The Executive Leadership Council, which helps to develop and groom African-American corporate leaders, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. On the heels of the organization’s Black Women Manager’s Symposium in July, and as it prepares for its Annual Recognition Gala on Oct. 20, The Network Journal spoke with its president and CEO, Arnold W. Donald, about The ELC’s efforts to see a fair number of Blacks in the corporate executive pipeline.
TNJ: What attributes, qualities and qualifications are required of the 21st-century corporate executive?
Donald: Today’s corporate executives must be enthusiastic innovators who possess the skills and abilities to lead multiple teams in a complex, global and digital world. Embracing diversity has a strategic advantage and is an intrinsically valuable element for the success of any enterprise. Executives must have vision, purpose and energy. In this shifting global business landscape, characteristics of effective executive leaders include agility, strategic thinking, the effective use of technology, engagement and retention of talent, sound fiscal judgment and a quick wit. Cultivating efficient processes and skilled judgment throughout the organization also is key. Executives today need to hone their communications skills to reach their target constituencies through various media including videos, podcasts and social media.
TNJ: Describe the Black presence at senior-management level in major corporations today.
Donald: Blacks are seriously underrepresented in the most-senior levels of management in major corporations. By our measure, there have never been more than seven Black CEOs leading Fortune 500 corporations at a single period. The first African-American Fortune 500 CEO was Franklin Raines with Fannie Mae. The Executive Leadership Council has approximately 440 members, most of whom are corporate executives in Fortune 500 companies. Several are CEOs, such as Ursula Burns of Xerox, Ken Chenault of American Express and Clarence Otis Jr. of Darden Restaurants. Most ELC members are within one or two levels of the CEO in their companies and the rest are entrepreneurs, retired or in transition. We estimate there are nearly 25,000 positions in Fortune 500 C-suites, with an average of 50 direct reports to corporate CEOs. We believe the universe of Blacks in the highest executive levels of major corporations is a little more than 800. We are doing research now to develop the most accurate census of Black corporate leadership available.
The ELC is launching a campaign to increase the number of African-Americans in the senior-most levels of Fortune 500 corporations in positions as CEOs or no more than one level below, and in corporate board seats. Within five years we will work with its constituents to achieve net additions of 500 African-Americans in Fortune 500 senior-executive positions and 200 African-Americans in corporate board seats.
TNJ: How closely does today’s number of Black senior corporate executives reflect the percentage of the U.S. population that is Black?
Donald: The percentage of African-American corporate leaders does not reflect the percentage of African-Americans in the U.S. population. In fact, when you consider more than 60 percent of the U.S. population is made up of minorities and women, and on Fortune 500 corporate boards they occupy only 30 percent of board seats, the disparity is clear. At the CEO level, only a fraction of 1 percent of CEOs is African-American, while the population is 11 percent.
TNJ: Do Blacks encounter obstacles to senior corporate positions because of their race?
Donald: Issues of gender and race have plagued this nation since it was formed. We are convinced that it will take a coordinated effort to make a quantum leap in the advancement of African-Americans, other minorities and women to the highest levels of leadership in major corporations. For 25 years that has been our mission. We intend to accelerate the effort, measure the results and expose the barriers.
TNJ: Have significant strides been made since affirmative action?
Donald: There are certainly far more African-Americans at the entry level, midlevel and junior executive levels in Fortune 500 companies than there were 50 years ago. The membership of The ELC reflects the increased number of African-American college graduates and the increased recognition by corporations of the value of diversity. Today, the word “diversity” does not stir the soul. Global companies have different definitions of diversity that include foreign nationals and people that reflect a multitude of views and lifestyles. The ELC will work to make sure that African-Americans receive a fair share of consideration for the most senior positions in global corporations.
TNJ: Has the broader “diversity and inclusion” effort diluted the Black executive presence?
Donald: Diversity and Inclusion today means more than Black and white. It includes diversity of thought, international experience, multicultural considerations, LGBT lifestyles, single parents, etc. African-Americans may have led the way in the 1960s in U.S. corporate suites. However, many corporations with major operations overseas also cultivated local talent in foreign companies, bringing international talent to their headquarters for experience and exposure while African-Americans spent most of their careers in domestic locations. Today, African-Americans must compete with a global talent resource with international experience and language skills.
TNJ: As The ELC celebrates its 25th anniversary, how does the organization see its mission in today’s America? Has that mission changed from 25 years ago?
Donald: Twenty-five years ago, The ELC was formed by 19 African-American executives from a broad range of companies, who sought a way to support one another and the community. Recognizing their isolation, they banded together to provide supportive counsel to one another and to serve their community. One of the first projects involved leveraging their resources to help a struggling HBCU, Bishop College. Over the years, ELC members have welcomed hundreds of new members, awarded scholarships to promising African-American college and M.B.A. students, developed a new generation of African-American leaders through its distinguished Institute for Leadership Development & Research and engaged dozens of corporate CEOs in The Executive Leadership Council’s Annual CEO Diversity Summit. We remain dedicated to fulfilling our founders’ vision of filling the pipeline of the next generation of African-American corporate leadership from the classroom to the boardroom.
TNJ: How exactly is The ELC preparing mid-level managers to assume senior executive positions?
Donald: For the past 17 years, The Executive Leadership Council has encouraged its members to identify the most promising high-potential African-American midlevel managers in their organizations and invite them to attend the Annual Mid-Level Managers’ Symposium (MLMS), held the day following our annual gala. This year, more than 1,000 mid-level managers and junior executives are expected to attend the symposium, organized by The ELC Institute for Leadership Development & Research, at the Gaylord National Harbor on Friday, Oct. 21. The Institute is a unique resource for African-American leadership development. In addition to the annual MLMS, the Institute also conducts forums and seminars such as the Strengthening the Pipeline (for high-potential midlevel executives), Strategic Pathways (for high-potential African-American women executives) and Bright Futures (for first-time managers/executives). Information on these programs is available on the ELC website at www.elcinfo . com/offerings.php.
TNJ: What happens at the Mid-Level Managers Symposium?
Donald: The Mid-Level Managers Symposium provides an opportunity for managers to learn and network in professionally safe settings. Participants interact with leading experts in business and education to help themselves achieve greater levels of success and recognition. These experts offer candid and unflinching personal stories about their leadership journeys. Participants also exchange ideas with senior executives and peer managers during breakout workshop sessions and the networking lunch. Each year, this annual symposium attracts more than 1,000 managers and executives from more than 200 companies. This year, the subject is the application of innovative thinking in today’s shifting business environment. Registration is available at www.elcinfo.com/mlmsr.php .