MM: You’re welcome, Adrienne. The term refers to folks who are either the first from their family or community to be where they are or the only one like them in the room.
AW: What made you want to start coaching firsts and onlys?
MM: My parents emigrated here years and years ago. I was a consultant for many years. I made every mistake in the book when I started in the corporate world. It was about ten years ago that I started to learn about executive coaching and started doing more people-oriented work.
AW: What does coaching “firsts and onlys” entail? What are the issues that are most common to them?
MM: There are a few. One of the issues is that because they are the first or the only, they don’t have anyone from their family or community who understands the “rules” of the game. I like to share an example from when I was in second grade. I was in a spelling bee and I misspelled the word “deceived”. The next day there was a news report about the spelling bee. The reporter said, “If only she had known the rule, i before e except after c, she would have won.”
I have always remembered that. Knowing the rules makes your life easier.
The second issue I refer to as “imposter syndrome”. Many firsts and onlys from South Asian culture, for instance, have and show a lot of deference to those in authority. When they move into the American corporate world, there is a need to push back or, at least, respectfully ask questions. Firsts and onlys ask themselves, “Why is this harder for me?” The answer is simply that they are managing relationships differently than they did in the communities from which they came.
A third issue is that firsts and onlys are unique and tend to be externally validated. People-pleasers. They tend to wonder if they are fitting in or if they are excelling…so issue number three emerges from the two previous issues.
AW: That sounds incredibly exhausting and potentially painful. How do these challenges impact the professional lives of firsts and onlys?
MM: These challenges make it very difficult for firsts and onlys to sustain success. There exists a feeling of disconnectedness or always getting the short end of the stick. Some feel like they’ve done everything they’ve been asked to do but these feelings persist.
AW: So, what are some solutions?
MM: Well, it’s really, really important that firsts and onlys seek to build community. Try to have one or two professional friends who have a different perspective, who see things differently than you do. Secondly, cultivate mentors. Of course, hard work is central to moving up but having an advocate is also super important. Who is going to “bang the table” for you? Connect to those above you because they can help you move up. Try to have coffee with someone who is senior to you on a regular basis. Try to learn what they are learning.
AW: What are your goals for the American workplace?
MM: I want to see a rainbow nation of leadership groups. I want to see different experiences reflected in the workplace because it is diversity of thought and experience that makes companies stronger.