Building Black Leaders: What’s next for the Executive Leadership Council

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Twenty years ago, only a handful of African-Americans held seats on corporate boards. None were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Much has changed since then, with significant help from the Executive Leadership Council (ELC), which develops and supports senior African-American executives. As the organization celebrates its 20th anniversary, ELC President and Chief Executive Officer Carl Brooks reflects on its history, describes its current focus and predicts a future of outreach beyond corporate America.

TNJ: What prompted the formation of the Executive Leadership Council?
Carl Brooks: Twenty years ago, when the ELC was formed, it was a different landscape in terms of senior African-American leadership. There were no African-American CEOs and very, very few, if any, African-American board members. As you do the history, there were onesies or twosies that came 18 years ago, 19 years ago, but you didn’t have senior African-Americans in a network that tied African-American leadership together.

The idea for the ELC developed when those who would eventually become the organization’s first members tried to rescue a struggling Black college in Texas, Bishop University, by providing financial and political support for the school. [Over] a series of years, they were able to delay the school’s closing, but they weren’t able to keep the school from going under. But as a result of that experience, they found that there was power in working together and getting to know each other because there were no large groups of African-Americans within corporate America.

TNJ: You became a member of the ELC when you were an executive at GPU Energy in the late 1990s. How did you benefit from membership?
Brooks: It increased my access to best practices. It gave me the opportunity to interface with the best and brightest relative to finance, accounting, IT, etc. It just expanded my world of information and made me a much more effective executive.

TNJ: How has your experience as a member shaped the way you run the ELC today?
Brooks: The largest value of being a member is access to other senior leaders. As a senior [African-American] executive you’re isolated. The ELC is an organization that we’re trying to shape as an extended family organization of people who care about each other. The evidence of caring about each other is sharing information and partnering in a way that we’ve never done at the senior levels in corporate America. Doing so will impact our community as we gain power within our organization, as we gain influence, as we are able to hire, as we are able to contract, as we’re able to mentor and coach others to become executives.

TNJ: How has the corporate landscape changed for African-Americans in the past 20 years?
Brooks: As we look at it now, we have 260 or so African-Americans on the boards of Fortune 500 companies. We have seven or eight African-American CEOs of these companies, so clearly there has been some progress. The challenge remains that there are still too few relative to our percentage of the population.

TNJ: There has been criticism that the same few African-Americans appear on a number of corporate boards. Have you found this to be the case?
Brooks: Clearly very talented people are being used for board positions. But we think that there are other equally talented people who are being underutilized. Every ELC member clearly has the capability of being an outstanding board candidate. We’ve been in the process of training and developing these members. We’ve worked with the National Association of Corporate Directors to train about 100 ELC members and we’ve worked with Northwestern University to train another 50 members in a very accelerated way through the Kellogg School of Management. Through the ELC, the question of we don’t know where to find them; we don’t know where the resources are is addressed very quickly by saying we have a well-trained reservoir of senior African-Americans who are standing ready and willing for board participation.

TNJ: Membership has grown significantly during your tenure as president and CEO. What spurred this growth and what are you doing to sustain it?
Brooks: Membership has grown from something like 100 members to about 400 members as we speak today. … We’re going through a couple of different things relative to membership. We’re doing an extensive survey to identify the remaining African-American senior executives who are not part of the Executive Leadership Council at this time. …We’ve worked to identify all those senior African-Americans within three levels reporting to a CEO of a Fortune 500 or global equivalent company. … The purpose of that is to ensure that the ELC remains the most senior organization of African-American executives in the world.

TNJ: What are some common misconceptions about the ELC?
Brooks: One of the issues that we struggle with is that we’re a high-end organization. … There was always a mystery around how you became a member. We’re clarifying that. … The ELC is not a secret society of any kind. It’s an organization of the most senior African-American executives and just by being that it means that those who are middle managers aren’t eligible for membership.

TNJ: You’re working diligently to raise the visibility of the ELC through advertorial placements in The New York Times as well as other awareness efforts. Why is this a key focus for the ELC right now?

Brooks: For 20 years the ELC has kept a low profile. The thought was do good work rather than talk about it, and just do it in a very effective way. At the board level we’ve had discussions around that. The most senior African-Americans in corporate America are part of this and they have a story to tell. … The media focus is on entertainers and athletes and doesn’t give the proper respect and visibility to African-American corporate superstars. When we talk about people like [American Express Chairman and CEO Kenneth] Chenault, [Merrill Lynch Chairman and CEO] Stan O’Neal, [Young & Rubicam Brands Chairman and CEO] Ann Fudge, [Symantec CEO] John Thompson, [Darden Restaurants CEO] Clarence Otis and [Aetna CEO] Ron Williams, we should be very, very proud that our leaders are among the top leaders in the world.

TNJ: The ELC is gaining international recognition. You’ve served as a keynote speaker at a world diversity conference in Prague and the president of Ghana spoke at the ELC’s annual dinner last year. Why the increased international focus?
Brooks: The development issues around mergers and acquisitions, globalization, marketing on an international basis are international focuses, so we’re trying to ensure that we develop future leaders that are developed in a way that they can take on major international opportunities in addition to national opportunities.

TNJ: Going forward, what are your goals for the ELC?
Brooks: We’ve begun to look at the evolution of our mission. Initially it was around human rights, civil rights. It was around getting a job, getting the right job, getting an executive job. The next natural evolution of that is creating wealth in the African-American community. So we’ve begun to focus on job creation, and as our members transition [to owning their own businesses], we’ve begun to look at how we can create real wealth in our community by supporting our entrepreneurs and ensuring that we get our fair share of pension funds, private equity funds and other funds in our community.

TNJ: What is the biggest challenge in building wealth in the African-American community?
Brooks: The education system in the United States has trained us to be good employees, and that’s a good thing. We’ve been able to hire, train and employ others; however, entrepreneurship is waning within the African-American community. We need to strengthen it, reinforce it. We need to value it not above or below corporate America, but we need to have that on an equal plane so that we value African-American entrepreneurs the same way that we value African-American corporate stars.