It took Lowe's CEO Marvin Ellison decades to rise to the executive ranks. Here's how corporate America can accelerate the next generation of diverse leaders.

  • Diverse leadership is notoriously underrepresented in the executive ranks of Fortune 500 companies. 
  • Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison is the first Black CEO to lead two different Fortune 500 companies. 
  • It’s on corporate America, though, to ensure that more diverse leaders get the support they need.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Since the summer of 2018, Marvin Ellison has held the CEO position at Lowe’s — the second-largest home improvement chain in the world. But his first job was working as a part-time security guard at Target making $4.35 an hour. At that time, he was a student at the University of Memphis earning money to afford textbooks and tuition. 

Ellison’s rise to becoming the first Black executive to lead two Fortune 500 companies — he also served as CEO of JCPenny — is a testament to his perseverance and tenacious leadership. But his story shouldn’t be a rarity in the notoriously homogenous leadership ranks of corporate America. Not only are there many qualified leaders of color who are equipped to rise to the occasion, companies with diverse leaders are also more likely to see positive financial results. 

Lowe’s performance surpassed analyst expectations in the fourth quarter of 2020, growing 28.1% in same-store sales. Much of that, analysts say, can be credited to Ellison’s leadership.

He was able to “capitalize in the very strong home improvement market this year that has been propelled by Americans nesting at home,” Seth Basham, a Wedbush analyst, wrote in a December 10 note. 

But there are plenty of other Black executives who have the same potential if given the right chances, Ellison says. 

“I am proud and honored to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but I am smart enough to know that I’m not the only talented Black executive on the globe,” Ellison told Fortune in February. “So we have a missed opportunity as it relates to identifying, assessing, and developing talent that is ethnically diverse.” 

There’s an abundance of credentialed leaders from diverse backgrounds who could follow in Ellison’s footsteps. The challenge lies in whether the entities that drive corporate America will offer enough opportunity. 

You can’t be what you can’t see’

Ellison grew up in Brownsville, Tennessee. He was born into a devout Christian family, which included his five siblings. The sharecropping family didn’t earn or have much money, and as a result, his mother became a “master at stretching the dollar,” Ellison told a Memphis television station in 2017.

“I could go out in my front yard and look to the north, south, east, and west and see nothing that looked like success,” Ellison said to the audience at the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Big Show in 2019. 

Ellison’s parents had always encouraged him to look beyond his immediate surroundings and fostered the belief that he could always “do more.” But for many young people, the absence of direct career role models can diminish potential and stifle ambition. 

“There were places I knew I couldn’t go,” Ellison told the NRF. “As a young Black man, it’s just the way it was.”

“You can’t be what you can’t see, and it starts very young,” Hattie Hill, a diversity and inclusion expert who spent decades developing DEI strategies for global companies, told Insider. “When you can’t see those role models, your chances are really limited.”  

The most direct way to ensure that young people have the role models they need is to ensure there is an array of backgrounds in senior management positions that they can look up to — and pathways up the corporate ladder. 

“When you look at all the talent in corporate, you want to have people in roles that they can point to and say, ‘yes, there is an opportunity for me,'” Hill said. 

Overcoming the glass cliff 

The glass cliff is the phenomenon in which women and people of color are appointed to a leadership position during a time when the risk of failure is particularly high. Ellison’s career often fell prey to that obstacle. He worked the hard jobs others passed up and took the helm of JC Penney when it was struggling to survive, suffering from declining foot traffic and a failure to compete with e-commerce giants like Amazon and Walmart.

Things didn’t turn around for JCPenney. Even though Ellison worked to reduce the company’s debt load, the retailer still carries $4.1 billion in debt. 

“People of color face challenges to begin with in those roles,” Dr. Stephanie Smith, chief human resources officer at DePaul University, told Insider. “To have to come into a crisis or turnaround situation just makes it that much harder to succeed.” 

But for Ellison, who was overlooked for multiple promotions and opportunities, avoiding the glass cliff wasn’t exactly an option. Instead, he took on difficult tasks and worked even harder to be a success in his roles. And then a different opportunity — one more suited to his experience at Home Depot — presented itself to Ellison. 

“You have to be willing to take risks and take tough assignments,” Ellison told Fortune in February. “I went, in many cases, to turn something around or clean something up. And that’s not a coincidence.”

In situations where diverse leaders might be more susceptible to this phenomenon, Smith advises companies to provide public recognition of a tough spot and to equip their leaders with the resources they’ll need to improve a tough situation. 

“Are boards of directors being realistic around the time that it’s going to take to turn things around?” Smith asked. “Does someone have the timeframe and the resources to really have a fighting chance?”

Beyond mentorship

Ellison attributes part of his success to the former Home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli, who saw his potential and promoted him into a role in domestic logistics in the early 2000s. From there, Ellison was able to secure a position leading US stores, a business unit with its own profits and losses. 

Figures like Nardelli can be crucial to the success of an early career professional, Smith says. In Ellison’s case, Nardelli went beyond the role of a mentor, who is usually more oriented toward psychological support and advice, to actually advocate for Ellisons’ professional advancement. 

“So many times, it’s ‘mentor, mentor, mentor,’ and that’s great,” Smith said. “But sometimes what you want is someone who has social capital in an organization and who people will believe, so that there’s legitimacy to their recommendation.”

These individuals are known as sponsors, and their role in the careers of young professionals is essential. A sponsor can be helpful in mitigating the effects of the glass cliff. 

“A sponsor who is looking at a protégé going into a situation of crisis can often remind their peers who might be critical of their situation,” Smith said. “It is so critical to have that individual in your corner who is well-placed within the corporation and can provide opportunity.” 

For a young professional rising in the ranks, a sponsor can mean the difference between a blossoming career and a missed opportunity. But ultimately, Ellison says, it’s just as important to take matters into your own hands. 

“You can’t let your boss, you can’t let your HR partner, you can’t let your mentor decide for you,” Ellison told Fortune. “You have to take control of your career.” 

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