When BLACK ENTERPRISE Editor-At-Large Caroline V. Clarke set out to write the powerful success book, Take A Lesson: Today’s Black Achievers on How They Made It and What They Learned Along the Way (Wiley Books, $24.95), her premise was a simple one: the best lessons on how to achieve peak performance comes from the performers themselves. Clarke’s book includes interviews with top achievers in media, politics, education, the arts and, of course, corporate America. Following is advice from three accomplished executives who are among the first generation of black CEOs at top 1,000 public companies. What worked for them, can work for you.
KENNETH I. CHENAULT, CEO, AMERICAN EXPRESS
SUBJECT: ALWAYS BE PREPARED TO GIVE YOUR BEST
There’s an African parable that I often include in the speeches I give because I think it starkly illustrates the challenges we face. It goes like this: Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest cheetah, or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a cheetah wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death. It does not matter whether you are a cheetah, or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you’d better be running!
To western minds, this epitomizes type-A behavior. It’s a shortcut to a coronary; the paranoid vision of a dog-eat-dog world, where only the top dog survives. But if you have seen the plains of Africa — even if only in your heart — it conveys a different, more subtle meaning.
At any given moment, running fastest may be essential to existence because behind you may be a hungry predator. This is the reality of life. But running fastest is also the ultimate expression of freedom. It can be a celebration of the essence of life. So, what I take from that parable is that at any moment, no matter who you are, you must be prepared to give your best.
Personal integrity is a very big thing with me. Don’t sell yourself to the highest bidder. If you don’t believe in the product or ideals of a company or organization, don’t accept the job. Dedicate yourself to a core set of values. Without them, you will never be able to find personal fulfillment, and you will never be able to lead effectively.
Second, always try to associate with the best and brightest people. Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by someone’s reputation for being hard and tough. A professor or boss who demands excellence from you will generally be a fair person. Believe in yourself, and never be afraid to challenge yourself. In other words, stay away from stupid people.
Third, don’t overestimate the importance of networking. Whether in school or in business, your main focus always needs to be on completing the job at hand. Having a good set of friends in the classroom will not help when the bluebooks are passed out. If