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For years, Pitt’s Audrey Murrell has studied the barriers to diversity and gender equality in the workplace. Her research points to a breakthrough using an age-old leadership practice. It’s a powerful barrier-busting tool to help companies and institutions build a truly diverse workforce and boost success.

The M Factor


Cindy Gill


Despite jet lag, psychologist Audrey Murrell dives into conversation in her classroom at the U.S. Business School Praha. The school sits on a street named Truhlarska in a bustling section of Prague, within walking distance of the main train station and the banks of the Vltava River. With the retreat of communism and the rise of the European Union, Prague is an especially vibrant center of urban life. Its population includes not only Czechs and Slovaks but also residents from Poland, Germany, Hungary, Russia, Vietnam, and other nations. The business sector reflects a growing mix of entrepreneurs, retailers, IT firms, financial companies, Fortune 500 corporations, and nonprofit groups. Like other European capitals, Prague is a growing amalgam of ethnicities, cultures, and commerce.

Audrey Murrell

 

In the Praha classroom, Murrell discusses on-the-job challenges with a group of European managers, professionals from diverse cultures and backgrounds. She’s an expert in organizational behavior, exploring theories and practices related to how humans behave in organizational settings like the workplace. She’s also well versed in human resources management, where an understanding of human behaviors and management science can produce improved performance.

Time after time, she hears the same thing in her classrooms: Companies are having trouble finding employees who are comfortable in the new world marketplace. These firms are looking for people who understand how to work across cultures, across ethnicities, and across social classes. That’s the reality of the 21st-century business environment. “The global train has left the station,” says Murrell. “You’re either on it, or you’re sitting on the platform watching it pass by.”

Murrell is visiting Prague as a faculty member in Pitt’s international Executive MBA program, part of the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. Through the school’s EMBA Worldwide program—with institutions in Pittsburgh, Prague, and Sao Paulo—individuals earn an MBA while continuing to work full time. Along with other Katz faculty, Murrell jets abroad during the year to teach and interact with managers at companies in Brazil, Central and Eastern Europe, and other locales.

“Businesses are in a war for global talent,” she says. “They can all chase a shrinking pie of talent, or they can do what it takes to tap into the vast amount of knowledge, resources, and creativity that’s out there and that’s underutilized.”

As it happens, Murrell—who is a Pitt professor of business administration, psychology, and public and international affairs—has built a career studying why whole groups of people have been “underutilized” or hindered in their ability to succeed in careers. Now, her research offers some answers that could transform the workplace in long-sought ways.

As an undergraduate at Howard University in the early 1980s, Murrell majored in psychology, but she also was pulled into the larger world of social research. At the time, the National Institute of Mental Health sponsored a program called Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC), which was established to give African Americans and other underrepresented students a chance to explore research careers.

Even in elementary school, Murrell knew she wanted to be a psychologist. Probably influenced by her father’s career as a lawyer, she was drawn to the idea of understanding how people behave and how those behaviors affect and, perhaps, change a person’s life. “There was never a question,” she says. “I was going to be a psychologist.” But her original concept of that role was traditional—counseling, crisis intervention, a therapist with a notepad and a couch.

When she was accepted into the MARC program at Howard, the sophomore spent the next three years working alongside individual faculty members, learning about their work and their approach to research. Among those who mentored her were Martha Mednick, a pioneer in the psychology of women, and James Jones, a Yale-trained researcher interested in issues of race.

“Those two experiences planted the seed,” she says. “I got to work with two well-known scholars on issues related to gender and race. I also got to meet the most amazing array of people, including those who created the Black psychology movement, addressing the need for diversity in terms of whom we’re studying and how we’re studying.”

She went on to earn her master’s degree and PhD at the University of Delaware, where she continued to work with Jones, who is professor of psychology and director of the Black American Studies Program there. More than two decades later, she’s still in regular contact with her early mentors.

“It wasn’t just that I read their work,” she says. “I got to work with them. I got to see how they came up with ideas and how they took something from an idea to rigorous research. I got to see them out in the community, how they balanced work with nonwork, how they interacted with their families. They shaped my expectation about what it means to be a scholar.”

Those experiences redirected the course of Murrell’s career. She focused on research in social psychology, examining issues in the lives of women and African Americans. She joined Pitt’s psychology department in 1987 and, within two years, moved to the University’s Katz School, where she began to look more deeply through the prism of organizational behavior and the workplace. Her research interviews and surveys began to pinpoint barriers to business success for Blacks and women. “They kept saying over and over again, ‘We’re locked out. We don’t have access to information. We don’t have access to opportunities. We don’t have access to senior people.’”

