Women of Color: How to Build Presence and Voice in Leadership

Jennifer Tomlinson
Written by Jennifer Tomlinson / Sep 20, 2022

As Executive VP of Marketing, I work to identify business needs and help QorusDocs’ clients generate revenue more effectively and efficiently. I spearhead efforts to increase brand awareness through digital marketing and client engagement.

Last month, APMP held its first-ever Women’s Virtual Summit, a professional development event focused on helping women advance in the workplace. The QorusDocs-sponsored event addressed the most pressing, current, and emerging issues for professional women and explored how we can all be an advocate and ally of women in business.

Of the many valuable sessions on the agenda, Tiffanie West, Associate Director of Global Client Pursuits at international law firm Baker McKenzie, and Nora Navin, an independent consultant specializing in professional services and technology business development, spoke about “finding their voices in a room of people who don’t look like them.”

Tiffanie discussed the challenges and successes of climbing the leadership ladder as a woman of color, and Nora spoke about being an ally, promoter, and sponsor of women in business in general, and particularly women of color. With forty years of combined experience in pitching for professional services firms, they shared tactics for embracing agency, pushing through doubts from yourself and others, and finding and using your voice.

Let’s recap the highlights of their presentation, starting with a little bit of background about Tiffanie and Nora.


About Tiffanie West

For more than 20 years, Tiffanie’s career has spanned a number of proposal management and leadership roles across a variety of sectors, including financial services, real estate, and most recently, legal. She currently leads a team of more than 20 proposal experts and support specialists for Baker McKenzie, a top-tier, global law Firm. Tiffanie is certified in Legal Lean Sigma and Project Management and recently co-authored a chapter on Using Legal Project Management to Drive Client Growth and Retention published in 2022.


About Nora Navin

Nora has worked in the pitch world, in some form or another, most of her career. The early half of her career was spent largely at technology companies in healthcare and telecom, and the latter half in professional services. Nora was most recently Global Director of Pursuits at a Baker McKenzie, where she worked with Tiffanie. She is currently an Independent Consultant working with technology and professional services companies to assess and improve communications, customer materials, and business development/marketing processes.


Finding your voice in uncomfortable spaces

Women and women of color are faced with multiple biases and overt and micro-aggressions in the workplace, day in and day out.

I can recall when, ironically enough during an implicit bias training at a previous job, a senior executive assumed I’d grown up in a high crime area on the south side of Chicago and turned to me for validation when offering his views on gang violence and poverty in the city.

I politely explained to him I’m from North Carolina and although I work in downtown Chicago, I don’t have any personal experience living in the city, or any big city for that matter, and couldn’t offer him any firsthand, personal accounts.
-- Tiffanie

Most, if not all, women have had moments of discomfort in the workplace. How do we push forward? How can we find our voice and speak up when others may have already made up their minds as to what they expect you to say or to be capable of doing?

I’ve been consistently mistaken for the other black woman at my job, multiple different jobs actually—even though the only similar characteristics we had in common were our skin color and that we both wore our hair in natural styles.
-- Tiffanie

The traditional way of thinking that embodies the expectation that you ‘put your head down, work hard, and you’ll get recognized for your good deeds’ is not applicable to women and women of color. As women in business, we need to make a concerted effort to find our voice in uncomfortable spaces.

  1. Be prepared and trust in yourself.
    When you show up prepared to meetings or calls—and with the personal trust in knowing what you have to contribute to the conversation—you’re already in a position to speak in power and with conviction. Try to anticipate the needs of decision makers and always be prepared to offer your support or suggestions. You will be seen as a strong contributor and valuable to your peers and leaders.
  2. Listen with intent.
    Listening intently to what’s being said, but also how and when it’s being said, helps you to read the room and interject with ideas or solutions at the right time.
  3. Stay solutions-focused and stand firm.

    Standing firm can be a delicate balancing act. Having to temper your emotions because it may make someone else uncomfortable—especially if they have decision-making power over your career path or access to opportunity—can be a paralyzing feeling.

