Working Inside the System: Black directors stand up for the future of corporate America.
The death of George Floyd, caught on camera, became a tipping point for some of the world’s largest companies, as they released a variety of statements about police brutality, racism and diversity. But if these statements are to be more than mere public relations moves, corporate America will have to address its own diversity and inclusion in the C-suite.
There are just five Black CEOs in the Fortune 500 this year. In the list’s more than 60-year history, there have been a total 17 Black men on the list and just one Black woman.
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The situation in the boardroom is slightly better.
A 2018 study by Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity found 486 African American/Black directors at Fortune 500 companies — 8.6% of board seats — while Blacks or African Americans make up 13.4% of the U.S. population, according to the 2019 Census.
Racial understanding and equality needs to improve in corporate America and Black board members are actively taking up the cause while maintaining fiduciary duties.
When protests in Minneapolis started to spread, Gaby Sulzberger, director for Mastercard and Bixmor Property Group, says she immediately hit the phones.
“In my case it came very quickly,” says Sulzberger, who also sits on several private and nonprofit boards. “I reached out to all of my CEOs and told them I was available for them to draw on and talk to [about racial and social issues], give perspective, be a sounding board. Every one of them called me back within hours.”
Steven Rogers, a retired Harvard Business School professor and board director says he, too, started the conversation on racial injustice when he saw how social unrest opened a door to it.
“I have had a frank conversation with each CEO/president of my companies and the entire boards, via Zoom meetings or my podcast, about what white people and companies should do to help the Black community,” Rogers says. He says he used 10-15 minutes at his board meetings to ask, “How did we get in this mess and what are the solutions?”
Rogers, however, is not one to wait for an invitation to talk about race relations in the boardroom. He proudly refers to himself as a “race man.”
“When I served on the SuperValu board, I remember getting a peer board evaluation that said I spoke about diversity too much,” he says. “I considered it a compliment.”
“Even in 2020 [racism] is a real-life issue affecting the lives of our customers, employees, vendors, society and all our different stakeholders,” Sulzberger says. “It’s an elephant-in-the-room kind of topic. To have meaningful and important conversations about racism with these CEOs is progress.”
Calvin Butler, CEO of Exelon Utilities and director of RLI Corp and M&T Bank, says today’s conversations need to lead to action.
“I think that is one of the things that corporations have done in the past,” Butler says. “We’ve said, ‘We’re going to implement these programs’ and then didn’t have the proper measures and follow-up to ensure continued and sustained success. At Exelon we put out a [diversity and inclusion] scorecard. We hold our leaders accountable for that.”
Establishing effective measures takes subjectivity out of the picture. That makes discussions and corporate needs around diversity and inclusion apolitical, Sulzberger says. It becomes part of a director’s fiduciary duty.
“I’m not naïve,” Sulzberger says. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I have the privilege of working with directors who don’t share [my] view in the same way. But you’re in a better spot when you can say what [racial equality] does for the business.
“At the end of the day, this is my belief on how the world should work. But that’s not my job. My job is to think what’s in the best interest of shareholders. I think we are not doing that [job] when we aren’t a diverse organization.”
Rogers wants corporate leaders to also look beyond their own organization and buy into creating equality more broadly.
“For example, I have asked companies to put at least 8.46% [symbolic of the number of minutes a police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck] of their savings in Black-owned banks. I am hopeful that the 38 Black-owned banks and credit unions in the country will be flooded with money from new deposits. These financial institutions provide mortgages, auto loans and business loans to the Black community.”
Inside the business, Rogers says leadership needs to be hands-on to equalize a dynamic between Blacks and whites that has been hundreds of years in the making.
“My pessimism comes from knowing how difficult it is to get a company’s intentional or unintentional anti-Black practices and norms to change,” he says. “I told one CEO that his company would never have more Black employees unless he personally intervened in the process, almost micromanaging the hiring and promotion processes. The reason is the DNA of his company was constantly throwing pebbles at the feet of Black job candidates and employees. Thus, it is impractical to think that there will be more Black inclusion unless people are financially incentivized to be fair.”
Butler says he would like his colleagues to not only agree while he is talking about diversity and inclusion, but to initiate those discussions themselves. He says the issue is “expected” from him, but that white directors should join in driving diversity.
“All boards, all members of the board, should feel comfortable in owning that [diversity and inclusion] space and saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ We need to create the culture where we can have candor, transparency and lead by example,” Butler says. “I think that’s one of the most important things that a board can do. Boards need to get involved in that discussion because that’s where culture and talent management is developed.”
When looking at talent management, Butler says it’s important to look not only at the C-suite and their successors, but also two or three layers deep. You may have a rising CEO who is in tune with inclusion needs, but if that is a blind spot in one or two generations of leadership, those efforts can “fall back really quick.”
Rogers also says that higher education must also take up the mantle of preparing rising business leaders to think about diversity and inclusion.
“One reason corporations have done so horribly with Black employees, suppliers and investments, is that the leaders of these companies were never taught in business school that Black lives matter,” Rogers says. “Their training from what they observed at school — including the absence of Black faculty or Black case study content, and few Black students — is what white business leaders take to the business world.”
Butler says he knows many minority young people haven’t seen faces like his leading companies. As an African American CEO, he aims to be out in the community frequently, setting a good example for others. Getting young people to set lofty goals is easier when you meet them where they are.
“We’ve reached out to high schools and we’re training young people, those people who say ‘Right now, college isn’t for me,’” Butler says. “We’re telling them there are careers at Exelon where you can sustain not only yourself, but a family and have not just a job, but a career.”
Sulzberger also wants to offer guidance to rising talent.
“Being a Black woman on the board allows me to be a role model and allows me to be a resource. As a board member, it’s not really appropriate to reach into an organization and mentor directly. But I am a resource for our female and diverse senior talent in ways that are informal and also important.”
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In addition to mentorship, Rogers says he puts his money where his mouth is.
“I do everything that I ask white companies to do. I employ Black people. I buy products from Black-owned companies,” he says. “I have money deposited in Black-owned banks. I have investments as an LP in Black private equity funds. I am an adviser to over 20 Black-owned businesses, and I am a mentor to hundreds of young Black businessmen and women between the ages of 38 and 50, trying to help them get on Fortune 1000 boards.”
Rogers says uplifting the Black community has been engrained in him since childhood, when he remembers how his mother cried after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a critical moment in his life.
Sulzberger, too, refers to the 1960s and the social unrest that brought down Jim Crow laws and brought in federal law meant to bring equality to all citizens.
“The Civil Rights Movement lasted years and years,” she says. “They didn’t know what the tipping point was. Rosa Parks would have never known [refusing to move seats on a bus] was a flashpoint. Or those young people sitting at the luncheonette counter, refusing to leave.
“It’s feeling like that to me now. The quality of the conversations that we’ve having in the boardroom and the way we’re looking at [racial inequality] is palpably different.”