By David A. Thomas & John J. Gabarro, Harvard Business School

Buy It OnlineThe average age of the 20 minority executives we studied at Acme Industries, Gant Electronics, and Advanced Technologies is 54 years. In less than 15 years, the youngest will be eligible to retire with 30 years of corporate service. This group came of age in times different than those that young minority professionals now live in. Yet their experiences offer some timeless lessons for any person of color attempting to navigate his or her career in the mainstream of predominantly white corporations in America, especially if they are playing in the tournament for executive jobs.

This is not a how-to book. There are not six easy steps. The development and advancement of minorities to the executive suite is a matter of luck—opportunity and preparation meeting at the same time. There are no guarantees. Yet we hope that by now it is clear that the making of minority executives is less random, mysterious, and paradoxical than many imagine. Creating the necessary levels of preparation and opportunity is dependent not on programs but on processes, at both the individual and organizational level.

The most salient findings of our study suggest that reaching the executive level is a function of the individual’s ability to build a foundation of competence, credibility, and confidence by the end of early career. This foundation is based on formative pre-professional and Stage 1, early career experiences. Once this foundation is in place, it is critical that the individual continue to build upon and reinforce each of its elements. The organizational context can enhance or diminish one’s ability to mobilize these resources in response to the generic challenges of career advancement and those particular to race. Where the environment is unsupportive of diversity, through benign neglect or overt hostility, it is possible that no amount of individual effort can overcome the barriers.

What are the key take-aways for the person of color who now ponders the implications of this book? Presented here are seven lessons we believe to be the most important and relevant to the findings of this study. Taken together they form a perspective we believe will be useful to people of color at various phases of career. Within each lesson we discuss the specific implications for action and perspectives necessary to meet the challenges of being a racial minority at crucial stages of career.

We encourage non-minority readers to pay attention to these lessons as well. Two potential benefits can come from doing do. First, those in a position to assist minorities in their own development, as mentors, bosses, counselors and teachers, will likely find these lessons helpful in their efforts. Second, the lessons themselves, while grounded in our focus on minority executives’ career experiences, are relevant to an even broader audience, thus there may be personal value in what follows. In addition, knowing what is articulated here can add to our knowledge of what is particular and what is more universally applicable.


Early Career

Racial minorities in predominantly white corporations face a number of challenges throughout their careers, but they are perhaps most vulnerable in the early career period. Failure to develop essential levels of competence, credibility, and confidence in Stage 1 can jeopardize future advancement. Indeed, many of the plateaued minority managers in our study found themselves limited because they had not built an adequate foundation in their early career. Drawing on the experience of our study participants, we see four critical lessons for managing one’s career in this period.


Lesson #1: Choose Work In The Organization That Suits Your Personality

Successful people take advantage of the resources at their disposal, including their own innate personality. Work that fits your strengths, interests, and motivation will increase the odds that you will be able to persist in the face of challenge and disappointment. Remember Ben Richardson; he loved selling, was a top salesman and was still passed over five times for the sales manager job. Yet he continued to be number one. Clarence Williams, who had shown a talent for things mechanical since childhood, wanted to be a top notch design engineer. His motivation and desire to be a great design engineer allowed him to persist in building his competence and reputation, even as he watched his peers pass him by as they were promoted into management.

Why were they able to persist? In no small measure, it was because they drew intrinsic value from their work. They certainly were not being motivated by fast early promotions. It was their intrinsic love of the work that made it easier for them to get up, confront the challenges, and stay in the game.

It is important to choose an organization that suits your personality. John Kotter noted in his study of general managers that in their early careers these executives “joined a firm (or industry) that closely fit with their interests and values.” It is no accident that 17 of the 20 executives in our main study and 12 of the 14 minority executives in the follow-up study rose through the ranks of their company, starting at the bottom of the professional or managerial ladder. Another point of empirical observation is that most of the minority executives who currently appear to be future candidates for the CEO position at a Fortune 500 company have spent the majority of their careers at a single firm. There are exceptions, but almost none fit the profile of the highly mobile manager who ascends by moving between lots of companies.

In today’s more fluid labor market, choosing a firm that suits you does not necessarily mean assuming life-time employment. It is still important to build your human capital in the early career so that external options are created. We are simply suggesting that you not choose an organization that is a poor fit, even if the job content is intrinsically interesting and motivating.

