What Do Black Executives Really Want?
Recruiting and retaining Black talent is a priority for many organizations. Most are committed to and investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion. And yet, according to interviews and focus groups with Black executives working in a variety of blue-chip companies with strong DEI programs, very few feel good about their workplace experiences at work. They feel isolated, unable to be authentic, and less confident. How can employers and individual managers? By ensuring that Black employees feel safe, seen and supported. This article outlines some concrete ways to make that happen.
Companies are prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as never before, talking about it publicly, making strategic hires, and putting metrics in place to track progress. And yet, according to in-depth interviews and focus groups we conducted over the past several months, many are still struggling to create environments in which Black professionals feel they can thrive. As these organizations find themselves losing valued talent — or failing to recruit it — especially during this period of post-pandemic job change, managers are wondering: What are we doing wrong?
To find out, we talked to more than a dozen high-achieving Black executives working in blue-chip banking, technology, e-commerce, professional services, consumer packaged goods, and other companies with strong DEI programs — that is, employers trying to follow best practices for managing diverse talent. We then conducted several focus groups consisting of 8-10 young Black employees discussing their experiences at work. We asked our interviewees what they wished their organizations and bosses would do differently and what advice they would give their CEOs about DEI efforts.
We learned that these employees feel marginalized, under-appreciated, and poorly understood. In many cases, they know that their organizations support DEI, but they judge their efforts — for example, anti-bias training or the creation of affinity groups — to be inadequate. They told us that they lack strong coaches and mentors and still don’t feel that they can “bring their whole selves to work.” Asked to name a company that was doing things right, none of them could.
These stories saddened and, frankly, surprised us. Many of our interviewees had thrived in elite educational institutions and were landing at top firms with high hopes for making their marks. But they felt thwarted: As one person put it, “It feels like I’m running up the down escalator while watching other people just stand still and go up.” Our goal is not to shame-and-blame well-intentioned managers. Rather, we seek to shed light on some of the things they might not understand about the needs of Black employees and share some ideas about how to bridge that gap. As we pored over the transcripts of these discussions, we identified three significant challenges that seem to define Black executives’ experiences at work and in turn severely limit their career development. Our interviewees offered suggestions for fixing these problems. From these we distilled three ways for managers and companies to reverse that dynamic.
A sense of isolation
Many of our interviewees told us that, despite the lip service their organizations were paying to not just DEI but also belonging, they still felt out of place among mostly white peers and bosses. Consider Alex, who was raised by a single mother in a diverse, lower-middle-class neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan and currently works at a U.S. East Coast venture capital firm. His colleagues often talk about sailing, sushi dinners, or holidays in the Hamptons, leaving him with little opportunity to connect. “I noticed that a lot of the people I worked with just weren’t used to being around Black people,” he added. “It wasn’t their fault. They just didn’t know.” Jordan, a UX designer working at a global financial services firm, reported similar experiences: white peers going out to lunch with one another but failing to invite him or seeming “standoffish” and uninterested in getting to know him. “They were definitely more curious about each other’s family or family relationships than they were about mine,” he explained. Another interviewee who had worked at large tech and CPG companies told us that he could not think of a single time his colleagues had asked about his personal life, while Vanessa, an employee at another large CPG manufacturer, told us that it took two years for a manager to ask about her career goals.
Fears about getting “real”
Many of the Black executives in our study told us that there was a huge chasm between the persona they put on at work (what the sociologist Erving Goffman described as the “front-stage”) and their “true” selves (the “back-stage”). Almost universally, interviewees said they engaged in code-switching. Black men, in particular, said that they had to “soften” their personalities lest they come across as angry. Consider Branden, who told us that, as a 6ft 1inch tall, 180lb Black man, he makes a point of smiling and appearing jovial and holding negative emotions in check at his large accounting firm. “I’ve seen plenty of people express a lot of anger at work, or frustration, and yell or whatever their reaction is, and I don’t feel like that same grace applies to someone like me,” he explained.
