Fiercely guarding your time is not easy. It’s something we all have to learn. Cassandra reflected on how it becomes easier with age, because your priorities clarify over time. But, it’s something we can all practice now—define your priorities and be single-minded in your pursuit of them.
Navigating Career and “The Club”
Cassandra talked a lot about one of her mentors, Wanji Walcott, during our conversation. Wanji sponsored Cassandra into her role at PayPal, opening the door for career advancement and better compensation.
Not only that, but she’s been critical in shaping Cassandra’s views on work and life while always pushing and expecting the best from her. Wanji was a breath of fresh air, something that was missing for a long time.
And that’s why representation matters.
It’s why mentorship and sponsorship matter.
Because no matter how hard we work or what accolades we collect, black women are still often left out of the club. We often feel club-adjacent.
And it can be frustrating and exhausting trying to get into the club.
But when we have people, with similar lived experiences to ours, who take us under their wing, we learn what it means to be in our own club. To live in our own power and purpose. And, to navigate the club and take our rightful place by advocating for ourselves, our careers, and our salaries.
True sponsorship is the way we’ll start seeing more black women and diverse individuals in positions of leadership. Because until that happens, there’s no real change. Until companies decide to “walk the talk,” we are left navigating this together.
As Cassandra reflected back on her career, Wanji and other mentors were critical in her success. And we all need a mentor in our lives! If you are looking for a place to start, consider this resource on how to find a mentor or this guide to finding a mentor to support your career advancement.
Both mentorship and sponsorship opened opportunities for her that she couldn’t have created herself. And, it’s given her a space to grow and develop and not carry the pressure to be a certain way.
There are practical ways a mentor can help you:
- Know and advocate for your value and compensation.
- Open your network for new opportunities (i.e., both promotions or board opportunities).
- Provide psychological safety for your growth and development
- Allies “in the club” can help you navigate the company and advocate for you.
A sponsor differs from a mentor in that they’re a more active part of your professional growth. Often in positions of authority or influence themselves, a sponsor can “pull you up” the corporate ladder, so to speak. Sponsorship is important for women of color and can help your career advancement by:
- Hiring you directly into a position or strongly advocating for you to the hiring team
- Assigning you to projects or opportunities to advance your career
- Introducing you to decision-makers and vouching for your presence there
Both sponsorship and mentorship ultimately comes down to relationships. And relationships are one of the key areas of focus for Cassandra. If you’re open to relationships and building connections, you can never know what kind of opportunities will come your way.
Being open to life, love, learning, and everything else is the way to build a life you love! Cassandra is living proof of it. Listen in on episode 11 of Unlocking the Club podcast to hear more from Cassandra during our rich conversation. You can also keep up with her on LinkedIn.