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Race Matters

The Idea in Brief

You've hired the best and brightest--only to watch many promising minority professionals get mired in middle management and leave, frustrated and angry, for better careers with your competitors.

Why the exodus? It's the two-tournament system: According to a recent study, whites tend to fast track early; minorities, after years in middle management. Minority managers who stay motivated during the protracted early stages of their careers--and finally reach the executive level--share a key resource: a strong network of mentors and corporate sponsors who provide instruction, coaching, and--most important--long-term, close developmental support.

The two-tournament system isn't fair. But until it's eradicated, minorities can best advance by building and drawing on a solid mentoring network. They and their companies win.

The Idea in Practice

The stark difference in career trajectories of white and minority executives has major implications for high-potential minorities--and their mentors--during each career-development stage:

Stage 1: Entry level to middle management. As minorities watch their white counterparts quickly receive plum assignments and promotions into middle management, many grow discouraged. But some remain motivated. How? They forge mentoring relationships with widely diverse individuals who open the door to challenging assignments and expanded responsibilities, sending the message, "These are high performers." Mentors also provide career advice and protect protégés from people leveling unfair criticism.

Result? During this stage, future minority executives evaluate themselves in terms of personal growth, not external rewards. Less concerned with how slowly they're climbing the corporate ladder, they embrace the work itself.

Stage 2: Middle to upper middle management. Promising minorities "catch up" to fast-tracked whites. Through promotions, they deepen and broaden their functional expertise, gaining influence over subordinates who might otherwise be resistant to minority leaders.

Tackling more complex challenges, minorities demonstrate their potential and extend their credibility. By changing functions, requesting special projects, and switching locations, they further enhance their success. At this stage, they extend their mentoring relationships to include powerful corporate-level sponsors.

Stage 3: Upper middle to executive level. Minority and white executives finally converge. Minority managers take on challenges specific to working cross-functionally, learning to think and act more strategically and politically. To further distinguish themselves, they score highly visible successes directly related to the company's core strategy.

They also continue developing their networks of highly placed mentors and sponsors. Their relationships with their immediate bosses become particularly crucial. They establish several new, long-term relationships with other executives as well, both white and minority.

Cross-race mentoring challenges. Cross-race mentoring relationships raise unique challenges. For example, some minority protégés may avoid such relationships so as not to attract scrutiny, spawn peers' resentment, or "sell out" their culture.

But if both parties can build a strong foundation of mutual trust, they'll more likely surmount those challenges. If you're a mentor:

  • Openly discuss racial sensitivities. Minorities tend to advance further when their white mentors acknowledge race as a potential barrier.
  • See yourself in your protégés--they're like you were, years ago. If you can identify with each other, you'll forge closer relationships.
  • If you're unsure whether you're the best role model, help protégés identify other appropriate supporters.

Copyright 2002 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Further Reading


The Best of Intentions

Harvard Business Review

July 2002

by John Humphreys

This fictional case study provides a closer look at the challenges facing minority professionals and their mentors. Cynthia, a manager at a financial services company, wants to hire Steve--an African-American, and this year's top trainee--to revive sales in a mostly white customer district. But Peter, Cynthia's boss, is concerned that the white customers wouldn't be comfortable with a black salesperson. Peter recommends starting Steve out in a more hospitable district: "Once the right opportunity opens up, he'll be hired, and he'll do brilliantly."

Four experts comment on Cynthia's dilemma. David A. Thomas, for example, suggests hiring Steve and then setting him up with a list of prospective clients who'll be pleased to know they're considered "desirables." If any client balks, Cynthia should counter with "This is our best person." She should also let the other sales reps know of Steve's excellence, and help him attend the right events to shape others' expectations.

Herman Morris, Jr., another expert, agrees. He adds that Cynthia should be up-front with Steve about the challenge he's taking on. Through daily coaching, she must show Steve the ropes and stand up for him if needed. With that kind of support, Steve has a good shot at long-term success.

Priming Employees for Superior Performance

Harvard Business Review OnPoint Collection

September 2002

This collection broadens the focus to mentoring in general, with particular emphasis on techniques that can help managers encourage superior performance from employees. As the authors explain, a manager's expectations may exert the most powerful influence on employees' performance: When you expect the best, you usually get it. And when you expect the worse, you often get that, too.

To set a positive self-fulfilling prophecy in motion, clearly communicate your high expectations of employees. If people don't perceive your expectations, they can't fulfill them. Also, take special care with rookie managers. In particular, don't expect them to learn basic management skills, such as delegating, focusing on the big picture, and asking for help, by osmosis. Finally, take care how you deliver critical feedback. Though you might dread this duty, you can boost your chances of inspiring employees to achieve their best by learning how to deliver feedback effectively.

The collection includes the articles "Pygmalion in Management" by J. Sterling Livingston, "Saving Your Rookie Managers from Themselves" by Carol A. Walker, and "A Better Way to Deliver Bad News" by Jean-François Manzoni.

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