From the start of my career, it was clear to me that my professional success would depend in large part on finding someone to mentor me through the perils of the workplace. In 2021, however, mentoring takes on an added and often over-looked dimension: It’s as important for encouraging diversity as it is for providing career guidance. In my own experience, mentors can ensure the voices of diverse populations are heard in the workplace.

Whether in the legal profession or elsewhere, conscious or unconscious bias, unwritten rules and unwelcoming cultures have ended many a career before they ever got going. 

Opening Doors, Creating Paths

It was right after graduating from law school in England that I announced to my parents that I’d be moving to the U.S. to practice law because I didn’t want to wear a white wig and a black gown as barristers do in England. Despite the travails of the early years, I eventually became the first Black male partner at Shearman & Sterling LLP in New York City.  

Was there anything about me that was dramatically better than those who came before? Clearly not. As I’d find throughout my career, I was buoyed by people who invested time and political capital in pushing me through the barriers. These were people who were in the room where decisions were being made and could see developmental opportunities that I might not otherwise have seen.

When I was a young associate struggling to find my way in a corporate law firm, my partner mentor took the time to map out a career plan, including getting the right kind of work and exposure to decision makers. I’ve also had mentors advocate for me, champion me and speak up for me, both within the firm and throughout the broader legal community.

I continue to rely on my mentors and seasoned general counsels to share ideas and sound out when thorny issues arise. It was one of my mentors, in fact, who hired me and set me on the path to achieve my goal of becoming the general counsel at a Fortune 500 company.

Having a Voice

Beyond anyone’s individual career, however, mentorship can also increase diversity within a business by helping associates from diverse backgrounds gain a voice in the organization. This is still a struggle for many Black professionals today.

For example, when I was a young associate, a partner walked into my office and asked if I had a suit in the office. He told me to put it on and come down the hall to a business development meeting with a prospective client. There were about 10 people in the conference room, all men, all white, except for the head of the client team, who was Black. As I sat at the table, it was obvious to both of us what was happening – we both knew exactly why I was there. The question was why I wasn’t invited earlier.

Despite having the most relevant work experience for the prospective client’s needs from my days at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Enforcement Division, no one had asked me to the meeting or included my bio in the pitch materials – until it became a color issue. This was all too obvious to the team lead, the general counsel of a Fortune 500 company.

We didn’t get hired. The team lead made it clear that had I been brought in at the outset, he would have hired our firm. He felt we were pandering to him, and he didn’t appreciate the lack of subtlety. While he ultimately became an ally, that example is but one of the many issues minorities face at law firms and in the broader business world. The general counsel’s mentorship and support of my career was instrumental in my early days as a partner in a law firm.

Imperative for Diversity

Diversity is a significant business imperative and, in many ways, has become a leadership issue: Competition for talent is fierce, and it’s a competitive advantage to figure out how to attract, nurture and retain diverse talent. Moreover, studies have shown that diversity of thought leads to better results. Through strong mentoring programs, businesses can invest in the recruitment, retention and promotion of a diverse talent pool that’s representative of the society and clients we serve. 

As we celebrate Black History Month, my commitment is to redouble my efforts in helping our company attract, retain and promote diverse talent by recruiting and mentoring associates. I expect to learn from them as much as I hope to impact their professional lives.

Claudius Sokenu

Claudius Sokenu

Claudius Sokenu is SVP, Deputy General Counsel and Global Head of Litigation, Labor & Employment and Legal Operations at Cognizant. He has over... Read more