Leadership Lessons from Barrier Breaking Black CEOs

According to research conducted by McKinsey, Black workers, account for 12 percent of the 125 million private-sector workers in the United States, but are underrepresented in the highest-growth geographies and the highest-paying industries.

Black employees encounter representation gaps at each step.According to McKinsey’s study, there is a significant drop-off in representation at management levels. At the managerial level, the Black share of the workforce declines to 7 percent. Across the senior manager, VP, and SVP levels, Black representation drops further to just 4 to 5 percent.

The Black CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are both history makers and barrier breakers. As we celebrate Black History Month, here are three leadership lessons from three pioneering business leaders – Marvin Ellison, CEO of Lowe’s, Thasunda Brown Duckett, CEO of TIAA, and Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance.

Lesson #1: Plan well, don’t let anyone kill your dreams, and have an insatiable desire to learn

Marvin Ellison is chairman, president and CEO of Lowe’s, with oversight of more than 2,200 stores and approximately 300,000 associates in the United States and Canada.

Image from https://corporate.lowes.com/

During college, Ellison worked his way through school to pay for tuition, room and board, and textbooks. He took a variety of roles, including working as a janitor, truck driver, warehouse operator, and convenience store clerk, before landing a job as a part-time security guard at a Target store in Memphis. Ellison went on to rise through the ranks at Target over the next 15 years.

In an interview with Spencer Stuart, the global executive search and leadership consulting firm, Ellison emphasized the importance of planning.  “Plan well around your short- and long-term objectives. In business and in life, it’s a necessity to make sure that you’re thinking beyond what is right in front of you, but don’t overreach,” Ellison explained. “I should be a great motivation because there’s nothing special about me. Nothing. My advice to you is plan well, don’t let anyone kill your dreams, have an insatiable desire to learn. 

Lesson #2: Be prepared to take risks that could advance your career in the long run

Thasunda Brown Duckett is president and chief executive officer of TIAA, a leading provider of secure retirements and outcome-focused investment solutions to millions of people and thousands of institutions.

Image from https://www.tiaa.org/

As an undergraduate student at the University of Houston, Duckett landed an internship with the mortgage loan company Fannie Mae, and she loved the experience. After she graduated from college, Duckett turned down higher paying job offers to return to Fannie May. She recounted her decision in an interview with The New York Times where she explained, “I know this company, I like the people, and I knew I’ll have a better shot here.”

Duckett took a risk by taking her lowest paying offer, but she believed Fannie Me would provide her with opportunities that aligned with her career goals, and the risk paid off.

Lesson #3: Learn to be your own champion

When Rosalind Brewer joined Walgreens Boots Alliance in March 2021, she became only the second Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, after Ursula Burns became the chief executive officer of Xerox in 2009.

Image from https://www.walgreensbootsalliance.com/

Over the course of her career, Brewer has learned the importance of being your own champion. In an interview with CNBC Make It, she explained: “You have to find that confidence within yourself to say, ‘I know this is right and I’m going to stand by my decision,’ even if there’s a second voice in your head doubting you or other people questioning your moves.”

If you are considering the next steps for your career, please do not hesitate to reach out to the Career Center. You can schedule 30-minute advising appointments with one of our Career Advisors through connectSC or stop by during our drop-in hours at the USC Career Center (STU 110) to discuss any of your questions or concerns.

By Career Center
Career Center