BlogCoaching Your Way to Success: Developing and Engaging Underrepresented Groups at Work

November 13, 20181

This white paper was accepted and published as part of the University of New Mexico Mentoring Institute 2018 Coaching and Mentoring Conference.  


Attracting, developing and retaining diverse talent remain significant challenges faced by organizations. Companies spend heavily on general talent management initiatives, but underrepresented groups still lag behind. In this paper, I will argue why underrepresented employees may not benefit from traditional talent management/leadership development programs, why coaching should be used as the primary development tool for underrepresented employees and how to effectively implement a coaching program that benefits all employees while addressing unique challenges that underrepresented employees face.

What is Coaching?

According to Harvard Business Review, coaching can best be defined as “asking questions that help people discover the answers that are right for them” (Batista, 2015). Based on my experience, coaching can be divided into two major categories: coaching for performance and coaching for development. Leaders often coach their employees for performance to accomplish a specific goal. The coach (or manager) typically sets the agenda for these conversations. Coaching for development is broader. In a developmental coaching relationship, the employee sets the agenda, not the coach. Developmental coaching relationships revolve around the employees’ goals and how to support the specific developmental needs of the employee. The focus of this paper is on coaching for development using externally trained coaches.

Talent Management Spending

Since talent management typically encompasses several fields (Diversity & Inclusion, Talent Acquisition, Learning & Development, etc.)  it is difficult to estimate total organization spend in this area. Here are a few stats about spending within specific talent management functions:

In aggregate, companies spend over $50 billion a year on leadership development annually (Gurdjian, Halbeisen & Lane, 2014).

  • Thirty-nine percent of companies spend at least $1,000-per year on developing high potential employees. (Wentworth, 2017)
  • Seventy percent of leaders indicated that their organization invests in some type of leadership development program. (Saratoga Institute, 1998).

The vast majority of all talent management investment goes towards education and training. On average, only 20 percent of an organization’s leader development solutions are relationship-based (for example, formal coaching or peer networks).  (Wentworth, 2017). Overall talent management spending is trending up but coaching usage is trending down.

Challenges Underrepresented Employees Face in the Workplace

Despite lucrative spending on talent management, several research studies suggest that underrepresented employees are not advancing at projected rates and continue to face distinctive challenges at work. First, underrepresented populations face unique challenges fitting in and advancing in organizations. Second, despite all the money poured into leadership development and diversity programs, there are very few Black and Latinx executives leading the largest companies in America. In fact, only three African Americans headed up Fortune 500 companies as of 2016, and this number was down from six in 2012. Ursula Burns was the only black woman CEO, but since her departure from Xerox in 2016, all Black CEOs are now men. (Donnelly, 2018)  Racial diversity within Fortune 500 boards is not much better. In 2016, 80% of new board appointees were white (Donnelly, 2018), only 2.6% of board members are Hispanic (Korn Ferry, 2017) and a mere .03% of corporate board members identify as LGBTQ (Browne, 2018).

Underrepresented groups are not only faltering in the C-Suite and Boardroom. Despite the fact that many industries, namely tech, have thrown billions of dollars into diversity recruitment and engagement (some estimates say as high as $16 billion), diverse employees regularly experience discriminatory behaviors at work and are often passed over for promotions. In a research study conducted by Scott, Klein, Onovakpuri, (2017), that surveyed 2,000+ individuals who have left a tech related job within the last three years, nearly one-fourth of the underrepresented men and women of color experienced stereotyping, 20% of LGBT employees reported bullying, and 25% of LGBT employees reported experiencing public humiliation or embarrassment (Scott et al., 2017). In addition, 50% of LGBTQ employees in Fortune 500 companies elect to stay in the closet due to fear of being stereotyped, damaging relationships with co-workers or making people feel uncomfortable (Human Rights Commission, 2018).

Why Underrepresented Employees Become Disengaged and Leave Their Jobs

Many of the driving forces that cause underrepresented groups to leave their jobs are avoidable.  Thirty-seven percent of underrepresented employees in the technology industry say they left their jobs because of unfair treatment (Scott et al., 2017). Moreover, sixty percent of minorities in all industries report paying an emotional tax at work; meaning that they are constantly on guard to protect themselves against racial bias (Travis & Thoorpe-Mascon, 2018).  Employees who feel on guard are more likely to disengage and leave organizations. Being on guard also affects underrepresented employees’ emotional well-being, which can also stifle their performance levels. Interestingly, the majority of employees that are on guard and facing the “emotional tax” effect do have a strong drive to contribute and succeed (Travis et al., 2018).  This is why it is imperative that organizations avoid hostile work environments by using effective strategies to engage, empower, and develop underrepresented employees. Organizations can generally minimize the occurrence of low performance and disengagement through coaching.