It is far easier to hear this advice than to act on it. Other criteria, such as compensation or location, can lead one to overlook organizational fit when choosing a job. Individuals may lack the skills to put the advice into action. For example, together we have watched thousands of our students choose a job as they approach graduation. A common attitude students take is, “Pay now, enjoy later.” This begins when a person takes a job at an ill-fitting company assuming that the short-term pain will produce long-term gain. The motivations are most often company prestige—resumé value—and compensation. The problem is that when you hate the work or the firm is a poor fit, you will probably not perform at your best and leave prematurely. The final result is that you will not take full advantage of the opportunity.

Everyone is capable of making unwise career choices. However, racial minorities pay a higher price for them. Because of biases, their failures are more likely to lead others to doubt their ability to perform. Feeling like a misfit or being unmotivated by the work will rapidly pull one into a negative performance spiral.

People of color should also remember that the existence of prejudice means that reputation matters even more for you than it does for your white counterparts. Research indicates that negative information about an individual’s performance hurts minorities in the reward allocation process more than it does whites. Working at one organization for a while then leaving is acceptable, as long as you do not let your credibility be undermined.

Well-developed self-assessment skills are what enable people to choose a job that is a good organizational fit. To make a choice that is congruent with who you are, you need to understand yourself on multiple levels: What motivates me? What matters most to me? What are the characteristics of my ideal organization? Most importantly, you need to be able to learn continually from your experiences in order to create and exploit opportunities as they arise. This is particularly important because what is a good fit today may not be later. People usually have some awareness that change is necessary, but seldom take action until some existential crisis forces action. Several of our interviewees described such moments of personal learning and self-assessment. At times, they were able to take the necessary action to create better alignment between their actions and goals. In two instances, people passed up promotions or took a demotion to create a better fit. Some, though not all, took self-assessment classes or training that helped them develop or deepen their self-awareness and self-assessment skills. Many tools and courses exist today that can help one develop these skills.


Lesson #2: Choose High Quality Experiences Over Fast Advancement

As the findings of Chapter Five illustrated, a quality experience is one that positions you to build competence, credibility, and confidence. Establishing this foundation is most often the result of a pattern of assignments that allows you to grow and facilitates the formation of developmental relationships with superiors and peers.

The velocity of upward movement is relevant, but not the most important factor. On average, most of the minority executives we studied moved slower than white executives, but faster than most minorities who plateaued. Therefore, in early career a moderate pace is not bad, as long as it is accompanied by opportunities to develop critical human and social capital.

This does not mean that minorities should forgo fast movement when it is offered. Getting on the fast track is a great accomplishment, but without a solid foundation, one may be vulnerable to race-based obstacles, such as racist managers, worker resistance, testing, and exclusion from the informal networks available to support young white managers.


Lesson #3: Build A Network of Developmental Relationships

People make some of their most difficult transitions at the beginning of their careers, including entering and becoming acclimated to one or more organization and job. The pressures of this period can make it hard to see beyond the immediate demands of the task. Help from others is the best inoculation from the pitfalls of early career. Thriving in one’s career is a result of being able to get the career and psychosocial support that mentors, sponsors, and special peers can provide.

Again, this advice is easier said than done. How does one find a mentor or transform a decent supervisory relationship into a developmental one? This is a million dollar question. If someone could devise a technique that guaranteed the ability to acquire mentors or sponsors, people would be willing to pay. We do not pretend to have such a technique, and we actually think that technique is less important than perspective. Creating relationships depends on one’s interpersonal skills and the receptivity of the other party. The perspective that we advocate is one that focuses on development.

Most often—and incorrectly—discussions of developmental relationships center on the idea mentoring and sponsorship are the key to opportunity. Young people move into a corporation and instantly look to the senior vice president to mentor them, often overlooking more likely candidates such as their boss or, in professional service firms, more senior peers. We recommend that in early career you think about creating relationships that will help you develop your foundation and discover, create, and exploit opportunities as they come.

Certainly, a mentor’s power in the organization matters. A mentor who wishes the best for you, but has credibility problems of his or her own, is less desirable than one who does not, all else being equal. Still, such an individual is not ineffective. People of color frequently find valuable developmental support in the form of advice, feedback, friendship, and information-sharing, from people who might not be on the fast track or senior, but who understand the corporation. In many cases, these developers are people of color who have learned from their own experiences and are passing it on. Such assistance can help you gain sure footing and excel at getting results. This then attracts other supporters.

