Developing new generations of diverse talent is no easy task, but organizational leaders can work toward this goal by elevating underrepresented talent, a pair of speakers told attendees at the 2022 National Urban League Conference on July 22.
Jackie King, general partner and the first Black woman to serve in the role of regional leader at financial services firm Edward Jones, said that having allies has been essential in her professional career.
“They invested in me, they invited me to the table and, frankly, they helped me get out of my own way,” said King, who added that she was initially hesitant to take on her role having never seen anyone who looked like her do so before. “My allies helped me to recognize my strengths, and they encouraged me. They helped me to get out of my head and to be confident about what I had to bring to the table.”
Senior leaders have a particular responsibility to do this kind of work, King said, and their contributions can go a long way toward supporting a more inclusive community in which everyone can succeed.
But leaders also need to go beyond sponsoring only those workers who look like themselves. “When people start to build their networks, they often seek relationships with individuals of similar experiences and backgrounds,” King said. “While those relationships are important, it’s important to build diverse networks.”
According to Amy Manning, HR director of enterprise engagement and development at FedEx Services, it is important to distinguish between mentorship and sponsorship, as the two connote different forms of support. Sponsorship relationships go a bit farther than mentor-mentee relationships in that sponsors act as “impression managers” for their proteges, she added.
“The sponsor needs to have a really close relationship to the people who need to be swayed to the side of the protege,” Manning said. “So please make sure that you are actually identifying a good sponsor in your organization [who] can speak on your behalf, speak accurately and well to your skills and your abilities and who will go to bat for you when you’re not in the room.”
Both mentorship and sponsorship can strengthen advancement programs for underrepresented talent. Manning pointed to FedEx’s Purple Pathways program which helps hourly team members identify and transition to salaried roles that provide better benefits and earning potential within the organization. “In our program, we highlight mentoring because it’s truly driven by the team member and provides someone to walk with them. But it doesn’t negate the value of having a sponsor.”
Additionally, organizations need to understand the unique experiences, challenges and fears that members of underrepresented groups have, King said, since these employees may feel the pressure to assimilate at the risk of feeling inauthentic at work.
“When people feel a true sense of belonging, they recognize that the work they do every day matters,” she said. “It matters to themselves, it matters to their team, it matters to their organization as a whole and, most importantly, it matters to the people whose lives they’re impacting.”
Leaders have an obligation to create an equitable workplace in which people feel comfortable expressing themselves, and this includes ensuring representation in decision-making; “Even in many companies seen as inclusive, if people of color are excluded from key groups or decision-making, it’s really unlikely that there will ever be a place of belonging for them,” King said. “As a leader, I make it a point to keep everyone on the radar, to include them and bring them to the table.”
Increasing workplace diversity is not enough to build equitable workplaces, per Manning, particularly in industries like transportation that may have a difficult time recruiting talent in the first place.
Intentionality can help. FedEx, Manning said, is “reimagining how we present ourselves to potential candidates through a number of angles.” That includes simplifying job descriptions and removing unnecessary prerequisites that allow the organization to meet candidates where they are. And beyond the recruiting process, Manning noted that the act of sustaining diversity requires leaders to volunteer and unlock opportunities for others, including as a mentor or sponsor.
“Be intentional about advocacy for others,” she said. “If you’re in a position to sponsor someone, do it. If you’re in a position to mentor someone, do it. [...] It is incumbent upon us all to make ourselves available to others to guide and direct them on the path that you have already taken.”