Ten Steps to Senior Management by Charmon Parker Williams

Minority executives that have reached corporate senior management have followed many different trajectories but they share some core values and attributes. Read more to learn about 10 Steps you will need to take to move to the top of the corporate ladder.

You read success stories everyday. You hear about people who have accomplished goals against the odds and come back bigger and more powerful and people who have persevered on a path and now are viewed as pioneers in their own right. These people exist in all walks of life and many have made their marks as leaders in the corporate arena.

When you read about people such as Kenneth Chenault, Franklin Raines, and Sylvia Rhone, you may ponder: What do they have? Who did they know? Is there a special formula that worked for them? Is ability inborn or something that I can learn? Will I learn these skills in business school? Each of these questions is relevant, particularly when one considers current economic and business conditions. The answers make for a worthy discussion, given the history of African Americans as power brokers in roles that influence how business is run, what partnerships are established, and how and what communities are developed.

A Few Facts

With all the press on these African-American pioneers, it may appear that African Americans have made significant progress in climbing the corporate ladder. Accounts of individuals such as Chenault and others are, at minimum, inspirational. These individuals are truly unique for they make up less than 1 percent of positions for chief executive officers, chairpersons, and presidents of Fortune 1000 companies.

African Americans are slightly better represented in senior management posts within the not-for-profit and public sectors. But don’t let the statistics dissuade you from corporate ranks. The success stories that do exist clearly show senior management positions are attainable. So what will it take? What sacrifices are involved and what is the payoff?

Is the secret to senior management about who you are, the people you know, or what you do? According to many leaders who have entered this domain, it is about all of these things. It’s also about what you feel. Passion, fervor, and determination have all been linked to success and credibility.

What are the critical components to consider? For what obstacles should one prepare? How should one benchmark readiness for this journey?

Key Components

The various leadership competency models suggest that successful business leaders be well rounded. Senior managers have attributes and skills that can be catalogued under the four following areas:

  1. Leadership Skills – skills that impact your ability to influence others, motivate and inspire, create and sell a vision and strategy that incorporate the big picture for your organization.
  2. Management Skills – skills that impact your ability to manage day-to-day operations in a planned and organized manner, properly deploy and leverage others to reach goals, and attend to the financial details of the organization.
  3. Interpersonal Skills – skills that impact your ability to engage in effective relationships with others.
  4. Personal Attributes – traits and elements that shape and define your character and are good predictors of how you will act in varying situations. Examples include integrity, passion, honesty, and credibility.

Just as there are attributes/skills associated with effective leadership, there are attributes that have the potential to derail your attempts at leadership.

According to Hogan and Hogan (developers of psychological assessment tools) some of these attributes include: defensiveness, volatility, impulsiveness, arrogance, aloofness, distrust, eccentricity, excessive caution, and perfectionism.

It may seem that managers walk a fine line between success and ineptness. Given this backdrop, what actions take center stage? What elements are critical to your ability to move from middle management and into the ranks of senior management?

A few of our successes in senior positions weighed in on this topic. The careers of Alvenia Rhea Albright, Donna James, and Noel Hord have taken off in three different directions.

Alvenia Rhea Albright

As the director of diverse business partnerships-global for the American Express Company, Albright reports directly to Chairman and CEO Kenneth I. Chenault. Within this role, Albright created and implemented the strategy for initiating and developing diverse business partnerships both nationally and internationally. Prior to joining American Express, Albright’s broad range of roles included: vice president, fund development, marketing and public relations for the Urban League in Chicago; editorial and community affairs director for CBS Radio in Detroit; fund development, community-based programming and relationship development director and assistant vice president for New Detroit, Inc.; and a number of other roles in community corrections, mental health, and academia. American Express approached Albright to write her own job description after observing her success in developing strategic partnerships within the community. Albright’s formula: “I’m a workaholic. I never say no. And if it hasn’t been done, I want to do it.”

Donna A James

Donna A. James is executive vice president, chief administrative officer, and a member of the management committee of Nationwide. She has been with Nationwide for 20 years and reports directly to the chief executive officer. She is a certified public accountant by training and started as a health care accounting specialist. At Nationwide she made several career moves, including manager of compliance, underwriting and accounting operations; Director of training and communications; director of treasury services; and director of investment products, vice president and assistant to the CEO. At one point in her career, the past GEO asked James to take over human resources. “This was not on my career radar screen,” James said. James said that the CEO told her, “You’ve been preparing for this job all your life.” The job ultimately helped her evolve to fill the roles of executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Nationwide. To James, “Career planning is an oxymoron. Too often young people become frustrated when things don’t work out the way they planned. You have to be flexible. You never know where your next opportunity is.”

Noel E. Hord

Noel E. Hord is the president of BCBG Footwear. He has led an illustrious career in the footwear industry that spans more than 29 years. Prior to joining BGBG, Hord was president and chief operating officer of Nine West Group, Inc, president and CEO of the footwear division of U.S. Shoe Corporation, and group president for NineWest/Fisher Gamuto. He started his career as a management trainee for Wohl Shoe Company (a division of Brown Shoe) and became the first African-American executive to be promoted to corporate headquarters where he was responsible for 65 specialty shoe businesses under the name of Franklin Simon.” As minorities, we are still stumbling against having to prove ourselves,” Hord said. “We have to be superstars compared to the individuals we are competing with. In our society, people tend to want to surround themselves with people ’like themselves.’ This can be a roadblock for minorities. We have to get senior leaders’ attention in a positive way. Progressive companies, however, are getting away from this. They recognize the value and connection between the diverse workforce and consumer, and the need to get the best and brightest regardless of race or gender.”