Recall Emma Simms, the executive at Gant. Her early mentor was an African-American male senior research engineer. He facilitated her acculturation and shared his network with her, helping her to apply her full talent to performing well. Her confidence built to the point that on one occasion she felt comfortable enough to challenge the views of an executive, who was impressed with her though he continued to disagree. In time, he became a primary mentor. Emma clearly gave credit to this powerful, white male executive for the extraordinary opportunities afforded her. She was also unambiguous that the support of the African-American, senior research engineer in her early career was critical to getting her career off to a strong start.

This story also calls attention to another pattern that may be worth conscientious replication. Minority executives were more likely than minority managers to have had another person of color as part of their support system during Career Stage 1 or Stage 2, either in the form of individual mentors or bosses or as a result of their preparation in support groups such as the self-help groups formed at Gant. Other research supports the conclusion that racial diversity in the networks of minorities corresponds with greater opportunity. We urge people of color to build diverse networks of support and to start that process early in the career.

Finally, think in terms of developing a portfolio of relationships that support your development, not simply a single mentor. Do not fall victim to what has been dubbed the “sidekick effect.” This is close attachment to an early mentor which inhibits the formation of other contacts. Such overdependency can leave you vulnerable if the mentor exits the organization or the relationship ends. Periodic assessment of your network of relationships and the benefits it provides in light of current needs and goals can be helpful in avoiding this.

We want to emphasize the importance of peer relationships in the portfolio. Most discussion of mentoring support points attention upward. However, peer relations have been shown to be a vital source of support. In today’s dynamic marketplace there is always the potential that a peer today is a boss tomorrow. We observed this frequently in our study. Remember Clarence Williams’ experience. His former peers were strong supporters when they became his bosses. It is also consistent with the faster rate of promotion to middle management of white executives. Good relations with peers can help open doors for development and opportunity.

Some behaviors can help increase the likelihood of developmental relationships forming. First, proximity matters. Familiarity breeds fondness and connection. Working together in the same physical location facilitates the formation of relationships simply because of habitual contact.

The most frequent mentor in early career is one’s manager. Proximity is one reason for this, but so too is the interdependence involved in this liaison. When individuals work on projects of mutual importance, and especially non-routine ones, the possibilities for a relationship are enhanced.

Three implications for action flow from these observations. One is to seriously consider your first manager as a potential developer, not just a boss. Therefore, if you are faced with a choice about who to work for, consider the possibility of a relationship forming that transcends the scripted boss-subordinate roles. Sometimes you can identify potential managers’ reputations by asking, Who has been a good developer of people in the past? Who has mentored a diverse group of protégés? We found that several names appeared frequently as mentors or sponsors of our minority study participants. This may not be coincidence.

Second, look for opportunities to work with people you think might make good mentors or developmental partners. Some of our executives met their mentors while working on task forces or special assignments. Sometimes our interviewees later discovered that a person they met through these broadening experiences was assessing them as they worked on an ad hoc project or committee.

Third, because racial difference often limits the likelihood of strong chemistry in the early stages of a relationship, do not rely on it as a basis for initiating or forming a relationship. Instead, rely on your good performance and reputation to move the relationships beyond the superficial. Also, help the relationship grow by being open about your own experiences of the work and the ways in which you are trying to learn. A frequent comment about our minority executives was that they were open to learning and followed up on feedback.


Lessons For All Times

The remainder of this chapter details learnings that are relevant throughout a career.


Lesson #4: The Organization Matters

Every major corporation in America has hired people of color who possessed raw ambition, intelligence and interpersonal acumen equivalent to the minority executives we studied. Yet relatively few companies have produced minorities from their own ranks who have made it into their executive ranks. In systems terms, the problem is not with the input, i.e., the people, but instead with the internal systems designed to create desirable outputs. The reasons for this are numerous, but can be captured in two categories of firm-level explanations.

The first is that there is a widely shared set of unchallenged biases that have the effect of setting low targets for minority advancement. In these cases, the internal system is actually consistent with the expected outcomes. In these corporations the glass ceiling metaphor does not apply because the expectations for minority advancement are so low. Few non-whites even make it to upper-middle management jobs, the equivalent of the plateaued managers we studied. The executive level, in these companies, is inconceivable. Instead of a glass ceiling, these companies have “squishy floors” and “revolving doors.” Minorities can never gain a firm enough footing in the organization to even test whether they can penetrate the top. As a result, the best of them leave. A sign of this corporate malaise is when the highest ranking people of color were are all hired in from other firms. In other words, they were “developed” elsewhere.

