Step up in these six ways to help level the career field for minorities.
Large and intimidating. That’s how Ben Galvin, BYU Marriott associate professor of organizational behavior and human resources, describes a former student whose presence felt fitting at his old position on the gridiron but felt inhibiting at a career fair. At one networking event after another, the young African American student had no luck. Zilch.
“He’s this amazing guy, a great student,” says Galvin. “So I decided, I’m going with him.” Galvin helped put recruiters at ease by joining the conversation and highlighting his student’s strengths. The change in their reception was immediate, undeniable.
It’s a microcosm of Galvin’s new research in action.
Galvin’s work, published in Group & Organization Management, suggests that the lack of diversity in companies—and the dismal number of minorities in leadership roles—could be helped if more people in the majority were willing to be a bridge.
The paper calls it “sponsorship,” a kind of nuanced, more intentional mentoring. Essentially, it’s having someone to champion your cause, because sometimes things sound different when they come out of someone else’s mouth instead of your own, as Galvin demonstrated at the career fair. And frankly, says Galvin, the literature shows that bias, overt or subconscious, is real, and that individuals from underrepresented groups don’t have access to the same networks—networks, he emphasizes, that are crucial “for getting information, for getting opportunities, even for getting the benefit of the doubt.”
The point of sponsorship, Galvin emphasizes, is not to give minority members an unfair advantage: “We’re talking about leveling the playing field, because this kind of sponsorship is already happening in networks of like people. The idea here is to give everyone a fair shake.”
For those looking to make their networks more inclusive, Galvin and his collaborating researchers—Amy Randel of San Diego State University and Cristina Gibson and Sharifa Batts of Pepperdine University—have put together a six-step guide. Boiled down, their work reads like a how-to for being the greatest mentor of all time.
Alongside their ideas are the lived experiences of women and minority BYU Marriott alums, from vice presidents to grads who have spent 15 years in the same position, often spinning their wheels. Their stories and insights are telling, motivating. “Maybe this is a call to action,” poses Galvin. Whether you’re high-, mid-, or entry-level in your organization, “there are things here you can do.”
The Current Snapshot
Perhaps your company already has formal initiatives in place aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion, things like the Parity Pledge—signed by more than 150 companies, including Utah juggernauts Ancestry, Qualtrics, and Domo—in which companies promise to interview a woman and a person of color for every position.
There have been various such plans hatched in the last decade, with an increasing number of companies coming on board in the wake of current events. “There’s been a real reckoning where people have run the numbers and said, ‘Holy cow, we’re missing certain people,’” says Galvin.
This matters, notes Galvin, because a growing body of research shows companies with a diverse workforce are better equipped to meet the demands of diverse customers, attract more talent, appeal to investors, and even turn better profits.
Strides have been made, to be sure. A bright spot for Galvin: gains in educational attainment have led to more diverse pools of applicants, leading to more diverse hires and even diversity in C-suites. But take any of the latest reports and it’s clear the gains are limited. “Most [companies] have made little or no progress,” states a summary of the 2020 McKinsey report Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, “and some have even gone backward.”
Galvin and his colleagues don’t propose that the sponsorship role of mentoring is the sole panacea. “There should be formal things organizations are doing,” says Galvin, “but those formal things aren’t enough. They need to be supported with informal actions by members of the organization.”
Six Steps to Becoming a Supreme Sponsor
Step 1: Forge Real Relationships
It wasn’t outright exclusion, says BYU alum Solomon Sogunro, speaking of his 15 years in the US General Services Administration and the US Department of Homeland Security. He could reach out to anyone. But the people interested in him differed. “Senior directors, managers—they were more willing to get to know my white peers, or white interns coming out of college. From my experience, white people more readily help whites.”
In her work in the nonprofit sector, then at Goldman Sachs, and now as a consultant, BYU alum Dayan Bernal has observed the same. It never felt intentional, she says: “Everyone is just so focused on their job and family and immediate community that sometimes they forget to take a look outside of their bubble.”
What stops us? Galvin’s sponsorship research calls these barriers “fault lines,” or demographic differences such as race, gender, age, religion, and more. When we engage in relationships across such lines, it heightens our awareness of differences. “We’re more careful of what we say,” says Galvin. “A lot of times we’re afraid of offending people, of saying the wrong thing.”
Not just saying the wrong thing, adds alumnus Marcus Shaw, an HR director at General Mills, but of overcompensating. “Somehow, by reaching out, I am making an assumption that I even need to reach out, and that somehow that will even be taken the wrong way.”
Reach out anyway, Shaw says. “Usually the person is just happy you’re acknowledging them.”
Shaw describes one of his pivotal mentors, a white female manager at General Mills. “She was a phenomenal business leader, but she also cared about me as a person. She asked me about me. She wanted to know me.” Another telling observation: “I felt like I informed her perspectives as well.”
That’s the goal, according to the research: creating a “shared identity.”
“If you and I talked for 15 minutes about our lives, we’d realize how much we have in common,” says Galvin. “You find a connection, and you’re running from there.”
