When retired Verizon executive Bruce Gordon took the helm of the NAACP in 2005, many were excited to see where he would take the organization. But just 19 months in, he resigned. ESSENCE talked with Gordon to find out what really went down.
ESSENCE: Why quit the NAACP after just 19 months?
Bruce Gordon: I believed any organization that has a CEO and a board of directors has to have a total alignment between the two, and the fact is that alignment did not exist. The way for me to control that was to resign. There are 17 executive committee members and only one CEO. It's a lot easier to change the CEO than it is to change the executive committee. So I took the initiative and made a very difficult, and in some respects disappointing, but necessary decision.
ESSENCE: Is it true that this was your third time trying to quit?
Gordon: No. Two weeks into the job I had an encounter, my second one with the executive committee. So I did have a flash that suggested to me very early on that it was the wrong match. So yes, I did tell the chairman that I was the wrong choice.
ESSENCE: Did you clash with the executive board immediately?
Gordon: During the selection process I was very specific in asking questions around whether the executive committee was prepared to change. I was assured that they were looking for non-traditional solutions. So I was encouraged by that. But when I started to approach various issues in non-traditional ways, they were not as receptive as I had expected. And I found that I had a different understanding of the role of the CEO versus the board. I didn't accept the position on the basis that I was going to just do as I was told. In my world that is not what CEOs do.
ESSENCE: Was this just an ego trip then?
Gordon: No, is the quick answer. Anybody who knows me well knows that my ego is very much in check. I was at home happily retired with a wonderful wife. I didn't go after this position. They came after me. I wasn't looking for any of this. I just chose to do it.
ESSENCE: What was your vision for the association?
Gordon: If we want to advance people of color then we have to take an accountable approach that says we are powerful, that we will take control of our community and fix our problems. And as we go about using the power that we have, it will then put us in a position to hold others, who also affect our communities, accountable. But if all we do as an association is blame others and tell them what they have to do for us, I think that is a recipe for failure in the 21st century.
ESSENCE: How did your vision clash with the board's?
Gordon: The NAACP has always fought for equal access and quality education. I believed we needed programs that held government agencies accountable for providing equal access, but we also needed to put programs in place that made sure our students take advantage of opportunities—for instance, to have math and science tutoring systems delivered to our branches. We did some of this but not enough. Some people said I was trying to eliminate advocacy. I was not. I was simply saying that we need to find the right balance between advocating and actually delivering services in our community.
ESSENCE: Some board members said that before you became CEO you were clearly told that the NAACP wasn't a service organization. Did you misunderstand your role or assignment in any way?
Gordon: I don't think that I was told that. But if I was then, yes, I must have misunderstood. Because what I recall is being interviewed and being asked whether I believed that the NAACP should be an advocacy organization or a service organization. And my response was that it needed to be both. I walked in the door with the belief that if your membership and annual revenue are declining, and you have significant portions of the community questioning your association's relevance, then that means that something must be wrong. There are others who didn't believe that.
ESSENCE: Who were your biggest opponents? Can you comment on that?
Gordon: Naahh. (laughs)
ESSENCE: Can you describe your relationship with the chairman, Julian Bond, and the other executive committee members?
Gordon: To be honest, I would rather not. I don't want a public feud around my departure. In no way am I saying that I am right and they are wrong, or I am smart and they are not. We just have different views about how to effect social change in America.
ESSENCE: Do you think the association is simply stuck in the 1960s?
Gordon: I have worked hard to steer clear of words like that. I would simply say that I feel there is an unwillingness to acknowledge that yesterday's formula for success does not work in the 21st century. Any organization that has been around for 100 years can't believe that it will be around for another 100 years if it just does what it has always done.
ESSENCE: Was a business leader with no religious or civil rights background just a bad choice by the board?
Gordon: It is not that the board made a bad choice. The board chose me. I think they chose the right guy in terms of what I had the capacity to do with the NAACP. They just didn't want to do it. And since they didn't want to do it, I chose to resign.
ESSENCE: Which accomplishments are you most proud of?
Gordon: I arrived at the association at a time when the advertised size of the membership was 500,000. I found out that the actual membership was less than 300,000. So one of my first objectives was to get some membership growth. By the time of my departure we had over 400,000 members and associates. I feel pretty good about that.
ESSENCE: On another note, as a member of the CBS board, you were outspoken against the remarks made by former radio host Don Imus. He's been fired, but, what now?
Gordon: I think that Imus should be a footnote in this whole situation. We should use this opportunity to initiate a movement that says, 'We respect our women, we are going to protect our women.' And from a hip-hop standpoint, make it cool to love our women.
ESSENCE: What will you do next?
Gordon: I was approached by the private sector again; you know, corporate America. And while that is probably the remotest possibility at this stage, I am keeping my options open. Hopefully I will reach the right decision.
Dee Depass is a business writer for The Star Tribune in Minneapolis.