What It Takes: Minorities in the Executive Suite

For diversity to take hold in America's corporate boardrooms, companies need to find new ways to develop more conducive environments for minority advancement and opportunity. But minority executives who want to move up can't simple wait for their work environment to be perfect. HBS Professors David Thomas and John Gabarro are studying what it takes — on both sides — to make corporate diversity a reality.
by Judith A. Ross

We are on the cusp of a new millennium; yet the face of corporate power in the United States remains overwhelmingly white. People of color hold less than 1 percent of all senior executive posts. But what about leaders such as Kenneth Chenault, president and chief operating officer of American Express; Solomon Trujillo, president and CEO of U S West Communications; and Ann Fudge, president of Maxwell House Coffee Company and Post Cereals? How did these people of color overcome the odds and break through the glass ceiling that hangs over the heads of most minority managers in large U.S. companies?

In their recent book, Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America (Harvard Business School Press), two HBS faculty members, Associate Professor David Thomas and Professor John Gabarro, explain that the road to success for such corporate leaders takes them through some difficult twists and turns. Promotions, for instance, are typically much harder to come by in the early stages of their careers than they are for whites. And once they make the leap into middle and upper management, these trailblazers have to put together a stellar record of performance while building a network of mentors to support and advise them.

To uncover the processes that promote the development and advancement of minority executives, Thomas and Gabarro embarked on a six-year study analyzing promotion data and then comparing the career experiences of 54 minority and white executives and managers from three companies. Masked by the pseudonyms Acme Industries, Gant Electronics, and Advanced Technology, these firms represent very different industries, products, and cultures, but they all share a commitment to diversity and a record of promoting people of color to leadership positions.

One of the first things Thomas and Gabarro discovered in their research was a variation in the rules of the traditional "corporate career tournament." According to the tournament concept, Thomas explains, managers who are placed on the fast track for promotion early in their careers have a better chance of making it to the executive level than slower-moving colleagues. Although the data examined in Thomas and Gabarro's samples show that this model holds true for whites, it didn't work at all for people of color. Why? "Racial prejudice, whites' need for comfort and avoidance of risk, and the apparent difficulty of identifying minorities as high-potential each constitute major hurdles to the career mobility of minority managers," they write. "Overcoming them is possible, but it places the equivalent of a 'tax' on minorities in the form of time, no matter whether one pays it willingly or begrudgingly, with or without awareness of its existence."

Thomas and Gabarro discovered that the successful African-American, Asian-American, and native-born Hispanic executives in their study participated in a separate tournament in which they moved at a significantly slower rate than their white counterparts as they ascended to middle management, moved more quickly from middle to upper management as they passed plateauing fast-starters, and finally marched in step with whites who were heading for the executive suite.

Thomas explains that the early career period of minority executives, despite its relative lag, contributes significantly to the fact that they eventually become outstanding performers. "It allows them to add to their professional competence, establish credibility in the firm, develop confidence in their ability to succeed, and strengthen their relationships with colleagues and supervisors," he says. As a result, people of color typically begin having notable careers when they break into middle management. "Minority managers do, in fact, have to be more deeply grounded and better prepared than their white peers if they are to become top executives," Thomas declares, "because they are promoted only after proving themselves again and again."

Thomas and Gabarro also examined the vital role that mentors play in the development of successful minority executives, who, they learned, make use of "developmental relationships" much more frequently than those who end up plateauing in middle management. According to their findings, a "portfolio of mentors" at each step up the career ladder is a necessity for getting to the top, with the benefits going far beyond counseling and feedback.

In the early years of a career, for instance, mentors contributed several other kinds of support. "First, they opened the door to challenging assignments and expanded responsibilities that allowed these future leaders to grow professionally," Thomas and Gabarro write. "Second, by putting their proteges in high-trust positions, these mentors sent a message to the rest of the organization that they were considered high performers and important to the success of the organization, thereby helping to develop or reinforce these future executives' self-confidence and credibility with others. Finally, these mentors often became powerful sponsors later in the minority executives' career, recruiting them again and again to new positions."

Beyond all this, for minorities to succeed in the upper reaches of Corporate America, Thomas and Gabarro assert that companies must provide a culture that fosters and makes the most of diversity, "creating an enabling organizational context, ensuring that opportunity exists, and making certain that development takes place." In the corporations employing the participants in this study, the HBS scholars found three very different, yet effective diversity efforts, each one closely aligned with the unique character of the particular firm. "Part of the key to an organization's success was adopting a model that worked well in its particular culture," Thomas explains.

As a high-tech manufacturer that transacts business through informal personal networks, Advanced Technology, for example, has established dialogue groups as its core tactic for achieving diversity. These groups give employees a forum in which to examine their biases and engage in multiracial interactions that challenge their current views and expose them to new ones. The result is often personal relationships that cut across racial lines. "These personal networks are not only important to the social and emotional experience of minorities," says Thomas, "but they are also a fundamental part of doing business. The organic, customized nature of the process is essential to its success. You can't just pull it off the shelf."

Underscoring the findings of Breaking Through, Thomas notes that changes in the racial makeup of American business executives will require the efforts of both individuals and organizations. "The minority executives we studied didn't wait for their work environment to be perfect," he concludes. "They managed their careers using the strategies we identified. At the same time, the companies they worked for were also attempting to create a more conducive environment for minority advancement and opportunity. The power of this combination gives new meaning to the term 'equal opportunity.'"