    Look for ways to offer constructive feedback, focus on solutions and not the problem, and remember that you have a right to be heard. Present your ideas with clarity and facts.
  4. Adjust and adapt.
    If you have to rethink your position on something, it’s okay to adjust your position. Simply say, “After further reflection, I’ve come to look at this issue in a different way and I think we should reconsider an alternative approach.” This approach shows you are rational and thoughtful in your decision-making.
  5. Form alliances and learn from those you admire.
    Supportive managers, role models, and colleagues are extremely helpful in finding the courage to speak up. By forming alliances, you lift others up during calls or in meetings. If you agree with something that is said, validate their thinking and make a point of following up with them after. They will come to value your support and, in turn, find ways to reciprocate.

I remember the very moment that I felt empowered to start speaking up in meetings. “Permission” came from a very senior male colleague. I was working on a very large pitch project in New York and the Chairman of the firm was coming in to meet with the team on strategy. I was well-prepared but had no intention of speaking; I felt my role was background.


Throughout the meeting, I responded to questions and ideas by pointing to my laptop screen, or by printing information and placing it next to him. Several times, he acknowledged that it was the info he was thinking of or needed.


And the end of the meeting, he turned to me and said that I should be speaking up—that I had all the info and ideas the team needed in my head or on my PC. And he told the rest of the room they should be paying attention to me.


That vote of confidence from leadership gave me confidence. It only took that one meeting for me to begin to speak up, and for me to be credentialed in the eyes of others. And I am not kidding when I say that my career really began to take off from there.
-- Nora

Gaining confidence and building your leadership presence

Confidence is gained through preparation and believing in the value of your contributions and actions. Here are a few tips for building confidence and establishing leadership in the workplace.

  1. Be authentic.
    While the concept of authenticity is often bandied about in business and marketing circles, being authentic in the workplace is powerful. Know what you want and speak it in a way that feels genuine to you​.

    Nora noted that she used to feel like she was a different person at home than at work. Once she embraced her natural “soft” skills like empathy, listening, humor, and questioning, she started to feel more like the same person inside and outside of work.
  2. Stay focused on solutions.
    Focusing on solutions, rather than problems or problem people, helps your own mental health and the perception others hold of you. A solutions-focused approach also keeps you from feeling bogged down by negativity.
  3. Practice, practice, practice.
    Try working on your weaknesses. For example, if you are an impatient person, becoming a good delegator can take time, as you learn to let people do work in the way that suits them best. With practice, you’ll be able to delegate tasks and have confidence that your team will do a great job—even if it isn’t the way you would do it.
  4. Learn from mistakes but don’t dwell on them.
    Everyone makes mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up over them; instead, learn from your mistakes and move on. Learning to deal with missteps and bouncing back from adversity are valuable skills that will help propel you towards your next career goal.

Promoting yourself to the next step

Once you’ve found your voice and honed your leadership style, it’s time to tout your accomplishments and move ahead. Take pride in your skills and what you bring to the table. As women, we can seem arrogant if we toot we our horn because, traditionally, we’ve been expected to stay in the shadows. But don’t abide by archaic norms: shine a light on your own successes, as well as your team’s, and be your own biggest cheerleader! Be humble, yet vocal.

If you’re seeking promotion or increased responsibility, set a plan and work it. If the role you want already exists, ask questions about what it entails and how you might be considered for it. If there’s no existing role, map out what you believe is the benefit of creating the role with expanded ownership of projects and build a case for it.

Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and negotiate a higher salary. Ask for salary ranges for your position, where you fall within the average, and what steps are required for moving into the high percentile, beyond annual market adjustments and standard performance base increases.  

Even though all of my step-up roles were accompanied by salary increases, I thought asking for more would reflect poorly on me, in that I would be seen as only being in it for the money or unappreciative. But the truth of the matter is, I was being grossly underpaid. So, it may seem uncomfortable to broach salary discussions, but it’s important to know your worth.
-- Tiffanie

Data shows women, and especially women of color, do not ask for promotions; or when they do, they don’t have internal champions who will advocate for them to help them climb up the ladder. Finding people within your organization who will support your efforts is paramount to amplifying your voice and increasing your chances of achieving a successful pay raise.

If you’re a team leader, make sure you’re researching competitive salary for your team members, especially women and women of color, and ask HR to assist with compensation review and adjustments, if necessary.

Asking questions is also key when finding alignment with your leaders and with your team. If unclear about expectations, or whether you’re delivering on your goals, don’t hesitate to enquire.

