OUTSIDE THE BOARDROOM: Herman Bulls Director, USAA and Comfort Systems; Vice Chairman, JLL
By Eve Tahmincioglu

Diversity & Inclusion Instigator

From diversity and inclusion to pay equity, Herman Bulls gets involved as an “instigator” and “role model” for the CEO, management, the workforce and the community. And a lot of that work happens outside the boardroom.

“You need to know the organization. That doesn’t mean going to meetings four times a year and sitting in a room and getting briefings from people. We call it ‘the happy talk,’” explains Bulls. Directors, he adds, have to be out in the organization if they’re going to understand whether something problematic with the corporate culture is “lurking in the environment.”

That means talking to c-suite executives without the CEO present, and it also means taking time to meet with employees, stresses Bulls, who estimates he spends about 20% of his time doing just that.

To that end, Bulls attended a diversity and inclusion (D&I) event at financial services company USAA this past summer attended by about 500 company employees. He spent four hours at the convening and was particularly struck by one African-American female employee, Lasha Murray, who talked about the challenges she faced coming to work with colorful hair and clothing, and big earrings, something she said was part of her culture.

Her takeaway message, Bulls recalls, was how important it is to be able to “come to work and be your authentic self.”

There was also an employee who came to the United States when she was 6 and talked about her relatives’ struggles trying to emigrate to this country. And a gay man who talked about his childhood — trying to hide who he was, and how empowering it was that he could come out at work and be himself.

It’s all about creating a corporate culture that’s inclusive, and Bulls believes boards should play a key role in fostering that. “The most important job we do is selecting the CEO and improving strategy, but it’s also critical we understand the culture, where there are gaps,” he says. “You have to ask the tough questions from management about culture.”

Diversity and inclusion are of critical importance to Bulls when it comes to all the boards he sits on, and that means tying diversity metrics to executive compensation. “If it’s something you just talk about and don’t have consequences for, then you’re not putting your money where your mouth is.”

By 2035, Bulls predicts that the world will be even more diverse and whites will be a minority. “We need to have appropriate representation across enterprises. On a couple of boards, I’ve been the promoter/instigator of getting that idea of tying ESG (environmental, social, and governance, issues) and D&I (diversity and inclusion) to CEO comp.”

This summer, Bulls was briefed by the head of human resources at USAA about groups of employees the firm is anxious to nurture and develop, and the analytics on employees being promoted and the people in the pipeline.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but data is your best friend,” he maintains. “We get emotional on issues — I’m guilty of it — but if you take the emotion out and put it in data no one can argue with the numbers.”

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, he adds, “We are advantaged [at USAA] that we have a mission everyone can get behind.”

Indeed, Stuart Parker, USAA CEO, says. “Our military members have a long legacy of diversity and inclusion. They expect us to operate in exactly the same way. Our D&I business groups and events like our recent summit reinforce the importance of inclusion. When we do this well, we best serve our members.”


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