Even more ominously for organizations that want to elicit employees’ best thinking, many interviewees told us that they often keep their ideas to themselves, fearing that others won’t understand or appreciate them. David, a former marketing manager who now runs his own consulting firm, told us that he used to worry about his colleagues not understanding him. “When there’s a concern that [my contribution might] translate into either confusion or frustration, or in the worst of cases, punishment, it discourages me from being my authentic self.” Similarly, Alex told us that he was a “quieter” person at work, finding it easier to keep his head down rather than risk some kind of hostile response to his ideas.
Loss of confidence
Perhaps because they’re made to feel like inauthentic outsiders, many interviewees also said they suffered from imposter syndrome — the belief that they don’t really belong in their jobs. As Branden explained, when not one but many clients and even colleagues he has just met seem shocked that he’s a certified public accountant, it feels like they’re questioning his competence and potential. Another interviewee said that when, at the start of his career, he was the only Black person in his office he experienced “anxiety” for the first time. “You just feel extremely uncomfortable,” he added. Jordan noted that he was rarely praised for good work or treated as someone who could climb the ranks at his company, which hurt his morale and left him feeling as if he wasn’t capable of advancement. “I don’t think there were any mechanisms to really ensure that Black people had a plan,” he said. So “you’re like, ‘All right, screw this. This is my 9-to-5. I’m just going to show up and then go home.’”
Collectively, our interviewees reported feeling lonely, stressed, fearful, disengaged, insecure, and unable to deliver their best work because of the environments in which they were operating. They all wanted to excel personally and for their organizations, but were thwarted. “The idea for me was always to thrive on the job,” one remarked, “but unfortunately, I’ve just been surviving.”
What do these Black professionals need that their workplaces aren’t providing? It’s pretty simple: they want to feel safe, seen, and supported at work. Although we all have heard these terms before in the context of DEI, we believe that managers and other leaders can benefit from viewing the three categories as a system and understanding the nuances of each category from the point-of-view of Black employees.
To feel safe
As a baseline, employees must feel physically safe, protected from violence and outright harassment. Thankfully, our interviewees didn’t flag this as a significant problem for them though we know it remains a pervasive problem in many workplaces – one that should be addressed with zero tolerance vigilance.
The next, crucially important step is to create psychological safety, which means, that everyone feels they can express themselves, broach difficult issues, take risks, collaborate freely with others, and even make mistakes without repercussions. As Amy Edmondson has argued, this is the key to unleashing learning and performance in teams.
Our research suggests that leaders need to work harder to make Black employees feel safe by modeling intense listening and humble inquiry, providing clear guidelines for team communication, destigmatizing failure, emphasizing continuous accountability, and routinely acknowledging and thanking people for their participation.
Other steps are also needed. Top of the list is building a critical mass of non-white employees. Few people are comfortable operating as a “lone pioneer”; it’s an undue burden to be expected to represent all Black people. Most of our interviewees said that they would feel more confident about voicing their opinions and showing their personalities if their teams were more heterogeneous. As Alex explained, with “a whole bunch of different diverse cultures … the conversations [are] more candid and you [can] be more like yourself.”
Organizations must also support employee resource groups (ERGs) and other networks. When properly prioritized, resourced, and publicly backed by senior leaders, these groups help Black professionals feel safer by enhancing their relationships with people from other underrepresented demographics and giving them a collective voice and sense of empowerment.
Finally, firms can enhance psychological safety by using engagement data to monitor progress and foster accountability. Leaders should find ways to measure how safe Black employees on various teams feel and move quickly to rectify any problems.
To feel seen
Our research showed us that Black employees want to be seen by bosses, colleagues, and organizations in two very specific ways.
First, as people. As Michael, an employee at a large technology company, said, “Before you can be my manager and help me achieve my professional goals and support me as I work this business, understand who I am, how I talk, my motivations, my goals, my aspirations.” Put more bluntly, leaders need to remove the blinders that prevent them from seeing the full humanity of Black employees. This will involve asking questions (and being genuinely interested in learning) about their families, hobbies, and life experiences; including them in lunches and other office socializing; and encouraging candid conversations about race-related current events in thoughtful, empathetic, and compassionate ways.
