As early as high school, Melissa James knew she wanted a career in business. Her physician father served an inner-city population, and James was keenly aware of what it was like to live in the shadow of economic insecurity. "Because blacks had so little, relative to their white counterparts, I learned early how important it was to be master of your own destiny," says James. "I saw the value of entrepreneurship: that to accumulate real wealth, you needed to own and control the means of production."

James' pursuit of autonomy and influence led her to the financial industry, where as managing director and global head of loan products at Morgan Stanley, she oversees $70 billion in loan commitments and was named one of the 75 Most Powerful Blacks on Wall Street. "You can make the world a better place by being in finance, but that's not what drew me," she notes. "I saw myself being empowered and being in a position to empower others."

What company wouldn't want this kind of talent on their team? Yet qualified black women are too often overlooked, under-utilized or just plain sidelined.

Black women's leadership aspirations have not been part of the current dialogue on women, work and ambition. Women tend to be viewed as a monolithic talent pool, without taking into account the differing cultural, historical, and socio-economic factors steering women of color along a career path marked by a very particular set of challenges.

A new Center for Talent innovation (CTI) report, Black Women: Ready to Lead, shows that black women are more likely than white women to perceive a powerful position as the means to achieving their professional goals and are confident that they can succeed in the role.

Black women have always leaned in; they're more likely than any other ethnic group to be employed. They're also better acquainted with the responsibilities and requirements of leadership because, as Dartmouth professor Ella Bell makes clear in Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity, they're much more likely than white women to be leaders: as school board presidents and church elders, as Big Sisters and Girl Scout troop leaders, as community activists and public-sector reformers, they're well versed in what it takes to drive lasting change.

Yet their leadership experience often goes unrecognized by white male management. And their distinctly differentiated motivators and misgivings are frequently amalgamated into a generalized "women" mash-up. That's a mistake smart leaders should remedy.

What can companies do? There's no silver bullet but these threeactions can go a long way to paving over the potholes that trip up black women intent on an executive position:

  • Formalize sponsorship. Black women find it extremely difficult to win sponsorship: a mere 11% have sponsors, underscoring the imperative of giving highly qualified ambitious black women greater visibility and connection opportunities with top executives. "Executive sponsorship is critical," says Rosalind Hudnell, vice president of Human Resources at Intel, "as it can result in accelerated promotions and highly visible positions of strategic value to the company."
  • Start earlier. Programs aimed at developing black women's leadership skills and fomenting sponsorship must absolutely include their managers and line-of-sight leaders. Because women of color struggle to be their authentic selves at work, they're not inclined to share details of their life outside work-such as leadership positions they embrace in their church or community-with their managers. "That makes it hard for managers to know enough about them to represent them as talented people to their own superiors," says Trevor Gandy, head of diversity at Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. "Successful outcomes depend on [managers] being involved in the initial discussion, on having a role so that they're vested in these women's advancement."
  • Combat unconscious bias. Would-be sponsors may scrutinize a black woman's executive presence against leadership norms they're unaware of. "Women and people of color have let us know that they find it difficult to advance in the organization and that they are hindered by the unwritten rules for getting ahead and being seen as future leaders," says Nadine Augusta, director of diversity and inclusion and corporate social responsibility at The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC). "That points to biases we must address." To make leaders conscious of "insider/outsider dynamics" and their effect on hiring, promotion, and leadership tracking and development, talent specialists at DTCC recently commissioned The Dagoba Group to take the entire executive management team through its Inclusive Leadership Training. Awareness training is at best a first step, however. "Educating is not enough," says Valerie Grillo, chief diversity officer at American Express. "We've got to equip leaders with tools to mitigate their assumptions. Gender intelligence training gets at some of those underlying perceptions. Maybe we need to offer leaders cultural intelligence training as well."

By training leaders to assess black female talent through a more enlightened lens, companies can begin to harness and unleash the extraordinary drive, commitment, and experience these women bring to the workplace.