Beating the Odds

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo, Robin J. Ely, and David A. Thomas for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Any list of top CEOs reveals a startling lack of diversity. Among the leaders of Fortune 500 companies, for example, just 32 are women; with the recent departure of Ken Chenault from American Express, just three are African-American; and not one is an African-American woman. What’s going on?

This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the African-American Student Union at Harvard Business School, and in preparation for the commemoration we have been studying the careers of the approximately 2,300 alumni of African descent who have graduated from HBS since its founding, in 1908. From that group we identified 532 African-American women who graduated from 1977 to 2015. We analyzed the career paths of the 67 of them who have attained the position of chair, CEO, or other C-level executive in a corporation or senior managing director or partner in a professional services firm, and we conducted in-depth interviews with 30 of those 67.

How did these women beat the odds? Certainly, they are well prepared and highly competitive in the job market; according to our data, they have invested more years in higher education, at more-selective institutions, than their colleagues and their non–African-American classmates. Yet as is the case for all those who have managed to scale the heights of corporate America, it wasn’t simply personal strengths and talents that got them there. It was the willingness and ability of others to recognize, support, and develop those strengths and talents. We wish to speak to both elements of success.

“I think the experience of being black in America creates resilience—a steady steadiness. And it creates courage and pride. Not pride in a boastful way, but being proud, as you need to be in moments when you feel completely rejected, completely ignored, overlooked, sidelined.”

—A senior executive of a Fortune 50 financial services firm

Too often we see business leaders struggle to advance members of underrepresented groups because they model their development strategies on their own paths to success. They believe they’re good at spotting and supporting talent, but their support is informed by their own experience: “I looked like that five years ago, and this is what I needed to grow into the next level.” Our research suggests that company leaders are best able to recognize talent and understand others’ development needs when those talents and needs present themselves as theirs did; they often overlook—or are baffled by how to develop—talent that looks different. So in our study we asked: What lessons can aspiring leaders—specifically, women of color and members of other underrepresented groups—take from the careers of highly successful African-American women? Moreover, what can corporate leaders learn about how to spot and develop black women’s talents, and what might such lessons teach us about how to cultivate the talents of underrepresented groups more generally?

In simple terms, the answer to the question of what it takes to succeed can be reduced to a single capacity: resilience. To be sure, resilience has been widely celebrated as a character virtue in the past decade, and it plays a role in every success narrative, regardless of a person’s race or gender. But the African-American women we interviewed seemed to rely more heavily than others on that quality, because of the frequency with which they encountered obstacles and setbacks resulting from the intersecting dynamics of race, gender, and other identities. In each case they bounced back, refused to get distracted or derailed, and maintained forward progress. One explained, “We were all told that you had to be smarter or run faster or jump higher or be better than anybody else around you just to stay in the game. That was a lesson from early, early on—from my parents, teachers, mentors, church. So you come [to your job] with that orientation.”

The women we studied developed three skills that were key to their resilience: emotional intelligence, authenticity, and agility. They became EQ experts, adept at both reading the interpersonal and political dynamics of their organizations and managing their reactions to situations that threatened to undermine their sense of competence and well-being—what some scholars call “identity abrasions.” They practiced authentic leadership through deep self-awareness and an ability to craft their own identities. And they demonstrated agility in their capacity to deftly transform obstacles (including self-doubt and excessive scrutiny) into opportunities to learn, develop, and ultimately exceed expectations.

These skills can help propel anyone’s career. All professionals and the organizations in which they work can benefit from cultivating and leveraging emotional intelligence, authenticity, and agility. While those skills are essential for every career, they are especially critical for members of historically disadvantaged groups. To that end, we hope that the stories of the women we interviewed will inspire young people from underrepresented groups who are still deciding what kind of career path makes sense for them. Despite the discouraging lack of representation at the very top of companies, the stories offer a road map to the high-level jobs from which future CEOs will emerge.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Laura Morgan Roberts (lroberts@hbs.edu) is a teaching professor at Georgetown University.

Anthony J. Mayo (tmayo@hbs.edu) is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.

Robin J. Ely is the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration and the senior associate dean for culture and community at Harvard Business School.

David A. Thomas (dthomas@hbs.edu) is the president of Morehouse College.

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