The Journey to Overcoming “Unwritten Rules” in the Workplace | Hero

For Keauna Mason, a Consulting Team Senior Talent Manager in Los Angeles, being her authentic self in the office has evolved over the years. She’s worked in aerospace, music, tech, and now at BCG. All along the way, she’s shown different sides of herself to her colleagues. We met Keauna at her home in LA, where she talked about navigating corporate America’s unspoken rules and how she’s evolved personally and as a mentor to the next generation.  

Here’s an excerpt from that conversation, in Keauna’s words: 

I was born and raised in Gardena, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. I was the first in my family to go to college and graduate. Being a first-gen has prompted the motivation behind what I do, both at BCG and in career coaching.

I consider myself a low-key creative in terms of how I show up. I express my creativity in a number of ways, including my makeup, hair, and nails. Lately, I've been more adventurous with colors and lipsticks, experimenting with reds and oranges. In regard to my hair, I used to be hesitant to do anything blondish or red because it was out of my comfort zone and felt a bit too loud for me. But over time, the colors have grown on me. In terms of nails, I love anything that sparkles, but is simple.

Every Saturday, I venture off to the farmers’ market. I don't care what time I go to sleep on a Friday night, I will wake up on Saturday morning and go; it’s a ritual. What attracts me to it is the experience and fresh produce. I enjoy the smell of fresh veggies, connecting with the vendors, and tasting the food.

Whenever I have doubts and the imposter syndrome kicks in, I continue to remind myself, BCG does not hand out sympathy offers and that I’m on this team for a reason.

When I first started my career, I was very by the book in terms of the expectation of what it meant to be “professional.” Part of my interpretation of professional included straightening my hair. This (pointing to her curly locks) would have never been accepted in my early career. At that time, some corporations were less open to embracing all forms of diversity.

I'll be honest, over time, it took a toll on me. I would joke around and say to colleagues, “This is my during-the-week self, but my weekend self is totally different.” On the weekends, I would wear my hair in its natural state, embracing my curly texture. But when Monday morning rolled around, I would revert back to a straightened look.

As diversity was more embraced by corporate America, I became more comfortable being my authentic self. But not initially. Every time I began a new role, I would start off with the traditional, by the book look, or what was considered professional. After I gained credibility and had consistently good performance reviews, over time, I would incrementally reveal my authentic self.

Along my journey to management in corporate America, I had mentors who guided me on how to “show up.” I was advised to straighten my hair and speak a certain way (also known as “code switching”). For example, it was not accepted in a professional environment to talk like I would when I am in the presence of my family and friends. It could potentially be viewed as unprofessional or “not a good fit,” which could ding me in a performance review.

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Further Readings

There seemed to be unwritten rules. It's not written in the contract or offer letter, but there are certain things that you just know or are briefed on by mentors and other African-American senior leaders.

To me, bringing your whole self to work means showing up as your authentic self without any apprehension. Of course, there are things we want to be mindful of, but we should feel comfortable and confident that our true selves are fully embraced.

It takes a lot of mental capacity to have to think about what I say before I say it every single time. The fact that I can express myself in my authentic voice is amazing because it doesn't take so much brain power. I can actually focus on my role or the actual meeting.

I feel more comfortable telling jokes in meetings now. I am a little bit more comfortable bringing my natural self and not always having to be so formal.

Whenever I have doubts and the imposter syndrome kicks in, I continue to remind myself, BCG does not hand out sympathy offers, and that I’m on this team for a reason.

Vulnerability is huge in my coaching role. Being vulnerable and open about my personal experiences has helped me build relationships and trust.

Outside BCG, I’m a coach for a career prep organization called Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT). It's a company that seeks to help fellows from underrepresented communities secure their first internship and full-time job. I coach about 30 fellows a year, most of whom are first-generation college students.

Vulnerability is huge in my coaching role. Being vulnerable and open about my personal experiences has helped me build relationships and trust. I found, at least initially, I would always pretend like I had everything “together.” But I realized that was actually a blocker. I noticed when I showed up in a way that seemed like I was performing perfectly, the person on the receiving side may not open up because now they may feel they have to show up in that way as well. Now I am just completely honest and transparent about my experience.

There are two recurring things I've observed over the years: imposter syndrome and people tend to struggle with confidence. It looks a million different ways, but when you really get to the core, it’s usually one of those two things.

My wisdom is just knowing my worth. When I experience moments of imposter syndrome, I review a Word document where I track positive feedback I’ve received over the years. So if I get a Slack message, if I get a LinkedIn message, my performance reviews, the positive quotes from peers—I reread them to reestablish my confidence. I’ve found it to be really effective.