Bruce S. Gordon, a 1988 MIT Sloan Fellow, is that rare hybrid, a social visionary and an astute businessman. The combination has made him a powerful leader in both corporate and nonprofit enterprises and has landed him in a high-profile position requiring both. Gordon took the helm as president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in August.
After 35 years rising through the ranks of Bell of Pennsylvania, Bell Atlantic, and Verizon, Gordon retired at 56. In his final position, he led the company's largest division, retail markets, which served 33 million residential and small business customers. He also directed corporate advertising and brand management and brought in $25 billion in annual revenue.
Often lauded for outstanding leadership during his corporate career, Gordon was included in Fortune magazine's 2002 roster of “The 50 Most Powerful Black Executives.” Black Enterprise magazine named him Executive of the Year in 1998. “I'm definitely a believer,” he says, “that leadership technique has an immeasurable impact on a business. If you have a questionable culture, then the business just doesn't work.”
By all accounts, Gordon paid close attention to building a healthy corporate culture at Verizon and was an involved mentor to many young minority employees. In his new position, he plans to conduct focus groups to hear the concerns of young blacks across the country. Open lines of communication, he believes, are key to progress.
Gordon grew up in Camden, N.J. His mother was a schoolteacher, his father, a school administrator and a founder of the local NAACP chapter. Attending chapter meetings as a young boy, he says, gave him a strong connection to the organization. As a professional, however, his work has concentrated on economic rather than political activism.
He told The New York Times, “My civil rights activities have been in the economic arena, where people get jobs. I think we have to define civil rights more broadly. When I say civil rights, I am talking about economic rights. I think I have the ability to meet with corporate CEOs and help them to think through the bottom-line benefits of diversity.”
Gordon has said that he will apply his expertise in corporate marketing to push the NAACP toward a more economic-based approach to civil rights — and that includes convincing corporations to hire more black managers. He also plans to raise a $200 million endowment.
“We've got to get the right emphasis placed on economic equality,” Gordon said in a recent interview. “I happen to think that when you have economic stability and equality, that often becomes an enabler for social equality.”
Speaking of economic stability, the NAACP is relying on Gordon to put its troubled finances in order. In 2004, the organization suffered a $4.7 million shortfall and laid off employees at its Baltimore headquarters.
Those who know Gordon, think he's the man who can set the NAACP back on track and help it to realize its vital mission. “If you can't motivate a large organization to follow your lead,” says Verizon president Lawrence T. Babbio Jr., “you would not have survived as long as Bruce Gordon has.”
Gordon believes his experience in the MIT Sloan Fellows Program was critical to the outcome of his career.
“Executives from 17 countries were represented, very accomplished business people from a wide spectrum of business, industry, government, and military organizations,” he remembers. “Even if working with that diverse group of people was the sum total of the Sloan Fellows experience, I would have walked away a winner, but there was so much more — the faculty, the curriculum, the learning experience, the trip to the Far East. The experience was remarkable.”