Leadership lessons from senior Black leaders

Less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black — and that terrifyingly small number is on the decline. More than a decade ago, there were seven Black CEOs. Today, there are four. So, even though organizations are focused on diversity and inclusion, fewer than 10% of the most senior profit-and-loss (P&L) leaders are Black. That means there’s a diminishing pipeline of Black successors to C-suite roles.

We wanted to get a better understanding of this reality so we could help organizations take steps to rectify it. So, the Korn Ferry Institute partnered with the Executive Leadership Council (ELC), a national organization of more than 800 members who are current and former Black CEOs, senior executives at Fortune 1000 and Global 500 companies, entrepreneurs at top-tier firms and global thought leaders.

We interviewed 28 senior Black P&L leaders at Fortune 500 companies who are CEOs or report to CEOs. Nearly 71% of the group completed the Korn Ferry’s psychometric-based assessment. This assessment studied each leader’s traits (their inclinations and aptitudes, such as personality traits and intellectual capacity), drivers (their deeply held values and internal motivators) and competencies (their observable skills essential to management success).

We compared the results of these interviews and assessments to our best-in-class senior executive benchmarks. And what we found was interesting: the assessed and interviewed group of Black leaders matched or exceeded the best-in-class benchmark.

Qualities that set Black leaders apart

Here are eight qualities that set these Black leaders apart, along with takeaways for organizations and upcoming Black talent.

1. They are masters of their own destiny

Nearly 60% of these Black leaders took strategic, planned approaches to their career progress. They considered their career goals, then took proactive, focused steps to reach them. They committed to gaining the skills and experiences they needed to overcome barriers and close gaps. Additionally, they were able to reflect on and learn from their experiences and those of leaders ahead of them. And they intentionally and clearly created a brand for themselves and built the networks necessary to support their goals.

Takeaways for organizations: Create a culture that ensures everyone feels able to reach their potential. Advance Black representation in your leadership pipeline by finding developmental opportunities that will allow them to take on new, challenging roles and assignments in different functions and lines of business.

Takeaways for Black talent: Take an intentional approach to structuring your career path. Continue growing your skills and competencies. Seek feedback from others but spend time reflecting on your progress as well. And, perhaps most importantly, build a supportive network, both inside and outside your organization.

2. They’re willing to risk it all

Fear of failure didn’t hold the Black leaders in our study back. The vast majority (82%) said they took risks because they knew it was essential to career progression and would help them improve their skills or learn more about their work or themselves. These leaders were also better able to embrace the uncertainty that came with these risks because they believed in themselves, had a strong appetite to learn and had built a robust network to back them up.

Takeaways for organizations: Offer ongoing professional development, including continuous feedback, support and guidance. Look for ways to offer Black talent stretch opportunities and foster mentorships with more senior leaders.

Takeaways for Black talent: Consider every opportunity that comes your way, and be open to stretch assignments that may be outside your comfort zone or area of expertise. Take full advantage of any project that can position you for success in the future. At the same time, don’t worry about failure. Failure is a useful source of learning and feedback.

3. They’re not easily shaken

The Black leaders in our study are resilient. For 90 percent of these leaders, setbacks serve to motivate them more, and they handle adversity with maturity and grace. That’s true even though 50 percent of the Black leaders in our study have confronted unfair treatment and microaggressions, such as being mistaken for their white counterpart’s subordinate, when it was the other way around. Guided by their belief system, whether grounded in their faith or their passion for their organization’s mission and vision, they were inspired to persevere and continue looking and moving forward. They focused on what they could control rather than exterior barriers that threatened to hold them back.

Takeaways for organizations: Evaluate your culture, structure, processes and talent practices to understand the challenges facing Black talent. Unconscious bias training is important, but it’s just the beginning. To build a more inclusive culture, start at the top and hold your leaders accountable for ensuring that high performers aren’t held back from moving through the leadership pipeline by inequities or biases.

Takeaways for Black talent: Refuse to be held back by microaggressions and biases, and don’t take others’ actions personally. Rely on your resilience and focus on your development. Take the actions necessary to achieve your goals, and don’t wait for others to help you. Continue working to build relationships with your colleagues, so you’ll have advocates to help you move up the ladder.

4. They have a need to overperform—and outperform

The pressure is high on Black leaders. There’s a prevailing belief in corporate America that Black leaders are promoted because of their race, not because of their qualifications and capabilities. That makes it much harder for Black leaders to be seen and appreciated. So that’s why so many are under pressure. In fact, 57 percent of the Black leaders in our study reported having to work twice as hard and needing to accomplish twice as much as their peers to be viewed as on the same level. And even when they succeed, they have to repeat that success over and over before they’re permitted to climb the corporate ladder, unlike their white co-workers, who frequently are given opportunities based on their perceived potential. The case is even more dire for Black women, as they are members of two underrepresented groups.

Takeaways for organizations: Ensure your promotion practices and processes are formal, meaning that they are documented, objective, detailed and clear. Approach succession planning with a diversity lens, and look for any biases or other unfair challenges that may hinder the progress of Black talent. Make sure that no one is requiring more “evidence” of success from Black leaders for promotions and other opportunities.

