How to beating the odds

A list of the top CEOs shows a shocking lack of diversity. For example, 32 of the top executives at Fortune 500 companies are women. With Ken Chenault's recent departure from American Express, only three of the Fortune 500 leaders are African-American. And not one of them is a woman of African descent. What is the deal?

This spring marks 50 years since the founding of Harvard Business School's African-American Student Union. In preparation for this commemoration, we studied the careers of approximately 2,300 alumni from African descent who graduated from HBS in 1908. We identified 532 African American women who graduated between 1977 and 2015. We examined the careers of the 67 women who have reached the positions of CEO or chair in a corporation, senior managing director, or partner in a professional service firm. 30 of these 67 were interviewed in depth.

These women beat all odds. They are certainly well-prepared and competitive in the job marketplace. According to our data, their investments in higher education at more-selected institutions have been greater than those of their non-African American classmates. As is the case with all corporate America's top performers, it was not just their personal talents and strengths that helped them reach the top. It was the ability to support and recognize your strengths and talents and encourage others. Both are important elements to success.

We see too many business leaders fail to promote members of the underrepresented because they are influenced by their own success. Although they believe they are skilled at finding and supporting talent, their support is based on their own experiences. I was like that five years ago and I knew this was what I needed to get the next level. Research shows that company leaders are most able to identify talent and understand the needs of others when they are presented as theirs. They often overlook or are unable to develop talents that are different from their own. So in our study we asked: What lessons can aspiring leaders--specifically, women of color and members of other underrepresented groups--take from the careers of highly successful African-American women? What can corporate leaders learn from black women who are able to identify and develop their talents? And what lessons might these lessons have to offer us in cultivating the talents of those underrepresented groups?

The answer to the question "What it takes to succeed?" can be simplified to one capacity: resilience. Resilience has been widely praised as a character virtue over the past decade and plays an important role in all success stories, regardless of race or gender. The interconnected dynamics of race, gender and other identities meant that the African-American women interviewed relied more on resilience than others. They bounced back in each case, didn't get distracted, or stalled, and continued to make progress. One explained that everyone was taught that to win the game, you needed to be smarter, faster, jump higher, or better than anyone else. This was something I learned early in life, from my teachers, mentors, and church. This orientation will help you get to your job.

Three skills were crucial to the resilience of our women: emotional intelligence, authenticity, as well agility. They were EQ experts and could read the political and interpersonal dynamics of their organizations. They also knew how to manage their reactions to situations that threatened their competence and well-being, which some scholars refer to as identity abrasions. They were able to create their own identities and practice authentic leadership by being fully aware of themselves. They were able to transform any obstacle (including self-doubt or excessive scrutiny) into an opportunity to learn, grow, and eventually exceed expectations.

These skills are essential for any career. Professionals and organizations can all benefit from cultivating and leveraging emotion intelligence, authenticity, agility. These skills are important for all careers, but they are particularly critical for those from historically disadvantaged communities. We hope the stories of the women interviewed will help young people from underrepresented backgrounds decide what career path is right for them. The stories provide a roadmap to high-level jobs that will lead to future CEOs, despite the disappointing lack of representation at the top of companies.

The Visibility/Invisibility Conundrum

Before we get to the skills that are crucial for resilience, let us examine the greatest challenge faced by the women who participated in our study: visibility and invisibility. One, they stand out because they are not normal people in their organizations. One senior finance executive said that I was the only black person in my organization. In fact, I didn't see another black person for 20 years. Many women felt like they were being displayed, which can lead them to feel self-conscious and inhibiting. One chief investment officer said that it forces you to work hard to ensure you don't make mistakes. Their race and gender placed these women in the spotlight. This can be exhausting. It is a tax that majority employees don’t have to pay and that can easily ruin a career.