Bill and Tom discuss a number of things that can be done to improve diversity in corporate leadership and there is no more important time in our history to be doing them.
Culture of Respect—Zero Tolerance of Disrespect
Bill Evertsberg: Hello friends, my name is Bill Evertsberg. I’m one of the pastors at Kenilworth Union Church and this is Doogie, my assistant pastor. I’m here with Tom Cole whom I’ll introduce in a moment. I invited Tom to bring his dog Pippa with him today—she’s about this big—Tom declined because he was afraid that Pippa would dominate the conversation, so she’s still at home.
So Tom, we’ve got about 6 minutes to talk about this huge issue so I’m going to cut right to the chase. This is Tom Cole. Tom is a recently retired partner at Sidley Austin in Chicago for 15 years. He chaired the executive committee there. He is both a professor and a board member at the University of Chicago. He was once chair of the board at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and he is an expert on corporate governance. This is his recent book; you should pick it up if this is in your wheelhouse: CEO Leadership: Navigating the New Era in Corporate Governance.
So I called Tom because of this book to ask for some advice about leading during a crisis, during a pandemic and nationwide protests, and the reason I did that—Tom, in our conversation I started thinking that many, many of the members of our congregation are on corporate boards in Chicago, sit in senior leadership positions, or they’re decision makers and they are in a position to help collapse the opportunity gap between white America and people of color. And in our conversation, I learned that you’ve been doing some very good work on this very issue, so that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
You know, this is the problem: there are no black senior leaders at, get this: CVS. Bank of America. JP Morgan. Wells Fargo. Facebook. Google. Microsoft. Or, Amazon. That’s most of the FANG stocks. There are four Black CEOs at the 500 largest companies in the country.
Tom, you have been doing some work on this and you have some advice for corporate leadership. I’d like to hear that now.
Tom Cole: Sure, and let me give you one other fact, which is according to a recent high-quality survey, fewer than half of the professionals in corporate America, regardless of race or ethnicity, believed that they have—that their companies have—effective diversity and inclusion programs. So, I think there are a number of things that can be done and there is no more important time in our history, I think, to think about doing them.
The first starts with looking at the top of the house and talking about what’s the diversity on the corporate board. Now, most companies, well-advised companies, thoughtful companies, now are seeking diversity, but it is very, very important that there be racial and ethnic diversity, and particularly in the two least represented minorities, namely Blacks and Hispanics. So companies need to start there and address that. One of the reasons for addressing that is that because with that achieved, you send a good signal to those you want to recruit and retain, but you also amplify the experience set that can be so valuable for making decisions.
But then more directly, what can the boards do in terms of encouraging management and what can management do? And there are a variety of things. One, you can consider having a pipeline program, as well as internships, and these are two different things. A pipeline program may be where you say we, if you’re an accounting firm, we need more diverse accountants coming up. So what do you, do you try to go hire them? Of course. Do you have an internship program for kids in college? Of course. But you may need to go back all the way into high school years, and somehow encourage minority students to be thinking about that kind of career. And I call up the example of accounting firms, but it comes up in a variety of ways. Dupont concluded that they didn’t have enough diverse chemical engineers, so they began way back in high school and in college to encourage minority students to think about Chemical Engineering. My law firm felt that there were not enough minority students in law schools, so we began a pipeline programs which encouraged through a variety of means college students of color, minority students, to apply to law school by facilitating that whole process. So that’s a pipeline program, as in contrast to an internship program, which is equally important.
Then on top of that when you have people in-house mentoring is critically important. None of us achieved whatever success we’ve had in careers without some sort of mentor-ship, and these are folks who will not only look out for us for opportunities, but also provide guidance. So mentoring programs are a vital element of the whole exercise and I think it’s important for the senior leadership of organizations, whether professional service firms or corporations, for the senior leadership actually to take the mentoring role, and one of the reasons for that is they’re in the best position to keep an eye out for opportunities. Now there may be a bit of a teacher’s pet issue, but senior leadership should be looking out for opportunities for those that they formerly mentored but also those where they are not actually a designated mentor. And the mentoring again is advice, is looking out for opportunities. It’s frankly for being a sounding board.
So that’s a big element, and then wrapped around all this is it’s incumbent really upon boards and officers, senior leadership writ large, to make sure that there is a corporate culture of inclusion, a corporate culture of respect for individuals and zero tolerance for anything that smacks of sexism, racism, whatnot. And there are ways to show zero tolerance and it’s coming out in the press now. You know, people who’ve put, to be blunt, stupid things on social media, but worse whether they articulated in social media or not, who display that they are not interested in this subject. Maybe “not interested” is a bit harsh, but those who display some underlying issues in this regard.
Last element is, it’s great to have plans, it’s great to have programs, but you need to see how well they’re working, so there needs to be accountability in the zero tolerance sense, but also accountability. Frankly, if senior leadership thinks this is important, a compensation committee might hold this out as a goal. There’s nothing quite as incentive-producing as economics, is there. (I am a U of C person.) But the monitoring is important, and you monitor by looking at both statistics but also having qualitative monitoring.
So exit interviews can be critically important. Again, well-run organizations, when they lose people of color—and frequently they will because if they have promoted someone of color, other organizations are looking to poach and to take them in—but finding out whether people leave because simply they had a better opportunity, and if it’s better, why was it better, but if there was any, if there was any negatives that they were leaving behind. So that’s sort of the overall package and as I said, there’s no better time than now.
Bill Evertsberg: Well you are a master of concision. You covered a lot in those few minutes, so thank you for that.
Tom Cole: Well, you only gave me six.
Bill Evertsberg: Ha, yeah! But let’s bullet point these again, okay?
- Diversity on the board, first of all.
- Robust pipeline.
- Multiple internships, keeping in mind that many of those internships should go to people of color.
- Mentoring right from the very top, and…
- Culture of respect and zero tolerance of disrespect, and then…
- Accountability and assessment of whether these things are working.
Did I get that right?
Tom Cole: You got it right. You’re even more concise than I am.
Bill Evertsberg: One thing I neglected to mention up front is that this is maybe his best credential of all this shining CV that Tom has, but best of all he is a longtime faithful member of Kenilworth Union. How long have you been here, Tom?
Tom Cole: 35 years.
Bill Evertsberg: 35 years, and I can say he’s a faithful worshiper. I think if Tom and his wife are in town, they’re here in the church. So I want to thank you for that and spending this time and helping the decision—there are so many decision-makers in this congregation. We have an embarrassment of riches in human resources here and so they’re positioned to help us overcome the equality gap. So Tom, thank you very much, thank you for listening to Tom and me and Doogie for a few minutes. God bless you and keep you.
Tom Cole: Thank you.