Frank Fountain was born in 1944 in Brewton, Alabama. He grew up on a sharecropper farm in the segregated South and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Bengal, India, prior to attending business school. In 1973, after receiving his MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of Business, he joined the Chrysler Corporation as an investment analyst.
After 20 years in the finance trenches, he accepted an assignment with the company’s Washington, D.C., government affairs office. He is now senior vice president of government affairs and president of the Chrysler Foundation. He is also a former president of the Executive Leadership Foundation and serves on the boards of Detroit’s Museum of African-American History, the United Way, and his alma maters. (Cobbs, Turnock 2007).
As we observe others rise to higher levels of leadership, we ask ourselves “How do they do it?” (Glaser 2006) During his early years at Chrysler, Fountain noticed and asked about a relatively young man who had been appointed as CEO. Everyone he asked alluded to the young man’s close relationship with an important company executive. Fountain realized that he would probably never gain that level of personal support from such a high level executive so he developed a simple but very effective plan for building his own supportive peer relationships.
“I got together six or seven of us, all basically on the same level but in different finance departments. I had gotten to know them through work assignments, and I had confidence in them. I was the only black one. I thought by getting together and communicating, developing a tight-knit group of pretty smart people-I thought they were smart-we could leverage each other in a very informal but deft way.” (Cobbs, Turnock 2007). According to Fountain, the key was having people who you felt had potential and were ambitious but whose egos would allow them to be a part of and contribute to a team. Fountain developed relationships with these types of people during previous assignments of his own. Having the ability to share information and push each other raised the performance level of everyone in the group.
As the old saying goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” (Anonymous) Fountain realized this very early on and began networking as early as high school. “I viewed everybody the same, and my relationships were genuine with all of the people. I wasn’t identified with the elite group or the regular folks. I was me, not that the elite would ever have considered me one of theirs. I wrote my own speeches, I didn’t have the teachers help me the way some of my opponents did. I was the junior and senior class president and then student council president.” (Cobbs, Turnock 2007)
Paula A. Banks was born 1950 in Chicago, Illinois. She began her career with Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1972 as a management trainee and rapidly rose through the store-management hierarchy. In 1975, she accepted a special human resources assignment and discovered her talent for sensitive people issues. In 1989, she was named president of the Sears Foundation. After 24 years, she left to join Amoco as the president of its Foundation. When Amoco merged with BP two years later, she parlayed her expertise into a demanding new position. Now based in London, she is senior vice president, Social Strategy and Policy, and president of The BP Foundation. She works to advance the integration of business objectives with social issues on a global scale, partnering with more than 155 BP business unit leaders operating in over 100 countries on six continents. (Cobbs, Turnock 2007)
Banks began as a management trainee at Sears and did well early on in her management roles. Eventually she accepted several extremely delicate labor relations assignments relying on promises that she would be able to return to line management. One day she got a call and was asked if she would like to become a part of the employee and labor relations team. She was the only person of color and just the second woman to ever fill this job in the company. Banks found out about six months into the job that all the males on the staff begged the boss to get rid of her. “Instead-and I give this guy lots of credit-he gave me the responsibility for those states where we had the biggest contracts to negotiate. I had Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the largest automotive service centers. And I was only twenty-seven years old.” (Cobbs, Turnock 2007).
Acquiring power and becoming a successful executive requires the use of all your skills and resources. You are unlikely to receive key assignments unless you have worked hard and proven yourself capable and efficient. “The distinction between the leader and others is not a gender distinction. Women can rise to leadership positions, as long as they understand how.” (Glaser 2006) When BP and Amoco merged, Paula Banks received an assignment she didn’t want, the BP Amoco Foundation. According to Banks, she had to accept it because they offered it to her in a public forum with other people around. She immediately went to her boss and voiced her dissatisfaction with the decision. Her boss told her that the only other available option was an assignment that would require a move to London which he didn’t think she would want. Banks, intent on making her own decisions, accepted the latter assignment and moved to London.
Both men and women face similar challenges every day in the pursuit of corporate power and influence. How do we bring our ideas to the forefront without stepping all over our peers? Showcasing our talents in a corporate America that overflows with talented executives is a challenge that does not discriminate based on gender. Fountain and Banks both exhibit the We-Centric behavior and mindset and built mutually beneficial relationships with other like-minded executives within their industries.
Price M. Cobbs , Judith L. Turnock; Cracking the Corporate Code
The Revealing Success Stories of 32 African-American Executives
Anonymous (n.d.). Putting Power to Work. Retrieved January 30, 2008 at: http://www.csupomona.edu/~msharifzadeh/chapter8.html
Judith E Glaser (2006, March). Power and Influence. Leadership Excellence, 23(3), 16. Retrieved February 3, 2008, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 1013751031).