It feels almost silly, spelling it out, he adds, but “it should not be difficult for managers to get to know all the individuals who are in their direct lines. If this were happening naturally, for all groups,” he contends, “this paper wouldn’t exist.”
Step 2: Be a Reputation Builder
Traditional mentoring often stops at advice and counsel, but the sponsorship Galvin and his colleagues speak of “is more about opening doors.”
Start with the protégé’s self-image.
“Maybe there is someone amazing who is good at what they do, but maybe they’re not realizing it, or maybe they’re not getting the credit or attention for their work,” says Galvin.
Start there. Validate it. Praise directly and authentically. Indicate how a protégé’s capabilities and qualifications could warrant career advancement, says the research. According to the literature, years of lived experience may have shaped what members of underrepresented groups may even believe possible.
BYU alum Siobhan Ollivierre can relate to this. She has worked 13 years at her company in a number of roles and is now up for her first vertical promotion. “I’ve felt like some of my dreams and my ambitions have been stalled, from a career standpoint,” she says. “While I have had an opportunity to work on a lot of interesting projects and initiatives, I do want the pay and the title to go with a promotion.” She often wondered if she needed more education or experience or worried about things outside her control, such as “the uniqueness of my name.”
With recent management changes, however, she now has a manager who is both female and of the same race. “Representation goes a long way in achieving those same goals personally,” says Ollivierre. “I am fortunate that my new manager really sees me.” This new manager, she says, has taken a proactive mentoring—even a sponsoring—role, speaking well of her widely. “Having someone to vouch for you, to talk about the positive attributes you bring to the table, it’s been powerful to receive that kind of validation, to have someone who wants you to succeed,” Ollivierre observes. “It makes me excited about my future.”
“Oftentimes individuals from underrepresented groups haven’t been taught as much about self-promotion and how to get ahead in an organization,” Galvin points out. As a sponsoring mentor, “you can broadcast, ‘Hey, this is a great individual who has all these amazing talents.’” It’s basic balance theory, he says: “The things you say about that person are going to be the things that people believe.”
In practice that means speaking up in all kinds of situations. “If someone is showing you a cool marketing campaign and you know your new hire is exceptional at marketing, work that in,” notes Galvin. “‘Did I tell you I just got this awesome new hire?’ Help to build their brand.”
As you broadcast someone’s talents, something else happens, says Galvin: it forces others to check their own biases. “People are probably not thinking, ‘I have this bias that certain groups of people might be less capable,’” he explains. “But by saying the opposite, it forces people to challenge their assumptions.”
Step 3: Plug People into Your Networks
Next, research advises a good old-fashioned DTR (that’s “define the relationship,” for those unfamiliar with the throwback BYU parlance). The research strongly suggests defining a mentoring relationship and its goal: to see this individual advance.
BYU Marriott dean Brigitte Madrian can attest to this. “It helps to have both parties know and feel like there actually is a relationship you’ve formalized in some sense. It changes when you’ve had a conversation about it,” she says. She did this with her current mentor, Kim Clark, former dean of Harvard Business School and former president of BYU–Idaho. “I was explicit. I said, ‘There are things I need to learn. Can we talk with some frequency?’ And then your mentors actually feel more license to help you.”
In sponsorship, that license extends to leveraging your networks, which the paper calls the “key source for career advantage.” Leveraging networks is more than making introductions, says Galvin. It’s following up to see connections established. “Really, it’s being the link,” he says.
Consider someone at the entry level of an organization. It’s difficult for, say, a CEO to know this person exists. But a mid-level manager is uniquely positioned to be that bridge, to set up the meeting of a talented upstart and a high-level executive and be at that meeting to share the individual’s strengths.
That extra step is taken “all the time by white males on behalf of other white males,” notes Galvin. “The network access is more readily there; there are less barriers to the relationship.”
Changing this story, says Madrian, “requires understanding that, if you’ve got subordinates and if there aren’t many people who look like them higher up in the organization, they might be floundering. It’s recognizing that these disparities exist and then being motivated enough to be proactive and do something about it.”
Informal networks are just as important, if not more so: the lunch groups and after-work gatherings, the way employees split at conferences, trainings, and parties.
Now a vice president at Drift, BYU alum Ronell Hugh recalls a general manager at a previous company who always went to lunch with the same people. “You know, he had his group, his people,” Hugh says. “I was not one of those people. If you can’t get your superiors to advocate for you, to take interest in you, then it goes nowhere. Until they open up their apertures to include you in them, you’re on the outside.”
Step 4: Share Perspectives
If you’re a member of the majority in an organization, you’re probably not all that aware of your identity when you walk through the office doors, says Galvin.
But for BYU alum Kamel Greene, “at every job that I’ve had in Utah, which is five, I have always been the only person who looks like me. I’m always in this exhausted space of having to inform or correct,” he says, noting that he is ever evaluating what he says and how. “For example, people say to me, ‘Kamel, I’m colorblind.’ But when you say that, you’re negating what makes people different, their entire lived experience.”