Coaching Organizational Usage, Benefits and Relevance to Underrepresented Employees

Despite large financial investments dedicated to talent management, organizations have historically allocated very few dollars to relationship-based leadership development, such as coaching and mentoring. In fact, in a study conducted by the Saratoga Institute and the American Management Association (1998), 70% of Fortune 1000 surveyed reported that their organization offered a formal leadership development program, and “on the job experience/challenging assignments” was the most common modality used. Training and succession planning were the next most incorporated components. In this study, “coaching” was not identified as a separate category, but a smaller number of organizations offered options referred to as, “mentoring, career paths, and community projects.” This category provides insight into the extent to which relationship based leadership development was used (definitely not as prevalent as others) but it is also important to note that, while coaching and mentoring are both relationship-based development components, they serve different purposes.

More recent studies indicate that the number of employees receiving coaching is declining and that coaching is increasingly being reserved for select individuals, mainly executives. For example, a study conducted by Sherpa Coaching of Cincinnati (2014) using an Executive Coaching Survey revealed that, while organizations use coaching to boost leadership engagement, nurture leadership skills, and guide employees up the corporate ladder, the percentage of organizations offering coaching to all levels of employees dropped from 43% in 2008 to 29% in 2014. These numbers suggest that while organizations may be using coaching more strategically, fewer employees are being coached. Despite this general downward shift, inversely, the number of coaching programs reserved exclusively for senior managers increased from 27% to 34% (Corbett & Kennedy, 2014). This data demonstrates a trend, where organizations that are increasingly using coaching are reserving it for small, elite, populations of employees.

Considering the unique benefits coaching provides that support the unique developmental needs of employees, organizations should consider incorporating coaching as a foundational leadership development modality; specifically as a tool to engage underrepresented employees. Challenging assignments alone do not provide leadership skill refinement, or emotional fulfilment, as coaching has demonstrated. One study showed that coaching fosters individual growth, typically in five areas: people management, relationships with managers, goal setting and prioritization, engagement and productivity and dialogue and communication. Leaders in this study experienced many benefits from coaching:

  • 78% of executives in this study claimed that coaching maximized their contribution to the company
  • 72% reported that coaching increased their confidence
  • 86% they added more value to the business as a result of coaching
  • 75% of participants coached were more satisfied with their jobs.
  • 68% of executives also reported a more collaborative relationship with their manager (Kombarakaran, Yang, Baker & Fernandes)

As cited above, the unique challenges underrepresented employees face are mainly related to confidence, fit, inclusion, and job satisfaction. Most leaders in the aforementioned executive coaching study said they saw improvement in all these areas as a result of coaching. This is why organizations should create supportive environments that include coaching as foundational for leadership development and engagement programs involving underrepresented employees. The coaching relationship not only creates a personal and professional outlet for employees, but, depending on how coaching engagements are structured, these relationships can also raise awareness of issues to the employee’s manager that may not be discovered without coaching.

How to Design and Develop Coaching Programs for Underrepresented Employees

There are a few things to keep in mind when developing coaching programs for underrepresented employees.

1. Organizations should not single out underrepresented employees for coaching. They should include a significant proportion of underrepresented employees in coaching programs but these programs should not be exclusive (Motloung, 2007).

2.  Coaching should be included in leadership programs to increase underrepresented employee engagement (Johennesse & Chou, 2017). Consider shifting budgets to fund coaching over other modalities.

3.  Organizations should hire experienced coaches that understand the unique experiences that underrepresented employees face. Many organizations “train” their own coaches internally. Typically, this training is part of a management or leadership development program. While sufficient for day-to-day management activities, underrepresented employees need experienced coaches that understand their unique challenges and have a relatable success story. These individuals typically come from outside the organization (Motloung, 2007)

4.  Organizations should let employees choose their own coach. It is a common mistake that organizations assign an employee’s coach based on their own objectives. It is not the most effective matching strategy (Motloung, 2007).

5.  The coach should create participatory communication channels with the employee, manager and other stakeholders. A common myth is that coaches deliver their work in a vacuum and the relationship is exclusively between the employee and the coach. Although the coach and coachee design the relationship, the coach can occasionally bring the employee’s manager in for updates and sponsorship. These relationships can reveal deeply entrenched organizational issues that an internal employee or coach with limited experience could not tap into, while building employee trust in the organization (Winum, 2008).

