Discussions and debates about diversity and
inclusion have been going on within the corporate world for decades. As Black History Month approaches, let’s honor, observe, and reflect upon the importance of Black leadership in corporate America. Today, only 1 percent of the executives leading America’s top 500 companies are Black, and according to a 2020 research study by Korn Ferry, 60 percent of Black executives who manage major lines of business at Fortune 500 companies felt that they had to work twice as hard and accomplish twice as much, only to be seen on the same level playing field as their non-black colleagues.
Despite these ongoing challenges, we know that without diverse and inclusive leadership, organizations cannot fully realize their potential.
In fact, a 2018 Boston Consulting Group study outlines how diversity on leadership teams improves both corporate financial performance and corporate innovation.
Diversity Drives Profits
McKinsey & Company, a global firm specializing in helping corporations transform, states that “companies with more culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams were 33 percent more likely to see better-than-average profits.” In McKinsey’s previous study-conducted with 2014 numbers that increase had been 35 percent. At the board of directors’ level, more ethnically and cultural diverse companies were 43 percent more likely to see above-average profits, showing a significant correlation between diversity and corporate performance. That a company with more diverse representation in senior management will likely achieve greater profits is not breaking news. Those realities came to light in a 2015 report from McKinsey & Company and, a year later, in a report from the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
A more diversified organization is better equipped to satisfy the expectations of its customer base. According to new census data, the US is diversifying faster than predicted. In fact, almost four out of 10 Americans identify with a race or ethnic group other than white.
As our nation continues to diversify, corporate America will also need to adapt to better reflect and serve its markets. According to Built In, an organization dedicated to building corporate connections, an organization’s cash flow is 2.3 times higher with a diverse staff.
Going Beyond the Numbers
There is no one-size-fits-all approach when
it comes to implementing and promoting Black corporate leadership. Lean In, an initiative of the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, suggests considering both gender and race when setting representation targets. Only 7 percent of companies today set the target for gender and race combined.
They also propose looking at metrics beyond representation to include opportunities for mentorship, sponsorship, and professional development. These types of programs play a significant role in the experiences of Black employees and the development of their leadership skills. Also, sharing key metrics on a regular basis aids in fostering a sense of company-wide accountability.
According to Catalyst, a global nonprofit working to accelerate the placement of women into leadership positions, in 2019, women of color represented 18 percent of entry-level positions. Few advanced to leadership positions: managers (12 percent), senior managers/ directors (9 percent), VPs (7 percent), SVPs (5 percent), and C-suite positions (4 percent), However, moving forward, the outlook is more promising as corporate pipelines continue to grow with various initiatives, such as Hire Black, which helps to bring Black Americans together with individuals who work for corporations that desire to employ additional diverse talent. Also, many corporations have developed relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which are known to be exceptional pipelines of talent and are a great resource for new hires. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “HBCUs have provided undergraduate training for three-fourths of all black persons holding a doctorate degree; three-fourths of all black officers in the armed forces; and four-fifths of all black federal judges.” HBCUs develop leaders and these leaders continue to contribute their talents in various industries globally. According to MarketWatch, “When it comes to staffing, companies that have higher numbers (or percentages) of racially and ethnically diverse employees have a 35 percent performance advantage over companies relying on a “culture fit” that tends to trend white and monocultural.
Black history gives us the hope, confidence, and the strength to lean in and stay motivated to push forward. Many well-known and not so well-known trailblazers have paved the way, and we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Nelson Mandela said it best,
“Our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build.”
In 2020, there was another milestone in Black leadership that transcends industries, organizations, and national borders. Vice President Kamala Harris’ win comes 55 years after the Voting Rights Act, which codified voting protections for Black Americans. It is also well over 52 years since Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress on November 5, 1968. Only two Black women including Harris have ever been elected to the U.S. Senate.
Aimee Allison, founder of She The People, an organization that seeks to engage and support women of color in politics, told CBS in a 2020 article, “Her presence in the White House is fulfilling a promise to move towards a better future, one with racial and gender justice.” Nadia Brown, a Professor at Purdue University, told ABC News that Harris’ seat at the highest table symbolically shows us that “she belongs and because of that, generations of other people that have been marginalized also belong.” They are both right.
Regardless of politics, Vice President Harris is an accomplished practitioner of perseverance and determination in her path to political leadership. By being the first woman Vice President, the first Black Vice President, the first Asian-American Vice President, and the first Vice President who’s a graduate from an HBCU, she has opened the door for many.
We know that representation matters, and her example is a unique incentive for all of us, who are committed to diversity and inclusion, to redouble our effort to achieve excellence in our pursuit of equity, justice, and opportunity. To quote Vice President Harris: “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
Donnica Hawes-Saunders serves as Partnerships Manager for Global Transformation Communications at Philip Morris International. With nearly a decade of experience in the private sector and on Capitol Hill, Donnica focuses on politically astute, forward-leaning, coalition-based communications and public affairs engagements.