By David A. Thomas and John Gabarro,

The barriers – both organizational and individual – that impede the career advancement of racial minorities have been well researched and documented. But little is known about the experiences of the small percentage of minorities who do crack the glass ceiling of race. Minority leaders such as Kenneth Chenault, president and chief operating officer of American Express Co., Solomon Trujillo, president and chief executive officer of S West Inc., and Ann Fudge, president of Maxwell House Coffee and Post Cereals, have overcome the obstacles that so often derail other high-performing managers. How did these and other minority executives beat the odds and achieve success in predominantly white corporations?

We studied the processes that lead to the development and advancement of minority executives for six years. The following are lessons their experience offers for people of color attempting to navigate their careers in the mainstream of predominantly white corporations in the U.S.

The Organization Matters

Every major corporation in America has hired people of color who possessed raw ambition, intelligence and interpersonal acumen. Yet relatively few companies have produced minorities from their own ranks who have made it into the executive level. In systems terms, the problem isn’t with the input — that is, the people — but with the internal systems designed to create desirable outputs. The reasons are numerous but fall into two categories.

First, a widely shared set of unchallenged biases set low targets for minority advancement. In corporations with such biases, the glass ceiling metaphor doesn’t apply because the expectations for minority advancement are so low. Few nonwhites even make it to upper-middle management jobs. The executive level, in these companies, is inconceivable. Instead of a glass ceiling, these companies have “squishy floors” and “revolving doors.” Minorities never can gain a firm enough footing in the organization to even test whether they can penetrate the top. As a result, the best leave. A sign of this corporate malaise is when the highest-ranking people of color were all hired from other firms. In other words, they were developed elsewhere.

The second explanation applies to corporations that genuinely try to diversify the workforce. Lower expectations for minorities is less an issue than is a lack of alignment between the organization’s diversity strategy and its culture and values. Often, its diversity strategy is comprised of a patchwork of disconnected programs and compliance efforts.  In these corporations, there’s often a 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 initially were 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 middle management, they aren’t able to ascend further. What are the implications of this for people of color looking to advance?

Be selective. Choose the corporation wisely. There’s 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.”

Looking at today’s corporate landscape, the necessary choice for many will be companies with glass ceilings. Companies that have minorities in the executive suite are few and far between. You’ll need to enter the organization with your eyes wide open to the existence of a ceiling and attuned to what’s being done about it. The good news is that today many are serious about removing barriers. But there are also many that aren’t.

Many executives change 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.

Support diversity change efforts. Frequently people of color say they’re tired of assuming additional responsibility for this issue. 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. This negative kind of effort needs to be distinguished, however, from a coordinated effort to create an enabling environment.

Take Charge

The traditional model corporate employee was one who fit the description of William F. Whyte’s “organization man.” The fundamental premise of the new model executive is, simply, that the goals of the individual and the goals of the organization will work out to be one and the same.

This, by and large, wasn’t true for the minority executives we studied, including those who made it to the executive level. They couldn’t fully depend on the system to work for them as it did for whites. The playing field wasn’t level and, while more level today, continues to favor whites.

The minority executives we studied benefited from the fact that they weren’t passive about their careers. They were characterized by an openness to feedback, an orientation toward learning, the ability to set personal goals and an internal definition of success.

Also critical is creating developmental partners out of key people in your network who can help you manage your career. They provide support and opportunity, but also “tough love” — critical assessment at important times. This can be invaluable when the criteria for the executive level are ambiguous and require major developmental leaps. The higher one is in the organizational hierarchy, the harder it is to create such interpersonal connections.

Remember that high quality performance is critical at every step. While old adages such as, “organizations are political, and connections count,” “good work unseen is seldom rewarded” and “who you know sometimes counts more than what you know” are still true, corporate America is less and less forgiving of under performance, especially where minority managers are concerned.

Race Matters

How should minorities orient themselves toward race as a factor in their work lives? The most important feature of an effective perspective on race is that while it does matter, it doesn’t determine your fate. This is how most of the executives in our study approached the issue of race: Despite the existence of extra challenges and scrutiny, they never took it to be a determining factor.

