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Why I’ve made it my mission to be the Black mentor I never had

A barrier-busting PwC partner says the key to increasing representation goes beyond hiring: It requires a commitment to training and initiatives that advance Black talent into leadership roles.

Why I’ve made it my mission to be the Black mentor I never had
[Photo: Kindel Media/Pexels]
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When I stepped inside the PwC Houston office 22 years ago as an intern, it solidified that public accounting was for me. Unknown to me at the time, a high school accounting class would set me on a path toward public accounting. I enjoyed it and I was good at it—even competing at the state level in accounting contests.

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Eventually, fate would draw me to PwC because they were willing to take a chance on me as a young intern. During that internship, something just clicked; I was drawn to the people, culture, and work, and I also felt like I was truly a part of a team. But something also struck me as a potential setback: I was one of just two Black people on the floor.

Nearly 17 years later, I became the first Black male promoted to partner in our Houston office. The day I made partner was life changing. To realize that, with that title and the resources afforded to that role, I could make significant and impactful decisions not only for myself and my family but for other people, their loved ones, and communities, was nothing short of amazing.

Becoming a partner wasn’t something I initially envisioned for myself, and once I got on that path it certainly wasn’t without its challenges. My parents raised me to work hard, get the job done, and move on to the next task, and I had to put myself out there more—raise my hand, build my network, and remain confident that I had what it took, which was difficult in part because there were very few leaders who looked like me. Fortunately, I had advocates who were invested in my success. In addition to my own hard work and performance, I credit those mentors with helping me to get to the partner track and thrive there.

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Building representation doesn’t happen overnight

Employee diversification has improved within public accounting but, like many industries, it still has a long way to go—especially when it comes to hiring and fostering Black talent. In 2018, minorities represented 29% of all professional staff in public accounting firms. However, only 4% of new graduates hired by CPA firms that year identified as Black. Diversity gaps remain most apparent when you look at leadership—in 2018, 91% of partners employed by CPA firms were white.

Building representation takes time, and simply hiring racially and ethnically diverse professionals is not enough. For an organization, it requires commitments to accountability and leadership-driven initiatives. For individuals, it requires a support system: Companies can help retain Black talent—and advance them into leadership roles—through development opportunities, frequent feedback, and, above all, intentional mentorship.

I define a mentor as someone who uses their professional and social capital to open doors for someone else. I believe mentors are essential for making the workplace more equitable. If companies want more diverse senior leadership, it’s on all of us to sponsor our Black talent into those roles. 

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My mentorship journey

My own experiences with mentorship changed the trajectory of my career and, ultimately, my life. Now I want to share what I’ve learned with other mentors seeking to elevate Black talent. It’s also why I have made it my own mission to give back and mentor young, aspiring Black professionals.

Black individuals make up 12% of the population yet we hold only 3.2% of the leadership roles at large U.S. companies. Despite a rise in the number of Black college and university graduates, just 8% of managers and less than 4% of CEOs are Black. Currently there are only 4 Black chief executives of Fortune 500 companies, down from a high of 12 in 2002.

I believe a big reason for this is that companies fail to provide adequate support systems for Black employees early on in their careers. This is why it is so crucial to have leaders in your corner when you’re starting out.

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When I was a second-year senior associate, a partner at the firm said he respected my work ethic and he took me under his wing. That was the start of an important mentoring relationship, and he taught me several lasting lessons that I now pass on to my mentees.

  • When you get up and go to work, you are representing yourself and your company. I had to learn to embody executive presence. My mentor taught me that when you step into a room, you have to be mindful of the way you present and carry yourself. In other words, dress for the circumstance, follow cues from senior leaders, and keep your bag organized on the inside and clean on the outside when you carry it. To me, executive presence is dressing for the role you want as well as the role you have and taking pride in it. 
  • A good leader coaches, teaches, and encourages. A good leader will work just as hard as his or her subordinates and give them the tools they need to be successful. I am very proud of a renewed PwC commitment that will not only give Black and Latinx college students digital and career readiness skills to help them begin their careers but will also give our people the opportunity to mentor and inspire these students along that journey. 
  • Pay attention to the details. As an auditor at a professional services firm, I learned to understand the weight of my written counsel and opinions—words that the entire world can access. Details matter. Every comma, every word, and every sentence matters. Written words are just as powerful as spoken words, if not more so, because of their permanence. Take the time to craft them well.
  • Remain calm in the face of challenges. My mentor taught me that every problem has a solution, even when it seems unsolvable, which is why I coach my mentees to keep their composure at all times. Mistakes will always happen, but you must remain calm and confident even amid a crisis.

It is also critical for mentors to understand that each individual comes from a different background and not assume that their experiences are remotely the same or different from someone else’s. My best advice to mentors is to really take those initial conversations just to listen to your mentee and find out more about them. I also caution that mentoring is something you have to want to do. Often mentoring doesn’t come with a salary, trophy, or formal recognition. You have to feel fulfilled knowing that the culmination of your effort and support will likely be handshakes, hugs, thank-yous, and watching that person excel. I say that to reinforce that the path of being a mentor is not for everyone, and that is okay. 

Mentoring our future leaders

We all need to do our part at work and in our communities to help advance Black talent. Our future leaders aren’t just our more junior colleagues at work. They’re also in school, discovering their passions and forging their career paths. My career path started at Texas A&M University, where I received an internship at PwC during my junior year. I consider giving back to be a calling, which is why I have mentored students at Texas A&M for more than a decade.

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However, since the pandemic began, mentoring has gained more obstacles. I’ve had to be extremely flexible in when and how I communicate with students, and we can’t just meet at the same coffee spot on campus like we used to. For one, mentoring someone, especially remotely, will teach you the importance of patience. Students can often be juggling work, academic clubs, sports, family responsibilities, volunteering, and college and internship prep all at the same time, and if they are late to a phone call or virtual meeting, you shouldn’t hold it against them.

The key to successful mentorship, overall but especially virtually, is giving grace and being 100% engaged in the conversation. I turn off my phone, exit chat windows and email, and, lastly, close the door. You want the student to understand that he or she has your focused attention and is the most important person at that time.

I love having this opportunity to mentor Black freshmen and sophomore students, who are so eager to figure out where they fit and how they can succeed after they’ve graduated. It’s truly a gift to connect these students to working professionals who can mentor and support them.

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Ultimately I was able to see the path forward thanks to those who believed in me and were committed to my success at the firm. Mentors matter, not only because of the advice and experience they share but also because they help their mentees realize their potential. There is nothing more rewarding than reminding a talented, ambitious Black student or young professional that the sky’s the limit.


Sammy Miller is an energy audit partner at PwC, servicing multinational public and private companies in the energy, utilities, and industrial products and service sectors. He is the first Black male partner in PwC’s Houston office.