Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Aylwim B. Lewis to Step Down as President/CEO of Sears

It's been a rough year for the corporate sector in many ways. I blogged about Stan O'Neal's ouster from Merill Lynch back in late fall and it hasn't really gotten any better for executives of any race in corporate America. The sub-prime fallout has meant less access to capital stifling growth and hiring, grumbling investors and quite a few layoffs and firings.

It's not all that surprising that Sears CEO Aylwin B. Lewis announced he'll be stepping down as of February 2nd. Lewis (pictured at left) was a former CEO of Kmart and assumed the presidency of Sears Holdings after Sears & Roebuck & Co. merged with Kmart in 2005.

He oversaw some organizational changes and instituted sort of a throwback approach by salvaging things like the erstwhile Sears Catalog and the old blue light specials. Unfortunately it wasn't enough to energize the two US retail giants in the face of competitors like Wal-Mart and Target and a slew of online retailers.

I note it because it still means a lot to have a man of color at the head of an organization the size of Sears and Kmart - regardless of the company's decreasing market share and sagging profitability those brands are embedded in the American psyche.

It definitely reflects some positive things about the slow evolution of the corporate culture.

But there are definitely still a range of issues, some subtle some not, that will require time, effort and dialog to address as our society evolves to move past the entrenched race-based bias that currently characterizes the overall corporate atmosphere.

As a young female co-worker of color confided to me this afternoon; there are very complex issues of socialization and perception that create cultural currents and eddies that can be difficult for minorities to negotiate.

The culturally isolating atmosphere and lack of diversity can contribute to feelings of marginalization - and it can be hard to try and reach out to someone of a different race about matters you aren't sure will translate.

Our culturegeist is unquestionably shifting towards a more diverse makeup that is more reflective of the people that compromise today's America; but the change sometimes moves at a pace that makes it difficult to discern just how it has really evolved.

Each person of color in the corporate atmosphere must, in his or her own way, learn to master the subtleties necessary to move in synch with the currents of the professional environment.

And at times, I think it's important take the chance that someone of a different religious background or race or ethnicity will engage in one of those conversations that don't take place often enough in the corporate environment.

Those conversations, the one's that DON'T come easy, are often the ones that advance our perceptions of ourselves and teach those with the courage to reach out and engage in the dialog.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. observed; "Sometimes faith is taking the first step, even if you can't see the whole staircase."

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