As the first guest speaker this fall in the MIT Sloan School of Management's Innovative Leader Series, former NAACP leader and telecom industry veteran Bruce Gordon told audience members that accountability and activism were his own personal keys to success.
Gordon began his career working at a regional telephone company in 1968 and spent the next 35 years navigating the string of mergers that gave rise to Verizon Communications. When he retired from Verizon in 2003, he was chief of Verizon's biggest unit, retail markets. In 2005, he became president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. During his tenure at the civil rights organization, he increased membership and associates by more than 100,000.
After being introduced at the forum by David Schmittlein, MIT Sloan's new dean, Gordon, who was a Sloan fellow in 1998, spoke about the beginning of his career at the telephone company, which he referred to by its old nickname, Ma Bell. "It was one company back then. We gave you all the choices you wanted, as long as they were products we had," he said with a smile.
Over the next several decades, Gordon saw the company move from wired communications to wireless. Meanwhile, middle management went from being almost exclusively male and white to a composition that included 15 percent minorities and 40 percent women.
"Throughout this change, I learned a few things. I learned that change is guaranteed. Whatever you see today will be gone tomorrow, and those who succeed are the ones that embrace change and don't reject it," he said. "You cannot predict the future, no matter how smart you are or how grand your imagination might be. You haven't a clue as to what your space will look like, even just five years from now."
Gordon explained that he learned a lot in a compressed amount of time during his 19 months with the NAACP. He mentioned that he often found himself quoting Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." He quickly realized that the disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in America is growing. Gordon went on to tell students that it was a privilege for them to be at MIT Sloan and he hoped that when they graduate and enter the work force that they would remember the have-nots.
"My two experiences, in telecom and at the NAACP, have shaped my thinking. In all of that, I have two words for you: accountability and activism," Gordon said. He went on to explain that accountability is tantamount to individual power and challenged students to become more involved.
"When I realized that everything in front of me I could hold myself accountable for--and did not have available the option to blame someone else, to say that there was nothing I could do about it, and just wait and hope that someone else would solve the problem--it changed my approach to my work and my life--to everything," he said.
Gordon said accountability is fundamental to bringing about change and noted that one of his regrets at the NAACP was his inability to change the thinking of a 21st-century organization away from that of "victim." He said he wanted the organization to move toward accountable thinking so members could try to fix concerns and problems on their own.
Activism, Gordon said, is easy: Either you're engaged or you're not. He asked students, "Are you willing to get involved? If you choose to take on the spectator role, then you are being unaccountable and nothing will happen. If you choose to become an activist, then you can make a big difference. In your career, if you choose to be an accountable activist, I can almost assure you of a successful path and progress."
Gordon said he felt that one of the most underused powers in the country is the executive suite. While at the telephone company, he wanted to become an executive because he wanted to have the power to affect change and policy. At the NAACP, Gordon would often speak to CEOs and ask them to write the president and both houses of Congress about public policies in the hope of changing things for the better.
"It makes sense to me that a corporate leader would weigh in on issues such as immigration. It's a major issue of our day. They should weigh in on this, not because it affects their work force, but because it affects the health and welfare of the country," he said.
Gordon closed his talk with a direct message to MIT Sloan students: "You have the intention to leave this place and go on with your lives and do something meaningful. I would encourage you to think about your individual capacity to effect change in this country, if not this world. Acknowledge the fact that there are some in America who have, and many in America who don't. The disparities that result from those two communities affect your life directly and you have an opportunity to have an impact on theirs. And to pass on that opportunity, to me, would be a huge missed opportunity," he said.
After a brief question-and-answer session, Gordon was greeted by a few of his former professors. He later attended a private lunch with 15 MIT Sloan students who had previously contacted the Office of External Relations about the opportunity.
Gordon now serves on the boards of CBS and Tyco International, and was previously on the boards of the Southern Company, Best Foods, Office Depot and Infinity Broadcasting. While at Verizon, he was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame. Gordon has been named as one the 100 most influential black American leaders by Ebony magazine and is ranked sixth by Fortune magazine on its list of the most powerful black executives.
The dean's Innovative Leader Series is cosponsored by the MIT Leadership Center and the MIT Sloan Office of External Relations. It brings to campus some of the most influential and innovative leaders from the public and private sectors to share lessons learned from their experiences leading some of the world's most significant and innovative organizations. For more information on the series, visit mitsloan.mit.edu/corporate/dils.php.