Sonji Jacobs is vice president of corporate communications and public relations at Cox Enterprises (Cox Communications, a subsidiary, ranked No. 17 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020). A native New Yorker now living in Atlanta, Jacobs currently leads a team of communications professionals charged with creating and disseminating critical information for employees, building corporate culture and helping to build and maintain Cox’s reputation. Prior to joining Cox, she served as director of communications for the city of Atlanta where she was a key advisor on policy development.
Jacobs comes from a multi-racial and multi-ethnic background. Her mother is South Asian, born in Jamaica, her father was African American with roots in Georgia and South Carolina. She credits her parents and her mixed heritage in helping to shape her nuanced and deeply personal perspectives on race, equity, immigration, and social justice.
In a recent interview, we asked Jacobs to share her five essential tips for balancing parenting with being an executive leader as well as building success as a woman of color in corporate America. Here are the biggest takeaways:
Know that your career trajectory doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.
“I’ve also been fortunate to have had great teachers, relatives, professors, bosses, colleagues, sponsors and friends who’ve helped me become who I am and who’ve supported me through the good and bad times,” Jacobs said. “I had some tough years. It was hard juggling the needs of a young child with a demanding career. I was very lucky that my mother moved to Atlanta to help me after I had my daughter. Sometimes, I’m not sure how I did it. In terms of career progression, I think every woman must do what’s right for her. When I look back, I realize I didn’t travel for work before my daughter’s 4th birthday. I don’t know if it was a conscious choice, but interestingly, once she was older, I began to travel quite a bit. There’s no one size fits all or magic answer. Do what’s best for you and your family and recognize those needs will change at different points as your kids grow up. “
Strive to be a good leader.
“There are so many tips for being a good leader: Build strong relationships with your colleagues; always put the needs of the team first; and follow through on your commitments,” Jacobs said. “In addition to those, my three favorites — and the ones that have helped me the most as I moved up in my career and took on leadership roles are:
- Do not send that snarky email. Step away from the keyboard. Just. Step. Away!
- Offer constructive feedback to team members in private and be effusive with praise in public.
- Remember the names of your colleagues’ kids, spouses, pets and their birthdays. The personal connections help the team get through the tough days when everything seems to go wrong.”
Establish goals and benchmarks for your professional life and your personal life — but keep them flexible. And don’t be hard on yourself if they change.
“I set personal and professional goals at the start of every year, hoping to achieve balance, and then I do the best I can. I think there are times when I’m in hyper career mode — when I’ve just landed a new role or I’m on a big project, for example — and there have been times when I’ve intentionally decided to make a little more time for a personal hobby,” Jacobs said. “There were years when I didn’t set foot in a gym (so bad!) but for the past 4 years, I’ve worked hard to get in some exercise. Some months, I hit my exercise goals out of the park. Other months, I fail miserably. I don’t feel guilty, though. I celebrate my successes and take it on the chin when I don’t quite meet a goal I’ve set.”
Use interviews to your advantage. Get the job. But use them to push yourself forward as well.
“When I’m interviewing, I first talk about the skills I have and that I know will be an asset to the team. Highlight those areas and give examples of your track record of success. Then, be transparent about the areas where you want to grow,” Jacobs said. “When I was interviewing for this position [at Cox Enterprises], I told the team exactly what I was looking for: a place where my talent was needed but that would allow me to stretch. If you know every aspect of your job by day one, you’ll be bored by day two. Most good bosses want people on their team who aren’t complacent and content to just do the same thing over and over. They want folks who want to learn, grow, innovate and take on new challenges.”
Chart your own path.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had someone walk up to me and offer me a new role or chart my next step, but I have positioned myself to seize opportunities,” Jacobs said. “I think we are all the captains of our own career and that we are responsible for steering that ship. If you want to get in the water, don’t wait for someone to invite you in or even to push you in. Go ahead and jump. Or better yet, dive — headfirst.”