It’s Personal: Reflections From The 2015 ELC Recognition Gala

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Nearly 2,200 members and guests of The Executive Leadership Foundation (ELF) attended the Annual Recognition Gala at the Gaylord National Hotel just outside of Washington, DC on October 8th. The annual event pays tribute to individuals and corporations for their support of diversity, inclusion and achievement in business, and also recognizes our ELF scholarship recipients. Each year, the event honors the legacy of our 18 visionary founders by recognizing the significant accomplishments of black executives and pledging our commitment to the development of future global black leaders.

Read a first-hand account of the evening from ELC Member Tara Jaye Frank, Vice President of Multicultural Strategy for Hallmark Cards, Inc., who reflects on her experience at the event:

This was my second time attending The Executive Leadership Council’s Annual Recognition Gala, and here goes: I shed a few tears.

I was there with my colleagues – eight accomplished Hallmarkers with whom I’ve worked for almost two decades, and who have earned my respect and admiration many times over.

For those who’ve never been, the Gala dinner works like this:

Setting: Expansive room filled with 200 tables of ten people each, representing over 100 of the world’s most successful companies and beloved brands. Cameras, vibrant lights, sequined tablecloths, and floral arrangements worthy of a wedding reception.

Characters: CEOs, dignitaries, board members, executive/senior vice presidents, vice presidents, business founders and owners, middle managers, award recipients, and a few celebrities. (We sang Happy Birthday to Nicole Ari Parker!) In attendance were men and women from all races and creeds, dressed to the nines.

Plot: The ELC is the preeminent member organization committed to advancing Black executives into the C-suite and onto corporate boards. The Gala Awards dinner recognizes executives who have achieved extraordinary success in business or society, and who’ve used their professional achievements to create opportunities for others. This year, Caterpillar won the Corporate Award for making sustainable progress possible and changing the world for the better. Kenneth Frazier, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Merck and Co., won the 2015 Achievement Award for his leadership and business accomplishments, which include rising to be one of only six black sitting CEOs. And the Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr. who has served in government for more than thirty years, won the Global Game Changer Award.

The Executive Leadership Foundation, thanks to generous donations and engagement from member companies, provides scholarships to deserving college students poised to find themselves in the C-Suite or on corporate boards, and presents awards for business-related achievements. (Side note: Cisco Systems offered one of the award recipients a job on the spot. This actually happened.)

The Executive Leadership Institute creates programs to accelerate leadership development of middle managers and more, offering not only top-notch training and support, but also a safe space to learn – courtesy of a unique opportunity to interact with others who share their cultural backgrounds, experiences, and challenges.

Now that you have the lay of the land, back to the tears.

As an executive who’s enjoyed a fulfilling career, built rewarding relationships, worked on innovative projects and programs, and who prides herself on composure, I was surprised to find myself dabbing my eyes multiple times during the ceremony.

We often say in corporate circles, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” But last night, as I sat listening to true stories of unlikely ascents to the top beyond otherwise difficult childhoods defined by poverty, or broken homes, or lack of professional role models, or just straight-up racism, I realized how deeply impacted I truly am by the ups and downs of the climb.

It’s business, yes. But it’s also personal. VERY personal.

This truth – that this road to “the top” is not only bumpy, but sometimes treacherous – made me feel some kind of way. Several kinds of ways, actually. It made me feel ecstatic to know The ELC exists solely to change this paradigm. Proud of those who serve as role models for others aspiring to higher levels of leadership. Grateful to have a chance to help emerging black leaders better prepare themselves to win. Hopeful, thanks to the 800 brilliant black minds I encountered at the Institute’s Mid-Level Manager Symposium, who were passionate, driven, engaged, and ready to raise their own professional high bars.

And…I also felt a bit frustrated. Frustrated that we are still experiencing so many firsts in 2015. That some companies say all the right things, but do very little to adapt their systems and processes to allow for true inclusion. Frustrated that many people in power still cannot appreciate this simple fact: Because company rules were created by and for white men, the only way to make progress on diversity and inclusion is to evolve those rules. In some cases, to start over entirely.

So I shed a few tears last night, but it was a good thing. Why? Because those tears strengthened my resolve to keep pushing. To tell emerging leaders the truth about excelling in corporate America, while encouraging them to resist conforming to it. Today’s corporations need you to lovingly coax them from their comfort zones. Many organizations are implementing innovative ways to leverage diverse talent, and they’re winning as a result. Others, not so much.

So push. But before you do, be clear on this: The price of entry for having a voice in changing your company culture is to be CONSISTENTLY EXCELLENT. To add differentiated value. To actively engage. And to respect the ecosystem, which includes a company’s beliefs and values, core competencies, and fundamental business rules. Respecting the ecosystem is a precursor to influencing it.

I’ll be rooting for you, and doing my part to keep inspiring, informing, and preparing. If you’re interested in joining me, follow me here on linkedin or on facebook at facebook/tarajayefrank, and stay tuned for more.

Thanks to the ELC for an incredible experience, to my colleagues for being present and engaged, and to all of you. You are my fuel.

You can read more of Tara Jaye Frank’s posts here on View additional photos from the Annual Gala here.

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