6 insights from Black CEOs and leaders

Black CEOs and leaders

In celebrating Black History Month, we honor Black CEOs and executives and the lessons they have passed on to Vistage. We have selected six leaders from both inside and outside the Vistage community who have shared their knowledge, experience and expertise to help members make better decisions for their companies, families and communities.

Here are their stories and their lessons.


General Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.)

Twice awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a best-selling author, Gen. Powell’s achievements are numerous and well-documented. During an exclusive event for Vistage members in July 2021, Gen. Powell shared stories from his career and provided insight into servant leadership, building trust and making difficult decisions. Following his passing in October, Powell was remembered for a lifetime of leading others, often with global implications.

Here are a few of Gen. Powell’s tips on leadership:

  • Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.
  • Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted, the leader must be doubly vigilant.
  • Keep looking below surface appearances. Don’t shrink from doing so [just] because you might not like what you find.
  • Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Sarano Kelley, Founder of The Game and Author of “The Game: Win Your Life in 90 Days”

From growing up in a gang-ridden territory in Brownsville, New York, to working on Wall Street at 23, Sarano has had to reinvent himself several times over. When a family tragedy struck, he learned how to turn adversity into an advantage and created a 90-day “game” process that produced results while aligning his personal and professional lives.

Sarano’s tips on tapping into your peak levels of performance:

  • Set specific, measurable goals.
  • Develop a “score card” to keep track of your daily and weekly progress.
  • Hold yourself to your “coach” (supervisor), “team” (co-workers) and “fans” (people you don’t want to let down).
  • Hold a “kick-off” meeting and let everyone know your goals.

Bonin Bough, Chief Growth Officer, Triller

Bonin first made waves as one of the youngest C-suite executives at a Fortune 50 company and spearheaded some of the industry’s largest global marketing campaigns, including the first-ever 3D printed food product: a customizable Oreo cookie!

At our 2021 Growth Through Sales and Marketing conference, Bonin offered these tips on hacking customer engagement.

  • Rethink mobility: Consider using text messaging to build your business.
  • Practice real-time engagement: Break down barriers to customer interaction.
  • Monetize media: Think creatively to make your marketing make you money.
  • Power aspiration with allocation: You can aspire to be anything in the world, but you must allocate resources to get there.
  • Optimize TV and Video: Leverage the benefits of each channel.
  • Consider culture vs. cluster: Explore the nuances behind demographics.

Michael C. Bush, CEO, Great Place to Work

A chief executive with over 25 years of experience leading small and mid-sized organizations, Michael is driven by a love of business and an unwavering commitment to fair and equitable treatment. In 2015, he acquired Great Place to Work, a global analytics and consulting firm that helps companies produce better results by focusing on every employee’s work experience.

Here are Michael’s tips for developing a “great” workplace culture:

  • Build trust and provide safety for all: Make sure everyone has the same consistent work experience across demographics, from the C-suite to the front line.
  • Set humane standards for those working remotely: No apologies for interruptions, check-in, embrace creativity (i.e.: fun backgrounds) and be disciplined about unplugging.
  • In times of crisis, involve others: Make employees part of the solution by asking for their input, conducting listening sessions and giving them part of the problem to solve.
  • Lead with purpose and values: Be sure the well-being of your employees, their families and communities remain a priority.

Chris-Tia Donaldson, CEO and founder, Thank God It’s Natural

Chris-Tia propelled her beauty business from the trunk of her car to the Inc. 5000 list, emerging as a powerful advocate for women and natural hairstyles. After a bout with breast cancer, she founded the TGIN Foundation to provide awareness and resources to young, uninsured women of color. Sadly, Chris-Tia passed in November 2021 but left a legacy of strength and leadership for others to follow.

Chris-Tia’s tips for leveraging challenges to build and improve:

  • Lean into your team. Trust reinvigorates accountability.
  • Prioritize self-care.
  • Be creative. Think about how you can turn a setback into an opportunity (e.g. press, speaking engagements, etc.). People love a comeback.
  • Be an advocate for those imperiled by the injustice you see.
  • Build emotional stamina. Running a business is like being on a roller coaster. You have to buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Michael B. Russell, CEO, H.J. Russell & Company

Michael B. Russell may have been the son of legendary Atlanta developer and civil rights activist Herman J. Russell, but he “got it out the mud” just like everyone else. Michael started working for the family business as a teen cleaning recently vacated apartments. Learning every aspect of the business as he worked his way up, Russell took over as CEO in 2003 with an eye on expanding into the future.

Michael’s tips for expanding on a legacy business:

  • Continue to evolve. Look at your businesses and see their relevance in today’s marketplace.
  • Be a positive influence in the communities you work in.
  • Create an “unfair advantage” in the marketplace. Look for ways to create advantages that can grow and sustain your business for the next 10 to 20 years.
  • Set expectations for the next generation coming up (and their managers). Treat this next generation of family members as employees and hold them accountable for doing their job every day.

Related resources 

The Vistage Diversity & Inclusion Resource Center 

Leadership lessons from five outstanding women in business

World-class leadership lessons: Advice from 100+ award-winning executives 

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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