How mentorship, sponsorship and allyship support the career progression of Black employees
Developing a diverse talent pipeline in your organisations is crucial for business success, and programmes that support the advancement of individuals are key components in identifying and enabling the leaders of the future. For Black employees, who often face barriers and biases in the workplace, mentorship, sponsorship and allyship can make a vast difference in their career trajectory.
Mentoring is described as a 'relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person.' As a concept, mentoring provides a safe space in which individuals can share ideas and learn from the repository of knowledge and first-hand experiences of the mentor. For Black employees, having a mentor whom they can confide in and seek career advice from without fear of bias or judgement enables a sense of belonging. Internal mentors can also provide the benefit of wise counsel and insights into the culture and office politics to help them better navigate and progress within their workplaces.
Being an ally is also important for contributing to the development of Black leaders in your organisations. For those in positions of power, using your voice to speak up against inequalities, biases and harmful language is vital to enact changes that will make a real difference for your Black employees. The supportive and empathetic nature of allyship is beneficial for the mental, emotional and psychological safety of your employees, explicitly showing that they belong and are valued in your organisation.
Mentorship is an important element for progression in terms of advising on and planning for career goals. But sponsorship goes one step further by raising the profile of the individuals involved through advocacy and agency. A sponsor is the one who raises the challenging questions in the right forums, asking ‘why not?’ and ‘why not now?’ when speaking with decision-makers around promotion and development opportunities. For Black women who are often at risk of being over-mentored and under-sponsored this is an especially powerful tool for the breakthrough and break forward of their careers.
Having a sponsor who understands and will promote your talents to senior decision-makers is like having an agent seek out your next big opportunity. They act in support of, and out of respect for, your career progression and will proactively advocate for you in discussions around promotion and development opportunities. This is critical for Black female employees who research shows are more likely to be overlooked for a promotion in comparison with their non-Black female colleagues.
How to build diverse leadership and an inclusive workplace culture
When these initiatives translate into achieving more diversity within both your organisation’s leadership and your decision-making forums, the benefits for the company, the team and the individual will be significant. But to deliver their success we must ensure that our organisations are truly committed to taking positive steps towards building diverse leadership and an inclusive workplace culture.
It is my opinion that the whole system and infrastructure of talent and career development should be scrutinised and any gaps when it comes to bias should be closed. There is a saying that you measure what you treasure. A targeted and focused approach to ensuring goals, measures and targets to improve diversity and inclusion are met within your organisation should be pursued.
When management is incentivised – both through tangible and intangible means – there is likely to be an acceleration in progress. HR must therefore be encouraged to firstly address the presence of Black talent within its own profession and function and to secondly hold its partners in the world of work accountable. A root and branch review of all people processes should be conducted, and exit interviews carried out with Black employees, to identify and implement steps that work towards eliminating any and all biases in your people management processes.
For Black employees who often find themselves as the only one in the room who looks like them, it’s vital that we have representation at all levels. The concept that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ rings true, especially for Black women, which research shows are the most likely to suffer with imposter syndrome. Therefore, proactive hiring at the most senior levels should take place to accelerate the positive impact of representation.
Development and advancement programmes should also be designed in consultation with Black employees to ensure they are fully enabling them to achieve their career goals. In doing so, organisations can ensure they are providing the correct level of support for individuals to benefit them and the future of the organisation.
In summary, development experiences and work cultures that facilitate growth and new opportunities are enriching for both the participants and the wider organisation. In delivering mentorship and sponsorship programmes for under-represented groups, organisations are ensuring that the future of business has diversity of thought and people, which is a feature that will work to the benefit of everyone.
Yetunde Hofmann, pictured below, is a board level executive leadership coach and mentor, global change, inclusion and diversity adviser, author of Beyond Engagement and founder of SOLARIS – a pioneering leadership development programme for Black women