In the euphoria that followed 2008s election of Barack Obama as the first Black president of the United States, theres been a lot of talk about American entering a post-racial phase. Yet, if you look at corporations around the country, you would find just a handful of senior executives who are Black, and even fewer Black chief executives.
The reason for this has a lot to do with the attitudes among top management, analysts and minority executives say. A managers values are reflected in the way that manager runs his or her business. No matter how big or small the business is, the managers attitudes inform his or her approach to diversity. Thats why many diversity programs, especially those that rely on staff training only, have failed, despite the good intentions and best efforts of companies. Failure means the programs have not helped to attract, retain or nurture minorities, especially African-Americans, as these employees navigate the slippery rungs of the corporate ladder. Research increasingly shows that todays successful companies are those whose senior managers and chief executives welcome, retain and appreciate a diverse workforce.
General Electric Co., one of the original 12 companies listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average when the index was formed in 1896 and often cited as the countrys most admired company, implemented an aggressive diversity strategy under former CEO Jack Welch that included employee networks, regular planning forums, formal mentoring and recruiting at high schools and colleges popular with minorities. In September 2002, the Fairfield, Conn., technology and services conglomerate appointed its first chief diversity officer, Deborah Elam.
In 2000, in the waning days of Welchs 20-year tenure as CEO, women, minorities and non-U.S. citizens made up 22 percent of GE’s officers and 29 percent of its senior executives. By 2005, those numbers had increased to 34 percent and 40 percent, respectively. As we celebrate Black History Month in 2010, both figures surpass 46 percent. Arriving at those figures wasnt always easy. Diversity training by itself is not enough, says Elam. Youve got to have accountability at the top, she says.
Diversity officers need to get demonstrative support from the CEO or else she wont be successful, says Steven Thorne, a 35-year African-American GE veteran who is currently vice president for global staffing.
Nurturing the corporate careers of African-Americans requires a substantial commitment of time, staff and money. African-American employees must be persuaded that company executives welcome and appreciate their views, skills and other contributions. At GE, Welch showed his commitment in ways big and small, say those who worked for him and non-employees who knew him well. He cared about his employees and energized all of them regardless of their race or gender and in return, they worked harder for the companys overall success, they say.
I do strongly believe that weve got to give people more equal opportunity. Weve got to do everything we can to break down the barriers,” he told Janet Lowe, author of Jack Welch Speaks (Wiley, 1998) and Welch: An American Icon (Wiley, 2001). I meet twice a year with the African American Forum. Generally speaking, it’s an African American issue in terms of movement, supply and opportunity, he said.
The African American Forum was established 17 years ago by GEs senior Black employees in response to a challenge by Welch. As Mike Shinn tells it, he wrote a letter to Welch asking what the boss was doing to hire more Blacks.
He said to me, dont ask me what Im doing. What are you doing do about it? says Shinn, who joined GE as an engineer in 1966 and transitioned into recruiting engineers for the company. We decided that the next time we see him well have an answer for him. Thats how we started the AAF.
Shinn got together with other senior Black executives in the company, including Thorne, Lloyd Trotter, Mansfield Manny Neal and Joseph Joe Cleveland, to start the AAF with the goal of jumpstarting GE’s diversity initiatives. Trotter has since retired after serving as vice chairman of the company and president and CEO of GE Industrial, Neal is still a senior lawyer at the company, while Cleveland has retired.
Since its founding, the AAF has been a home away from home for most of the Black employees at the company, helping them cope with workplace challenges, seeking out young talent from across the country and nurturing their careers. Senior AAF members act as mentors for the younger staff.
Often these days, we feel alone [in corporate America], but you are not alone, says Elam. There were people before you who had a harder time and they made a lot of contribution that should inspire young African-Americans who sometimes need to see people who look like themselves.
The Black contributors of those early days include Garret Morgan, who, in 1923, patented an early version of the automatic traffic signal and sold the rights to GE; Luther Smith, a decorated Tuskegee airman during World War II who spent 37 years as an aerospace engineer at GE; and Granville Woods, also known as the Black Edison, who patented more than a dozen devices and sold many of his inventions to GE.
Janeen Uzzell is one of the young African-Americans who today walk tall on the shoulders of these pioneers. Now in her early 40s, Uzzell joined GE eight years go from a company that, she says, did not value diversity.
I know what its like to work in a company with no diversity, she says. At GE, it has been helpful to keep my career focused because I have people to look up to. In my previous job, I had nothing.
Uzzell says she has been able to move up in the company, not only through her own efforts, but also with the support she has received from senior Black employees and executives there. She now manages GEs global health programs, overseeing a six-year project that seeks to solve some of the healthcare problems in rural Africa. The project was launched five years ago, after discussions at the African American Forum. At the time it was focused only on Ghana, but has since been expanded to 10 African countries, with a budget of $40 million.
Uzzell says she pours her energy into this project every day because it’s the best way for her to give back to the community.
Marshall Jones, a Long Island native who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in the 1960s, is currently a principal engineer at GE Corporate Global Research. He mentors and encourages young Black scholars to make engineering a career. His ideas and creativity have earned him 82 patents during his years at GE. My message to the youth is, get a degree in a technical field, whether you practice it or not is another matter, but it gives you a different way of looking at life because you get to do more analysis in science.