Understanding the unique power dynamics of your workplace is essential to professional success. Especially if you are new to an organization or a division, you need to familiarize yourself with who has a “voice,” as well as whose point of view is likely to be dismissed or overlooked—and why.
Throughout my work as a consultant, I’ve frequently been struck by the superficial and often incomplete assessments made by managers who lack an understanding of these dynamics. Too often, members of majority groups get away with sub-par performance, which is explained away or otherwise forgiven, while similar performances by members of under- represented groups, such as women of color, are subject to intense scrutiny, are labeled as overall incompetence, and may result in permanent damage to professional reputation and standing.
Why this double standard? In part for the simple reason that “like” prefers “like,” and members of majority groups tend to have strong informal relationships with senior executives who look like them, whereas members of minority groups typically do not.
So how can you empower yourself to stand out—in a good way—in a less-than-equitable environment? Though it’s not a silver bullet, Catalyst research has discovered the importance of having a sponsor. Unlike a mentor, who provides coaching and career advice, a sponsor is an influential senior manager who can provide exposure to other executives who may be able to move your career forward. Sponsors advocate for key assignments and important promotions for their protégés.
We know from years of Catalyst research what it takes to get a sponsor. Those in need of sponsorship should strive to highlight their accomplishments, develop and nurture relationships at work, and be bold about asking for new and better opportunities.
Unfortunately, research has also shown that building and sustaining professional relationships is especially challenging for women of color, who bear the extra burden of putting their mostly white colleagues at ease. The best way to do this is by sharing safe-for-work information about your hobbies and interests outside work and investing time in work relationships, so that your colleagues feel comfortable reciprocating. It is also crucial to cultivate openness to constructive feedback and coaching.
How can you best identify a potential sponsor? Simply put, the ideal sponsor is someone who wields a great deal of influence in your organization, regardless of title or level. Have you noticed someone on whose say-so a manager might be promoted? Is there a colleague in your department who seems to know and hold sway with members of several different departments? Is there a senior manager whose presentations are eagerly attended and listened to by all?
Of course, it’s always possible to learn your way around a workplace through trial and error. But for women of color, a better approach is to create and sustain as diverse a network as possible. It’s always smart to make a good impression on the higher-ups, but it’s just as important to have friends at other levels, as well as spread throughout different departments.
You never know who might be in a position to help grow your career. DW
Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s Vice President and Women of Color Practitioner, Global Member Services.