The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has gained momentum and an increased cognizance in our collective consciousness due to recent events, most notably the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. That momentum has led to protests in the United States and abroad. As we collectively reflect on these issues, I have found that conversations with Black colleagues and friends often yield some of the most poignant insights.
I reached out to four Black executives to understand how they have processed recent events and how we might turn so many corrosive events into definitive progress. The four executives are Ted Colbert, once the Chief Information Officer of Boeing, and now the President and Chief Executive Officer of Boeing Global Services; Kimberly Johnson, the Chief Operating Officer of Fannie Mae; Daphne Jones, a former CIO at GE and Hospira and now a board member at multiple publicly traded companies; and Adam Stanley, the Global CIO and Chief Digital Officer of Cushman & Wakefield. Each of these executives has found success in their respective career, but I was less familiar with the circumstances of the paths each took to their august perches in their corporations.
Our conversations broadly took the following shape:
- Reflections on the passing of George Floyd as the catalyst for the protests that have occurred around the world since
- The executives’ career trajectories and mentors who have influenced them
- Advice for addressing racism in the workplace
- The role of technology in creating positive change
Reflections on the Death of George Floyd
I began my conversation with each with some general reflections on the passing of George Floyd as the catalyst for the protests in many cities around the world since. Colbert noted that Floyd’s death is a tragedy, and has been a cause for reflection on everything from the impact on his children to Corporate America.
Johnson echoed similar sentiments, adding that the ongoing pandemic is also playing a role. “We are experiencing a social justice movement at the same time … that we’re trying to weather a global pandemic that’s having very disparate outcomes on our communities of color,” she said. “I think that’s been a real eye opener. People are just beginning to realize these things are all connected and related.”
Jones mentioned that the fact that many people are at home and not traveling has created more time for some to process what is going on. Others who perhaps were no longer employed due to layoffs may also have had more time to internalize the moment. This scenario “allowed people to hear what BLM was all about. When Ahmaud [Arbery], Breonna [Taylor], and all the similar stories came up, people started connecting the dots,” said Jones. “Without COVID, we wouldn’t see people in the streets because they would all have had to go to work the next day.”
Colbert noted that, “Black folks have been screaming about this for decades. It’s unfortunate that a man having someone have their knee on his neck for eight and a half minutes has now opened up the ears and eyes of corporate institutions to realize that, indeed something is fundamentally wrong with the way that that Black people have been treated over many, many years.” He suggested that if that is the what catalyzes change, then perhaps some good can come from this, though he understandably rued the fact that it required lives be lost to do so.
Stanley said that the phraseology of “Black Lives Matter” is important for all people to internalize. “The truth is that since the writing of the Constitution, we have not really given everyone the right to matter,” he said. “Women, people of color, Native Americans, …have never really had the same rights in work and life. And George Floyd is but one of the issues facing Black men in America that do not impact others.”
Black Representation in IT
As each leader currently or in the past has had IT report up to them, I asked for their thoughts on the paucity of Black representatives in technology divisions of major companies. My interlocutors noted that the problem is equally one of a lack of role models and sub-optimal mentoring. Colbert mentioned that stereotypes of tech-centric kids in popular culture rarely includes Black children. In not seeing someone who looks like you in a role, it can easily seem out of reach. “As a teenager on a Commodore 64 in my bedroom with the first generation of hip-hop music playing in the background, that was me. But you would never ever see that in written format anywhere.”
Stanley noted that including children in conversations about technology needs to start as early as pre-school. “Part of the problem is that IT professionals love to talk tech in ways that are frankly intimidating,” he said. “For me, I have the unique ‘benefit’ of not really being very technical. So, I can only talk in terms of problem solving and solution development.
Despite a lack of mentors generally, Jones credits two among others for helping her rise. She noted Roscoe Adams, a Black man running an IBM office in Peoria, Illinois. He taught her a lot about business, how to collaborate with others, the say/do ratio, “and that I should never say ‘when I get around to it.’ Set goals and stick to them or renegotiate.” She also credits her mother for setting a high standard for her. Due to early education efforts, Jones was able to skip first grade, and eventually two years of college, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in four years. “She was my biggest fan and toughest critic,” said Jones. “I learned tough love and how not to accept the status quo.”
