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Preparing for Firsts in Leadership

Highly visual African American (AA) first-to-be success stories, such as Barack Obama becoming President of the United States, Oprah Winfrey’s multi-millionaire status, and other first-to-be success stories cause some to suggest we here in America have achieved a post-racial, fully egalitarian society. The success of one may be a beacon to light the way, but such singular success does not “trickle down” to the larger society without effort. Thus, the question of this article suggests: How do we supportively prepare for firsts in leadership posts?

Was the nation prepared for its first African American president? Is The Ohio State University prepared for its first AA president? Are we prepared for our first AA CEOs? While this question could be asked regarding marginalized talented people of many stripes, we focus here on Black people in America as our first-to-be subjects.

In well thought out leadership selection, procedures consideration is given to the challenges of “firstness.” Yet, such consideration is often subordinated to an insignificant part of the search and selection process. Easy and glib observations include the notion that preparing for a Black person is no different than preparing for a Caucasian person. Or, the mere suggestion of a need for special planning for the first-to-be, gives rise to the potential for negatively biased responses to the first person.

So, what might a thoughtful leadership selection process resulting in a first-to-be include? Selection process integrity can be established by putting these basic principles front and center in advance of announcing a leadership vacancy:

  • The position and general qualifications for the post must be clearly defined.
  • Qualitative and quantitative metrics should to be determined in advance of the search.
  • Specific technical skill set competencies, personality attributes, and other desired qualities must be announced.
  • Honest motives for selecting a first should be transparent to the process.

As with all high profile leadership transitions, a highly respected leadership team mentor might be assigned to assist the new person in anticipation of subtle or blatant prejudice. Potential strategies need to be well thought out by, at least, considering these questions:

  1. What mentoring, inside coaching and other support will be provided the first?
  2. How will performance shortcomings be distinguished from prejudicial assessments?
  3. What outside interventions are the organization willing to employ to get to success?

There is a distinct difference between the kind of scrutiny given those in highly public positions and those employed by private organizations. In the case of public policy leadership such as that embodied in the Office of the U.S. President, opportunity and expectation exists for every manner of critic to weigh-in on the office seeker’s adequacy or inadequacy. What is too often missed is a proper anticipation of potential backlash solely on the basis of race, gender identification, ethnicity, color, religion, or nationality.

Clearly, the U.S. presidency is a uniquely solo leadership position. Yet, the Presidential selection process has provided a prism through which to look when considering the selection of firsts to major leadership roles in other high-stakes, high-profile positions. After all of the technical requirements are validated, a primary question to ask is: Do we actually want our first-to-be to succeed?

Dr. Billings is a former Honeywell, Inc. human resource development vice president, currently president of Billings & Associates, LLC, an executive leadership coaching consulting practice located in New Albany, Ohio

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