World Reimagined

To Advance Equity, Offer Executives Mentoring Around Race

Black Lives Matter protesters
Credit: Peter Cziborra - Reuters /

Nearly a year ago, as protests for racial justice were sweeping across the country, a corporate CEO contacted me. He was preparing a presentation for his staff, and wanted to begin by addressing the moment. He was committed to diversity and inclusion, he told me. But he didn’t know what to say about the killing of George Floyd. So I asked him a question: “What struck you most about the murder?”

“The fact that all of the bystanders just stood around, and nobody tried to help him,” this CEO responded. In fact, when Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by white police officer Derek Chauvin, bystanders tried desperately to help. Headlines after the recent guilty verdict praised these witnesses for the “vital role” they played and called them the “heroes” of the trial.

But at the time, this CEO had the wrong impression -- because that was what he heard in the media he consumed. I pointed him to video showing what bystanders actually did, and I explained what happened. He was so stunned that he rescheduled the presentation, recognizing he needed to take time to learn first.

A few months later, another CEO contacted me. He sensed his team was impacted by the death of beloved Black Panther lead actor Chadwick Boseman, but didn’t see why it was such an emotional moment to so many people, particularly Black employees.

“We haven't been allowed a lot of heroes,” I explained. “You have been the hero of every story from Luke Skywalker to Frodo. For Black people, to have one of our heroes cut down in his prime is a loss that’s unfathomable.” This CEO then took time, with my help, to construct a note to staff that showed genuine empathy for what many were going through.

What these two situations have in common is not just a lack of awareness of the perspectives of many Black people. It’s also a positive trait about these CEOs: They knew to reach out and ask for help. They knew they needed to learn. They knew that when it comes to racial issues, they need a mentor.

Race and the employee experience

Forward-thinking companies these days are investing in the employee experience and working to build diversity, inclusion and belonging. Employees who feel heard and understood want to work for their organizations. For many Black people, that means having leaders who recognize the challenges they face, both at work and in society at large, in combating bigotry and structural impediments to business success.

But executives were never taught how to do this. Building, understanding, and managing a diverse workforce was not usually a course when they went to business school -- and even if it was, that wouldn’t be enough. Executives need to keep learning this critical skill throughout their careers.

Extremely few executives of leading corporations are Black -- less than 1% among the Fortune 500. So few executives understand the experience of being Black in America. While this inequality obviously needs to be addressed, executives of any background can learn about the experiences of their diverse staff from mentors who live the experience.

Not ‘reverse mentoring’

Usually, the right mentors for this kind of work will come from outside the organization -- someone who is not subject to the executive’s power. That way, a mentor will feel more free to call out a mentee when they’re wrong, unafraid of facing career repercussions. The executive, meanwhile, will view it as a safe space to ask anything without worrying that they’re displaying ignorance to someone in their company, risking a loss of internal respect. Having outside mentors also allows executives to create lasting relationships that they can take with them if they move to another company.

If an executive chooses a mentor from within the organization, it’s best to avoid calling it “reverse mentoring.” While the term makes sense because it refers to people of lower ranks mentoring their bosses, the word “reverse” serves as a reminder of the power dynamics at play. Instead, both parties do better when they think of this as traditional mentoring.

When it comes to these issues, the mentor is the person with greater knowledge and expertise, while the mentee is there to learn. By accepting that, executives approach the issue with greater humility. Mentors, meanwhile, feel more empowered to speak honestly and bluntly.

All too often in D&I efforts, much of the responsibility for change is ultimately placed on the underrepresented groups themselves. For example, minorities and women are often offered more training and mentorship. These things can indeed make an important difference. Black executives have said mentors along the way helped them rise up the ranks. But the focus of such programs is to task minorities with managing inequitable systems rather than giving executives the tools to create inclusive cultures and build change.

When executives are the ones being mentored, they’re shown that it’s up to them to create change. They learn how to address important issues and build belonging.

Today’s executives are facing monumental challenges. But perhaps nothing will be as instrumental in the coming years as building and maintaining a diverse, inclusive workforce. That will take executives ready to understand the challenges, motivations, and life experiences of their employees. And on this, there’s no need to go it alone.

Denise Hamilton is an inclusion strategist, keynote speaker, and founder of WatchHerWork, a multimedia platform closing the achievement gap for women.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.