Stanley noted a number of people who influenced the jobs he has held, from the first partners at Deloitte who decided to take a chance on him to the senior banking executive that eventually hired him, and a headhunter who helped place him in new positions. “What has been critical to my success is the transition of all of these people from ‘finder’ to boss to mentor to sponsor to friend and advisor,” said Stanley. “This is missing for many men of color in particular.”
For Colbert, it was Marvin Adams, the former CIO of Ford. He pushed Colbert’s ambition by asking him, “When do you want to become a CIO?” Colbert had not been thinking about it, but the idea stuck. “Marvin is an example,” said Colbert. “And there were many before him that planted a seed in my mind about the possibilities that I hadn’t even imagined for myself.”
Making Progress in the Workplace
I asked each about the advice that they would have to others on how to combat racism in the workplace and in society. Jones noted that it is important to openly acknowledge that racism exists and that unfair and dangerous things happen to Black people every day. She recommends engaging one’s family, one’s friends and one’s company in conversations about these issues. She emphasized the need to go from “being racist or not racist to being anti-racist.”
Stanley suggested that meetings you take at the office could be used to draw conclusions about progress or a lack thereof. “Look at the table around you in every meeting and assess who is there,” he said. “Do they all look and sound the same as you? If so, do something about that. Question whether the meeting would be better off with someone from a different background that might add a new perspective or style.”
Johnson suggested a formula from of Frances Frei of Harvard Business School, who preaches logic, authenticity and empathy as key drivers of trust. In her own interpretation of Frei’s framework, Johnson noted, “If you’re trying to create a culture of trust in a company, you have to start with logic, and logic is all about understanding facts and data and history, right? We hear a lot around Black history these days, but Black history is American history.”
She noted that authenticity is the most difficult to achieve because talking about race relations is uncomfortable, but she stressed, “If we’re going to make any progress on this front, we’re going to have to be a little bit uncomfortable.” The first two factors aid the third, empathy. On this topic, she offered a note of optimism. “That’s the thing that I’ve seen change more than anything else in the last three months. I think it’s gone a really long way in sort of bringing the national dialogue on race relations up a level.”
Technology’s Role in Driving Positive Change
Regarding the role that technology can play, Stanley offered that better screening tools can help alleviate unconscious bias in the hiring process. “Studies continue to show that ‘Jason Smith’ gets more interviews than ‘Latasha Smith,’ regardless of background,” he said. “That has to change. The more we can do the first, second and third rounds of the selection process using intelligence, the more we can remove some of the bias.”
Jones echoed Stanley’s sentiment of leveraging technology to remove bias from hiring. She also said that the use of data analytics could help identify wage inequities across companies, as well as reveal trends in hiring, tenure and firing data for Black people relative to those of other races.
Johnson mentioned that technology has been a key ingredient in awakening people to both the current and ongoing set of issues in our country. “Technology can broaden horizons, generate power for convening,” she said. “I think access to technologies are really important concepts that we all need to pay attention to in terms of equality. But I love the idea that technology can amplify new ideas and quickly generate scale and acceptance.”
Lastly, I asked each executive if they have found any silver linings to the current situation. Stanley is encouraged by the quantity and quality of dialogue around race relations and issues. “We have a long way to go but smart people are engaging at levels never before seen,” he said. “The hope is that after the politicians and CEOs stop pandering and posing for photos with Black people, these smart people continue to talk.”
Jones believes humanity is shining through during these trying times. “There’s an awakening going on, and we need to gently feed it so it doesn’t run away,” she said. She noted that she has seen positive changes at the multiple companies whose boards she serves on. Whereas in the past companies might have champions for diversity within the company, she sees further evidence that CEOs are not passing the responsibility to others. “CEOs and their boards are owning it, not delegating it our outsourcing it,” she said.
Johnson is encouraged that people’s mindsets are changing from one of seeing racism as a character flaw in individuals to something ingrained in a system based on historical norms. “The concept of anti-racism is gaining traction,” she said. “And I think that is really encouraging because the more people who embrace that mindset, the more hope I have that we can live up to our American ideals.”
What is perhaps most encouraging of all is the role leaders like these four extraordinary executives can play in highlighting the paths that they walked. Colbert refers to the path he took as a “unicorn situation.” He hopes that it will become more common in the future, and he is doing all he can to make that so. “Hopefully that changes and it doesn’t take one being a unicorn to be a Black person and make it to the C-suite of a Fortune 100 company in the future.”