Second, Black employees want to be seen as valued contributors. This starts with public affirmation. Jordan described a meeting in which a teammate was disregarding his expertise until his boss intervened with a “Let’s trust Jordan.” “Just to hear the words felt good,” he told us. It demonstrated to Jordan and his colleagues that his boss believed in his ability — giving him confidence and affirming his competency. Organizational policies should also ensure that Black employees are receiving compensation, promotions, and growth opportunities on par with other top talent, while individual managers must work to fairly assess the true potential of Black employees with less bias.
Symbols of progress — such as Black employees being put on important committees, a supply chain that includes Black-owned businesses, and most importantly high-profile senior executives who are Black — can also make a difference (provided they represent real change, not just window dressing.) Michael noted, for example, that role models are critical: “If my goal is to be in C-suite or be an executive at this company and I see no one that looks like me there, the fears I have about potentially pursuing this will be heavy on me. You got to see it to be it, and if I don’t see it, how can I ever be it?”
Gabrielle, who worked at a large investment bank, agreed. “It wasn’t just: Do I see other African-Americans on the trading floor? It was: Do I see other women on the trading floor? Do I see other Black women on the trading floor? Do I see any other people with intersecting identities that are close to mine?”
To feel supported
It’s not enough for Black employees to feel safe and seen. They also want to be equipped with what they need in order to learn, outperform, and advance in their careers. Our interviewees pointed to several ways that leaders and companies can make this happen.
First, by buttressing their confidence. One interviewee talked about her mentors’ commitment. “They sought me out and truly believed that I was capable of bringing something to the firm and stuck with me.”
Second, by providing tools and opportunities. Like any employee, Black team members might need guidance on both hard and soft skills, from developing strategic plans to navigating office politics; honest developmental feedback; and help mapping out — and achieving — career milestones. You can also offer executive education, high-profile project assignments, formal and informal sponsorship, and stretch roles in different geographies or business units.
A third form of support is shared accountability. Organizations should put the onus on managers — not only on the Black employees themselves — to make sure this cohort is advancing. To be clear, we are not suggesting that Black employees should be coddled. Rather, we want managers to give them the specific support that will maximize their opportunity to succeed as well as challenges that push them to perform against the highest standards.
These three pillars of “safe, seen, and supported” are mutually reinforcing. You must deliver on all of them at once to have maximum impact. Doing so is what has been described as caring leadership.
As an example, we might point to Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has achieved great success by softening the sport’s traditionally hard-edged competition. In a recently published case study written with Matt Breitfelder, we found that Carroll maintains strong performance expectations of his players, but he seeks to unleash the full talents and motivation of his team members by helping them to thrive as individuals. Describing his previous efforts while coaching in the NCAA on a podcast, he remarked that, “Simply put, we had tried to construct a program that was built on the central theme of competition and was, most importantly, directed by the thought of truly caring for every single individual. I really wanted to know what would happen if you treated everyone with great care.”
In Carroll’s words, he wants to “help everyone find their best,” to “celebrate uniqueness,” and to create an environment in which “everybody feels a sense of belonging.”
When NFL running back Marshawn Lynch joined the team following a rocky stint with the Buffalo Bills, Carroll helped him feel safe, seen, and supported by publicly welcoming him to the team, getting to know him as a person, and explicitly encouraging him to express his individuality. (He also laid out three rules — protect the team, no whining, and punctuality — which Lynch readily accepted.)
This kind of leadership, performed consistently and authentically in conjunction with other diversity initiatives and policies, can help Black employees — and indeed, all team members — thrive. Caring leadership gives Black employees what they say they need: managers who strive toward a system that makes everyone feel “safe, seen, and supported.”
In the end, this changes not just the dynamic with and outcomes for Black employees. It shifts the culture of the organization to cultivate the full potential of all employees.