Training Black Women to Have It All

Executive Leadership Foundation chair Laysha Ward says the group's goals are attainable.

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(The Root) -- According to the Executive Leadership Council, an organization focused on increasing the number of African Americans at the senior level in Fortune 500 companies and on corporate boards, the numbers are grave: Of the more than 35,000 senior-executive positions either at the CEO level or those one or two levels below CEO within Fortune 500 companies, it is estimated that only 3.2 percent -- or fewer than 800 -- are black.

And when it comes to CEOs themselves, just six in the country are African American -- and only one of those, Ursula Burns of Xerox, is a woman.

Laysha Ward, board chair of Executive Leadership Foundation, says that the statistics "definitely can change, they must change and they will change." The Root caught up with her after the ELC's ninth annual Women's Leadership Forum and Black Women on Power discussion series, an event that offers leadership-development opportunities to its 200 high-potential African-American female members with the explicit goal of increasing their ranks in high-level positions in corporate America.

Ward, who is president of community relations for Target, told The Root about the research-based lessons that the high-powered executives learned during the forum, why she thinks the ELC's ambitious goals for corporate boardrooms are attainable (and even inevitable) and why she doesn't worry about whether she and the women she works with can "have it all."

The Root: Why is an organization like the ELC necessary?

Laysha Ward: The numbers tell the story. Fewer than 1 percent of corporate CEOs are African American, and only one is a woman. We've been working for more than 25 years now to fill the pipeline of corporate leadership with African-American leaders, and we've made some progress, but we have a very long way to go.

To that end, we hope to accelerate the progress through our recently announced "aspirational goals," which are focused on getting more African Americans into the CEO-level position and those one and two levels below CEO, with an expectation of 500 leaders at [all three] levels. We also want to get an incremental 200 African Americans on the boards of publicly traded companies. We'll keep track of the numbers each year to see how we're making progress against these goals. 

We have a very rich history, focused on diversity and inclusion in all aspects of business, including recruiting and retaining diverse talent. We have been very fortunate to -- through our Executive Leadership Foundation -- support a variety of educational initiatives. Ultimately, the education issue is a global-competitiveness issue.

TR: The Executive Leadership Council describes its mission as training the next generation of African-American business leaders "from the classroom to the boardroom." What types of things are taught in "classrooms" such as your Women's Leadership Forum leadership-development workshops and panels?

LW: The Women's Leadership Forum is one of our signature programs. This year's theme was "Potential, purpose and power." We're very focused on things like blind spots -- are they assets or liabilities? For example, one blind spot could be how one gets feedback, and whether that feedback is seen as a strength or a potential derailer in one's career.