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Crain’s Chicago Business-Corporate diversity begins with a pipeline; let’s build one

Corporate diversity begins with a pipeline; let’s build one

By Andrea L. Zopp

Chicago is a city of color. More than half its population — 55 percent — is something other than white, and nearly a third is African-American. Yet Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in America, and in no place is this division more evident than in corporate boardrooms and C-suites.

Just 6.6 percent of the 1,523 corporate board members in metropolitan Chicago and the Great Lakes region are African-American, according to a survey of 160 companies commissioned by the Chicago Urban League last year. Chicago hasn’t seen an African-American ascend to CEO of a major corporation since Don Thompson at McDonald’s Corp. nearly two years ago. This is not surprising, because in many of our major institutions, the ranks of senior executives from which CEOs are selected also are sadly lacking in diversity.

This is very problematic in a city claiming “world class” status. As we move into a new year, it is my hope that leading businesses resolve that they finally will dismantle the culture of exclusivity and recognize that too often African-Americans working in companies face not a glass ceiling but a concrete one. They will ask themselves why the diverse talent hired into line roles are not moving into manager, director or vice president positions.

When they assess the talent pool in their organizations, they will be troubled, as we are, by the lack of African-Americans identified as high-potential employees. And, most important, they will act to drive change and to develop a pipeline of diverse talent at all levels, including their boards of directors.

What stood out during the media frenzy over Mr. Thompson’s rise at Oak Brook-based McDonald’s — in which his humble beginnings, his talent and his hard work were highlighted — is that his predecessor had tapped him for the position years before. Leadership pipeline-building at major companies isn’t new; it just generally doesn’t apply to African-Americans.

Creating meaningful opportunity that will bring diverse talent into senior and board roles is not only a good cultural move, but also a smart business strategy that will contribute to the long-term survival of companies. In numerous studies, corporate leaders have acknowledged the critical role of diversity of thought, gender, race and culture to business success, yet too often they continue to sit back on the heels of the status quo.

TALENT IS OUT THERE

The talent is there, but companies aren’t taking advantage of the many different ways to find it. We encourage business leaders to collaborate with their community-based partners to find talent; create a corporate culture that promotes open dialogue about how to increase African-American representation on boards; support organizations and collaborations that are creating and promoting a pipeline of African-American board-worthy candidates; and consider this issue a business imperative.

Another good place to look is the Chicago United Business Leaders of Color directory that is published every two years. These eminently accomplished men and women are ideal candidates for corporate board directorships. Last year, its list of 45 individuals included presidents, vice presidents, partners, directors and chancellors of prominent businesses, universities, nonprofits, law firms and medical institutions. The professional biographies of these individuals make it indisputably clear that Chicago has such a broad range of talented experts in fields such as banking and finance, marketing, technology, policy, hospital administration, consulting and development.

The Chicago Urban League will do its part in 2014 to assist in enhancing the talent pipeline by launching, in partnership with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, an African-American leadership development program for professionals ages 30 to 45. Through educational seminars, networking, mentoring and skill-building opportunities, participants will be trained to be leadership-ready.

I encourage every corporate decision-maker who is genuinely interested in bringing diverse talent to their top tiers to seek out the organizations that are preparing the next generation of leaders. Or start by picking up the Business Leaders of Color guide, get to know these rising dynamic people, and then take one of them to lunch. Pipeline-building starts here and now.

Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.

Published in Crain’s Chicago Business on January 06, 2014