Takeaways for Black talent: Never give up, and always move forward. Look for new ways to expand your personal brand and contribution to the organization. Track your roles, responsibilities and accomplishments, so you have evidence of your outcomes and readiness for promotion. Ensure the goals you’re working toward are objective, and let people know about your successes.

5. They take on complex challenges

It takes guts to make progress; there’s no easy path to the top. And senior leaders have to be ready to take on challenging and complex assignments. That’s why it’s so important for Black leaders to seek out tough assignments that allow them to test their capabilities and get higher visibility in their organization. Fifty percent of the Black leaders we interviewed said they sought out challenging projects with P&L responsibilities, such as international assignments or crisis projects, to accelerate their self-development. These projects served as stepping stones to greater responsibilities and more significant roles.

Takeaways for organizations: Organizations should encourage aspiring Black talent to take on visible, important and complex assignments with P&L responsibilities. They must offer these stretch projects early in their careers, so Black talent sees them as positive growth opportunities, not additional hurdles. And, while there are career paths that may be considered prerequisites to senior levels, organizations must also keep in mind that developmental offerings should be differentiated and tailored to individual needs.

Takeaways for Black talent: Seek challenging assignments that will broaden your skill set and your perspective. Ask for direct, honest feedback from your colleagues so you can continually improve. Ask current leaders about what you need to do to be considered for promotion and go after those opportunities with gusto.

6. They beat the odds

Even when Black leaders break through the glass ceiling, they often find themselves standing on a “glass cliff” — facing a high-risk assignment where few can succeed. More than a third (36%) of Black leaders we spoke with said they were given tough projects that no one else wanted to handle. And the unspoken assumption was that they were given these projects so they could prove their worth. While experiences like these can build skills and credibility, Black leaders reported finding themselves in this situation a disproportionate number of times compared to their white peers. This practice demoralizes Black talent, so they may leave the organization, depleting the leadership pipeline of valuable talent and skills.

Takeaways for organizations: Ensure that your organization isn’t losing top-tier talent because of unnecessary and unfair burdens. Consider whether your Black talent is asked to prove themselves more extensively than their peers. Also ensure that high-performing Black employees have the support they need, including sponsors and advocates who can remove barriers to progress.

Takeaways for Black talent: Continue to forge ahead, using any setbacks or failures as an opportunity for learning and growth. If you’re facing a challenging project, ask for advice and insights from colleagues who have handled similar assignments and who can help you assess the project’s opportunities and risks. Above all else, trust yourself and your ability to perform at a high level.

7. They found sponsors

They say that if you want to go fast, you should go alone, but if you want to go far, you should go together. Holding true to this adage, most of the Black leaders (86%) in our study said that sponsors were essential to their career progression. These Black leaders made a conscious decision to be visible and gain exposure with their advocates — and to offer these advocates value. In turn, the sponsors opened doors, provided exposure and advocated for these Black leaders, which helped them build relationships, access new opportunities and advance their careers.

Takeaways for organizations: All too often, Black leaders stagnate in functional roles in middle management. To diversify their leadership pipeline, organizations need to understand what barriers may prevent Black talent from advancing further in their organization, especially in the roles that prepare people for senior leadership positions. Organizations should also train senior executive sponsors in the value and benefits of inclusive leadership and in how they can eliminate obstacles standing in Black talent’s way.

Takeaways for Black talent: Focus on expanding your contribution, influence and impact. Work to create a personal brand that aligns with your organization’s strategic business needs and goals. Or, to put it another way, fill a need that needs to be met. The same is true of your work with your sponsors: keep producing great results, and they’ll continue advocating for you.

8. They lead the way

The Black leaders in our study get results because they push others around them. They rally their troops, solicit their input, share ownership and visibility and recognize and support others’ contributions. In short, they empower others to bring their best selves to work, because they recognize that they need to inspire everyone to give their all. They help cultivate the next generation of leaders in their organization. They serve as coaches to others, offering stretch assignments that are designed to help their proteges reach their career goals.

Takeaways for organizations: Leaders must learn how to engage and inspire everyone in their workforce. This requires leaders to recognize the knowledge, insights and perspectives that everyone in an organization offers. Organizations must be sure to highlight and celebrate the leadership and contributions of Black leaders, so everyone realizes that they are capable of managing others.

Takeaways for Black talent: Act beyond your current role. Find opportunities to develop others so you can focus on the more strategic and visible assignments that will attract the attention of senior leaders within your organization. Position others for growth through learning opportunities and stretch assignments, and be open, transparent, empathetic and encouraging, so you pull up the next generation behind you.

Start building a more inclusive culture that builds a pipeline of Black leaders today

To thrive in today’s global market, your organization needs leaders who are agile, resilient and determined to succeed. They need to embrace challenges and move forward despite uncertainty. They need leaders willing to empower everyone and inspire others to reach higher and do more. In other words, you need the Black leaders we interviewed in our study.

But many of these Black leaders are facing obstacles that may prevent them from climbing to the top. That’s where you come in. You can start to change, today, how your organization thinks about engaging, developing, retaining and promoting all talent. You can be more intentional about developing your Black talent and creating a more inclusive culture that helps Black professionals excel and thrive.

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