AT&T’s Chief Diversity Officer Cynt Marshall On Executive Sponsorship and the C-Suite

Cynt MarshallResearch shows that a lack of sponsorship is the single most critical factor keeping qualified women of color from entering the C-suite. Cynt Marshall, AT&T?s Chief Diversity Officer, recently spoke about this and the importance of mentorship for black women in corporate America. She points out that sponsors are super-mentors who commit themselves to your professional success and personal well-being.

Here, we caught up with Marshall to explore ?executive sponsorship,? how women can leverage their networks and skills to close the gap in the number of women of color entering the C-suite and why women should explore tech-related fields.? What role has mentorship played in your career, and how has executive sponsorship helped you get to where you are today?

Cynt Marshall: I wouldn?t be where I am today without a supportive network of mentors, sponsors and bosses. Certainly, I had to put in the effort and hard work, but I did not do it alone. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to those people who helped me elevate my own career.

I?ve had the good fortune to be associated with great bosses, mentors and sponsors in my career. They offered valuable advice and advocacy. The people around me helped guide me to the place I was destined to be.

To succeed, you need both mentors AND sponsors. Mentors can serve as sounding boards. They give great career advice. Sponsors are sort of like ?super-mentors.? Sponsors can actually leverage their own influence and resources on your behalf.

If you lack that support system, it can really hamstring your career growth. There are studies that back this up. A survey last year conducted by the Working Mother Institute showed that less than half of women of color say they are satisfied with their ability to move ahead in their companies. One factor they cited was a lack of mentors and sponsors.

The same study showed that 74 percent of women of color who had mentors were satisfied with their ability to advance. In what ways can women leverage their networks and skills to close the gap in the number of women of color entering the C-suite?

C.M.: Certainly, it makes sense to cultivate relationships with people around you. When you?re in a leadership position, it makes good sense to help others who are their way up the ladder.

Just because you have some years of experience, it doesn?t mean you can?t learn from junior staffers. For example, last year I met a young female leader at AT&T who spoke on a panel about social media. She was extremely knowledgeable on the subject, so after the presentation I offered to be a mentor and sponsor for her within AT&T. I learned a lot from her that day and that relationship continues. Every interaction is an important opportunity to make an impact.

If you?re one of those people on the way up, maybe a young worker, fresh out of college, it?s even more important to develop those relationships. You can do that be finding a mentor and seeking out advice from the people around you. What is your greatest piece of advice to women of color looking to take their careers to the next level?

C.M.: Definitely, find a company that shares your values. You may be attracted to an industry or a company because you have an interest in the service or product they provide, but how much do you know about their brand, its values and the company?s commitment to diversity?

If you are already working for a company that has values you admire, congratulations! It probably means you would be happy with a long-term commitment there, and it?s a place where you can build a career. The next step is find opportunities to stretch and grow. That may mean getting out of your comfort zone and taking on responsibilities or learning skills that are new for you.

Embrace the opportunity to learn and expand your horizons. That also applies to assignments that could take your out of your geographic comfort zone. I?m originally from California and it will always be home to me, but if you want to take your career to the next level, you may need to consider ?home? as anywhere you can hone your skills, highlight your strengths as a leader and meet new coworkers. The people you work alongside today could be your bosses tomorrow?or you could be their boss. How important is it to increase the number of black women in tech-related careers?

C.M.: It?s essential that more African American women prepare themselves for tech jobs, both through education and entry-level jobs. More and more companies will be filling these jobs in the coming years.

That?s not only the case at AT&T and Silicon Valley firms (where women have not been particularly well represented) but in other industries. That?s because industries that didn?t have as much need for tech jobs in previous decades find themselves in an environment where they must mechanize to remain competitive. The skills that will increasingly be in demand center around technology.

AT&T is not just waiting for college-bound African American women interested in STEM careers to arrive on our doorstep. We are building strategic collaborations with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), in an effort to establish an ongoing pipeline of diverse talent. Those new grads will be in a great position to build their careers and be among our company?s future leaders. How does the impact of women of color in C-suite level positions trickle down and throughout large corporations?

C.M.: You can?t truly call your company diverse if you don?t have diversity in a leadership capacity.

When diverse employees look at the leaders of the company they work for and see women of color?or any women?in leadership roles, those employees see proof that there are opportunities for them, regardless of their ethnicity or the color of their skin.

Our employees need not look far to find diverse leaders and for that matter, our board of directors is diverse, with 30 percent women and people of color. We have two African-Americans on our board of directors.

It?s also important for a company?s leadership to do more than offer lip service to diversity. They must offer clear evidence that it is a core value. Our CEO Randall Stephenson has made a commitment to diversity, and in fact, he heads one of our diversity and inclusion councils. What steps are you and/or AT&T making to close the gap?

C.M.: We start at the beginning ? with college recruitment. We have on-site presence at top schools nationwide to search for strong STEM students, graduates and others for internships and employment. This includes colleges most likely to enroll diverse students.

We have development programs that put top hires and high-potential employees on fast-track rotations to learn the business. These rotations provide assignments that enable participants to develop high-demand skills quickly, make measureable contributions to their business and receive ongoing performance feedback.