#CareerSheroes Chief Diversity &Inclusion Officer, NBA Says Allowing Her Boss Dictate Her Career Height Was Her Greatest Career Mistake

Nzinga Shaw, SVP, Community and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Atlanta Hawks & Philips Arena
Nzinga Shaw is the first person to ever hold her position at the NBA. She has designed a strategic, cross-departmental program that creates deeper cultural awareness and sensitivity for the league. Nzinga is building a foundation that will advance the Atlanta Hawks & Philips Arena brand and drive the business. This initiative extends to fans, customers, community partners, as well as the entire workforce. Prior, Nzinga was SVP, Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Edelman, the world’s largest and most profitable public relations agency. She has also served at Essence Magazine, the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network, and the National Football League.

What would you say is your biggest career failure?
My biggest career failure was allowing my boss to define my value and tell me what I would not be able to achieve. I was a Vice President of Human Resources and expressed interest in taking on a more defined role to spearhead diversity & inclusion (D&I) within our department. After spending weeks on creating a strategic plan for the ways that this role could benefit our organization, I presented my case to my boss who at the time was Executive Director of Human Resources. She immediately said, “Are you serious? Do you think that you can be a Chief Diversity Officer if I am not a Chief HR Officer? You will never have the title ‘Chief.’” Over time, I assumed the responsibilities of the job, but I never received the job title and I was not compensated for the additional work.

What is your biggest lesson learned?
Years later, I left the company to become the first ever Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer in the National Basketball Association (NBA) with the Atlanta Hawks. This is a tremendous achievement because I am the first person to hold this C-Level position in the entire NBA and for all North American professional sports leagues and teams including the NFL, NHL, MLB and MLS. As an African American woman who landed this groundbreaking role at the age of 35, I have established myself as a thought-leader in the D&I space at a time when it is critically important in sports organizations and corporate America (more broadly). I was instrumental in leading the Atlanta Hawks out of a public crisis which involved the release of emails and phone recordings of the previous controlling owner and general manager disparaging their African American fan base. Because of my leadership, the NBA hired a league-wide Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer whose been working directly with me to establish D&I jobs at all 30 teams.

I have learned that I am more than capable of taking on a role in the C-suite and that you cannot allow people to project their insecurities and fears in a way that spill over into your life. If you have the potential and ability to achieve your dreams, then pursue them and don’t stop no matter who tells you that you will not get there.

What advice would you give others?
My mom used to say, “Experience is the best teacher.” I wholeheartedly agree and have used the art of storytelling with my colleagues in the hopes that they will be able to take away important nuggets from me and apply these lessons to their own experiences. Rather than preaching to someone, people always remember a story that has a powerful takeaway.

What fuels your career success?
Passion for D&I coupled with the desire to see real change in corporate America fuels me and my success. My grandmother had a 3rd grade education and cleaned white people’s homes for her entire life. She made large sacrifices for our family so that one day, I could hold a C-suite position and be the change that she wanted to see in the world.

Culled from Essence

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