Opinion: Mentors must look beyond ‘people like themselves’ to raise a truly diverse leadership
Think about your workplace, or your mentors, and you will likely recognize yourself. The boss takes someone under her wing who reminds her of herself when she was younger. Perhaps you’ve done the same. The connection is easy—you share some common interests like race, geography, education, religion or even a hobby.
I’ve spent the past several years researching and writing about mentoring. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, of all races, genders and sexual orientations, about their experiences as both mentors and mentees. A common finding in these relationships is that people subconsciously choose to mentor, or be mentored, by people who remind them of themselves. This is a common sociological phenomenon called homophily: the tendency for people to seek out those who are similar to themselves.
No one consciously begins a mentoring relationship with the intent to exclude. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Mentor relationships are generous investments of time and heart. Yet, when a mentor chooses a mentee based on homophily, there is a missed opportunity to mentor those who are unlike her. How much of this choice is comfort, tradition, opportunity or implicit bias?
Said differently: leaders raise the next generation of leaders. When they mentor people like themselves, they create a new generation of leaders that look just like them. Among those with whom I spoke, this wasn’t an intentional or exclusionary thought. In reality, it’s without much thought at all.
The great divide between rich and poor was compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then further compounded by another tragic example of our collective ongoing problems with racism and police brutality.
As I sit in my predominantly white, safe, suburban town, keenly aware of the enormous educational and socio-economic privileges of my skin color, I want to offer something more structural beyond participating in a rally or giving money (though those things are important too). I want people to see that they can actively participate in shifting power, in building black and brown leadership. I want people to recognize how we have a permanent crisis of power imbalance filtered throughout our society.
Change won’t just happen in the streets or the halls of government, or at school or home; it has to permeate all aspects of our lives. Change needs to happen in the workplace, with intentionality. It’s simple, everyone benefits, and there are far-reaching positive consequences.
In your workplace, look broadly at the people with whom you can build relationships. Look past the commonalities that make connection easy. Consider how you might connect with someone who seems different from you, comes from a different place, has a different color skin, or loves differently than you.
What if a white senior manager went out of his way to connect with a junior woman of color. What if this woman of color is given guidance that she might not have otherwise had? What if this woman of color is supported, promoted and becomes a leader in the organization? When this happens, the leadership of that organization not only becomes more diverse, but that new leader will be an inspiration and a role model for the junior people of color who come up behind her.
This younger woman of color is also very likely to be a mentor. Studies have shown that those who have been mentored are the most likely to mentor others. This creates a virtuous circle of more mentors, more role models and more opportunity. This diversity is not just good for humanity, it’s good for business.
Now, imagine this happens broadly across our country and that managers actively seek relationships of difference. Imagine that in all kinds of organizations, people with power and privilege are using it to create a new generation of leaders that look very different from our current generation of leaders. With this greater diversity comes business growth, value creation and social impact.
Is this a complete answer? Of course not. It’s one of thousands of actions that will make a difference for some. Nor is it an easy answer. Cross-gender, cross-race and cross-cultural mentoring require greater thought and self-awareness than relationships with more inherent commonalities. However, it is an act that can start to bridge what is currently an impossibly wide divide.
Someday, post-COVID-19, we’ll be back in our workplaces. When this happens, we won’t be going “back to normal.” Between the pandemic and the racial outrage we’re witnessing, it’s clear that normal wasn’t working. We need to seize this moment to build anew and move never backward, always forward, always.