Celebrate Black History Month . . .
How to Be a Role Model to People Who Need You

How to Be a Role Model to People Who Need YouWhile you know that having role models is critical to your success, and you take steps to ensure you have those figures in your life, you may be less aware that you are already a role model yourself. Even if you are an individual contributor or solopreneur right now, there are people watching how you conduct yourself and taking inspiration from your example.

According to information published in the Review of General Psychology, role models help increase motivation, reinforce existing goals and facilitate the adoption of new goals by representing what’s possible and demonstrating effective behaviors.

Black colleagues need you

Plenty of Black professionals and founders have benefitted from white role models, but there is particular power in seeing people “like me” succeeding in leadership roles and in having access to people of color who have a unique understanding of the workplace dynamics you might face.

It can be tough to find those role models, however, because Black Americans are still severely underrepresented in leadership roles. While making up 13 percent of the workforce, only four percent of senior managers, vice presidents and senior vice presidents are Black; even among first-line managers, only seven percent are Black.

Your willingness and ability to serve as an effective role model is crucial. Extensive research within educational environments shows a strong positive impact when students of color have teachers who look like them, including higher test scores and graduation rates, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. Their research also shows that teachers of color hold higher expectations for students of color than white teachers do, a pattern it may be logical to assume could occur in the workplace as well.

A joint study by the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers also found that a lack of encouragement and lack of role models made it more difficult for Black women to excel in their field. They often felt isolated, lacked honest feedback that would help them advance and failed to negotiate salary offers. Those who were most successful had a strong support system in place.

“When I began my career as a young Black engineer, it was extremely difficult to find a sense of belonging and inclusion,” explains Cathy K. Floyd, a chemical engineer with a 30-year career with IBM who today is Director of Strategy and New Business Development for Monica Motivates. “I spent most of my career being the only woman or the only Black person in the room. Having a mentor who looks like you and has had similar experiences can help you develop the courage and support needed to innovate, learn from mistakes and perform at your highest level.”

What you do matters

While we often point to famous Black leaders as role models (and there’s value in recognizing these exceptional people) “real life” role models can provide a more nuanced, contemporary and accessible source of inspiration. Where famous people can seem larger than life or even have their everyday flaws glossed over, people working and leading right now much closer to home can more vividly and tangibly demonstrate how to thrive within particular industries, in specific organizations and within the current climate. Keep these points in mind to help you be the most effective role model possible to those looking up to you.

  1. Be authentically you

You don’t need to be perfect to be a role model. In fact, your ability to navigate challenges and demonstrate resilience after setbacks is one of the most important qualities others gain from your example. Sharing what you’ve learned through mistakes is an especially powerful way to show that success is almost never a smooth upward trajectory. If your advice is only the “pie in the sky” type, you will set unrealistic standards that will frustrate rather than serve others. Be real.

  1. Show your support

Younger colleagues or people new to your business, such as corporate professionals transitioning into entrepreneurship, may need encouragement to approach you. You may need to make the first move by inviting them for a coffee or even just providing your contact information or sending a LinkedIn request. Being willing to reach out actually enables you to model an important aspect of being a role model! Let them know you are there as a sounding board and recognize that sometimes your greatest value may be in providing a little emotional support during difficult times.

  1. Bring a positive approach

Effective role models acknowledge the presence of real obstacles and a playing field that is not level, but they focus on positive strategies for overcoming those challenges. They share approaches that have worked for them, can help you reset after disappointing results and bring creative ideas that demonstrate multiple ways of addressing a challenge.

  1. Commit to a continuous learning path

One of the most powerful attributes you can model for others is your commitment to keep learning, improving and growing. There is no such thing as reaching a level of success where you have all the answers. That’s a critical message to send to others on their way up. Your example of seeking ongoing learning opportunities, participating in reverse mentoring and being willing to adopt new strategic approaches sends a powerful message that continuous improvement applies at all levels.

By both proactively reaching out to others and modeling by example, your actions provide a much-needed template for others to emulate.