Kwame Salter and How Business Is More than Black and White: Success in a Complex World
Kwame Salter and the cover off his book about being a Black manager in a predominantly white organization
By Jonathan Gramling
Kwame Salter has succeeded at many things in life. A graduate of UW-Whitewater — he was one of 14 African American students at the time — he earned a master’s degree from UW-Madison in 1970. He led the protests over the closing of the UW-Madison Afro Am Center in 1973. At one time, he was president of the Madison public schools board and was executive director of Madison’s Head Start Program.
Salter then went on to a 22 year career with Kraft/Oscar Mayer, steadily moving up the chain of command as director to senior director to vice-president to senior vice-president until he retired in 2008.
I first met Salter in 1979 when I was a grad student at UW-Madison and pumped gas part-time at Clark Oil to make ends meet. While pumping his gas on most Sunday nights, we would engage in free-wheeling discussions. We formed a friendship that continues today, let the reader beware.
Salter was always one of those speak truth to power people. He spoke his mind in a way that wasn’t personal, but nonetheless struck at the core of American racism and more.
While some allow institutional racism to control how they approach their workplace and so it controls their behavior, Salter approaches institutional racism as another environmental factor — a huge factor — that he must deal with as he made decisions about his position and the people in his unit. His approach empowered him as opposed to the institutional racism exercising power over him.
Recently, Salter released his second book called Being the Boss When It’s Black Over White: 7 Strategies to Manage the Nuances and Challenges. In some ways, it is his autobiography on how he successfully managed a high level career in white Corporate America. Salter again speaks truth to power in a very matter-of-fact way and non-personal way about navigating the barriers and obstacles in a world where you couldn’t tell friend or foe merely by the way they looked. No one is spared the critique if they have earned it.
The book reveals seven primary strategies that Black managers can use to survive as executives in primarily white Corporate America. Salter was inspired to write the book after reflecting on what happened to President Barack Obama and how he dealt with the adversity.
“Can you imagine if he had had the skill set — I’m being generous — that Donald Trump had,” Salter queried during a phone interview. “People have made it like it has been normalized and incompetent. And here was this guy on the Harvard Business Review. Just think about all of his accomplishments. And yet the minute he came in, the declaration was ‘He shall not succeed’ before he signed one executive order. ‘He will not succeed. This is our objective.’ I was floored when they expressed this. But at the same time, there is a certain appreciation that you have for candor. Mitch McConnell was candid. He was honest about it. This is where systemic racism as a structure began to leak oil. It leaks oil because people say things that we already knew. But no one had ever said it out loud. Now they are saying it out loud. We go, ‘And you said that?’ and they go, ‘Yeah, so what?’ The reality is they know how the system works.”
Salter’s first book, Striving while Black, was a guide for African Americans entering Corporate America. Black Over White is a guide that asks the fundamental question. You’ve now gained entry into the halls of decision-making. Now what?
“You’re a leader suddenly and you think, ‘That’s what I’ve been angling for,’” Salter said. “’I have the credentials and now I have the position. Theoretically, I have the power.’ But then you think about the reality that systemic racism is still operating. And so even though you are the highest ranking person in the room and you are Black, there is someone in that room who may be legions below you, but still believes, ‘I’m white. I’m cool. I don’t really have to respond to this guy. And if he upsets me or she upsets me, I can go to my boss and skip a level to complain.’ I use the example that actually happened. It’s a Black VP giving an evaluation to a white woman and she wasn’t doing very well. He told her that. She went to the executive vice-president of HR and said, ‘I feel intimidated by him.’ They suspended him for two weeks while they investigated her complaint. When he called and told me, he wanted to have breakfast with me. I said, ‘So what’s going on.’ He told me. And I said, ‘You left? Do you realize that undermines the whole concept of constructive feedback and performance improvement? Somebody can go over your head and say that you intimidated them because you gave them feedback that was constructive and not very reinforcing in terms of who they thought they were.’ I thought that was a dangerous precedent. I think eventually it was proven that she was not competent for the job. But that is after the fact.”
The actions of the executive vice-president sends a powerful message.
“Think of this,” Salter said. “Just having the option to skip level because your boss is a Black male is telling you something that you don’t want to hear. And you can say, ‘Well that’s okay. I still have access to privileges that you don’t. I can go to my white female executive VP.’ Instead of saying, ‘We need to have you both in here’ or sending her back saying, ‘I’m not going to let you skip level,’ she listens to her.”
While many of the things that Salter writes about apply to upper management in general, Salter’s perspective coming as a Black executive, allows for the nuances that race and ethnicity play.
“These are competencies that any good leadership has,” Salter said. “Every time I write a book, I’m told, ‘Look, women for example, can use your book.’ Anyone can use the book. I just happen to focus on the experience on being a Black leader in a predominantly white organization. There are things that I focus on based on this reaction to skin color. So what I try to do is be very honest with the reader and let the reader know, ‘Look, I’m not going to play the game that being Black means you’re right all the time.’ You can see in the book that I critique the Black leadership and what they should be doing.”
One difficult thing that some Black managers face is bringing in other Blacks into executive positions for fear that any failure will allow for a broad brush to be used to paint all Black managers as incompetent. Salter goes right to the point.
“One of the lessons from the book is as you are rising, pull someone else up with you and don’t be ashamed of it,” Salter emphasized. “What it should be based on is competencies, qualities, and abilities to do the job. We tend, as a people, to want to prove to people that we are even handed and fair and we’re not going to bring in all of our Black people. That’s not the issue. The issue is talent. Bring in talent, that’s all that I am asking. Cast a wide net for talent. And all of these extraneous factors of gender and race are not a skill set. I’m saying, ‘Look for the skill set.’ And if you look particularly at white women who come into an organization, within two years, they have probably increased the representation of women by about 50 percent in these key positions. I don’t have to speak to what happens traditionally. No one ever questions bringing in, if you are a white boss, and you bring in talent that is white. No one questions that. But if you are the senior executive and you are Black and you start bringing in Black people, they will say that you aren’t being fair. It’s really ironic.”
While race is an inescapable element in the workplace, in Salter’s view, it shouldn’t serve as a barrier to bringing in competent experienced and intelligent executives no matter what their race or ethnicity.
Being the Boss When It’s Black Over White is available on Amazon.
Next issue: More lessons from Black Over White