Black women are largely underrepresented in senior leadership positions, and relationships may be the key to reaching the c-suite.

The stats paint a grim picture. Only 4.4 percent of Black women are in management positions and only 1.4 percent of Black women hold C-suite positions. Even when they do reach positions of leadership, they often face microaggressions and undue stress. There’s also the wage gap to consider, which limits Black women to making less on average than their white counterparts.

Advancement will require support from people in positions of leadership. This is why relationship building is critical for Black women to advance in the workplace.

“The majority of Black women who’ve risen to senior leadership positions have made it their business to develop a strong network of business relationships – both inside and outside of their companies,” said Shelly Lombard, the founder of Schmooze.

Some Black women in the business world are the first in their families to work in corporate America. While most were told they’d have to work twice as hard to reach professional success, many Black women weren’t taught about the importance of networking. 

“When we see other people doing that, we think they’re being suck ups, and we don’t want to be fake or disingenuous,” she said. “We keep our heads down, work hard, and only connect with the people who we already like.”

Breaking through the mindset of going it alone and not building on the expertise and resources of professional relationships is critical for Black women to reach their goals.

The Power of Building Relationships

It’s important for Black women to build good relationships with people across the company pipeline. However, at every company and in every industry, there are certain people who hold power. Women should be strategic and identify who the influential leaders are and get to know them, Lombard suggested. By building these relationships, you will have people who will speak up for you when you’re not in the room.

“Nobody advances into top jobs based on brains or performance alone,” she said. “Relationships are the thing that can close the gaps between where women are in their careers and where they want to be.”

How to Start Effectively Networking

In order to build professional relationships, it helps to have genuine curiosity about the person you’re connecting with and their work. In conversation, be sure to highlight shared experiences, appreciation for their work and questions to spark authentic connection. 

“Women who I’ve interviewed for Schmooze have told me that they got noticed and built relationships with peers and people in senior leadership by being genuinely curious,” Lombard said. 

Show curiosity by popping into the office of someone in senior leadership or asking them to meet for coffee. Ask questions about how the company’s doing, what are its goals and how you might do your job better. You can also begin to effectively network by identifying strategic relationships you need, either inside or outside of your company. Then, start reaching out. 

“Don’t limit your outreach to higher ups because you also need relationships with peers and junior people,” she added. “Maintain those relationships long term, even when you leave the company or industry.”