In early February on ESPN’S NFL Live Mina Kimes was commenting on the Brian Flores legal action against the NFL and three of its teams and said “Black coaches are not being put in a position to succeed.” While she was well intended I would like to share what I learned at Xerox and what I have observed over the decades that might offer a different perspective on her statement.
One of my life long lessons is that the pathway to success requires the appreciation that the “opportunity to succeed” only works if it is accompanied by the “opportunity to fail”.
Prior to joining Xerox, I had been publisher and editor of The Black Pages, a directory of Black-owned businesses in New York City and Northern New Jersey. We had 1,200 black-owned businesses advertisering with us as we tried to shine a light on black economic growth and capitalism. At the time we were the largest circulation black publication in New York City. Even so, in 1976 we had to close the business. We had failed to survive the 1970s Recession.
Needless to say I was ready to shift my focus to earning money again, getting my family back on its feet, and moving forward from what had been a very difficult time – failure in business! I joined Xerox and that was where I was headed until a few Xerox colleagues in 1977 asked to meet with me. These guys had all achieved considerable success, at that time, at Xerox. One of them, Art Crawford, had become the first black branch manager in the Northeast Region, one of Xerox’ five regions, and likely one of the first branch managers in the country.
They wanted me to get involved in the Xerox Caucus group in the Northeast Region, the Metropolitan Area Minority Employees (MAME). MAME was one of seven Caucus Groups at Xerox. If you want to know abut the influence of the Black Caucus Groups check out“Harvard Business School Case Study – Black Caucus Groups at Xerox Corporation, 1991.” An abstract from the case study reads: In1970 Xerox had a very progressive affirmative action program yet, once hired, black employees faced serious problems, due both to overt discrimination and to their exclusion from the informal networks of support, information and mentoring that the other salespeople shared. The black employees responded by establishing seven independent support groups around the United States. These black caucuses functioned as both self-help groups to prepare black employees for promotion and as pressure groups to push for policy changes within Xerox.
I want to share the conversation I had with Art and others at this meeting where I first heard of the concept of the opportunity to fail. As publisher and editor of The Black Pages, I had been actively engaged in creating a level playing field for black entrepreneurs. What I didn’t know was what the caucus group wanted to achieve in Corporate America and how I could help. I asked what was the end goal – get more black people hired, more black folk promoted, position black people in segregated silos across the Northeast Region? I could not have been more surprised by Art’s answer. “No Howard, we are not trying to ask white folk to insure our success. Whether that is moving up, getting promoted or placed in successful positioning. We are confident about our ability to be top performers” He looked me squarely in the eye and said “We want the opportunity to fail.”
Having just failed with our business I was dumbfounded by Art’s statement. He went on to say “ When white folk are put into risky or challenging situations and fail, they get another chance to succeed. That’s what we want. We want the opportunity to fail”.
Years later as I led sales and management training at the Xerox Global Training Center in Leesburg Virginia, I used to tell the story of the IBM president who assigned a new product to a young guy he thought had a lot of potential. He assigned a budget of $3 Million to the product launch. The young executive tried his best but failed miserably. I don’t know if this was a true story or emblematic of other situations. But as the story goes the young executive walked into the office of the IBM president. He said “Sir, here is my resignation. You trusted me with the launch of a strategic product and I failed.” The president looked at the resignation, tore it up and said “I just invested $3 Million in you! You’re not going anywhere!” He began right then to make sure his mentee learned from his failure. That’s the opportunity we ALL want.
I don’t mean to pick on Mina KImes, Brian Flores or the NFL. But what is disappointing is that in 2022 we still haven’t learned that inclusion certainly means creating an equal opportunity to succeed and but perhaps more importantly it means appreciating the need for an equal opportunity to fail”.
What I learned decades ago and still believe strongly today is that one of the primary pathways to success is through adversity and failure.
Howard Holley is Co-Founder and CEO of TouchPoint Innovative Solutions and Publisher of EVOLVE Magazine