Corporate Chess: Being Strategic for Career Success

The game of chess is a perfect metaphor for corporate environments. Each 
requires strategy, patience, knowledge of intricate rules, and involves multiple players of varying power and mobility. “Corporate chess” applies the 
characteristics of chess to the corporate world with a view to mastering the rules, 
understanding the players, and playing to win.

Here’s how you can master the game of Corporate Chess.

Master the rules. Corporate rules are a complex set of formal and informal guidelines that stem from historical practices, industry norms, and company culture. The tricky part is that these rules are rarely discussed openly and therefore are most often understood through observation and informal communication. Even trickier is the rules “adjustment”—filtering corporate rules through the lens of race and gender, which is necessary because corporate rules are applied differently to multicultural women than to their white male, white female, and ethnic male counterparts.

The final hurdle for women of color is the process of balancing the corporate rules with the cultures that influence their lives at home. The gap between the two can be considerable. Such issues include the role of women in the workplace, the proper form of address to elders, clothing styles, and communication norms. When these cultural views collide with corporate rules, unprepared multicultural women may find their performance negatively affected.

Dropping the “one size fits all” approach and being willing to adjust styles to match shifting environments can help women of color successfully navigate the multiple layers of culture in which they operate.

Understand the players. It’s easy to see how colleagues at work are like chess pieces: your boss, the mighty queen; your ambitious co-worker, the knight who jumps spaces; your sponsor, the powerful but protected king; and the other employees, pawns. But building and maintaining relationships with co-workers are decidedly more challenging tasks—and essential ones. Inviting co-workers to grab a cup of coffee or to eat lunch together is a low-risk way to get to know them. Similarly, sharing information about a book you recently read, a sporting event you attended, or an entertainment experience—nothing too personal—will help others get to know more about you (or at least feel as if they do).

Play to win. Winning in the corporate world starts with a well-planned strategy. It involves understanding your company’s culture, building relationships with your supervisor and colleagues, and developing a professional, authentic image and communication style, undergirded by excellent performance. Because each is done against the dual backdrop of the organization and your culture, it is important to synthesize the two as you grow professionally. Consistent execution of this strategy will move you closer to mastering corporate chess.

Jessica Faye Carter, chief executive officer of Nette Media, is a technology and diversity strategist for companies and nonprofit organizations. She is the author of Double Outsiders: How Women of Color Can Succeed in Corporate America.

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