HBR recently published an article, Research: Black Employees Are More Likely to Be Promoted When They Were Referred by Another Employee. It examines a study that revealed that black employees are more successful in firms in which they are referred. So, if a friend or someone in your network refers you to a job and you are black, you are more likely to be promoted in your new company due to the referral alone. I am not surprised that this is true. Personally, as a black woman, even I have fared better in networked positions. The study then shifts to women that are not black. Not only were they promoted less overall but being referred did not provide them with the same boost. In fact, women that were referred did not reap any referral advantages and there was no apparent explanation for this. I soon realized that these seemingly scattered facts provided key insights into diversifying leadership teams.
What makes this information valuable? First, the HBR research reiterates the importance of sponsorship/advocate programs. We can infer from this research, whether formal or informal, referred black employees quickly gained sponsor/advocates through pre-existing contacts that got them in the door. Your friend usually doesn’t simply refer you for a job – he/she typically also connects you to other leaders in your prospective company, one of them probably becomes your advocate and eventually you get promoted. Sponsor/advocates are very valuable to employees (especially in amongst underrepresented groups that are not well connected). In the same way a mentor shares experience, a sponsor shares power and influence.
This HBR study also reiterates that, when it comes to diversifying your leadership, one size does not fit all. You will need to segment your approach if you want it to work. For instance, if you want more black leaders, according to this article, you should focus on networking and expanding referral programs. If you want more women you may have to take a different approach. While sponsor/advocates are valuable, unlike referred black employees, you may have to formally match women with one after they get in the door.
Being a sponsor/advocate is a rewarding role, you get to know others in the organization, foster a great culture, share your power and possibly even understand your own shortcomings. Such a role should be on the agenda of every leader or every organization that wants to create a great culture. Don’t fret if you can’t do the ideal and go all in with a top down sponsor/advocate program. Start small and allow the program to grow organically. However, throughout the process, beware of falling into a one size fit all approach.