George WuAs a professor of behavioral science, I like to challenge my students to be better negotiators and decision makers. These tools prove important in business and in life, and thanks to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s Center for Decision Research, which has supported studies on those topics since 1975, we know a thing or two about what works best when you’re trying to make a deal. Last year, I got the chance to share the lessons we’ve learned with an all–African American class of mid-career professionals, who came together as a part of the IMPACT Leadership Development Program sponsored by Chicago Booth, the Chicago Urban League, the Chicago Community Trust, and the Joyce Foundation.

It all started with a phone call from Andrea Zopp, former CEO of the Chicago Urban League (CUL). She saw a need within the black business community for leadership education that spoke to the particular challenges faced by high-potential African American professionals. I agreed and joined my Booth colleagues Linda Ginzel, Heather Caruso, and Harry Davis to partner with Zopp in creating the IMPACT program. We put together a curriculum that covered some of my favorite topics—negotiation and decision making—and also power, influence, ethics, values, and learning from experience. Zopp and her colleagues at the CUL assembled a class of 34 of Chicago’s best and brightest black professionals, coming from nonprofits, startups, the C-suite, law firms, and government. 

Constance Brewer was one of those 34, and she came to the program with the desire to make a difference in her “own backyard,” as she put it. While she was in the program, she joined the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago as its chief of external affairs. Previously, Constance had been the national development director at the KIPP Foundation, a nationwide network of free open-enrollment college-preparatory schools in under-resourced communities. In making the transition, she stepped up as a leader in an organization that serves more than 10,000 students in low-income communities across the city.

Constance and her classmates learned from Linda, Heather, Harry, and myself about research-based leadership skills, but they also heard stories from the field. We held monthly “Lessons in Leadership” from black leaders across the country, including Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments; Don Thompson, former chief executive at McDonald’s; and retired ComEd chairman and CEO Frank Clark. Between those sessions and one-on-one coaching from carefully selected mentors, our fellows got to see how well our theories worked in practice.

I’m confident that IMPACT is a step in the right direction. But I think one of our fellows, Xavier Ramey, who focuses on social innovation and philanthropy at the University Community Service Center, explained the value of the program best: “As an African American, I have faced challenges climbing in this city which have been very different from my non-black peers. IMPACT speaks to this and thus speaks to me. It has been an incredible experience.”

George Wu is the faculty director of the IMPACT Leadership Development Program at the Chicago Urban League. Wu also is the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and serves as a member of the faculty advisory board for Chicago Booth’s Social Enterprise Initiative.