Marva Smalls has gotten comfortable with being uncomfortable throughout her career, and she advises others to do the same, particularly aspiring leaders.

"It's the only way to make progress, the only way we can advance individually and collectively," said Smalls, the executive vice president for Viacom's global inclusion strategy.

Smalls spoke at a recent conference, hosted by the bankers associations for North Carolina and South Carolina, and though her audience happened to be nearly all women, much of the insight she offered, and the stories she told about her life, translate across gender lines. Here are a few key takeaways.

Instead of gravitating toward what's familiar, immerse yourself in the unfamiliar.

"It wasn't until high school that I had my first white classmate," said Smalls, who grew up in Florence, S.C.

That's why after graduation, when many of her friends opted for a "small, nurturing African-American college," she went to the University of South Carolina instead.

"I felt that going to a large and more diverse college would help show me different perspectives," she said.

Smalls would continue to get outside of her comfort zone many times after that, and in doing so, sometimes took others out of theirs too. For example, she later became the first African-American chief of staff for a white Southern member of Congress.

"Farmers from our district would come into our office and say, 'OK, hon, we want to speak to the man in charge,' " she said. "Sound familiar? At times like these I felt that it was my gender more than my race that really got in the way of them dealing with me."

Be a fierce negotiator – for yourself, your team, your clients and your bank.

"Being fierce doesn't mean you have to raise your voice or be aggressive," said Smalls, who is also on the local board of directors for NSBC, a unit of Synovus Bank. "Sometimes conveying a sense of calm, being unflappable, even smiling, can send the message that you are not going to take no for an answer."

She said this approach is key for women in particular. It helps to overcome the "persistent, implicit bias, where women are judged poorly for taking the same assertive approach that gets men promoted."

To illustrate her point, Smalls played a video of a newscast about a Yale University study on gender bias. The findings from the study suggest it is true that assertive men are seen as the boss, while assertive women are seen as bossy.

The study followed men and women on job interviews. They were given the same talking points to use and told to play up their credentials and experience with the same exact wording. The result: Women were perceived far more negatively and rejected twice as often as the male job candidates.

Find a mentor and be a mentor.

Smalls said one of her mentors is Geraldine Laybourne, co-founder of the women's programming network Oxygen Media.

In 1992, Laybourne recruited Smalls away from Capitol Hill to work at Nickelodeon.

But Smalls initially balked at taking the role, saying she did not want to be "the black girl doing diversity" for a company she could not relate to.

"This wasn't just outside my comfort zone – it was like a different universe. After all, what did I know about cable television? What did I have to in common with the kind of people who created shows like Ren & Stimpy, Rugrats and SpongeBob?" Smalls asked.

An office visit just reinforced her skepticism. "I had blouses longer than some of the skirts they'd wear," she said. "But it turns out that that was the point: Gerry wanted someone who didn't fit in, who brought a new perspective, who thought about things differently."

Laybourne talked her into making the move, and Smalls appreciates it. She said she would have missed out on "one heck of an adventure" if Laybourne had not had a vision for her that she could not initially see herself. "Act on your vision, because a vision un-acted-upon is just your imagination," Smalls said.

"All of us possess the capacity to turn our vision into reality, we just need some kind of courage to take action."