By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

A new study by the Center for Talent Innovation has revealed the importance of sponsorship to for the advancement and retention of people of color.

The study also highlights the link between sponsorship and building a culture of inclusiveness where minority employees feel comfortable being themselves and see themselves as leaders. The report, “Vaulting the Color Bar: How Sponsorship Leavers Multicultural Professionals into Leadership” was written by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Maggie Jackson, and Ellis Cose, with Courtney Emerson and outlines the challenges people of color face in making it to leadership in corporate America.

The authors write:

“Despite an abundance of drive and tremendous gains in the workplace, too many African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans are stalled several layers below the C-suite, facing lingering bias and entrenched ideals of white male leadership. Why is this impressive talent pool unable to break into the uppermost echelons again and again?”

According to the researchers, a confluence of factors – subtle bias, feelings of not fitting in, and most notably a lack or sponsorship – are hindering the advancement of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian employees. The upside, CTI believes, is that a focus on sponsorship can help dislodge these barriers.

Ambition and Advancement

The study, which polled almost 4,000 college-educated people in white-collar jobs, examines the link (or lack thereof) between ambition and advancement. While people of color display a much higher interest in advancement than white employees, they are less likely to ascend to leadership.

The authors write:

“Nearly 35 percent of African-Americans, nearly half of Asians and 42 percent of Hispanics are “willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top” compared with 31 percent of Caucasians. Moreover, people of color are more eager to be promoted to the next level and more likely to aspire to hold a top job in their profession than Caucasians.”

CTI believes that what’s keeping these ambitious professionals from ascending to leadership is a lack of sponsors. Only eight percent of employees of color have sponsors, compared with 13 percent of white employees. “Sponsorship is also a key retention tool; people of color with sponsors are less likely than those without sponsors to quit within a year.”

Authenticity and Leadership

The other issues that afflict people of color at work are a feeling that they can’t be themselves at work – over 35 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics and 45 percent of Asians say they have to change who they are to fit in with cultural norms in the office.

“When people of color feel that they have to mask a rich cultural heritage or other aspects of difference, they are apt to feel isolated at work, and mistrustful and less loyal to employers, CTI research shows,” the study authors write. “As a result, developing the voice of a leader becomes layered and difficult.”

On top of that, almost 40 percent of African-Americans, 13 percent of Asians, and 16 percent of Hispanics report experiencing discrimination in the workplace because of their ethnicity – compared to just five percent of white employees.

According to CTI, an increased focus on sponsorship for ethnic minority individuals would help propel more people of color to leadership. While only eight percent of people of color say they have sponsors, one in five people of color say they are sponsors.

The challenge though, is that many people of color at the top are concerned that they may not have the clout or influence they need to change the game for protégés. At the same time, ethnic minority protégés say they are worried it may seem like minority sponsors are playing favorites if they choose to sponsor them.

Nevertheless, CTI believes companies must encourage individuals to overcome these issues surrounding sponsorship. By talking more openly about what sponsorship is and how it works, companies can better equip potential sponsors and protégés to take ownership of these roles. By creating a culture of sponsorship, where the process is better understood and encouraged, employers can build a more inclusive pipeline to leadership, which would ultimately change the game for all members of a company’s workforce.