Black women executives will continue to be underrepresented in top leadership roles if companies do not do a better job of recognizing underused talent and rewarding these executives for their contributions, according to a study by The Executive Leadership Council, a membership organization for the development of global black leaders.
Only slightly more than one quarter (27 percent) of the 59 black women senior executives interviewed for Black Women Executives Research Initiative Revisited said they received promotions or advanced their positions in the same or a different company from 2007 to 2015. More than half reported staying in the same or similar position (17 percent), making lateral moves (24 percent) in the same or different company, or losing ground (12 percent) through diminished roles or transitioning out of the corporate workplace.
The Executive Leadership Council identified four areas of opportunity for black women executives and their employers:
Alignment of values — The frequent reason cited for exiting a company was “lack of alignment” with either the corporate culture or industry, positional or interpersonal values.
Agility and repurposement — A black woman executive’s ability to move rapidly and seamlessly between challenges in a dynamic environment is fostered by continuous learning; cross-functional, boundary-spanning work; and intentional, if not always planned, career expansion, the study noted.
Sponsor relationships — Although approximately half of the women in the sample reported having no sponsor now or in the past, most commented on the importance of sponsorship and say sponsors play a key role in career gains.
Relationship-building as politics— Nearly every black woman executive who commented extensively on relationship-building said she had developed strategies and a set of step-by-step goals around relationship-building. “The pyramid gets narrow at the top,” the study noted. “There is no question black women executives who become senior and continue to ascend do so by managing the politics and continuing to cultivate a strong set of relationships across the organization; this of course is in addition to performing at the highest level.”
Of the four areas of opportunity, the two most important to career advancement are relationship building and agility and repurposement, the study revealed. The study found that black women executives are willing to take on daunting assignments, but frequently are not recognized with promotions for successfully achieving or exceeding favorable outcomes.
"The 'runway' is so important. It is clear that [black women executives] must start early in their careers, in the first 5-7 years, to develop strategic multiple relationships with the people who can support and advance their careers," said Pamela Carlton, president of Springboard: Partners in Cross Cultural Leadership, which conducted the study. “The most successful take risks and have the opportunity for big roles early in their careers, allowing them to build the long runway of leadership experiences all executives need, build alliances and create a track record of success."