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How a Dedicated Mentor Gave Momentum to a Woman’s Career

April 24, 1995

An African-American woman in her 40s resigns as a vice president of giant Xerox Corp. in California and takes a job at a small, staid Pittsburgh utility dominated by white men.

The reason: her new boss, who promises her the chance to shake things up. But realizing she faces obstacles, he makes sure she understands her new corporate culture, sings her praises to outsiders at every turn and helps her land on several boards.

``A lot of people have to work at being comfortable with people of different races, but he’s genuinely at ease,″ says Dianna Green, senior manager-customer operations at DQE Corp., of her boss, Chief Executive Wesley von Schack. ``He has sent me to events he was supposed to attend just because he wanted to diversify the group,″ she notes, pointing to a photo of herself among a dozen white male executives that was taken at a meeting with the governor of Pennsylvania.

Managers seeking to climb the corporate ladder know that talent and drive aren’t enough. They also need a mentor who can offer support and guidance and can sponsor their promotion to ever more senior jobs. Few need this more than women and members of minority groups, especially at a time when affirmative action, along with individual efforts to strengthen their chances, are under attack. And few of them have this need met.

Consider 27-year-old Chris Powell, who is black. After graduating from college, he landed a job in sales at Ford Motor Co. Eager to advance, he often asked his supervisors for feedback. ``I’d go and seek their counsel, but they’d just say I was doing a fine job and should keep on doing it. No one offered any advice on how to get to the next step.″

Then his division was asked to push a slow-selling car, and sales managers were pitted against one another in a contest. A white co-worker learned that Ford was offering some promotion money for the sales pitch, tapped into the funds _ and won the contest. ``That information came from someone in senior management who was watching out for him _ and it gave him the edge,″ says a disappointed Mr. Powell. After three years at Ford, with no promotion in sight, he quit the car company.

Toby Thompkins, a diversity consultant, faced similar frustrations in a previous job at a big accounting company. New to the corporate world and feeling ``culture shock″ as one of only two blacks among his division’s 122 new hires, he felt too vulnerable to ask for help from his supervisors. Besides, he says, the supervisors suggested that he ``get to know″ a black manager who worked at a distant location and in a very different part of the business. ``They didn’t say he was black,″ says Mr. Thompkins. But when he finally met the manager, ``I realized they thought it was his role to be my mentor even though he didn’t know me from a can of paint.″

After a year, Mr. Thompkins learned that he and his black colleague were the only new hires who weren’t being promoted. ``I so needed to be able to talk to someone who could help me understand and help me remember why I’d come there and what I wanted to achieve,″ says Mr. Thompkins. He moved to a new company after another year.

David Thomas, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied mentoring relationships, says he believes that effective mentors ``create a context in which you’re stretched and developed.″ Friendship and trust are also essential ingredients, he says, but it can be difficult for members of minority groups to trust a white mentor. Another factor is that most executives are white males, and most choose people they can easily identify with. ``Likes attract likes,″ Mr. Thomas says.

When race or gender differences exist, the key to successful mentoring is finding other common ground. That’s what DQE’s Mr. von Schack did with Ms. Green. When he recruited her from Xerox seven years ago to head the utility’s human-resource department, he perceived that he and she shared a similar management style and values. Both describe themselves as frank, loyal and, while devoted to their careers, also committed to community service.

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