Mentoring is About Relationship, Not Background

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Do you and your mentor need to be of the same race or ethnicity?

Twenty nine percent of the financial professionals surveyed by the Robert Toigo Foundation indicated their firm's mentoring efforts were valuable to their career trajectory. The survey, Retention Returns: Insights for More Effective Diversity Initiatives, polled MBA graduates of color from top 25 graduate business school programs in the U.S. More than 60 percent were African-American, 24 percent were Latino, 8 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2 percent Native American/Alaskan native. They were employed in a range of finance sectors.

"Mentor relationships can contribute significantly to the development of a professional of color's confidence, competence, and credibility," the report said, and noted it can play an even more critical role to minority executives than their white counterparts. A key component in mentoring is trust, which can - but not always - be a challenge when racial lines are crossed.

However, with few minorities in roles of authority in the financial industry, racial lines often must be crossed. According to the report, 83 percent of respondents felt that as along as their mentor was their "advocate" on the job, the relationship could be successful no matter the mentor's race. Only 16 percent considered ethnicity "extremely" or "very" important in the mentoring relationship.

The Desire to Give Back

The equation could change as more minorities rise into roles of authority. Ebele Okobi-Harris, head of marketing and brand communications for Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a New York-based organization that helps young people get onto management tracks, says many minority executives feel a need to give back and mentor others like themselves. Tapping into a good mentor is a key to increasing one's professional opportunities, she says as well as enhancing real skills sets on the job.

Okobi-Harris says people need to look for mentors in informal - as well as company-focused - settings, since informal networks such as social and affinity groups are good places to find talented minority professionals willing to lend their advice and help. In addition, she suggests both those looking to mentor, and those looking for a mentor, remember any professionals met in the course of volunteering time or doing work on a nonprofit board. Often, career development is "all about increasing your network," she says.

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