America celebrates Black History Month by showcasing the achievements of African-Americans, many of them previously unknown.

But even as we pay homage to these oftentimes hidden contributions, we must acknowledge that Black professionals are still woefully underrepresented among America's top corporate ranks. Case in point: there are only five black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, one of whom is a woman.

Black History Month serves as a good time to recognize these hidden contributions, but companies, especially smaller businesses that don't have the resources of large firms, must do a better job of fostering an environment that allows black executives to thrive all year long.

It's not just the top dog position that eludes black executives, but leadership positions in general. Multicultural professionals--this includes Hispanic and Asian individuals in addition to black individuals--collectively hold only 14 percent of senior executive and manager positions in corporate America.

It's an unfortunate reality that in 2018 white men occupy more than three fifths of corporate leadership positions. Since the default image of a corporate leader is invariably that of a white male, it stands to reason that the way someone telegraphs they are leadership material--what we call executive presence--put Black executives at a distinct disadvantage.

In our study, "Vaulting the Color Bar: How Sponsorship Levers Multicultural Professionals into Leadership," black professionals describe having to compromise parts of their authentic selves to conform to executive or leadership presence at their company. Fully 35 percent of black professionals say they deliberately change their personal story to strengthen their executive presence, navigating tensions with stereotypes of their race.

Ursula Burns, who was the first black female CEO at a Fortune 500 company, describes feeling that she had to avoid being seen as an assertive black woman when she first took the reins at Xerox, "I used to have real difficulty saying, 'I want this done.' When I got used to that, everything got easier."

Additionally, black executives frequently report feeling invisible to their bosses and their contributions ignored or undermined, and nearly 40 percent have experienced racial discrimination in the workplace.

A quarter of black professionals say others are given credit for their contributions and one in ten have been mistaken for someone's assistant. A black female executive editor at a newspaper remembers when she first began joining editorial meetings her suggestions were ignored until someone else made them a few minutes later. "And then everyone would hear it, would follow it, would understand it," she said.

These micro-inequities can chafe for black professionals, who are actually more ambitious than their white counterparts. Nearly 35 percent of black professionals are "willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top" compared with 31 percent of caucasians.

Feeling invisible can lead to frustration and disengagement for black professionals. Twenty percent of black professionals say they are likely to leave within the year and only 44 percent were satisfied with their rates of advancement at their companies.

Employers at small companies understand that disengagement and disillusionment can have a negative impact to their bottom-line.  A strong culture of sponsorship and implementing solutions to disrupt bias can go a long way toward balancing the equation.

1. Sponsorship. 

A sponsor is a senior executive who advocates for a talented protégé, helping them gain recognition and visibility within the company and more quickly move up the ranks. The sponsorship relationship is not a casual one - it can be intensive and demanding - and, crucially, can make all the difference for any colleague eyeing the C-suite. Yet, only 9 percent of African-Americans have a sponsor compared with 13 percent of whites. Once they have a sponsor, we found a majority of black executives are satisfied with their rate of advancement.

Richard Parsons, an African-American executive that served as chairman of both Citigroup and Time Warner, described how transformative the sponsor- protégé relationship can be. After catching the eye of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller when Parsons was a rookie attorney, he "went from zero on the who-you-know scale to ten-plus, exclusively on the back of that relationship, just through his network of associates and contacts."

Encouragingly, African-American executives who have already climbed the ladder are happy to give their more junior colleagues a leg up: 26 percent feel obligated to sponsor employees of their same gender or ethnicity compared with only 7 percent of whites.

2. Disrupt bias. 

All of us operate with unconscious biases that guide our decision-making processes on a daily basis, and corporate leaders are no different. Unfortunately, these inherent biases can have a large impact on whether a colleague grows in her career or not.

Our large-scale study examining the role of bias on a company's culture and profits, "Disrupt Bias, Drive Value," found that employees who perceive bias are frequently burning out and looking for work elsewhere. Among those who feel bias in their companies, 34 percent have withheld solutions at work in the last six months, three-quarters are not proud to work for their companies, and nearly half have been looking for another job while on the job.

While diversifying leadership is crucial to alleviating bias, smaller companies who may have not have the resources to do so can disrupt bias another way: by creating a "speak up culture" where everyone feels welcome and included, free to share their ideas and opinions, and confident their ideas will be heard and recognized. Our research shows that in such inclusive environments, employees are 87% less likely to perceive bias and 39% more likely to be engaged.

Acknowledging talented black executives should not be a once-a-year giveaway through a Black History Month celebration. Small business leaders have to ensure motivated black professionals feel supported everyday.

Published on: Feb 20, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.