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NPR's Richard Gonzales reports on an effort to mentor those minority managers.
RICHARD GONZALES: Rob Sundy is, by many measures, an American success story. He graduated from West Point, where he was a star athlete and student. He served in Kosovo, then went to Harvard to earn an MBA before going to work for General Mills. His career was off to a fast start.
M: This light bulb came on saying, OK, I have potential, and it almost scared me. And I'm like, what do I do now?
GONZALES: That might sound like a strange question coming from someone with Sundy's track record, but he says he felt like he was carrying some heavy cultural baggage. He's African-American, from working-class Detroit.
M: I think because of my life story and my different background, that it doesn't making navigating this organization or corporate America - it's just not intuitive or natural to me.
GONZALES: Sundy says he had confidence in his smarts and skills, but it's what he didn't know that nagged him. Like when he heard his peers talking about playing golf with a senior executive and realizing he didn't know golf at all. And then there were the meetings.
M: I would say something in a meeting, and then no one would really say anything. And then five minutes later, someone else in the room would say the exact same thing, and everyone would applaud the idea and say that's the greatest thing ever. And I would always have this impression after the meeting, I was like, why was my commentary not accepted the same way as this other person? And I think earlier in my career, you know, I might have had the impression that it had something to do with race.
GONZALES: Or maybe not, but Sundy says he knew he would need some help to achieve his dream of reaching the executive suite. His company, General Mills, had a relationship with a nonprofit group called Management Leadership for Tomorrow, or MLT. It coaches midlevel managers. MLT is a brainchild of John Rice.
M: If you are a non-minority manager, you are going to be able to turn to your left, turn to your right, look forward, look back and choose out of several people, hopefully, who can give you that informal feedback and guidance that's so critical.
GONZALES: Rice, who is African-American and a former executive with the National Basketball Association, says many minority managers, no matter how accomplished, are still looking for that kind of career guidance, often from fellow minorities.
M: So, to some extent, what we see and what we provide to these folks is the ability and the road map to play the game like everyone else is playing it.
GONZALES: Take, for example, Tuwisha Rogers. She's a rising account supervisor at Images USA, a black-owned marketing communications firm. Her coach, Patricia Hayling Price, is talking to Rogers over the phone, suggesting ways to raise her profile inside her company.
M: Remember the exercise that you did in the room where you, instead of spewing out everything that was on your mind, you withheld it?
M: Yes. It's been really helpful. Being able to stop, think about the five things that I want to talk about and come back with just one point has really changed, I think, some people's perception of what I say and do now. I think everyone thinks I'm intelligent, but now they're waiting to hear what the wisdom of Tuwisha at the end of the conversation. It was a great exercise.
GONZALES: This kind of coaching would be appropriate for anyone climbing the corporate ladder, but the coach, Hayling Price, says minority middle managers face a special challenge.
M: As a minority mid-manager on the rise, you are always leery of the snipers out there and all of the micro-inequities that exist in a corporate environment. When are they going to get you? You're expected to be faster, smarter, better in order to really gain the visibility. The stakes are huge.
GONZALES: Huge because major corporations and nonprofits are looking for a new generation of minority talent. Recruiting is one challenge, but MLT's John Rice says the bigger challenge is making sure minority managers have what it takes and get what they need to reach the top.
M: And for the minority manager, what they need to understand is, how do you play the game to win? What's the bar for excellence? What does it take to get promoted? What does it take to avoid the things that can derail somebody? We're trying to prepare people to navigate their careers in a way that takes the minority issue out of it.
GONZALES: Richard Gonzales, NPR News.
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