Why sponsorship is key to helping Black employees advance—and more takeaways from our new research

In a sense, Monne Williams’ work on our latest research began back in 2006, when she was the marketing manager for Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox. “We were only one mile from a historically Black neighborhood, but we had a lot of challenges attracting a diverse fan base,” she recalls. “We focused on building our internal diversity, doing multicultural marketing with events such as ‘Latino Family Festival,’ and promoting through social media. We were learning about, and solving, diversity problems we didn’t even know we had.”

Monne joined McKinsey in 2012 and now helps organizations through major transformations by focusing on organizational health, capability building, and culture change. Over the last year, she led our new research, Race in the workplace: The Black experience in the US private sector, along with Bryan Hancock, the global leader of our Talent Practice and an expert on the future of work.

The report offers a first-time look at both the big-picture trends of Black workers in the private sector as well as insights from their day-to-day experiences, based on input from some 25,000 employees.

What stands out to you personally in the findings?

Monne Williams and Bryan Hancock - Why sponsorship is key to helping Black employees advance
Monne Williams and Bryan Hancock led our new research on the Black experience in the private sector.
Monne Williams and Bryan Hancock - Why sponsorship is key to helping Black employees advance

Monne: Black employees are seeing companies saying the right things, making public announcements and monetary commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion, but they perceive that the execution is lacking. Black employees leave entry-level jobs at higher rates than white employees, and they make up only seven percent of managers. Two-thirds of all employees, including Black employees, report having no sponsors. So while intentions are there, traction and results aren’t.

What struck me is how similar the experiences of Black employees are in the day-to-day. Many feel that they are working with managers who aren’t experienced at leading diverse teams; they do not feel that diversity is valued nor that the systems around evaluation and promotion are fair.

They feel as if they can’t be their full selves. One focus group participant was told that he was being too professional and needed to lighten up. He didn’t know what to do with that feedback and feared that by acting “less professional” he would then be perceived as less competent. This is consistent with much of the research on code switching.

Many feel that their peer relationships are transactional and that there may be negative consequences if they share their experiences as Black employees. This all adds up to the sense that when you come to work, you can’t be your full self—and this experience was consistent.

What advice do you have for a manager on helping his or her diverse team thrive?

Bryan: One of the most valuable things a manager does is to give feedback. Managers should not shy away from giving feedback to Black colleagues because of a fear of “saying the wrong thing.” A manager needs to describe, and provide feedback on, the specific behaviors, knowledge, skills, and experiences Black team members need to succeed. Be very intentional and concrete on steps, and then follow-up regularly.

There are certain things a manager can do to help people fit in team settings. Create a space for everyone to contribute. Seek input from each person in the room when it’s a critical topic. And make a point as a team to discuss diversity as a topic. When planning social activities, make sure you have input from everyone on how to connect and celebrate and socialize.

No one is naturally good at these conversations. It requires a level of vulnerability in leaders to admit they don’t know exactly what to say. You have to have a learning mindset. Ask a lot of questions. Don’t worry about well-intended mistakes. This is what we are trying to help organizations with.

Race in the workplace: The Black experience in the US private sector

Race in the workplace: The Black experience in the US private sector

We see progress on hiring Black employees in entry-level roles but little in advancement to management. How can we improve this?

Bryan: We need more sponsors; fewer than a third of Black workers report having sponsors, and fewer than 25 percent report receiving “quite a bit” or “a lot” of support to make it to the next level. Sponsorship is more than meeting for an occasional coffee—it’s about providing honest coaching and feedback, creating career opportunities, and raising their name and profile when openings are being discussed at the senior level.

Monne: There is also an analytics element. When you are managing thousands of people on the front end of your talent pipeline, you need to invest more in data-based talent processes to help assess, manage, and advance people.

Geography plays a critical role in race and economic opportunity. Can you explain a bit about this?

Bryan: Yes, I was surprised at how critical geography is as a factor. Fewer than one in 10 Black workers in the private sector live in the fastest growing, most-dynamic places, such as Austin, Texas, or Provo, Utah. If you don't live where the high value jobs are, and are growing, that’s an immediate setback.

We are seeing some positive change however, as a result of the increased virtual working during the pandemic. It’s giving companies a chance to rethink their footprints, and consider whether some jobs, which might have historically been at headquarters, could be located in more diverse locations.

How much can companies actually achieve when it comes to promoting diversity and inclusion in society?

Monne: A company can do a lot within its own four walls, but to address broader challenges—such as creating jobs, improving transportation, and other infrastructure challenges—and maximizing philanthropic resources, it will need to develop partnerships with business councils, local government agencies, and non-profits. You can’t do this alone.

Bryan: Diversity programs should not all be the same. A high-tech company in Silicon Valley will have different diversity aspirations and context than say, a chemicals manufacturer in Oklahoma. A leader should be asking: “Given my geography, my industry, my location: what are the best ways for me to build a more diverse workforce?”

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