Majority members are more at liberty to focus solely on their professional roles, says Galvin, while those in the minority may be simultaneously considering whether they fit in with their skin color or gender or how to signal their English is good. “Those are complex things that affect how we apply advice,” says Galvin. “What works for one person doesn’t always work for someone else.”
At Goldman Sachs, Bernal remembers male colleagues saying it was too cutthroat of an environment for “a sweet lady” like her. But if she was assertive and incisive, she says, she could just as easily face negative perceptions for not displaying stereotypical female qualities. “It’s always a line you have to walk,” she says. She may be naturally soft spoken, she acknowledges, but she is driven. “I was born in Bolivia, moved to the United States when I was three, and was the first person in my family to complete college,” she says. “I’ve always been in spaces where I’m the first one to do things, and I’ve always had people second-guess my presence in those spaces.”
Hugh shares another oft-misunderstood perspective: his aspirations have very different motivations. “I can’t tell you how many managers I’ve had who have said, ‘Just be comfortable where you’re at.’ One even told me he could support his family just fine at this level; why can’t I? The challenge is, they’re thinking of it in terms of their experience,” says Hugh. “For me, and perhaps other underrepresented individuals, the drive, the ambition, is fueled by the opportunity to create wealth beyond our families. To improve generationally. To close the wealth gap, which is massive. My ambition is so much broader than just me.”
Being able to share with a trusted mentor helps relieve expectations and misperceptions on both ends, says Greene: “What is most effective is establishing trust—making it clear that it’s okay for us both to be wrong, because we’re always learning.”
Step 5: Provide Development Opportunities
“Are you always going to the same person with special projects?” asks Hugh. Those in underrepresented groups might miss this kind of extra credit opportunity—work that could give them visibility across different teams—simply because a manager doesn’t know them as well. “What I tend to see,” he continues, “is it’s almost as if managers don’t want to feel like they’re giving anybody advantages, that somehow by giving these assignments to someone who is in the minority, they’re being unfair. But how do we make improvements in this area if historically minorities never get them?”
Advancement-minded development often boils down to exposure. “Executive exposure is the big one,” says Galvin. “It’s taking someone along to meetings, giving them the opportunity to share ideas there.” Give them venues to showcase their work and capabilities, “to demonstrate proficiency,” says the research.
Providing development, says Galvin, may also mean being the conduit to new mentors, people who can help as much or more than you can. Brokering these new mentorships also brings increased exposure, even if it’s not upward. “Lateral moves, or other lateral mentors, can help expand networks and provide unexpected opportunities,” he observes.
Ollivierre’s new manager has done just that, setting up meetings with other managers, opening up new aspects of the business. “It’s been very hands-on,” Ollivierre says. “My normal role is a lot of administrative work, which is important, but now I have the chance to try my hand at practical and strategic things, which I love. It adds a lot of variety to my workday and more versatility to my portfolio.”
Step 6: Challenge Organizational Norms
Golf seems innocuous enough. But if we’re asking how to give everyone the same access to organizational networks, are company golf tournaments the best way to be inclusive? “Maybe women or individuals from underrepresented groups are less likely to have played golf growing up,” Galvin suggests.
It doesn’t mean we have to put away the putters, but it does plant the idea that unintended biases may be subtly woven into business as usual.
Mentors can help individuals advance, to be sure, says Galvin, but what if they could create a more inclusive culture? The research suggests possibilities for what this might look like, including calling out undermining language, increasing awareness about the lack of a missing group in senior roles, or speaking out to make teams more inclusive.
“Maybe it’s as simple as asking, ‘What does inclusion look like?’ in a monthly staff meeting,” says Shaw. General Mills, he says, fosters a culture of belonging and acceptance. There are networks for various affinity groups, from ethnicity groups to gender groups, and more. In addition, all leaders go through unconscious-bias training. Many employees have rotating, formalized mentorships or belong to a mentoring circle.
“You don’t have to be a giant corporation to put these ideas to work,” Shaw says. He points to the company’s quarterly “courageous conversations,” in which they bring in a special guest to talk about tough topics, such as the death of George Floyd, thus creating a culture where sensitive topics can be discussed.
“Senior executives, C-suite leaders, usually have the vision,” says Galvin. They’re on board; they want to create inclusive cultures and build a diverse workforce. But somewhere down the line, the effort sometimes stagnates. Managers and mid-level employees are in the sweet spot to make a difference, Galvin notes.
As Galvin reflects on his research, he’s perhaps most excited—and hopeful—that it shines a light on how to make a profound difference in the lives of others. “Recognize that, if you’re a majority member, you benefit from the formal and informal networks in your organization,” says Galvin, “and we each have a responsibility to provide access to those networks for people from all groups, not just the people we happen to know.”
Written by Brittany Rogers
Illustrations by Davide Bonazzi
About the Author
Brittany Rogers worked as an editor at BYU Magazine for 13 years and is now a freelance writer in American Fork, Utah, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Three ACL surgeries later, she still hasn’t given up skiing or soccer.