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The Vanishing Act: African-Americans in Senior Leadership Positions

I recently read an internet article about the retirement of Mr. Stan O’Neal from Merrill Lynch & Co. The article focused on the shrinking number of Black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies. The current number is four, down from a high water mark of 13.  One can spend hours dissecting this issue. I will not even make the attempt. Rather, I offer those people of color in leadership positions or aspiring to be in leadership positions and someday experience life on the “C” suite level, three pieces of advice for being competitive.

If you are not African American, you may find this advice equally helpful. It is: know yourself, be professional, and get a mentor.  I offer three pieces of advice for those supervisors of promising employees of color that will not be addressed in this article but are important for organizations that believe in the power of diversity.

Know yourself

Having served in leadership positions most of my adult life, I can tell you the first principal of leadership is to know yourself. The Myers-Briggs test, the Enneagram assessment, and horoscope readings are all methods of learning more about who you are (OK, just kidding about the horoscope).My favorite and I find most accurate is quiet time looking in a mirror. We all know who we are. We, as normal human beings, have our own frailties. We have our own biases. We have own tendencies of action in good times and not so good times. What are they for you? Be honest with yourself. You know your strengths; you know your weaknesses. Now—improve! As a mentor of mine, Dr. Alan Weiss, insistently reminds us, improve one percent a day for 70 days and you will be twice as good. This is not an easy task. It is a necessary task.

Be professional

Whether you like it or not, you are modeling success or failure. Carry yourself well. You are well heeled, calm, confident, humble and in control of you. You never let anyone see you sweat. You are technically proficient at your job. You have a deep understanding of the processes required to accomplish tasks. You are comfortable with crisis action planning. You keep the best interest of the organization always in the forefront and know the people who work with you and for you. You understand the power of thanking those who work for you giving credit for successes publicly and correcting privately. You never side step being responsible and accountable for what happens or does not happen within your span of control.

Get a Mentor

The very best athletes, actors, business leaders have a mentor, a coach, someone that has been where they want to go. The advice and guidance is priceless for those who seek it and use it. I have worked with many a minority professional, particularly African American, who has sought my advice after a disaster, has occurred. This is a kin to performing surgery on the dead. Having a mentor or a coach is the single most important action an aspiring leader and those in leadership positions can do for themselves.

Final Thoughts

There is a quote from that great American hero, Sergeant Stryker, played by John Wayne in that World War II classic movie ”Sands of Iwo Jima.” “Life is tough,” said Stryker,” it’s tougher if you’re stupid.” Life is tough enough, do not make it tougher. Improve one percent a day. Be professional. Seek out a mentor and do so before you are experiencing trouble.

Leaders do not whine. Leaders do not use excuses. Leaders do not use fear as a tactic. Exceptional leaders seek out the hard jobs. Exceptional leaders take responsibility. Exceptional leaders seek every opportunity to cheer for their subordinates.

Being an African American can be tough in corporate life. How tough is up to you.