Pivots and diversifying in Alfonzo Alexander’s, Chief Ethics and Diversity Officer, NASBA, and President of NASBA’s Center for the Public Trust, career have been themes throughout his journey in the business world. Graduating college and landing a Fortune 500 company position to owning his own consulting firm to eventually landing a position championing ethics and diversity efforts at NASBA, Alexander is no stranger to what skills are needed to become a sustainable leader. “It’s important to be an ethical leader because ethical leadership is the only sustainable type of leadership.” We recently interviewed Alexander on how he got to where he is today, what diversity means to him, what young leaders should know, and much more.
Shortly after graduating college from Tennessee Tech University, I worked for a Fortune 500 company, Quaker Oats, in operations management as well as human resources and supply chain. After leaving Quaker Oats in 1995, I ran a small office for a national organization, INROADS, in Memphis. TN, and built internship and management training programs for Fortune 1000 companies as well as recruited and trained college students to go work at those companies and those internship programs. Toward the end of my career at INROADS, I was the managing director and regional executive for the Southeast, which included nine states.
While working in various positions throughout my career, I was also consulting on the side. Mainly, I would work with businesses that had been around for five years or so but had hit a plateau and needed to take the business to the next level. I became a certified life and business coach and also offered career coaching for professionals either in management positions or entrepreneurs.
About 15 years ago, I decided to offer business consulting services full time and reached out to people in my network. David Costello, former NASBA president, was one of them and asked me to work on some projects at NASBA. Eventually, he talked me into becoming a NASBA employee, and I initially started as the vice president of the NASBA Center for the Public Trust (CPT) and business development director for NASBA. After holding various roles at both NASBA and the CPT, NASBA reorganized again last year, and I now champion ethics and diversity efforts at NASBA.
Describe your role at NASBA.
I represent NASBA with initiatives involving diversity in accounting, externally, and I work with NASBA human resources leadership, internally, on things related to diversity within NASBA. On the ethics side, I serve as our chief ethics officer, so I oversee and manage NASBA’s whistleblower program and participate in ethics-centered professional activities to help better understand how NASBA can safeguard our company and employees from unethical behavior. Externally, I assist with advisory services or strategy initiatives for Boards of Accountancy or State CPA Societies. I am also invited to speak by other stakeholder groups on topics that include ethics, diversity, mentoring, leadership/development, etc. I spend about 50 percent of my time on the road.
What does diversity mean to you?
Diversity for me means having a collection of people with a variety of backgrounds, functional strengths and capabilities, expertise, ethnicities and gender – a tremendous mix of people. I believe this is necessary for businesses because when there is a diverse mix of people, you have diversity of thought, which makes your company more innovative and creative. Diversity also gives you a better representation for your clients so you can give them better services because you understand them better.
What qualities do you believe great leaders possess?
Great leaders have strength, are trustworthy/reliable, persevere, are focused, are ethical, have a tremendous work ethic, and build great teams. I have seen these qualities in great leaders, and they are the focus of one of my favorite biblical passages.
Why is it important to be an ethical leader?
It’s important to be an ethical leader because ethical leadership is the only sustainable type of leadership. When you make decisions and those decisions are built on a foundation of doing the right thing, you get the best outcome for all stakeholders. If your motives are ones that take into account the whole (all stakeholders), that’s sustainable leadership. People can quickly see if your decisions are me-focused, and they will not accept your leadership very long.
There are so many that I hate to narrow it down, but these are the leaders on my mind right now.
1. The present leader who inspires me is Ken Chenualt. For 20 years, he was the CEO of American Express. The thing I admire most about him, according to things I have read about him, was that he had 17 jobs at American Express prior to becoming CEO. Management kept giving Chenault jobs and responsibilities and he kept turning them around for the better, with a high level of integrity. I’ve always been impressed by people who can take things and turn them around. I have been fortunate enough to have some opportunities to do that, too. So, I respect leaders who do the same.
2. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a leader I admire from our past. I really admire his strength and how he was able to maintain a nonviolent approach and be extremely effective in his leadership while there was a lot of violence going on around him. When you look at the overall impact he and others had during the civil rights movement, while he was so young, it’s amazing what he accomplished. He was killed at 39 years old.
If you could go back to your college years, what would you do differently?
I would focus more on business ownership while in college versus working for others. Don’t get me wrong, internships provide great experiences. But, at the same time, if I knew then what I know now, I would have been working more on entrepreneurial ventures as well so I could have a serious focus on building my own businesses once I graduated.
What do you see over and over that you wish young leaders would avoid?
I believe young leaders these days are often too focused on themselves and what they think is going to propel their career versus them being focused on their actions and how they impact the whole. As a leader, not only do you need to be concerned about how you impact yourself/company, you also need to take into account your customers, coworkers, stakeholders – not just what’s in it for me. Young leaders need to perform well and watch the opportunities open up for them.
What advice do have for those who are just starting their career?
I have two pieces of advice: 1) Gain a broad level of experience so you can get exposure to as many things as possible. Continue this throughout your career; 2) Perform with excellence and integrity as if your career depended on it, because it does, and build and protect a positive image with all the people you encounter because your personal brand is very important.
To connect with Alfonzo, find him on LinkedIn.
Interview By: Jenna Elkins, NASBA Communications and Digital Media Specialist
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