By Melissa J. Anderson

A little more than two years ago, The Executive Leadership Council Institute for Leadership Development & Research published the findings of its Black Women’s Research Initiative [PDF]. Executive Director Ancella Livers, Ph.D., explained, “Some of our female members noticed the numbers of black women in executive roles seemed to be fairly small. They wanted to know why.”

“We really wanted to be able to understand what’s going on, and to give some of our younger women markers on a pathway.” She continued, “Younger women have the intelligence and the skills, but not the access to the experiences of the women who went before them to guide the way.”

Unfortunately, according to Dr. Livers, in the years since the research was published, there has not been much change regarding the number of Black women in senior roles, or in the pipeline. And while she noted the importance of Ursula Burns as the CEO of Xerox, Dr. Livers said, in general, many black women perceived a lack of role models, as part of the reason why. Others suggest that black women lack strength in their strategic relationships with those in power, as another reason.

Strengthening Relationships of Power

“The research confirmed a lot of things we already knew. The biggest finding is that, on aggregate, CEOs saw Black women very differently than Black women saw themselves. Our research exposed some things that were very disturbing around the notion of the networks Black women have and the quality of their relationships with individuals of power.”

She continued, “Black women thought they were very strategic in their networking and relationships. Their CEOs and peers said they weren’t. Black women are not getting the infrastructural guidance, and they’re not counted on for infrastructural guidance. That makes it harder to get to the C-suite.”

Dr. Livers said that that many of Black women’s peers and CEOs felt they didn’t take feedback or coaching very well. The women countered that concern saying there was more to the issue. She explained, “The research showed that Black women did not take feedback in coaching very well. It comes down to a matter of trust – they don’t always trust the people giving feedback and coaching.”

She continued, “This ties back to relationships. If relationships are stronger, you’re more likely to trust feedback. Women have to recognize that they can’t immediately dismiss it.”

On the other hand she said, “Peers and bosses may not be giving the feedback as objectively as they believe they are.”

What Companies Can Do to Advance Black Women

“My advice is for companies to ask themselves questions,” Dr. Livers explained.

“Look at leadership teams and measure how many women there are – white women and women of color. What may be filtering people out? Are they addressing specific barriers, like feedback issues? Are they training managers to provide developmental feedback, and not just criticism? Are they also giving positive feedback?”

She continued, “Black women have to reach out and build great relationships. But they should not be the only ones reaching out. They cannot have the sole responsibility for making things better.”

She advised companies to ensure there are Black women on slates of candidates for top positions and to ensure Black women are being considered for global assignments and P&L responsibilities.

Engineering Success

Additionally, Dr. Livers advised women to take charge in their own advancement. She explained, “If we want it to happen, we have to engineer it ourselves. We have to take control of our lives and have to have those conversations.”

She also emphasized the value of coaches or mentors. “There’s no shame in getting a coach. Most folks in top spaces have them.”

As for the feedback issue, Dr. Livers said, “Be very careful not to reject advice if it is given badly. It doesn’t mean it’s not good feedback.” Women should also evaluate their relationships to make sure they are with individuals they trust and who will give them quality feedback. “Balance the feedback you don’t trust with the feedback you do trust, and calibrate that. You need to have people who will tell you the truth,” she added.

“Many women say that ‘eyes just kind of slide over us,’” she continued, “and so Black women and organizations have to work to make Black women and their value visible to their companies. Black women have to have already said they are willing to take on assignments and be prepared so the organization can see them. Organizations have to be willing to push themselves and choose new people for important assignments and jobs.”

According to Dr. Livers, many women have said the study came in handy when starting a conversation with managers or employee resource groups in order to create change. “It can be hard to get a conversation started, but this is a good starting place.”