Over time, Murrell realized that she wanted to do more than simply study the problems. She wanted to find solutions. She wanted to give useful answers to the organizations and companies that were seeking her advice about preventing discrimination, shattering glass ceilings, and creating more workplace diversity.

“At the end of the day,” says Murrell, “the question always is, ‘What can we do to be able to turn this around?’ What can we do to facilitate connections between people who are different? What can we do to help women and people of color break through the glass ceiling or the
concrete ceiling? What can we do?”

In trying to answer those questions, Murrell gradually realized that a powerful solution could be found in her own past. The experience of being mentored had been a life-altering tool that shaped her career and planted deep, long-lasting professional roots. She saw that mentoring could address each of the barriers to success raised by her research, and it could be particularly effective in bridging the “difference” gap and bringing a mix of talent together. “Mentoring,” she says, “is clearly a tool to help across all aspects of the workforce value chain—to develop employees, leaders, and organizations.”

According to Murrell, the best companies understand that knowledge is their business. Mentoring can be used to develop a knowledge base, address issues of diversity, and stay competitive in the war for global talent. Mentoring can achieve all of these strategic things to place companies in a good position to succeed and thrive in the global marketplace.

In recent years, Murrell has been working with colleagues to put mentoring theories into action. For instance, she participated in a research project with the Executive Leadership Conference, a national organization of top African American executives. The one-year project, called “Strengthening the Pipeline,” explored the role of a formal mentoring system in producing future corporate leaders. The results showed that mentoring establishes effective long-term connections that benefit all involved. “They created a fabulous network,” says Murrell. “They’re all still succeeding at their companies, still interacting as a whole network of peers, soon to be the next generation of leadership in corporate America.”

Her research shows that people who have access to mentoring relationships do better in terms of career satisfaction, career clarity, and career development. They’re more likely to be “on board” when they first come into the organization, and they tend to be much more committed and connected.

She believes that mentoring programs help to facilitate the bonds that were previously built by the informal “old boys’ network.” She emphasizes, though, that for mentoring to work effectively, organizations must be employee-focused and need to have formal systems in place to support the plan. In other words, employers must have the will and make the commitment to initiate and sustain mentoring programs. If that happens, they’ll not only be able to cultivate global leaders, but they’ll also help people of color and women to excel.

“That’s the power of mentoring relationships for diversity,” says Murrell. “They facilitate learning and knowledge and communication and attachment across differences. When I’m mentoring you, I start to see the organization from your perspective. Part of why we don’t understand is because we’ve never had to walk in the shoes of someone who’s had to navigate the barriers. It isn’t that we don’t care. It’s that we don’t see. It’s that we don’t have the same perspective.”

And the power of mentoring extends beyond the benefits of one-on-one interactions. Murrell advocates the use of a portfolio of mentoring programs, including group mentoring, where people share ideas across disciplines; reverse mentoring, where a junior staff member shares on-the-job experiences with a senior executive; and virtual mentoring, where employees gain information and assistance from one another online.

She admits that mentoring is a longer-term strategy, but she also knows that the payoff is immense and enduring. In fact, she believes that workforce development through mentoring may just change the world. In her new role as director of the Katz School’s David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership, Murrell is working to prepare and equip the next generation of leaders for the complex challenges that lie ahead.

“Some of the solutions to the sustainability issues we have on the environmental side are tied to sustainability on the social side,” she says. “We have to start talking about social sustainability. We have to start talking about making sure communities survive and families survive and people survive, because that’s what makes all of the rest possible.”

Her vision for ethical leadership encompasses not only social responsibility but also widespread innovation. Innovation happens, she says, when people bring different ideas together to create something that nobody’s ever seen before. For her, that’s the heart of diversity. Different voices and different backgrounds. Murrell would say it’s those different perspectives that create the possibility for innovation. She also believes that it will take cooperation across a network of organizations and institutions—governments, nonprofits, businesses, and academic institutions—to succeed in addressing present and future challenges.

“We have to prepare the next generation of young people to deal with events and situations that we cannot predict,” she says.

Her answer to those challenges starts with the power of mentoring: “You have to tie people’s fate together. Mentoring ties you to another. When that happens, it facilitates understanding. It bridges differences. It’s a powerful tool for learning.”


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