As an African American female executive, Laysha Ward is a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion at Target, where she serves as President of Community Relations and Target Foundation, on her corporate and non-profit boards and in the community organizations where she serves. As an influencer, she strives to back up her personal leadership philosophy: “Your words and your actions must be aligned.”

Ward created Target’s “Read With Me” initiative, which aims to help more children in the United States become proficient readers by the end of the third grade. She also oversees the corporation’s domestic and international grant making, community sponsorships, marketing initiatives, volunteerism and other civic activities. Ward’s commitment to the community extends beyond her professional duties, as she has recently been elected new chairman at Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). She also sits on the boards of the Executive Leadership Council, a national membership organization for African-American executives and the Tiger Woods Learning Center, an education facility located in Southern California. Ward is also a member of Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind, The Links, an international women’s service organization and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.

Recently, Ward spoke about the significance of Black History Month, how African-American leaders have inspired her journey and Target’s efforts around diversity and corporate responsibility.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Ward: I celebrate the rich tapestry and melting pot that represents the foundation of the United States 365 days out of the year. But I love how Black History Month opens up the conversation on progress we’ve made in helping people of all backgrounds succeed – and the reality of how far we have to go.

How does Target inspire an inclusive community? 

Ward: The most important thing any company can do is to listen, and I think that is something we are doing very well right now. We are listening to team members from every background, culture and preference. We are asking what it feels like to work at Target – all the good and all the challenges.  And we’re using that information to drive decisions about how to make this a more inclusive place to work – and a stronger company all around.

We also listen to our guests and community partners for insights and strive to integrate their perspectives into products we sell – from Miss Jessie’s hair care and fabulous Shea moisturizers, to clothes and other items that fit our lifestyle preferences and needs.

We all have an important role to play when it comes to ensuring all kids reach their full potential regardless of race or economic background. Target works with schools in need to build a pipeline of diverse talent, by inspiring learning and putting more kids on the path to high school graduation, college, and a successful career. We are on track to give $1 billion for education by the end of 2015, with an emphasis on helping children read proficiently by the end of third grade, given the significance of this academic milestone.

Are there any African American leaders – past or present – that inspire you?

Ward: There are so many that I’m not sure where to begin. No one would have the opportunities we have today if it weren’t for the leadership, courage and sacrifice of the men and women who paved the way. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not consciously grateful for them. We are in their debt, and we owe them the very best of who we are.

I had the great fortune and deep privilege of meeting Coretta Scott King before she passed. It was an honor to call her my mentor and friend, and she said something to me that I will never forget:  “You have earned the right to be here. Now do what you have been called upon to do.”

I’ve also been fortunate to be inspired by leaders of all backgrounds, including those who don’t look like me, act like me or share the same beliefs. Mrs. King encouraged me to surround myself with divergent thinking, traditions and points of view to fully grow as a human being and leader.  I initially thought that was a crazy notion, but later realized the power in her life lesson.

Do you have any advice for young African-Americans leaders in the work force?

Ward: I’m reading a book right now that I would recommend to anyone looking to shape their career. It’s The Power of Choice by Mike Hyter, and it is built around a simple premise: “Long-term career growth is the result of deliberate choices.”  We all make choices every single day, so choose to be intentional about your life.  Investing in yourself and others around you will pay tremendous dividends in your personal and professional well-being. Believe that you’ve earned the right to be where you are and where you intend you go, and then act with confidence, self-reflection, and humility. Appreciate every step of your life’s journey, including the destinations that require the proverbial map quest and GPS.

Do you have a leadership mantra? 

Ward: Align your words with your actions. Be authentic, be humble, and always act with integrity. Focus on developing your team and driving for results. Be a lifelong learner. Have fun!