6.  Organizations should request coaching aligned with a validated coaching model. Cross-Cultural Coaching Frameworks particularly focus on the benefits of embracing different cultures (or underrepresented groups). One framework in particular that can be applied to underrepresented groups is the Cultural Orientations Framework (Rosinski & Abbott 2006). In this framework, coaches assess current client perspectives and help them explore roadblocks that may be keeping them from embracing new perspectives. For example, one orientation included in the model is Notions of Territory and Boundaries. According to this orientation, the client is either “sharing” or “protective” of his/her boundaries. Either he/she readily shares information, or he/she keeps information tight. If a client is a protective employee in a sharing culture, the coach might explore what would help the employee and organization build a more trusting relationship. The coach would help the client generate new perspectives more aligned with the organizational culture. The goal is not to get the client to completely change his/her orientation, it is to get a sense of what it would take for the client to feel valued and have more trust in his/her organization (Rosinski & Abbott 2006). Other orientations that the coach can choose from in this framework include Communication Patterns, Sense of Power and Responsibility, and Definitions of Identity and Purpose.

Measurement & Results

During and after the coaching engagements, organizations can ask coaches to calculate the ROI of their work. These will include results beyond 1:1 engagements. Some areas that organizations can measure:

  • Leader Engagement
  • Leader Confidence
  • Employee/Manager Relationships
  • Environmental Fairness
  • Overall Promotability

These metrics go beyond the coach/client relationship and measure the Return on Investment of coaching.

Conclusion & Call to Action

Coaching is a great tool for leadership development but the use of it is declining. Many organizations that think they cannot afford coaching would be able to invest in it by shifting funds from other leadership development investments. How are you spending your diversity, inclusion and learning and development dollars? Are your efforts working? Have you considered using coaching for other groups besides executives? Take a minute to evaluate your approach and consider how you might integrate coaching in the future.

For questions, comments, coaching or consulting, contact me at [email protected]

Works Cited

Batista, E. (2015). Introduction: Why Coaching? In Harvard Business Review. HBR Guide to Coaching Employees. pp. xi-xvi. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

Browne, J. Why Corporate Board Members Should Come Out of the Closet. (2016)  Fortune

Magazine. Retrieved from

Johennesse, L. & Chou, T. Employee Perceptions of Talent Management Effectiveness on Retention. (2017). Global Business and Management Research: An International Journal, Vol. 9, (3), 46-58.

Corbett, K, & Kennedy, J, Executive Coaching Survey, (2014). Retrieved from

Donnelly, G., The Number of Black CEOs at Fortune 500 Companies Is at Its Lowest Since 2002. (2018). Fortune Magazine. Retrieved from

Gurdjian, P., Halbeisen, T.& Lane, K., (2014). Why Leadership Development Programs Fail, McKinsey Quarterly, January 2014.

Human Rights Commission, A Workplace Divided: Understanding the Climate for LGBTQ Workers Nationwide, (2018). Washington, DC. Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Retrieved from A Workplace Divided: Understanding the Climate for LGBTQ Workers Nationwide.

Kombarakaran, F., Yang, J., Baker, M. & Fernandes, P. (2008). Executive Coaching, It Works!,

Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol. 60, No. 1, 78–90.

Korn Ferry, Inc. (2017). Korn Ferry Study Finds Hispanic Representation on Large Corporate Boards Remains Extremely Low, but There are signs of Improvement. Retrieved from

Marquardt, M., L., H., & Freedman, A. (2009). Action Learning for Developing Leaders and Organizations: Principles, Strategies, and Cases, Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 83-101.

Motloung, T., (2007). Executive coaching: A tool for advancing blacks into senior management positions, Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa.

Rosinski, P. & Abbott, G. Coaching from a Cross-Cultural Perspective (2006). D. Stober., and A. Grant (Eds), Evidence Based Coaching Handbook : Putting Best Practices to Work for Your Clients, (pp. 255-295), Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Saratoga Institute, & American Management Association, (1998). Leadership Development: Programs and Practices, Future Directions, Examples and Models: a Report. New York, NY. Saratoga Institute and American Management Association.

Scott, A., Klein, F., Onovakpuri, U., (2018). Tech Leavers Study, Kapor Center for Social Impact.

Travis, D & Thoorpe-Mascon, J. (2018). Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among

Women and Men of Color in the Workplace, Catalyst.Org

Wentworth, D., (2017). Top Spending Trends for Training 2016-2017. Training Magazine. Retrieved from

Winum, P, Effectiveness of a High-Potential African American, Executive: The Anatomy of a Coaching Engagement, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Winter 2005, 71-89.

One comment

  • Suzanne Fodor

    November 19, 2018 at 9:03 pm

    Grateful you shared your knowledge and perspective, LaTonya. This is so important for our team.


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LaTonya Wilkins. All rights reserved.

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