When Verna Ford met with a financial services client recently, one man stood out amid the sober suits: An African American in a pink checked shirt. That might be OK in Tennessee where he works, Ford thought, but not in New York. He needs a mentor.
What a Mentor Does
A consultant with Boston-based Novations/J. Howard Associates who specializes in multicultural issues and has authored two books on mentoring, Ford knows how important the role of a mentor can be. "A good mentor wouldn't have told him not to wear that pink shirt," she says. "But she would have helped him see the implications of it."
A mentor -- the "wise counselor" in Homer's Odyssey -- "gives logic to organizational values, explains work processes, makes key introductions and teaches the unwritten rules of the game," Ford says.
Ford wishes more African Americans had mentors. "There is a worry that other people think having a mentor is an admission you need help," she says. "But a mentor can give excellent feedback [and] honest advice and open doors that might otherwise stay shut. Who wouldn't want that?"
Getting in on the Conversation
Michelle Matthews calls mentors "absolutely imperative" for African Americans. "We're not always privy to the conversations and unwritten rules of corporate America," the founder of Atlanta-based Matthews Consulting Group says. "A mentor helps maneuver through all that."
"The protocols and politics that help people get ahead are discussed around the kitchen table when parents are executives," Matthews notes. African Americans -- sometimes the first in their family to enter corporate America -- "have not always had access to those conversations," she adds.
Connie Lindsey has had several mentors. The best ones helped Lindsey, now a senior vice president with Chicago-based Northern Trust, navigate her organization, understand subtleties and gain access to new people.
As an African American, Lindsey recognizes the importance of mentors for minority professionals. "We often reach a corporate level at which there is an ‘illusion of inclusion,'" she says. "We sit at the table, but may not be privy to the side conversations." Mentors can help make sure their proteges are included.
Mentors and their protégés must understand the time investment needed to create successful mentoring relationships. For example, one executive vice president mentor spent a week taking his mentoring colleague to business meetings and social events that would otherwise have been inaccessible to him. The mentor then shadowed his colleague for a day, providing feedback to improve his organizational skills, diction and dress.
With few high-ranking African Americans or women in banking and finance, most of Lindsey's mentors have been white men. It made no sense to deny herself a seasoned mentor simply because no blacks were available, she says.
White mentors have discussed difficult issues with Lindsey, such as whether she was experiencing racism or simply misinterpreted a business setback. A mentor also helped her "navigate the nuances" of the largely white, male world of golf that is so important to building relationships in banking, she says.
"Most of the time, you're chosen to be mentored because you stand out," Lindsey says. "Most people don't get to choose their mentors."
David A. Thomas, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, calls mentors "critically important" to the positive development of African American professionals. "You have to put yourself in a position where you have high-quality interactions with potential mentors," Thomas says. "If you sit at your desk, they won't find you."
Thomas's study of executive advancement illustrated differences in the development of relationships in the careers of blacks and whites. Mentors can help African Americans find their way into the peer networks that lead to higher positions, while whites are more likely to join companies already knowing people who can help them.
As Lindsey suggests, human resources departments sometimes match up mentors and their mentoring colleagues. In addition to formal, company-specific mentoring programs, many industry organizations, such as the National Association of Black Accountants or community groups like the Georgia 100, support more informal mentoring programs.
Other mentoring resources include college and university career development offices and alumni associations or professional groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists' Career Mentoring Program.
For more information on the benefits mentors provide African Americans and tips on how to find one, see "Mentors Lead the Way to Success"