(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.
Another example of a conversation we had was around the essential elements of well-being. We talked about how African-American women can really focus on taking care of ourselves holistically — whether that's our financial well-being, strategic decisions about our lives, positioning our families for future success from a financial perspective or community well-being. Being a leader in business also means being a leader in one's community. Especially in the African-American community, we believe in balancing the ability to do an extraordinary job in your professional endeavors while also making sure your community is vital and strong.
TR: Speaking of a holistic view of success, what's your take on the recent headline about how women can't have it all? Do the African-American female leaders you work with experience that frustration with work-life balance?
LW: I'm not sure I understand completely what it means when someone says you "can't have it all." How do you define "it all"? What I would say is that we all have a lot of choices to make, and we all have personal power. Some of the lessons discussed and learned from our forum have to do with understanding that personal power, and a lot of your power is about choice.
We want to make sure that African-American women have the power to make choices and understand that no one can take your personal power from you — you do have a level of control. To the extent, then, that you can't have everything, I think that if you're realistic yet optimistic about your goals, you'll do that in a manner that does allow you to have it all, because what "it all" means is positioned in a framework that is attainable.
TR: How hopeful are you about dramatically increasing the percentage of African-American women in corporate leadership, and changing the statistics you cited, in our lifetimes?
LW: We believe the statistics definitely can change, they must change and they will change. I had the great fortune at a recent national assembly of the Links to hear Condoleezza Rice speak, and one of her comments was that what might seem like the impossible is often inevitable. And I would suggest that our success is inevitable. We have the talent in the African-American community — women and men — to achieve our aspirational goals.
It will require multiple change points and multiple change agents. It will happen based on a focused strategy and a committed group of leaders from across sectors who will help us. It absolutely is nothing we can do alone. We have to have partners who are supportive, are committed and have the will to ensure that we optimize every leader's full potential, including those who are African Americans. This is critically important to America's global competitiveness. Diversity and inclusion is a strategic imperative.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.