We can often be our own worst critic. If you tend to get in your own head sometimes, it’s important to push through the noise, especially if you make a mistake. Leaders aren’t expecting perfection. When challenges arise, work through them and ask for help in times of need. How you bounce back from mistakes is equally important as your successes.

My first promotion came, in part, as the result of how I responded to a big misstep on my part and bounced back from it. I was commended for the way I sprang into action to remedy the situation, how I took accountability, and how I managed stakeholder expectations as a result.
-- Tiffanie

As you move out of your comfort zone to take your career to the next level, growing your network plays a foundational role in your success. While networking can seem intimidating, especially if you’re on the more introverted side, you can redefine “networking” to fit your style.

You don’t necessarily have to go to large networking events. Instead, you may consider finding a mentor, or an executive coach. In your organization, you may align yourself with a confidante who sits outside of your department or function. As a team leader, it is your responsibility to help your team find these resources and networks that will help them grow.

I’ve built my network by engaging a leadership coach, identifying several mentors both within my network and externally, and seeking out industry organizations such as the Legal Marketing Association, the Legal Value Network, and APMP so I can share some expertise and build my profile.
-- Tiffanie

Pay it forward

Empowering women in business and helping them on their career journey is a rewarding experience. Nora notes, “The best advice I can give is to hire a diverse team and then uplift them.” Here are some tips to helping develop others along the way:

  1. Don’t follow common paths.

    Since the feel of a team or responsibilities is rarely conveyed adequately in a job description, be sure you post to LinkedIn in creative ways, or search out applicants and invite them to apply. HR may not see candidates the way that you do, so do your own screening as well.

    Networking is an excellent opportunity for meeting potential candidates that would be a good fit within your team. Start to build a relationship before you’re ready to hire them. This approach especially applies to diverse candidates, as they are not as prevalent in some industries. It takes more work, but it pays off.

I attended a few Legal Marketing Association events when I made the move to a law firm. Tiffanie was presenting and really blew me away. I thought she was terrific and so I approached her after the presentation and told her so, then connected with her on LinkedIn. We saw each other occasionally, and I knew I’d love to have her on my team…I waited until I had a step-up position available and then I reached out to her.


Of course, we went through all of the hoops with HR but I also met her for coffee one day and spent time talking through my vision for the future of the team and what I thought we could grow to be. And I made it clear that I wanted her to be part of it. I joke now that I was professionally stalking her until I had the right role, but it paid off.
-- Nora

  1. Build the team you want, not necessarily what your firm or company wants.
    Is a college degree really needed for this entry level role? Why? Does a candidate lack the resume you specified but has terrific energy and potential? Question the norm.
  2. Reaffirm your belief in your team members often.
    Present new challenges, tell your team members what they’re good at and what you think they could be good at. Make a plan for them to work on weak areas or try new things.
  3. Work toward a trusting relationship, but don’t push.
    Let your actions speak louder than words. Be open to personal conversations, listening to what people need, and offer support so they don’t have to ask for it.
    Support your team leaders’ decisions about personnel, and support them up the chain of command, as well.
  4. Document career highlights.
    Push for promotions early. And never tell someone something in an annual review that they haven’t heard from you throughout the year—no surprises!

I keep a Word file for each team member and jot notes after meetings and interactions. I write down their wins, and things we need to work on together. I tell them that I am putting them up early to lay the groundwork. I set the expectation that the first push for promotion is stage-setting and they will not likely get it. But we’ve started the process together.
-- Nora

  1. Work with your team on a very human level
    Fix what you can if your team members aren’t happy but support them in a move if you can’t fix the current situation.

Next steps

While women of color, and women in business in general, have made strides in many fields over the past few years, stepping into leadership roles requires competence, confidence, and courage—not to mention allies to support them along the way.

To learn more about how you can build your confidence and make sure your voice is heard in the workplace, you can watch Tiffanie and Nora’s presentation from the APMP Women’s Virtual Summit until the end of October 2022. (For every session you participate in, you will receive one CEU.)

To discover how QorusDocs can take your pitches and presentations to the next level to help you feel confident when presenting your ideas, download our Pocket Guide to Proposal Management for Professional Services and take advantage of our professional services templates found in our Proposal Template Hub.

For additional tailored professional services insights, check out our presentation from the Legal Webinar Series 2021 showcasing how QorusDocs’ AI-driven proposal management solution provides a competitive edge for law firm marketers and business development professionals.