Connie Lindsey can testify to getting by with a little help from her friends—those who are highly placed and influential in the corporate world. She learned that lesson soon after joining The Northern Trust Co. in 1993, when a mentor suggested she transition from marketing to managing a sales consulting team even though she had no sales experience.
“He made it very clear that we are a sales culture, and one of the most important ways to learn the business and to advance is to take this opportunity in sales,” remembers Lindsey. “He said, ‘you are a strong leader, Connie. You understand the products and services from the client’s point of view. Now I need you to translate that understanding and passion for the clients into a successful strategy for the sales team.’”
Today, the 47-year-old Milwaukee native is a senior vice president and deputy business unit head in charge of the Chicago-based bank’s financial management, strategic planning, business continuity, and disaster recovery, with nearly 3,000 partners worldwide.
Securing an effective set of mentors can be challenging for African American professionals, but when successfully executed, the payoff in career advancement is huge.
Mentoring used to be an informal process, where senior execs would identify worthy candidates—those who were likeable or who reminded the mentor of his or her early years. Often, these grooming relationships developed on the golf course or over cigars within the “good old boy” network. Black professionals, who neither had the years in corporate America nor the connections, were largely excluded from its benefits.
The word mentor derives from Greek mythology. Mentor was Odysseus’ trusted elderly counselor in The Odyssey by Homer. Since then, the name has been proverbial for a faithful and wise adviser. “It’s as old as the history of civilization,” says Sheila Wellington, former Catalyst president and author of Be Your Own Mentor: Strategies from Top Women on the Secrets of Success (Random House; $25.95.). ”
Today, companies realize the organizational benefit of supporting and developing young talent and are establishing formal mentor programs that ensure promising minorities have better opportunities to succeed. But, even as mentoring is growing as a strategic staple in corporate America, it’s an opportunity many take for granted or do not fully embrace. What’s important to note is that the onus is always on the mentee for there to be an effective partnership.
“One of the biggest problems [with formal programs] is they don’t articulate this is a relationship owned by the individuals, not the corporation,” says David Thomas, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and a noted expert on corporate mentoring.
Thomas issued a report in 2001 called The Truth About Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters. Thomas studied the progression of three major U.S. companies over three years and found that promising whites fast-tracked early and received early promotions while minorities’ careers didn’t take off until after they reached middle management—that is, assuming they stayed motivated and remained in the corporate game at all. Thomas’ research found that those managers of color who advanced