the farthest shared one characteristic: a strong network of mentors and powerful corporate sponsors who offered long-term, close developmental support.
“Having a mentor allows access to information that may not otherwise be available to you,” says Lindsey. That’s because mentors show you the ropes—those that are tangible and intangible. They have insight not only about the mechanics of a company but also the nuances that may be difficult for a new employee to interpret. “Having the right mentor allows you to position yourself in a way that long hours and singular focus on your area of expertise may not provide. What you need is ‘air cover’ if you’re about to go into the fray,” she says. “[The mentor] can see the clouds before you get there.” In addition, says Lindsey, “Mentors are also what I refer to as the ‘safe harbor.’ I can go to them with questions or concerns I may not want to ask my direct manager. These individuals give you very tactical information like how to best approach an individual.”
Another key, says Lindsey, is understanding the different functions that mentors, coaches, and sponsors serve within one’s career: A coach will “tell you how to do it, a mentor’s going to tell you why, and the sponsor is senior enough [in an organization] to impact movement and position placement.” Some of Lindsey’s mentors have also been sponsors, such as the executive who recommended her move from marketing to sales.
A 2001 Catalyst study, Women of Color in Corporate Management: Three Years Later, found that the greater number of mentors female managers and executives had, the greater number of promotions they received. The New York City-based nonprofit research and advisory organization found that more than 70% of those with multiple mentors were promoted, compared to 50% of those without them.
“A good deal of what’s used to differentiate high-potential performers from good performers are unspoken cultural criteria like how you present yourself, work with people, and appearing to know how to behave at the next level before you get there,” Thomas offers. “People of color are less likely to come out of family situations or networks where you have access to those things readily before you need them.” That’s why mentors are especially critical for upwardly mobile African Americans.
Indeed, that continues to be a problem. “The overarching finding, when we asked women of color about [career] barriers, the number one barrier to African American women was ‘not having an influential mentor or sponsor,’” says Wellington, now clinical professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Choosing a wise counselor. According to the 2004 Catalyst study Women and Men in U.S. Corporate Leadership: Same Workplace, Different Realities, 56% of female and 52% of male executives named “having an influential mentor or sponsor” as an important or very important success strategy. Yet, only 23% of women and 17% of men surveyed were satisfied with the availability of mentors at their workplaces.
It’s imperative, says Thomas, that African Americans develop a