Becoming is the story of how an Obama beat the odds to become a successful leader – and this time it’s not about Barack.
“Quietly I worried that as my visibility as Barack Obama’s wife rose, the other parts of me were dissolving from view. When I spoke to reporters, they rarely asked about my work. They inserted ‘Harvard-educated’ in their description of me, but generally left it at that.” Michelle Obama
Political geeks on both sides of the Atlantic are scoffing down every word of Michelle Obama’s new memoir, Becoming. But being the wife of the US President is only one theme of Obama’s book. Read it closely, and it’s a blueprint for workplace diversity.
If Michelle Obama only introduces her husband on page 94 of her book, that’s because she has had a compelling enough life story as it is. In 2004, when Barack Obama made the speech that first confirmed him as a rising political star, Michelle was overseeing a diversity drive at a Chicago hospital, having already helped to found a non-profit and worked in government and as a corporate lawyer. She’d studied at Princeton as well as Harvard.
Beating all the odds
But just as Barack would be the outsider in his electoral races, Michelle Obama had beaten the odds to get there. She grew up in a working-class African-American family on Chicago’s Southside, in an apartment so small she and her brother shared what might have otherwise been the living room. Her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was still young. Despite the support and sacrifices of her family, she could have easily been dissuaded by her ambitions by the careers adviser who offhandedly questioned whether she was “Princeton material”. Once at Princeton, the mother of Obama’s white room-mate requested that her daughter be relocated.
Rather than serve up the nitty-gritty of Chicago politics, Obama instead explains how she built her career. The first point of her blueprint is clear: encouragement matters. “Failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result,” Obama warns after describing her run-in with the careers adviser. She was a wise enough teenager to ignore one person’s opinion in favour of those who knew her. As the First Lady, she realised it was a trend. “I’ve been lucky enough now in my life to meet all sorts of extraordinary and accomplished people,” she says. “What I’ve learned is this: all of them have had doubters.” Successful people, she argues, don’t placate all the doubters, but learn to ignore them and lean on the ones that believe them.
Advocating girls’ education
Obama put this into practice by working at Public Allies, a non-profit which identified young leaders from under-represented backgrounds and supported them in a range of businesses. Later, as First Lady and an advocate for girls’ education, she established a connection with a diverse state school in London and invited the girls from it to Oxford and the White House. Remarkably, there is some data to back up her impact: an economist later found the girls’ test scores jumped after the connection was established.
Next, Obama suggests employers need to recognise the messy reality of working parents, especially working mums. Her husband was absent for days at a time while working at the state legislature, while she coped with two young children on her own. When he was elected to the Senate, a fellow senator’s wife expressed shock that she was not leaving her job to follow him to Washington DC. She is open about the chaos that accompanied her career: “This was the new math in our family: we had two kids, three jobs, two cars, one condo, and what felt like no free time.”
Obama is sceptical about what has become the default solution to this dilemma: working part-time.
Part-time vs full-time
She points out that a full-time working mother can better afford good quality childcare and other support. “A part-time job, especially when it’s meant to be a scaled-down version of your previously full-time job, can be something of a trap,” she writes. After going part-time herself, she found herself attending the same meetings and having the same responsibilities. “The only real difference was that I now made half my original salary and was trying to cram everything into a twenty-hour week.” She considered dropping out altogether and becoming a stay-at-home mum. But another job opportunity emerged, to lead a diversity and inclusivity drive at a Chicago hospital. This time, Obama decided she wanted to work full-time. She turned up with her baby on her knee and “brazenly” spelled out exactly what she was looking for. It worked – both for her and the employer (she was later promoted to vice president).
The third theme that Obama goes back to again and again is outreach. Recalling the inauguration of Donald Trump, Obama laments that the “vibrant diversity” under her husband had been replaced by “the kind of overwhelmingly white and male tableau I’d encountered so many times in my life”. She is clear about how to fix it: “sameness breeds sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.”
Throughout her book, Obama gives examples of how she counteracted it. As a lawyer, she tried to persuade her firm to recruit candidates from a wider pool of universities, and to “think about how they’d used whatever opportunities life had afforded them rather than measuring them simply by how far they’d made it up an elitist academic ladder”. While recruiting young leaders for Public Allies, she and her team visited high schools, knocked on doors on housing estates, and asked everyone “from pastors to professors to the manager of the neighbourhood McDonald’s” if they knew of young people with potential. At the hospital, she introduced shadowing schemes and a summer learning programme for local school kids, in order to encourage more of the local community into a medical career. At the White House, she hosted emerging artists, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, who went on to compose the musical Hamilton.
>See also: Agility through diversity
Of course, for all Obama claims she’s “ordinary”, she clearly is not. This is, after all, a woman who tolerated being a single mum for several days a week to indulge her husband’s political career, got up at 5am to fit in gym sessions and obsessively plans ahead. It’s fair to say she is more motivated than the average employee, and in her own drives for diversity, more effective than many employers. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have important principles – and one that should resonate as much with businesses as politicians. “For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others,” she concludes. “And here is what I have to say finally: Let’s invite one another in.”