I often tell people that the saying “it’s who you know” is only half of the formula for success. What really matters is “who knows you!” My advice is to make sure you get to know the people you work with—on all levels. I do this by simply showing up, being friendly, and having a genuine interest in what others are doing.
I spend time getting to know the people I work with (or want to work with). I express an interest in their work, and find ways to get involved in what they are doing. By spending the time getting to know them and their work, I build relationships that often turn into opportunities for collaboration. When I see these opportunities, I act on them.
To stand out, I learn as much as I can about my work; I seek to be seen as an expert in my field. Thus, I am visible (internally and externally) and accessible. I attend conferences and events where I know leaders in my field will be present. I meet as many people as I can, and follow up with them to set up meetings. This has helped me build a strong network of people, and has resulted in opportunities for me to attend other meetings and speak at conferences. It has also helped me to bring together people in my work.
To build partnerships, I include others in opportunities that arise from my work. I seek out partners who share my vision and mission, and work to build collaborations based on that common ground.
To move forward in your career, you must get noticed. To get noticed, people must know you. I think this is the most important thing a person can do for her own growth.
On Knowing when and how to Make Your Next Leap
Prior to my current role, I had multiple careers, including retail manager, public school teacher, lawyer, and CEO of a nonprofit. I also served on the school board in Memphis, Tennessee.
Serving on the school board has been by far my most challenging, and one of my most rewarding experiences. It led me to know I wanted a career in public service. As a result, after having practiced law for four years, I left the practice and accepted an appointment as CEO of the Memphis Urban League. That was the biggest move of my career!
I knew I had to leave my law practice for the Urban League, because I was given the opportunity to lead an organization that was deeply engaged in community service. With my passion and experience, I was able to transform the work of the organization, placing a stronger focus on education. That change of focus, combined with my service on the school board, enabled me to build relationships in the education reform movement on the local, state, and national level. Although I had never been a CEO, I knew I was ready for that role, my varied experiences in management, education, legal services, and policy—not to mention my passion for improving public education—prepared me to do the job. I learned a lot about managing people and projects, and honed my relationship building skills in the role. If anything surprised me, it was just how much time and attention it took to build the relationships needed to grow an organization.
The move made all the difference and led to my current role. When Teach For America sought a leader with education and community-service experience, focusing on the African-American community, I was uniquely qualified for the position.
On Finding Success and Staying Competitive
It takes great passion, commitment, perseverance, and dedication to the mission to succeed in reforming public education so that it provides an excellent education to all children, regardless of their background. It also takes knowledge of how the system works and what it needs to be transformed.
On the Importance of Role Models and Mentors
Memphis civil rights activist and community leader Maxine Smith was my model and, eventually, my mentor. She served on the Memphis School Board and as the president of the NAACP. She was fearless and mission driven. When I ran for the school board, she became my mentor and helped me win the race. She taught me to be courageous and ambitious, without apology. She taught me to be a servant leader and to always be intellectually curious.
On Facing Challenges
My biggest challenge was running for and serving in public office. I’ve had to make some tough and unpopular decisions, such as joining another colleague in leading an effort to force a merger of the Memphis City and Shelby County schools. We had to fight a lot of opposition and face hurtful criticism, but we knew it was the right thing to do. We successfully garnered the support of other colleagues and the citizens of Memphis. We still face criticism, but it is easy to do so when you know you were fighting the right fight.
Tomeka’s Advice to Young Women Starting Careers
I advise young women to spend time reflecting on who they are and who they want to be, and on what drives them. I advise them to learn all they can in each experience, and to always think ahead to what is next. I also recommend that they seek out mentors and role models who are doing what these young women want to do. And, if they are not working in the field they desire, I advise them to seek ways to learn about the work that appeals to them, including volunteer opportunities.