Vaulting the Color Bar: New Study Finds Why Multicultural Talent Aren’t Making it to the Top of Corporate America

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Why has the top of the corporate ladder been so elusive to African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and Latino top talent? A new study from the Center for Talent Innovation finds the answer.

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At a time when the top office in the country – President of the United States – is held by a person of color, minorities remain grossly underrepresented within leadership positions in corporate America. Although minorities make up more than a third of the country’s population, they hold only 13 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies and only twenty people of color currently hold chief executive positions at those Fortune 500 companies. The fact is, minorities in the workplace often face tripwires such as lingering bias and entrenched ideals of white male leadership which cause them to stall out in middle management. A new study from the Center for Talent Innovation (formerly the Center for Work-Life Policy) identifies a cause and proposes a solution – sponsorship. The findings from the study entitled “Vaulting the Color Bar: How Sponsorship Levers Multicultural Professionals into Leadership” were announced last night at Bank of America headquarters in New York City.

According to the new CTI study there is a clear way to the top. Talent of color need robust relationship capital and powerful advocacy to propel them up the ladder: they need sponsors. Sponsors provide powerful links to key stakeholders and put their reputations on the line to promote their protégés all the way to the top. The study finds that sponsorship is particularly crucial amongst people of color as it significantly boosts advancement, ambition and retention.

Vaulting the Color Bar includes case studies from eleven global companies that have led the way, creating initiatives that provide people of color with pathways to sponsorship. In particular, these initiatives focus on:

  • Helping talent gain visibility,
  • Teaching the nuts and bolts and tactics of sponsorship
  • Providing protégés with the tools and capabilities they need for success.

Patricia Fili- Krushel, Chairman of NBCUniversal News Group and one of the lead underwriters of the study, spoke at the launch event yesterday and said, “we are proud that our NBC News Leadership Program directly incorporates sponsorship to prepare a new group of diverse leaders to rise through the ranks to the executive leadership level.”

A key takeaway of this study is a Road Map which lays out how multicultural talent can earn sponsorship. It lays out in concrete detail how a high potential person of color can make this happen for him or herself. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, co-author of the study and CEO and President of CTI says “With this Road Map, both sponsors and protégés will better understand their interconnected roles so they can work together to literally change the face of corporate leadership.”

In an increasingly global and diverse world, no company can afford to ignore the talent pool of highly qualified people of color. A shortage of minority talent in the C-Suite means that consumers aren’t benefiting from innovations and products tailored to their needs. Companies must to tap into this rich talent pool or risk losing traction in new multicultural markets at home and abroad.

Key Findings:

  • Multicultural employees are highly ambitious. Nearly 35 percent of African-Americans, nearly half of Asians and 42 percent of Hispanics are “willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top” compared with 31 percent of Caucasians.
  • Despite high levels of ambition and aspiration however, people of color continue to be under-sponsored; only 8 percent of people of color—9 percent of African-Americans, 8 percent of Asians and 5 percent of Hispanics—have a sponsor, compared to 13 percent of Caucasians.
  • Among people of color, sponsorship is particularly crucial in invigorating ambition and driving engagement. 53 percent of African-Americans with a sponsor are satisfied with their rate of advancement, compared with 35 percent of those without such advocacy and 55 percent of Asians with a sponsor are content with their rate of advancement, compared with just 30 percent of Asians without such backing.
  • However, people of color too often feel that they have to hide their true selves, a discomfort that breeds two-way distrust and distance. More than 35 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics and 45 percent of Asians, for instance, say they “need to compromise their authenticity” to conform to their company’s standards of demeanor or style.
  • An alarming fifth of Hispanics, a third of African-Americans and 29 percent of Asians believe that a “person of color would never get a top position at my company.”
  • Adding to the sense of distrust and exclusion—the feeling that “people just don’t see you as a leader”—are incidences of outright bias and discrimination that are taboo to openly discuss. Overall, nearly 40 percent of African-Americans and 13 percent of Asians and 16 percent of Hispanics have experienced discrimination in the workplace owing to their ethnicity, compared to about 5 percent of Caucasian men and women.
  • The desire by people of color to “pay it forward” is robust; at the senior level, an impressive 26 percent of African-Americans, and a fifth each of Asians and Hispanics feel obligated to sponsor employees of their same gender or ethnicity—compared with 7 percent of Caucasians. However, all too often, they are hesitating. Sponsors of color—especially at the top— worry that they do not have the armor or ammunition to pull protégés of color up the ranks. Just 18 percent of Asians, a quarter of Hispanics and more than 20 percent of African-Americans currently are sponsoring someone at their company, compared with 27 percent of Caucasians.
  • Multicultural protégés are also hesitant; while multicultural employees are more likely than Caucasians to see benefits in having a multicultural sponsor, they are also more likely than Caucasians to think that there are disadvantages to having a sponsor of color. Despite the need for sponsorship, people of color nevertheless worry—most even more than sponsors of color do—about the taint of favoritism on their careers if they enter into a minority-minority sponsor relationship.

Speakers at the launch event:

  • José (Joe) E. Almeida, Chairman of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer, Covidien plc
  • Sheri Bronstein, Global Banking & Markets and International HR, Employee Relations, Bank of America
  • Rehema Ellis, Education Correspondent, NBC News (moderator)
  • Patricia Fili-Krushel, Chairman, NBCUniversal News Group, NBCUniversal
  • Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President and CEO, Center for Talent Innovation
  • Keisha Smith, Managing Director, Global Head of Recruiting and Diversity & Inclusion, Morgan Stanley
  • Anré D. Williams, President, Global Merchant Services, American Express

The research consists of focus groups, Insights in Depth sessions (a proprietary web-based tool used to conduct highly facilitated online focus groups), one-on-one interviews and a representative survey of U.S. college-educated employees (March 2012 with 3,929 respondents) conducted by Knowledge Networks under the auspices of the Center for Talent Innovation.

Research Sponsors:
American Express, Bank of America, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Deloitte, Intel, Morgan Stanley, and NBCUniversal

About the Authors:

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Founding President and CEO of CTI
Maggie Jackson, Vice President and Senior Fellow at CTI
Ellis Cose, Senior Fellow at CTI
Courtney Emerson, Research Associate at CTI

The Center for Talent Innovation

The Center for Talent Innovation (formerly the Center for Work-Life Policy), a non-profit “think tank” based in New York City, has emerged as a thought leader in diversity and talent management, driving ground-breaking research and seeding programs and practices that attract, retain and accelerate the new streams of talent around the world.
The Center for Talent Innovation’s flagship project is the Task Force for Talent Innovation (formerly the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force)—a private-sector task force focused on helping organizations leverage their talent across the divides of gender, generation, geography and culture. The 75 global corporations and organizations that constitute the Task Force—representing 4 million employees and operating in 190 countries around the world—are united by an understanding that the full utilization of the talent pool is at the heart of competitive advantage and economic success.

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