People of color rarely receive as many development opportunities as do whites (though not every white person receives mentoring or training, those who do have mentors are overwhelmingly white). One driver of this pattern is the fact that there are whites who keep a social distance from people of color because they worry that talking to a black person might result in some clash or misunderstanding that brings upon them accusations of discrimination. This often plays out in the way some whites supervise, such as reluctance to give people of color negative feedback. This can have long-term consequences. Studies indicate that people who rise to the top of organizations received feedback and coaching early and consistently as they moved up the corporate ladder.
Mentoring – A Proven Strategy
Whites who are committed to racial equity can be a resource to co-workers of color by acting as mentors. Studies of how executives reach the upper echelon of companies indicate that they all received mentoring. They all received guidance, support and sponsoring from individuals who were senior to them and took an interest in them.
Some of the most important coaching involves how to avoid missteps in their choice of jobs or assignments. The route to upper management usually involves stints in operations, sales, marketing, and client-contact functions. Mentors guide their mentees to spend time in those functions. It is not uncommon for people of color to be steered away from these jobs, and slotted into community relations or human resources positions. People in human resources, or back-room service functions, seldom rise to the top of organizations. It does not help one’s career trajectory to spend time in these lower-valued functions, especially if one’s peers are simultaneously gaining knowledge, recognition, and credibility from highly valued jobs. Research has shown that career tracks of blacks who rise to executive levels often spent more time in lower-valued positions than their white counterparts.
A good mentor can counsel a talented person to avoid superficially attractive or lucrative but dead-end opportunities, and help them identify potential positions that will provide the experience they need to build a track record that appeals to top executives. Good mentors also identify the skills (such as budgeting, managing others, and strategic planning) which their mentees will need in order to advance their careers. The mentee can then seek assignments with opportunities to enhance those skills.
This kind of advising helps the mentee understand the role of politics in career advancement. Many people believe that all they have to do to advance is to perform their job at an excellent level, and they will be noticed and rewarded. This is only partially true. They also need to be seen as an excellent performer in one of the areas from which future leaders come. Jobs like these usually are highly prized because they offer visibility and/or access to key decision makers within the organization. Sometimes routes to these jobs are not well known, but must be taken before one can be considered for such a position. Effective mentoring includes educating the person about these components of career advancement.
The Importance of Discussing Race in the Mentoring Relationship
Effective mentorship depends on building a high-trust relationship. A white person who feels guarded around people of color is less likely to impart appropriate advice if they believe it might come across as critical or patronizing. In my experience, people of the color are quite skilled at assessing how comfortable whites are with them. When a white person seems uncomfortable around them, people of color will scrutinize their words closely, which creates a self-reinforcing loop of caution and distrust—with greater intensity in each succeeding round.
To break this cycle, a potential mentor who is white must establish a more open relationship with the person of the color by sharing ideas and feelings without a guarantee of how they will be received. This relationship will be tested precisely when the reaction is different than what the white person intended. In those moments, both parties will likely feel vulnerable and misunderstood, but it also presents an opportunity to break through the cycle of distrust.
How white mentors handle this will set the tone for how the relationship moves forward. Listening to and acknowledging how their actions affect a person of color can actually strengthen that relationship. The critical factor is whether the white people, in this case, can open themselves to feedback about how they come across without defending themselves (e.g., by avoiding responses such as, “It wasn’t my intention to upset you.”) It is essential that the white person acknowledge the impact they had on the person of color without trying to justify it. If the white person simply acknowledges that impact ( “Wow, I see now how that landed on you,” or “I hear how hurtful that felt”), they will be acting in a way that moves them toward the person of color, rather than putting up a wall of explanation and justification. Accepting responsibility for the outcomes of one’s action is a kind of interpersonal humility that says “I expect to be held accountable because this is a relationship of real equality. You matter enough to me that I want to know if I do something that has a negative impact on you.” True equity requires mutual vulnerability. Accepting this kind of vulnerability requires whites to give up being in control.
To establish a high-trust relationship, it is important to talk directly about race. Most whites have limited knowledge of circumstances that their co-workers of color face in the organization. Many white managers are likely to be uncomfortable acknowledging racial differences. Rather than move into that discomfort, they avoid talking about such issues. If a white does that while trying to be a mentor, the person of color for whom they are a mentor is likely to view that reluctance as a holding back, or a refusal to be candid. It is important that a mentor acknowledge the reality of race by raising questions whenever there is a possibility that race may be a factor in what the protégé is experiencing in the organization. This communicates that the mentor is aware that racial dynamics are an ongoing reality in the organization and in the wider culture. Obviously, the more aware the mentor is about the barriers to equity in the organization, the better able the mentor will be able to talk about the realities that the mentee is having to overcome.