10 Key Steps to Senior Management

While each of these individuals is unique in his or her experience and perspective, there are many common threads linking their comments on what contributed to their successful climb to senior management. Their insights also reflect the wisdom of senior leaders in other readings and interviews. From their collective wisdom, we can glean the following strategies for the journey to the top.

1. Create a Vision

According to Hord, “Leadership involves the ability to recognize, attract, and retain talent and then also coach that talent to reach the vision and strategy you have for the organization.” Successful leaders create a picture of where they want themselves and their organizations to be and then they begin to implement a strategic plan that will enable them to reach this state. Creating a vision provides focus, a sense of purpose, and a gauge as to whether or not you are on track. Albright adds, “You have to be a visionary, create the plan, and then work the plan. I was the visionary for every job I took – capitalizing on my skills. I always think strategically. I always seek out that which isn’t there. Seek that which will make the difference.”

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

Venturing into the unknown, navigating uncharted waters, and being a pioneer are activities that are all too familiar to successful African-Americans. One must have a tolerance for ambiguity and constantly push one’s self to grow in new and different ways. Being a specialist may add value temporarily, but it also narrows the range of potential opportunities. As an example, Albright recalls, “I planned the first golf fundraiser for the Chicago Urban League. We hadn’t had one before, and I didn’t even know how to golf. But that didn’t discourage me. I sought the counsel and expertise of people who had done this before, and our outing was a success.” Risk taking enables you to introduce value-added ideas to your company and requires you to stretch past areas of comfort and familiarity.

3. Believe in Yourself: Exhibit Passion for What You Do

Are you self-confident and do you believe in what you are doing? A common mantra for success in any role is passion, passion, passion. “I’ve never had a job,” Hord said. “Rather, I’ve always done something I’ve had a passion for. It is important to find something that is not just about money and power but something for which you have an internal passion. Without this, there is no reward.” Albright adds, “No matter who you are, the bottom line is to bring productivity to your company. If you have passion, you will always meet your goals. I’ve always exceeded mine.”

4. Have a Marketing Mindset

Be your own publicist. Someone is always noticing, whether you are at the work site, at a social function, or on a plane. “You’re interviewing for your next job every day,” said James. “You just don’t know what it is. So doing it well is paramount to success. This doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes. Always be accountable for what you do well and what you don’t do well.”

5. Leverage Opportunities Within and Outside of Your Organization

Reach outside of your current role to build the visibility, sponsorship and skill sets to take you to the next level. James recommends community involvement. “We often forget how we can be helped inside by the things we do outside of the organization,” James said. “Be engaged in what you do outside. People see through the reputation on paper. To utilize my financial skills, I volunteered on a non-profit board as assistant treasurer for the YWCA. I eventually became chairman of the board. Non-profits are always looking for diverse talent.”

6. Network: Increase Your Visibility

Human nature causes us to gravitate toward the familiar, and statistics show that this tendency clearly plays out in the boardrooms of major corporations. This means that you should expend as much energy in developing relationships with individuals who can have a positive influence on your career as you do in being good at your profession. It is not always easy, particularly for those who are on the low end of the extrovert scale. How do you do this, keeping in mind hierarchical structures and organizational norms? “The question becomes how do you support John and still get your name and skill set out there? You must network with John’s boss and John’s peers. Look for opportunities to be in the room with them and participate in discussions. Ask. Don’t wait to be invited into the discussion.”

7. Seek Opportunities to Learn New Skill Sets

Many organizations invest in their talent by providing a menu of leadership development offerings: 360 degree feedback, detailed assessments, executive coaches, internal mentoring, developmental assignments, and sponsorship of short term executive education programs, such as those at Harvard, Wharton, and the Center for Creative Leadership. You can leverage your performance planning discussions with your manager to establish areas that you would like to move into and discuss the steps needed to realize your goals.

8. Find a Mentor and Sponsor

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, entitled “The Truth About Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters,” David Thomas noted the most distinguishing factor between minorities who got stuck in middle-management and those who advanced to more senior levels was a strong network of mentors and corporate sponsors. Good mentors will not only share their insights with you but will pull you into their world, providing access to other beneficial people and opportunities. “Your mentor is not always going to be of your race, but someone who is in a position, organizationally, to mentor you,” said Hord, who has benefited from mentoring. “We need to look at mentoring from two aspects: coaching and counseling. Someone who can give you the right kind of advice and, secondly, someone who can be a spokesperson and cheerleader, share your accomplishments with others who may not be as familiar with your work.”

9. Seek Balance: Is It Possible to Have a Life Outside of Work?

Senior management is not for everyone. Each of us must come to terms with the priorities in life within and outside of work, and make sure that the pay-off for what we do is meaningful. “In senior management, there is always going to be a sacrifice over and above what is expected of others,” Hord said. For James, balance is making sure that there is at least one day per week in which she does absolutely no work. For Albright, it’s dedicating at least one week out of the year to herself. “You must regularly make time to assess your own value and authenticity,” she said.

10. Be Flexible and Ready to Travel

Albright, James, and Hord all speak to the importance of having a global mindset. Global expansion, restructurings, mergers and acquisitions create an ever changing landscape for when, where and how work is performed. Ambitious careerists must be mobile, willing to relocate, and comfortable with travel. Assignments that are necessary steps to the next rung on the ladder are often abroad. The recent terrorist events in our country have, for some, exacerbated a hesitancy to travel. Addressing this Albright suggests, “Everything is about your travel mindset. I focus on who I’m going to see when I reach my destination, versus focusing on the trip. Bring a novel, something other than work, to read on the plane. This is also one way I seek balance.”