A game plan for aspiring minority executives

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: It’s great that [Sheryl Sandberg’s book] Lean In has sparked a big public discussion about women in the workplace, but I really wish someone would start a similar conversation with regard to minorities. I am an African-American man and — leaving aside the notable exception of the White House — we’re even more scarce in top executive jobs and boardrooms than women are. Yet no one is talking about that, maybe because people think that having a black President proves there’s nothing more to say.

I disagree. As an Ivy League alumnus in my late 30s who keeps getting passed over for promotion from middle management to a senior job, despite more than a decade of outstanding performance reviews, I can’t help wondering if my race has something to do with it, especially since there are no ethnic minorities in senior management here. I feel like there’s some secret handshake I haven’t learned. What do you and your readers think? — Let’s Talk About It

Dear Let’s Talk: By all means, let’s. Where do we start? Maybe by mentioning that there are at least two reasons why it’s harder than it used to be for anyone (regardless of color) to get promoted these days. One of them is economic. The recession knocked more layers of management out of already-streamlined companies, so there are now even fewer senior jobs for middle managers to move into.

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Then there’s the matter of demographics. As a Gen Xer, you’re probably bumping into what HR people call the “gray ceiling,” made up of large numbers of Boomers in lofty positions who are in no hurry to retire.

No doubt, adding race to this picture does make the outlook even gloomier. Research and consulting firm DiversityInc, which tracks minorities’ progress at U.S. companies, has reported that, in 2012, only 1.2% of Fortune 500 companies had black CEOs. (There were six of them, vs. nine chief executives who were Asian-American, six Latino, and 17 female.)

Law firms — 6.5% of whose partners are people of color — are a tiny bit more diverse, but minorities “have actually lost ground in corporate board rooms recently,” notes Chloe Drew. “There are fewer non-white directors now than in 2004.”

Drew is executive director of the Council of Urban Professionals, a New York City-based nonprofit launched in 2007 that offers leadership training, networking, and mentoring connections and other career resources to minorities and women. The group has about 1,500 individual members and 67 corporate partners, all of them Fortune 500 companies, including American Express (AXP), Goldman Sachs (GS), Ernst & Young, and Google (GOOG).

CUP aims to develop “a pipeline of diverse leaders,” Drew says, adding that it also acts as matchmaker between employers and candidates: “We’ve placed over 100 new executives and board members, despite the impact the recession has had on hiring.”

Drew says that a big reason why there aren’t more minorities at (or near) the top is that informal networks — the kind companies rely on when filling executive jobs — are usually all one color. She cites research showing that people “use family and friends to find the vast majority of the jobs they hold over a lifetime. The lack of diversity in those seemingly innocuous networks becomes self-reinforcing.”

Not only that, but the shortage of minority role models in senior management at most companies has a way of perpetuating itself too. Since people generally like to mentor people they view as similar to themselves, “diverse leaders often don’t have the same access to mentors and sponsors [that white managers have],” argues Drew.

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A related hurdle: “There is a certain kind of feedback that white men give to each other that they are not comfortable giving to someone of color, or to women,” she adds. “For example, there might be issues of personal style or ‘executive presence’ that could be holding you back, but that people feel awkward about telling you” — often, ironically, because they fear seeming racist if they do. So you’re left trying to figure out the unwritten rules (or the “secret handshake,” as you call it) for yourself.

How can you get past that? “You have to be strategic about your network,” Drew says. “Try to find mentors and sponsors among higher-ups, but also grow your lateral network. Identify a few peers who will give you honest feedback you might not be getting” in performance reviews from your boss. “Develop a personal board of advisors, inside and outside of your company,” she suggests. “Think of it as building your own ‘old boys’ network.’” Coincidentally or not, that is exactly how many of the executives on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list say they got information and advice that helped them rise beyond middle management.

Other tactics you could borrow from them: Taking on tough (and highly visible) stretch assignments, learning how to blow your own horn in tactful ways, and working for the right company. On the first point, tackling challenges no one else wants to touch will help you stand out — as will making sure that higher-ups know what you’ve done. “Hard work and excellent results are not, by themselves, going to be enough,” Drew notes. “People above you need to be aware of what you’ve accomplished. It’s crucial to learn to stand up for your achievements.”

Then, consider this: All corporate cultures are not created equal, so where you work matters. Several of the women on Fortune’s list have mentioned in interviews that they advanced their careers in part by deliberately seeking out jobs at companies that already had women in high places.

You could try something similar. DiversityInc publishes an annual ranking with detailed profiles of the 50 most diverse U.S. employers. (The top five in 2012: PwC, Sodexo, Kaiser Permanente, AT&T (T), and Procter & Gamble (PG).) Your solid track record at your current company is a marketable asset. If you really want to move up, maybe it’s time to start looking around.

Talkback: Do you agree that it’s time for a Lean In-style conversation about race in the workplace? What would you add to it? Leave a comment below.

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