This didn’t mean being naïve or denying that race was sometimes at the root of problems. It meant treating problems as solvable. Sometimes this meant moving out of a bad

situation so as not to get derailed. Often it meant improving performance and developing strategies to overcome obstacles. Putting good strategies for career advancement in place can make one less vulnerable to racial obstacles and better able to cope with them when they do emerge. Even taking into account the potential benefits of their companies’ emphasis on diversity, programs like affirmative action didn’t guarantee our executives success or freedom from race-related challenges.

Be conscious about race, but not self-conscious. Many of our minority executives and some managers talked frankly about the influence of race on themselves and their organizations. These individuals seemed to be racially conscious. On the other hand, race didn’t make them self-conscious. Most seemed comfortable with themselves as people as well as with their identities as minority executives or managers. Because each was unique, there was no single minority style. Most found a way to bring much of who they were to their work. In a few cases, their feelings of conspicuousness as minorities made them self conscious and even doubtful. Overcoming this required personal development.

Several people noted that this process was helped by developing connections with other people of color, individually and through the self-help and dialogue groups at their firms.

Commit and Recommit to Excellent Performance

When minority executives, and some minority managers, described how they dealt with the challenges of race, they consistently returned to the issue of performance. It’s probably not an accident that most of them spent the early stages of their careers in jobs where performance could be measured objectively, through production quotas, sales revenue or product launch on-time delivery. Many described themselves as competitive, which aided their ability to be performance oriented.

An internal commitment to excellence means setting personal standards that allow you to gauge your success. A good rule of thumb is that when you feel unable to do your best because of a lack of motivation, it’s time to move on.  Be consistent. Successful minority executives solve race-related problems in much the same way as they solve other problems. One executive says he always approached career disappointments by asking himself and others “what he could have done differently.” There had been times when he felt race had limited his opportunities. Asked how he coped, he replied, “I asked myself what I could have done differently to achieve my goals. That’s what I always do.” With this reasoning, he refused to give any single factor in his life control over his fate, whether it was a skill deficiency or race.

Too frequently when issues of race emerge, individuals are paralyzed or address the issue in ways that are foreign to them. For example, one who’s direct on most issues can become hesitant when they think race is becoming a negative   factor. A mental exercise for remedying this is to pretend that the same problem exists, but imagine that you don’t think race is the issue. How would you address it? Ask yourself what the difference is between that response and how you would behave when you believe that race is the source of the problem. Now try to figure how you would act according to the race-neutral solution, but hold constant the fact that race is part of the problem. Is there a way to treat race as one of a few alternative hypotheses that can be tested?

Make Sure It’s Worth the Price

The great majority of the executives we studied seemed content with the career success they attained. In an almost humorous way, some of our minority executives said they were surprised at it and happy. But their achievements came with a price.

Many were on their second marriages. None blamed the divorces on their employers. Instead, they placed it on themselves and their relationships. For some, work served as a refuge from troubled relationships. Regardless of the reasons for the breakups, it’s clear that they paid a price: long hours at the office, incomplete or non-existent home lives, frequent moves.

The most frequently mentioned work-related impact was time away from their children. Some of the women were single parents. All struggled to strike some sort of balance between work and family life. Even now that they made it to the executive level, there’s little sign of the pressure letting up. In the end, many are called but few are chosen to lead corporations. Getting on that path means sacrifice. Understand that there’s a price to be paid.

Minority executives also face the additional scrutiny and demands that race imposes. The language that surrounds promotions of minorities sometimes hints that their elevation is a publicity stunt. Then there are the expectations of other people of color, made even more complicated by the recognition that the struggle for equality has benefited too few. While there are executives who consciously balance work and family, they’re rare among all races. If you want to play in the main tournament, you need to ask yourself if it’s worth it and under what terms. This is especially important because, even without race as a factor, the odds of making it are always slim.

Factor in race and they get slimmer.


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This article is reprinted with permission from Career Journal, the executive career site of the Wall Street Journal. 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.