Peak Performance

If anyone has a good sense of how serious businesses are about improving their leadership diversity, it’s Frank Clark. The president and CEO of Chicago-based executive search firm Encore has a ringside seat to the changes going on in corporate America. And the good news is that he is—cautiously—encouraged.

Diversity and inclusion are a bigger business focus than they have ever been, he says. Companies are giving the issues their attention “not just… from a social agenda perspective, but because it drives value to the business, it drives value to the shareholders, it drives value to employees.”

As evidence he points to the 425 newcomers to Fortune 500 company board seats last year and in 2020—a remarkable 28% of them were African American. “An absolutely astounding percentage,” he says. However, that statistic needs to be considered in a more sobering context—that still only about 4.5% of all current Fortune 500 company board members are Black.

And if that rising tide in the boardroom is a good sign, there’s “still a ton of work” to be done down the hall in the executive offices, Clark says: only three Fortune 500 CEOs are people of color, he points out. That’s less than 1%. However, while there’s a “very narrow funnel of opportunity” the further up you go in the business world, there is a high demand for executives of color.

The challenges Black executives face in corporate America can be a competitive advantage in a tight job market, he believes. Think innovation and creativity, he explains. “You know, Black executives are always outnumbered—10 to one, 20 to one, 50 to one—and as a result we learn how to navigate and innovate to drive results, probably more so than our colleagues because we’re forced to create results and consistent performance.

“So, when we’re at the table, that innovation and that diverse way of getting results adds value to the overall solution set, the overall strategic agenda of a boardroom or a C-suite, which again creates value and performance when it comes to revenue, when it comes to employee fulfillment, and it comes to recruiting and retaining top-level talent.”

“Black executives are always outnumbered… as a result we learn how to navigate and innovate to drive results.”

Able to lead
Speaking of that tight job market, Clark sees it being employee-driven. Employers are needing to be much more innovative in recruiting and retaining top talent, he observes. Similarly so in the mid-level market, even though there’s a larger pool to choose from there.

“Employees now realize, ‘Hey, I can do something else. I don’t have to work a nine-to-five. I can do things in technology. I can do things in health care. I can do things by way of the internet to still drive economics for me.’ Now that all this optionality is there with the advent of technology, particularly social media, it is tougher to recruit mid-market employees as well.

Another advantage management candidates have these days is the growing recognition that leadership skills are transferable from one sector to another. Technology has helped with that—“you certainly don’t need to be narrowing deep to transfer from professional services to something in strategy, as an example, or consulting.

“Those skills around leadership are homogenous in the sense of leading people, of leading strategy, of garnering an operation and executing. Those are the skills that you need to run a company, not necessarily the myopic industry, one-to-one correlation. I don’t need to be an engineer, necessarily, to run an engineering business.

It’s more about “being able to lead people, being able to drive strategy and execute on performance, execute on strategic agenda items and, last but not least, have this fundamental understanding of what’s important to differentiating your company from others. If you have those skills, they’re certainly transferable and doable, whether you’re a minority in the African American community or whether you’re more so of a mainstream candidate as well.

Despite the way more doors are opening for diverse candidates, some businesses claim they can’t find the caliber of talent they are looking for. What does Clark say when he hears that? “I say to them in a very direct way, ‘You’re not committed to it,’” he tells WayMaker Journal. “When you say you can’t find diverse talent, particularly of African American, Latino descent, you’re just not committed to it like you think you may be.”

Clark asks them if diversity is a part of their strategic plan and if so, why—what are they looking for? If the answer is that because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s social action or because it fits their markets, then he tells them that’s why they are not finding people of color. “Because those are not meaningful enough for you to be committed to it, to make it an enduring strategy.”

He wants to hear: “I want to drive more market share. I want to create more products in the market that we don’t have today. I want to retain the best talent in our company and develop that talent. And I also want to drive performance when it comes to top-line growth.”

When that’s the answer, he says, it means the businesses “really understand the business value proposition” behind a commitment to diversity.

Absolute grit
With a bachelor’s in economics (Northern Illinois University), followed by an MBA in finance and marketing (the Illinois Institute of Technology), Clark joined Motorola—then one of the world’s leading telecommunications companies.

“We’re forced to create results and consistent performance.”

The limited opportunities Clark faced as a rising leader shaped his own career track. After a few years in the business world, he saw the probabilities of further advancement “getting slimmer and slimmer” and so decided to switch from the corporate world to entrepreneurship. “I said, why not start my own company, create wealth that way, power and influence, and also be able to hire some fantastic people of color to make an impact?” With some solid Fortune 500 company experience behind him, he ventured into the world of entrepreneurship. Now at Encore, he helps find executives for businesses in financial services, health care, and technology. Business is growing month after month.

If any single person served as an inspiration and role model for him, it was Clark’s father. He remembers as a young boy watching Dad leaving for work every day in a suit. “I didn’t understand what he did, but I said, ‘That looks pretty cool. I might want to go to work in a suit one day.’”

He learned later that Frank Clark Sr. was president, chairman, and CEO of Chicago utility company Commonwealth Edison, having started in the mailroom and advanced to the top position (earning a law degree along the way) in a near-50-year career.

“One of the things that I learned from him is absolute grit and what you would call intestinal fortitude—to keep going no matter what. That certainly has boded well for me in my career.” Clark Sr. also passed along “this ability to work with people and have a great team around you.”

Others have been influential along the way. Clark speaks gratefully of being fortunate to get exposure to Quintin E. Primo III, co-founder and CEO of a minority-owned real estate investment company Capri Capital Partners; John W. Rogers, founder of the mutual fund firm Ariel Investments; and publishing legend John H. Johnson, who founded Ebony and Jet magazines.

“With those experiences and seeing their success and seeing kind of what they were building and how they were impacting us, meaning Black people and people of color, when it comes to great jobs, great career opportunities… I said that is really some good stuff…”

The growing percentage of minority board members suggests more opportunities for Black candidates. How could someone looking to win a board seat prepare themselves?

Connect with companies like Encore or the Executive Leadership Council, Clark suggests. Or run your own campaign, which should highlight any experience on nonprofit boards as they are a good proving ground for board seats in the public or private sectors.

“You should have some board experience in the not-for-profit world, with some leadership as well, because many of those skills are transferable to public company boards,” says Clark. “Committee work, strategy work, work on governance, fiduciary—a lot of those skills are transferable to the public company and private company boards.”

From an interview with Louis Carr