02/13/2012 11:30 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2012

Negative Label or Positive Lever? You Choose How to Use It.

As a girl growing up in the Deep South who integrated my Catholic school system in the '60s, never could I have imagined the things I've seen take place thus far in my life.

We're winding down term one of our first black president. Media entertainment giants like Oprah, Tyra, Beyonce and Tyler have become one-name phenomena with the ability to grow and sustain their own business empires. Many of our "young" rap stars have now hit the big 4-0. And we have our first black female CEO of a Fortune 100 company.

Because of all those big moments and high achievements, it's easy for us (as a society) to believe that all is well -- that we have "arrived" at equality. But I'm here to tell you, first-hand, that in Corporate America we certainly (and unfortunately) have not arrived at equality for African Americans.

The unpleasant truth is that once we did elect our first black president, many leaders in corporate America simply checked the topics of diversity & inclusion and equality in the workplace off their lists. I mean, we have a black president. That surely must take care of "equality for all," right?

Wrong. And it's been one of the strangest dichotomies I've observed in my lifetime. Here's what I mean...

Had someone asked me even 25 years ago if I'd see a black man elected president in my lifetime, I would have answered with a confident no. If they'd asked me at that same time if African Americans would be abundantly present in senior leadership positions in Corporate America, I would have said probably.

The unfortunate reality, according to Black Profiles, is that only 11 black executives have made it to the Chairman or CEO position of a Fortune 500 company. Of these 11, only six remained as of April 1, 2011. Franklin Raines became the first black person to lead a Fortune 500 company when he became CEO of Fannie Mae in 1999. On July 1, 2009, Ursula Burns became the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company.

If the CEOs of the Fortune 500 reflected the composition of the workforce, 55 would be Black, 70 would be Hispanic, 24 would be Asian and 233 would be women (Workforce Magazine, June 2009).

So what is the disconnect? Why have we as a society been lulled into thinking that progress has been made for African Americans in Corporate America when the inarguable research shows the opposite?

And why does it matter?

It matters because we are experiencing a crisis. Organizations will never be able to realize the benefit of a diverse workforce until they build an approach that develops the individual, expands cross-cultural competencies for managers and redesigns the culture to create an equal playing field. These are the secret ingredients to raising employee engagement and accelerating better business results.

Corporate America and its historical bias against African Americans will change. It is just a matter of how long that evolution will take. But it will "take." This bias-free evolution will prevail because the success of our corporations will depend upon diverse backgrounds, diverse perspectives and the diversity of thought and skills that African Americans bring to the table.

That is why the time is now for African-American employees to take ownership for charting their own futures. And when they get to the top, they must turn around, lend others a hand and continue to drive the needed cultural transformation.

The demographics of our population has changed, our society has changed and the global economy has changed. And they continue changing today. Therefore, Corporate America must change -- will change -- or it will not survive.

This is why African Americans must be prepared and ready. They must continue their quest to develop themselves in the critical "Five Cs": Competence, Confidence, Credibility, Communication skills and Courage.

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about... I recently interviewed an African-American woman SVP of a global leader in the consumer products industry. She communicated an idea in such a succinct manner -- and I've heard similar thoughts from other successful professional African American women over the last year or so. She said...

"What was intended as a negative label - use as a positive lever."

She continued by saying, "It is somewhat expected that African-American women be opinionated. It seems to be built into the fabric of the U.S. Therefore, we must look at this as an opportunity. Be opinionated. Use that as a positive lever -- not a negative label. Use it to gain power and value in your organization. Doing precisely this has paid high dividends in my own career."

As a confident, intelligent, caring, high-capacity African-American woman who is not afraid to communicate her opinions in a professional manner, she has been given the "angry black woman" label. She, however, refuses to accept that label in the spirit it was given. Instead, she utilizes it as an opportunity to gain power and value. She has harnessed the confidence and intelligence behind that label to set a positive trajectory for her life and career and the careers and lives of others in her sphere of influence.

Think of the transformation that would take place in Corporate America if every African-American employee would use their negative labels as positive levers! It would be powerful!

Equality and opportunity is possible for African Americans in Corporate America today, but time is running short. With the success of African Americans will come the renewed success of Corporate America. And the smart leaders will see that and thrive.

Stay focused. Stay the course... but kick it into high gear. Because, in the immortal words of the great Sam Cooke, "It's been a long, long time coming, but I know... a change is gonna come, oh yes it will!"