Race Does Matter in Mentoring

In studying the different career paths of whites and minorities, HBS Professor David Thomas finds one characteristic of people of color who advance the furthest: a strong network of mentors and corporate sponsors.
by David A. Thomas

In a three-year research project, I studied the career trajectories of minority and white professionals at three major U.S. corporations. The story of one of the participants—Stephen Williams—sheds light on many of the differences in career advancement between whites and minorities. (In the interest of privacy, I have used pseudonyms for the participants.)

Williams, an African-American, was born and raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Washington, DC. After earning his bachelor's degree at one of the nation's leading colleges, he began his career as a design engineer at a multibillion-dollar electronics corporation. On his first day in the lab there, he encountered a large banner that read, "George Wallace for President." That proclamation for the pro-segregationist former governor of Alabama was an omen of the uphill battle Williams faced. And yet Williams eventually reached the executive level at his organization. Why did he make it when so many other minorities plateaued in middle management?

First, Williams had the good fortune to be hired by Nathan Barrett, a white manager who continually expanded Williams's responsibilities and advised him on office politics. By the end of his early career, Williams had won additional supporters within the company, including Barrett's boss and several white peers who, when they were promoted to management before Williams, vouched for him with their colleagues and recruited him for plum assignments.

This stark difference in the career trajectories of white and minority executive suggests that companies implicitly have two distinct tournaments for access to the top jobs.
— David A. Thomas

Although it took Williams longer to reach middle management than he thought it should, he avoided becoming cynical even as his white peers were being promoted. Instead, he concentrated on strengthening his technical proficiency, taking numerous in-house courses and seminars. He also chose his assignments judiciously, consciously avoiding being sidetracked into nontechnical or support jobs. Throughout this period, he earned the reputation for being an excellent performer, and he gained the cooperation, respect, and sometimes the friendship of whites who were initially either resistant or hesitant to work with him. After seven years as an engineer, Williams decided to pursue his MBA while continuing to work in engineering and design assignments. The education facilitated his transition into management when he was finally promoted two years later.

Once in middle management, Williams's career took off; he was charged with coordinating the engineering, manufacturing, and field service for ensuring the quality of what was to become a major product family. His success in that position propelled him to a series of other assignments, including a temporary one in strategic planning, that eventually landed him a promotion to vice president and general manager, with profit-and-loss responsibility for a major business unit.

Williams's experiences were typical of the minority executives in my study, which tracked the various stages of career development. Stage 1 covered entry level to middle management Stage 2 included middle management to upper middle management. (A person in Stage 2 supervised other managers and had responsibility for a functional department within a business unit—for example, the director of marketing or a plant manager.) And Stage 3 covered upper middle management to the executive level. (A person in this stage became a corporate officer or a direct report of a corporate officer, with responsibility for an integrated business unit—a division president, for instance—or leadership of a corporate function—such as a vice president of purchasing.)

The most striking aspect of my findings was the consistency of the data. (See the exhibit "Separate and Unequal"). White professionals who eventually became executives—a group I'll henceforth refer to simply as "white executives"—usually entered a fast track in Stage 1, whereas both white and minority professionals who later plateaued in middle management and minorities who eventually became executives all inched along during that period. In Stages 2 and 3, the careers of minorities who ultimately became executives took off, surpassing those of the plateaued managers. This stark difference in the career trajectories of white and minority executives suggests that companies implicitly have two distinct tournaments for access to the top jobs. In the tournament for whites, contenders are sorted early on, and only those deemed most promising proceed to future competition. In the tournament for minorities, the screening process for the best jobs occurs much later. This and other differences have important implications for minority professionals—and for the people mentoring them through the different stages. (Working Knowledge readers note: Stages 2 and 3 are not covered in detail in this excerpt.)

Stage 1

According to my research, a pernicious result of the two tournament system was that many high-potential minorities became discouraged when they failed to be fast-tracked early in their careers. They became demotivated—especially when they saw their white colleagues receive plum assignments and promotions—and de-skilled. As a result, their performance fell to a level that matched their modest rewards.

But some minorities—those who eventually became executives—avoided that fate. What kept them motivated and prepared to take advantage of opportunities that arrived belatedly? A common thread among them was their relationships with mentors. Even though the minority executives were not on an obvious fast track, influential mentors were investing in them as if they were, which helped prevent them from either ratcheting down their performance or simply leaving the organization.

This is not to say that the minorities in the study who became executives didn't experience their share of disappointments; they did. But they evaluated themselves in terms of personal growth, not external rewards. Committed to excellence, they found the process of learning new skills rewarding. Like Williams, many of them went to graduate school or took training courses to enhance their knowledge. In general, minority executives made early career choices that placed them at the leading edge of the work they liked. They were more enthusiastic about the work itself and less concerned with how quickly—or slowly—they were climbing the corporate ladder. In fact, two minority executives in the study actually took demotions to transfer from staff jobs into operations, where they saw a better match for their skills and a greater opportunity for professional growth. Stage 1 was thus a time for minority executives to gain the three C's: confidence, competence, and credibility.

In contrast, minority professionals who subsequently plateaued in middle management tended to make their decisions based on perceived fast-track career opportunities, not on the actual work. They were more prone to take salary and title promotions that offered little increase in management responsibility.

Consider the career of Roosevelt James, a minority electrical engineer at the same company as Stephen Williams. While Williams was focused on engineering and design early in his career, James was motivated more by the prospect of getting into management. He took one transfer after another, accepting nominal promotions, believing they were stepping stones to a larger goal. Before reaching middle management, he had had a total of twelve different assignments (nearly all lateral moves) in seven different functional areas, including those in facilities management and affirmative action. Ironically, to fulfill their ambitions for upward mobility, professionals like James sometimes left the path that might have led to the executive suite.

Interestingly, minority executives were promoted to middle management only slightly faster than minority plateaued managers, but with much greater job continuity. They were much less likely to have changed departments, made lateral moves, or transferred away from core positions. Surprisingly, they even received, on average, fewer promotions within a given level than did minorities who failed to make it past middle management. A close inspection of the data, however, revealed that the promotions of minority managers like James offered little real expansion of responsibilities, as compared with the promotions of minority executives like Williams.

Minority executives attributed much of their later success to their immediate bosses, other superiors, and peers who helped them develop professionally. Of course, such developmental relationships are important for everybody climbing the corporate ladder, regardless of race, but what distinguished minority executives from white executives and plateaued managers was that they had many more such relationships and with a broader range of people, especially in the early years of their careers. Within the first three years at the organization, minority executives had established at least one developmental relationship, usually with a boss or a boss's boss. These mentors provided critical support in five ways.

First, the relationships opened the door to challenging assignments that allowed the minority executives to gain professional competence. Second, by putting the future executives in high-trust positions, the mentors sent a message to the rest of the organization that these people were high performers, thus helping them to gain confidence and establish their credibility. Third, the mentors provided crucial career advice and counsel that prevented their protégés from getting sidetracked from the path leading to the executive level. Fourth, the mentors often became powerful sponsors later in the minority executives' careers, recruiting them repeatedly to new positions. Fifth, the mentors often protected their protégés by confronting subordinates or peers who leveled unfair criticism, especially if it had racial undertones. For example, a superior-performing African-American in the study had a laid-back style that detractors said was an indication of his slacking off, playing on the stereotype that blacks are lazy. The mentor directly challenged the detractors by pointing out that his protégé was the leading salesperson in the division.