A Closer Look – The Making of Minority Executives in America

by Jean Williams

The glass ceiling doesn’t have to be an obstacle. More and more people of color are finding ways around it, and in many cases breaking through. East Germans recently celebrated 10 years of life without the Berlin Wall. Perhaps someday in the coming decades, people of color in America will be able to celebrate life without another less tangible barrier: the infamous glass ceiling.

Book Studies the Obstacles & Outcomes for Minority Professionals

That is the hope embodied in a book by David A. Thomas, a professor of organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School, and John J. Gabarro a UPS Foundation Professor of Human Resource Management at the Harvard Business School. Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America is the fruit of six years of research, analyzing and writing by the pair. Thomas, who is African American, and Gabarro, who is white, tout it as the first in-depth study to examine the paths that lead racial minorities -African Americans, Hispanics and Asians – to the executive suite.

“Breaking Through” is an exploration and explanation of the individual and organizational factors that lead to people of color being able to advance to executive jobs in corporations – in particular, to line executive jobs where they are responsible for running major lines of businesses and where there’s profit and loss responsibility and control over organizational and institutional resources,” Thomas said. The study examined three anonymous Fortune 500 firms and 54 executives that work at those firms.

The companies were of three very different industries, ranging from high tech to very low tech and labor intensive. “We wanted to identify firms that seem to have done better at promoting people of color to line executive jobs because we wanted not only to tell a story about individual effort and experience, but organizational efforts and experience,” said Thomas.

The 54 executives included 20 minority executives (13 African Americans, 4 Hispanics and 3 Asians); 13 white executives; 13 minorities who plateau-ed in middle management; and 8 whites who plateau-ed in middle management. There are not very many studies that have looked at all of those groups together…Our findings apply across groups.”

Takeaways for Organizations & Professionals

The study compared the career experiences of minority executives against those of white executives. The study also compared the experiences of minority managers who plateau-ed in middle management to white managers who plateaued in the middle. Not surprisingly, the study concluded that the paths that lead minorities to top executive positions are quite different from the paths that lead their white peers to the same positions. However, Thomas and Gabarro came to some insightful observations as to how minority professionals can more likely crack the looming glass ceiling. For example, the book can serve as an eye-opener for individuals trying to map out their career paths, Thomas said. “I think people who can benefit from this book are individuals of color who are in either the early- or mid-career. It’s particularly relevant for new MBAs and people recently out of school because one of the key findings is that the early career period is essential in terms of building the foundation that allows people of color to withstand the various kinds of challenges that they’re likely to meet in being a racial minority. We’ve discovered that if you don’t build that foundation in the early career, it’s very hard to make up for it later.”

Thomas suggests that one way to avoid career stagnation is to choose carefully where you tread. Examine a company’s record with people of color. Are there several minority managers who came up from lower ranks, or has the company recruited its minority executives from the outside? The answer may tell you whether the company has demonstrated leadership when it comes to promoting people of color. Don’t be afraid to bypass a company that offers a gleaming deal early on in your career if all the signs warn of later frustration. “In my view, there are too many people of color who chose [their companies] based on the money or the glamour or the status when absent those things it would have been very obvious that this is not a good place for me to go to work. They usually leave not having added any value to themselves as a professional.”

Another observation the pair made is that people of color may hit the ground running with high performances early in their careers but lose momentum in the face of rejection for promotions. This tendency only makes matters worse for professionals of color. “Oftentimes, the reason that you’ve been passed over is that because you’re a person of color, a person in the minority, people often question whether your performance is real…So you need to be able to sustain that performance even in the face of it not being initially rewarded.”

Additionally, “Breaking Through” can serve as a guide to organizations looking to change how they regard the minority professionals they employ. Thomas said that the three firms they studied show exemplary leadership in nurturing people of color. “They all had involvement by the leadership at the top of the organization,” he said. “They weren’t involved just in giving authorization to the effort – you know, signing memos – but they were also involved themselves at mentoring and developing people of color and then making racial diversity a part of the organization’s agenda.” Thomas and Gabarro may pursue another evolution of their research, next time out examining the experiences of people of color in the CEO’s spot. “None of the individuals that we studied were CEOs,” Thomas said. “There were some who were at that point in time reporting directly to the CEO, or one level below the CEO, to the president of the corporation, and who were rumored to be potential successors of the CEO. But what we now want to do is understand what the experience is once people reach that executive level.”

Race is Not Deterministic

Despite being put off by evidence that few organizations seem truly prepared to apply leadership beyond the disappointing norm – including stale mentoring and recruitment programs – to develop minorities in their firms, Thomas finds reason for optimism. “I’m optimistic from the standpoint that race is not deterministic.” “In these companies race proved to at times pose significant obstacles, but in each of these companies people were able to overcome them.” “In fact in these companies, the percentage of the executive group ranged from 9 percent people of color to 14 percent people of color. That compares with less than 2 percent executives of color in the broader population of executives in Fortune 1000 companies. These organizations tell us what’s possible.”

Jean Williams is a free-lance writer and editor who lives in Chicago. She can be reached at allwritenow@msn.com

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