Talent management is essential, and particularly so for minorities, if we want the best to rise to senior levels as has happened recently with General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., the new Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. General Brown is an African American who was also included on the list of the Top 100 Most Influential People of 2020. As the former leader of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, I understand that talent management starts with those young men and women an organization recruits. Recruiting a diverse workforce is also important in business. Several public and private companies have developed concrete actions. Starbucks will tie executive compensation to increasing minority representation in its workforce. JP Morgan has pledged $30 billion to boost diversity and address racial inequality in the Black and Hispanic communities. These are excellent initiatives, but only a start in growing talented future leaders.
So, what does it take to grow a minority General Officer like General Charles Q. Brown, Jr.? I do not know, but my own experience in rising to the position of Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may serve as an example. Case in point, since the founding of West Point in 1802, our nation’s first engineering school, the Academy has produced only one African American Chief of Engineers. This fact may seem difficult to understand since our military is laser focused on talent management and diversity. Equally important, the younger people in any organization want to see role models at the executive level.
Earlier in my career, as I walked with my breakfast at the National Training Center where our units prepare for war, an African American Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) was staring at me. Somewhat startled, the NCO said, “Sir, you’re the only brother in command in this entire division.” There are approximately fifty commanders at the battalion level and higher in a division of twenty-five thousand soldiers. He went on to say, “Sir, we’re all very proud of you.” I told the soldier that my father was also an NCO and said, “I’m proud of you too.” As we walked away from each other, the soldier turned toward me, and from a distance yelled, “Hey Sir, don’t get out.” At the time, I felt that was too much to ask at that point in my career with 16 years of service, having only planned to stay in the Army for 5 years. However, I remained in the Army for 38-years, and I have often thought of that soldier. The need for role models in business is not any different as highlighted in a statement by a Cisco employee, “I like that there are quite a few women of different nationalities in upper management positions at Cisco. I have not seen that in other jobs that I have had. That is promising as a woman of color myself.” Cisco is listed as #2 on the Fortune 100 Best Workplaces for Diversity. Cisco has 48% minorities, 30% minority executives, and 28% women. Cisco’s success with minority executives is impressive. The Army and business can learn from each other.
The Army is a wonderful organization where every soldier is treated on the merits of his or her performance and not based on the color of their skin. Yet, it remains important that young soldiers feel there are role models that look like them and who will ensure that they get a fair shot in the Army. When one looks at the senior leadership of government, the military, businesses and universities, it is easy for minorities to feel that the system will not treat them fairly because they see so few who look like them in positions of leadership. The desire to be given a fair shot regardless of one’s gender or race is equally important in business.
When I was nominated by President Obama to become the Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Army leadership directed me to fix the diversity issues that we had in the Corps. Shortly after assuming command of the Corps, I reviewed the files of over 25 Engineer General Officers. We had only one Caucasian female, and I was the lone African American. I then looked at the 42 Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels that we had in command of our districts, and we had one Asian Colonel and one female African American Lieutenant Colonel. Then I decided that we would focus on the Captains, officers who had been in the Army for about eight years. I wanted each of our General Officers to reach out to these young officers and encourage them to become White House Fellows, Olmsted Scholars, Congressional Fellows and consider working in Washington, D.C. It was important for the young officers to gain corporate level experience. I asked our personnel office to send me a list of the top 25 Engineer Captains in the Army. There was one Caucasian female and one African American male on the list. Then it was time for me to visit West Point to welcome the 127 cadets who had selected the Engineer branch in 2013. At that time, I was not sure how many African Americans had typically selected the Engineer branch. Furthermore, it turns out that with nearly 3,500 graduates during my four years at West Point, less than 10 African American cadets chose the Engineer Branch. As I spoke to the cadets of the West Point Class of 2013 future engineer officers, there were two African Americans.
After studying diversity issues and preparing my report, I met with the Army leadership and told them that I figured out how to fix the problem with diversity in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army leadership was delighted. They asked, “When will you have it fixed?” I replied, “about 2045 if both of those cadets that I met from the Class of 2013 and those from the Reserve Officer Training program at other universities stay in the Army for thirty years.” The Army does not hire laterally. We grow our leaders and there was little diversity talent in our pipeline. We aggressively recruited at West Point the next year, and in 2014 eight African Americans selected the Engineer Branch. With West Point and ROTC, the diversity numbers have continued to rise.
Even in the private sector, many of the CEOs have grown up in the same company or the same industry. How many minorities are in those pipelines today? Who mentors those incredibly talented minorities and assists in managing their careers, particularly if they move from one business on Wall Street (or any other business) to another? What access to professional development and opportunities for career advancement does an organization provide? The question for business is how do we better manage minority talent to produce more than the four current black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies?
Talent management requires unwavering focus and dedicated attention all the time. With this intentionality and hard work, an organization will grow another General Charles Q. Brown Jr, a future female Service Chief of Staff, or more diverse Fortune 500 CEOs. It will not happen by chance. I do not know General Brown, but I am sure that he must have heard the same request that I did over the years. “Don’t get out.” Thankfully, he persevered.
If the military can only produce one African American Service Chief of Staff and one African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (General Colin Powell) in its history, while laser focused on talent management, what are the implications for businesses, government and other organizations?