The wrenching tragedies of the last several weeks have arrested the attention of our nation. Now, America is at a crossroads: We can boldly pursue a more equitable future, or we can remain content with the familiar and disappointing status quo.
Corporate America is at an inflection point as well. Companies are confronting issues with race and equity in their own ranks, including slow progress hiring, promoting, and retaining more black leaders.
Despite changing sentiment and emerging data, some corporate leaders contend there is simply not enough black talent to ascend to the C-suite and corporate board service. The many thousands of talented black executives across the country and researchers who study the topic would disagree. Preparation is not the central issue here; what we lack are opportunities for advancement.
Here is the unfortunate truth: Too often, black corporate leaders are not seen, not valued as highly as their peers, and not positioned for success. Last fall, Korn Ferry, a leading global organizational consulting firm, released the result of its interviews with some of the most senior black profit and loss (P&L) leaders at Fortune 500 companies. Many reported “having to work twice as hard—and accomplish twice as much—to be seen on the same level as their colleagues.”
This is what systemic inequality looks like in corporate America.
It is time to chart a new and better course. I know firsthand that intentional action and ongoing professional development can change a person’s life. Thousands of black executives, including myself, have completed the Executive Leadership Council’s (ELC) leadership development programs at some point during our careers.
The ELC’s Institute for Leadership Development and Research offers several annual programs. The Mid-Level Managers’ Symposium (MLMS) is a two-day professional development experience for nearly 1,000 high-potential corporate managers. In its 26th year, MLMS allows participants to hear from highly-regarded black industry experts and interface directly with ELC members to develop insights and build executive competencies. Five programs for more seasoned managers are offered during Leadership Development Week. We host a C-Suite Academy for black executives who are ready to enter or are beginning their tenure in the C-suite. Corporations looking to invest in their black talent will send their high-performing employees to these conferences.
With an eye on the future, we also invest in up-and-coming black talent. We offer undergraduate scholarships for students matriculating at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). Our Honors Symposium pairs these recipients with ELC leaders for in-depth discussions on how to excel as black executives in corporate America. We host a business case competition for black MBA students to submit solutions to case studies on current business challenges facing the corporate world, earning them scholarships and internships. Most recently, we established a black male initiative to increase the successful graduation rate for young men enrolled in HBCU business schools, beginning with three pilot schools.
The ELC’s in-depth curriculum and initiatives are a class apart: They are uniquely designed to develop the black leadership pipeline from the classroom to the boardroom. And they provide black executives and managers leadership development and mentoring they are not likely to receive in corporate America.
We are proud to help our own, but we need willing partners to create more opportunities for black talent in corporate America. It is not just the right thing to do; research has shown that diversity of people, ideas, and experiences helps give businesses an edge. Tapping into the talent and expertise of black executives and others will take a deliberate and sustained commitment.
Of the thousands of black managers and executives who have benefited from the unique initiatives and networking offered by the ELC, hundreds have risen to C-suite positions and boardrooms.
An exceptional example of the path to leadership is Susan Chapman-Hughes, executive vice president/general manager and global head of digital capabilities, transformation, and operations at American Express and nominee for the board of directors of J.M. Smucker. She started as an ELC Scholar in college and went on to participate in the ELC’s MLMS and Strengthening the Pipeline program. She was a Cohort Member in the ELC’s Corporate Board Initiative, designed to prepare and position black executives for corporate board service.
“The ELC has been an integral part of my career success. I have benefited from many of ELC’s programs over the years,” said Chapman-Hughes. “From being selected as an essay winner to being a part of the inaugural Corporate Board Initiative, the coaching, mentoring, and access I have received over the years has been invaluable.” Susan’s is one of the many success stories of how the development and networking available through the ELC’s programs can lead to executive leadership opportunities at the highest levels.
And we are not the only ones developing black talent for corporate leadership. There are black executives who are alumni of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, and MBA programs at Harvard, Wharton, Columbia, Darden, and Kellogg among many others. Our partnerships with INROADS, Calibr, NACD, and the National Black MBA Association are only a sample of other reputable sources.
Black executives are plentiful and have proven themselves ready to lead. If you don’t know them, you should.
Thus, my message to the leadership of corporate America is simple: Be intentional. Be bold. Be accountable. Be transparent. And let us help you. Together, we can build an inclusive economy that delivers value for society and your shareholders.
Crystal E. Ashby is interim president and CEO of the Executive Leadership Council.
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