If white mentors haven’t assessed the patterns within their organization create barriers to BIPOC employees, they are likely to assume that opportunity is equal for everyone who is talented and willing to work hard. In addition most whites will be unaware that co-workers of color will not have the same perspective or reaction to any one event as do whites. When it comes to race, this pattern is quite predictable. Reaching agreement about the meaning or impact of an event may not be necessary, but it is important to ensure that people of color feel their views are acknowledged with the same validity as are the views of whites. A white mentor does not need to see things the same way her or his mentee does. What is essential, though, is that the white manager raises the question about how race may be impacting the way the protégé is viewed or treated.
There are other reasons why it is vitally important for white managers to initiate a conversation about race with mentees of color. A white mentor needs to do two key things to offset the barriers to equity that exist in the organization: (1) anticipate negative situations that can impact their mentee of color, and (2) plan contingencies for dealing with those situations. For example, a white mentor can expect it will take longer for white decision-makers to become comfortable with co-workers of color, than it takes for them with white employees.
This means it will likely take longer for whites to assign a co-worker of color an important assignment with high visibility, or one with a lot at stake for the organization. High-level executives have acknowledged to me that managers require a high degree of trust before they feel comfortable assigning a subordinate a high-stakes task or job. An effective mentor can work with her or his mentee to identify other high-profile white leaders who might be willing to do or say things that will enhance the mentee’s credibility with other white decision makers.
The Critical Work of Planning How to Counter Sabotage from Other Whites
If the mentee of color directly supervises other white employees, the mentor and mentee need to develop a plan in case white subordinates resist or sabotage the mentee’s authority (for example, whites might bypass the mentee and go to another white manager to check that the mentee truly has authority to make a particular decision).
Another challenge is dealing with the mentee’s white peers, who may exclude the mentee in subtle ways (leaving the mentee out of gossip loops where people first hear about important changes in the offing; neglecting to pass on information about how to influence key superiors; excluding the mentee from groups going out to lunch).
A mentor may not be able to change the actions of white co-workers, but the mentor may be able to link their mentee to other sources of the same information. Even acknowledging what is occurring can be supportive, in that it lessens the sense of being entirely alone.
The mentor must also help the mentee plan how to obtain support on a project from higher-level white executives. If the mentee does not secure direct support, the mentor might help find another key white executive to sponsor the mentee. This is a situation where white mentors can use their connections among whites to introduce the mentee to influential whites who are open to supporting them. The white mentors can also use their credibility to recommend their mentee. One additional role of great importance for white mentors is to counter unfair criticism that comes from other whites. This is a level of support that the mentee will not be getting elsewhere. As a well-connected upper manager, the white mentor has connections that the mentee is unlikely to develop on their own.
Coaching to Enhance Strengths
Mentors must be familiar with the strengths of each person they are supporting. There is ample evidence that most people learn best when they can build on their strengths. Together, manager and mentee can plan how to best build on those strengths. They can assess which types of assignments will enhance competencies that need further improvement.
If the mentor has a relationship of trust with the mentee, that mentor can give the mentee direct feedback about the skills they have and the skills they yet need to develop. That information is vital in figuring out which job or job assignments will most benefit them, given where they are in their career history.
Helping Mentees Develop Networks
A trusted white mentor can help a mentee of color develop a diverse network of relationships. This is not something some individuals of color want to hear. Because of the racism they face, some people of color choose to minimize contact with whites. They figure that life is hard enough without looking to meet other whites who are often the source of micro-aggressions. However, David Thomas’ research indicates that successful black executives develop a diverse network in the company early in their careers.4 Black managers whose careers end in middle management roles have tended to have limited networks, especially across race. If the mentee has a trusted white mentor, that mentee is more likely to understand this reality and factor it into her or his career planning.
 Morgan W. McCall, Jr., High Flyers: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders. See especially Chapter Two: “The Derailment Conspiracy,” pp 21-60, Harvard Business Press, 1998
 David A. Thomas, “The Truth About Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters”, Harvard Business Review,2001, Vol. 74, #4, pp.98-107. See also David A. Thomas and John J. Gabarro, Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America, Harvard Business Press, 1999.