Celebrate Black History Month . . .
Take These Steps to Land a Mentor or Sponsor
Black business leaders often have less access to informal professional networks and are less likely to have mentors and sponsors to help them get ahead. That needs to change, because those resources can make a critical difference in your ability to succeed in your own business or grow your career.
Why they matter
If you have ever felt on the outside looking in, you may have been tempted to respond with even greater determination to make it on your own. While that’s understandable, and determination and persistence have their rewards, the support of mentors and sponsors is a game-changing resource you do not want to be without.
“I can’t tell you how important it is to have a sponsor,” advises Carla Harris, a Black woman and vice chair, managing director and senior client adviser at Morgan Stanley. Speaking in her popular TED Talk, she makes clear, “It is the critical relationship in your career.”
Mentors and sponsors not only provide helpful feedback and model important skills; they connect you with key resources, introduce you to people who can help you further your goals, interpret workplace politics and unspoken rules of engagement and can even help you expand your personal vision. Sponsors will actively advocate for you when you are not in the room.
Too often missing for Black professionals and founders
Unfortunately, Black colleagues receive less of this support. The 2020 Women in the Workplace Report from McKinsey & Company says, Black women, “. . . have fewer interactions with senior leaders, which means they often don’t get the sponsorship and advocacy they need to advance.”
A 2021 survey of more than 2,000 Black professionals by LinkedIn found that, even among those ages 18-34, some 44% said they have been overlooked or intentionally passed by for advancement opportunities because of their race. The State of Black Women in Corporate America, a 2020 report by Lean In, finds that fewer than a quarter of Black women feel they have the sponsorship needed to advance.
The landscape is similar for Black business owners. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation identified that, in addition to having less access to financial capital, many Black entrepreneurs are at a disadvantage due to less access to human capital. While they report that 92% of small business owners said a mentor had direct impact on the growth and survival of their business, only 40% of Black entrepreneurs had access to a mentor. You need these sources of support in your career and in your business. Here’s how to get it.
- Make the first move. People tend to gravitate to others who are similar to them. Because the majority of senior leaders are still white men, the tendency is for them to mentor and sponsor other white men. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in sponsoring you. You may just need to make the first move.
A concise, targeted email, LinkedIn request or even an old-fashioned letter with a specific request for a phone call, Microsoft Teams meeting or 15-minute chat to gain their advice in a particular area can open the door. You can even use social media to identify people in your industry you might want to meet as you expand your circle of support. If you already know the person and they know your work, you can share your goals and ask directly for their support and sponsorship.
Several years ago, as a new business founder, I wanted to learn more about rapidly scaling a business. Through a mutual contact, I met the Chief Financial Officer of a significant company. I reached out to him to request mentoring around a few financial questions and, over time, he has become one of my most valued and trusted advisors.
- Ask for advice, not a job. The role of a mentor is to provide candid advice, suggest areas for development and help you grow your network, not offer you a job. Even sponsors, who will proactively advocate for you, are not likely to offer you your next role. Both may provide connections that help you get promoted, land a big customer or find critical investment, but that’s not your ask of them. Keep your conversation focused on specific ways you can improve, overcome roadblocks and access new opportunities.
- Build the relationship over time. Mentoring and sponsorship arrangements are still human relationships and require time and effort to cultivate. Harris calls this developing relationship currency and advises, “You can’t ask someone to use their hard-earned, influential currency on your behalf if you’ve never had any interaction with them. You have to invest the time to connect, engage and get to know the people who can help you. And give them the opportunity to know you.”
- Be willing to stand out. While there is plenty of data to show being an “only” can make people feel both marginalized and scrutinized, there are ways that being different can help you capture positive attention. Speaking to attendees of the Black Professionals in Technology Network, Associate Vice President for Technology Solutions with TD Bank, Nkechi Nwafor-Robinson, shared this viewpoint. “I recognized that I was different. It’s about recognizing that there’s an advantage to being the only. You’re meant to stand out.” With increased workplace focus on DEI, you may find leaders especially open to making connections and eager to help people of color advance.
- Tap formal networks. Many organizations offer formal mentoring programs you can access as you build your own customized support system. That might include your alma mater, an Employee Resource Group or even your church. The Monica Motivates community provides numerous opportunities to make connections that matter.
You are already making important strides on your own. But building a robust circle of support can magnify your efforts, grow your results and make the journey a more rewarding one.