The Trouble With Unequal Team Development: What Leaders Can Do

November 10, 2022

Imagine you’re training to run a marathon. A personal trainer has determined your exercise schedule, and a dietician has advised you on which foods to eat and which to avoid. You have the best pair of shoes on the market, a sweat-wicking running shirt, and a custom water bottle. After months of following a training and diet regime, you’re set up for success.

Now, imagine you don’t have any of those things. Instead, you’ve been dropped off at the starting line wearing your street clothes and casual shoes. You don’t have any training under your belt, and you haven’t even been given a map of the course! What are the chances you’ll actually succeed?

This analogy illustrates the distinct advantages and disadvantages certain people experience in the workplace. Some are simply setup for success far better than others, whether they realize it or not. And those advantages are often perpetuated by company leaders (again, whether they realize it or not).

There’s a reason the vast majority of C-suite executives and Fortune 500 CEOs are white males—that’s how the workplace has been molded, and how it’s been for centuries. Everyone else is fighting an uphill battle (or, to continue the analogy, running a marathon in crocs!). It’s been proven time and again that diverse leadership teams can give companies a competitive advantage. Why, then, do white men always seem to rise to the top?

Success Factors

Many factors are at play—similarity bias (read more about this in a past blog post), greater access to resources, exposure to the “right” networks. But we’re going to focus on just one of the many factors that can lead to promotion: personal guidance and development.

As a leader, you have the power to open pathways to resources, mentors/sponsors, or relevant training. And you have the power to keep those pathways closed. Traditionally, white men have enjoyed personal development and guidance far more than any other group. They often have someone within the company who acts as a personal mentor (someone who answers questions, troubleshoots problems, etc.) or sponsor (someone who advocates on their behalf and, probably, introduces them to valuable network connections).

On the other hand, according to a McKinsey study, 67% of black professionals have no access to sponsors or allies to help their career growth. And only 37% of female professionals have a mentor.

Why Mentorship matters

Mentorships and sponsorships are incredibly valuable. The American Society for Training and Development reports that 75% of respondents who accepted an executive position say “mentorship played a critical role in their career development.” Another study shows that employees with mentors are promoted five times more often than their non-mentored peers.

As a leader, you can help pair your team members with mentors/sponsors, or set up group mentoring programs. You can also play an active role in personal development in other ways.

Personal Development Paths

Some of the ways to facilitate personal development and provide a clear path to promotion include:

  • Arranging for specialized training or coaching
  • Providing clear access to resources
  • Engaging in frequent check-ins to gather feedback
  • Asking team members about their professional goals
  • Connecting your team with networking groups
  • Initiating mentorship (or sponsorship) programs

Leaders play a critical role in preparing individuals for promotion. Unfortunately, many employees (women, BIPOC individuals, and especially women of color) have not received adequate support or guidance to gear up for a promotion. Instead, they have been largely unsupported in their career development and left to puzzle out the path forward.


It’s time we gear up our “marathon runners” with all the necessary equipment they require. Right now, too many people have been dropped off at the starting line without a map.

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