The second category of explanations applies to corporations where there is some genuine intent to diversify the workforce. Lower expectations for minorities as compared to whites is less an issue here than is a lack of alignment between the organizations’ diversity strategy and its culture and values. Often its diversity strategy is composed of a series of disconnected programs and compliance efforts. Typically there is a history of fits and starts. Momentum builds, great plans are made, and then they fizzle. Later, an incident rekindles the flame and a new round of diversity efforts begin.

In these corporations, there is often a true glass ceiling. Minorities make it to threshold positions in middle or upper-middle management, but seem to get stuck. For people of color the pattern often involves being stuck in staff roles that were initially given as broadening assignments, but become dead ends. An indication of this pattern is that despite an organization’s good overall numbers and the demonstrated ability of minorities to reach into middle management jobs, they are not able to ascend further. These companies are usually pursuing diversity as a goal, but are using a strategy that consists of many discrete programs which are neither coordinated nor aligned with the company’s culture. Leadership of diversity efforts is usually lacking or inconsistent. Senior managers are not involved and those responsible for the programs behave as bureaucrats not change agents


Be Selective. Choose the corporation wisely. Today, there is no glory in being a “first” at the lower level of an organization. Look closely at the composition and distribution of people of color throughout the hierarchy. Avoid companies that fit the profile of the “squishy floors” and “revolving doors.” One of the hardest parts of teaching talented MBAs has been watching students of color enter the same organizations time and time again only to see them have similarly debilitating experience. Oftentimes this results in a negative experience that is fundamentally destructive to his or her foundation. Individuals leave less confident in themselves, deskilled to some degree, and with damaged reputations and relationships. They retreat to lower aspirations.

Looking at today’s corporate landscape, the best choice for many people will be companies with glass ceilings. The Acme, Gant, and Advanced’s of corporate America are few and far between. You will need to enter the organization with your eyes wide open to the existence of a ceiling and attuned to what is being done about it. The good news is that today many are serious about removing barriers. But there are also many that are not.

This advice is clearly important for those making occupational choices at the start of their careers. It is, however, no less important for individuals making career choices at later stages of the career. In today’s business environment there is a strong likelihood that most individuals will change organizations at least one or two times after the age of 30. We are familiar with a number of individuals who changed organizations after developing good technical skills, track records, and reputations, only to land in a racially inhospitable environment. In some cases the symptoms were obvious: no people of color in the executive ranks; a few in high-level support jobs with small staffs; and a history of hiring people of color from other companies into middle management jobs, none of whom were able to reach significantly higher levels of management.

You might wonder, if the symptoms were so obvious, why did these individuals make the choice to join? In some instances, it was objectively the best choice they had for achieving their personal goals. In other instances they failed to get the data that might have tipped them off to the potential problems. Talking about race in interviews can seem awkward and it is not uncommon to go through a series of job interviews at one company and never talk to a person of color.

A few were blinded by overconfidence, sometimes coupled with racial naiveté. These individuals had done well up to this point in their careers at firms that had a more enabling environment. Not fully understanding the importance of the organization, they assumed it did not matter. As a result, they were unprepared for the subtle effects that a less open and enabling environment would have on them. In some cases the damage was irreparable. In others, the individuals’ progress was retarded, but they recovered and learned a valuable lesson.

We need to be clear that our message is not that one should avoid risk in choosing a company, nor are we suggesting that race should be the overriding factor. We do believe that it should be taken into account and given equal weight as other important dimensions, and that individuals should avoid companies that clearly have poor records on diversity.


Support Diversity Change Efforts. We frequently hear from people of color that they are tired of assuming additional responsibility for this issue. Certainly, we understand and think some degree of skepticism is healthy. You should avoid being boxed into corners that place you in the role of “race-relations troubleshooter”—the minority manager who gets all the “trouble minority employees”—while white managers are let off the hook for effectively developing and supervising them. This negative kind of effort needs to be distinguished, however, from a coordinated effort to create an enabling environment.

A central learning in our examination of these three companies was that minority participation in diversity efforts was critical, though it was not without some risk. This participation took multiple forms, both informal and formal. The evidence suggests that it influenced the success of both the companies and the individuals who made it to the executive level. How you support these efforts is up to you. What matters is that you do. It is also vital that your efforts be aligned with those of your organization. Your efforts should promote and leverage ongoing efforts that support your organization’s stated business goals.

Drs. Thomas and Gabarro are professors at the Harvard Business School. This article was excerpted from their book, Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press ©1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; all rights reserved. To order, call toll-free: 1-888-500-1016 or visit, or order it at Amazon. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.