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Putting Black females in the executive pipeline

Lisa Olivia Fitch | 3/30/2011, 5 p.m.

In the corporate world--the land of office supplies, paper cuts and ink stains--there has long existed a glass ceiling. At first glance, the mailroom clerk sees the CEO chair within her grasp, just up the ladder of success. But, alas, there is an invisible barrier. Maybe they are not the "right" race or sex. Or both.

Many Black women who aspire to one day furnish an executive corner office are faced with a "double outsiders" status in today's organizations.

"Right now there is only one Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company; that's Ursula Burns at Xerox," Michael Dutton, director of communications for the Executive Leadership Council (ELC) said. "Our members have achieved success on their own terms, and ELC shares their knowledge with leadership development opportunities."

According to the Black Women Executives Research Initiatives conducted by the ELC, there is a potential road map that can help Black women executives prepare for "C-suite" roles.

"The C-suite is the staff of the CEO," Dutton explained. "Those folks (who) support the CEO's decision process--the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer, the executive vice presidents and the senior vice president. The CEO is occupied with reporting to the board of directors. It's his staff that is managing the business and keeping the CEO informed."

One key finding from the research states that Black women executives suffer from the lack of comfortable, trusted and strategic relationships at the senior level with those who are most different from themselves, most notably White males.

CEOs and Black women executives have different views about the quality of the relationships between the two groups and about the Black woman's ability to network.

CEOs believe that Black women spend too little time developing strategic relationships. They recommend that Black women be the first to forge stronger relationships with White male executives and increase their risk-taking, as well as make themselves more visible and valuable.

A third finding states that every aspiring executive must ask: "Do I really want to do what it takes to compete for the top slot?" If the answer for a Black woman executive is "yes," she must have a plan to get there and put that plan into action at each step of the way. That's where ELC comes in.

ELC is hosting a "Strategic Pathways" leadership development program July 14 and 15 in Del Mar, Calif., and applications are due May 6.

"We had our pilot launch in 2010," ELC's Institute for Leadership Development and Research program manager Nichele Lucas said. "We had 19 participants from all walks of business. The more we can get, the further we feel our reach. Every person we touch can create a snowball, a domino effect."

"We want aspiring executives to know that they do have support," she added. "We understand their plight and what they're going through."

The two-day Strategic Pathways program is the shortest of the ELC's training programs. A second, "Strengthening the Pipeline," will be held in August in Miami for five days, and "Bright Futures" will be in the same city for three days.