Part 3: Q&A with Shundrawn Thomas: Tips for Making Progress on Diversity

The president of Northern Trust Asset Management discusses how to keep talks about race and inclusion from becoming ‘the third rail.’

Shundrawn Thomas

Some say, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, that our society is at a moment of reckoning, and many people have lifted their voices in frustration. Gun violence is raging. Wealth disparity is increasing. There is a strong call to improve things for those who have been discriminated against, disenfranchised, or treated unfairly.

If it’s true that change must come at an institutional level, then Shundrawn Thomas, president of $1.1 trillion Northern Trust Asset Management, has been outlining the path forward. He believes all parties should come to the table, and he has been writing letters to the industry calling for more accountability in diversity and leadership.

In Part 1 of this series, taken from an edited interview with Thomas, he explained his reasons for writing those letters and called for more empathy. In Part 2, we discussed how minorities have a mantle of responsibility on their shoulders when they come into positions of power and how women and minorities can create positive mentoring relationships. In Part 3, Thomas will outline an action plan for effective discussions and relationships to advance diversity within firms.

In the earliest stage of the pandemic, Thomas penned an open letter to business and civic leaders issuing an urgent call for more compassionate leadership. In particular, he emphasized the unequal toll exacted on marginalized communities and the responsibility of leaders to respond in word and deed.

In the aftermath of Floyd’s killing, Thomas authored three more deeply personal open letters addressing systemic racism, encouraging readers to transform the current social justice moment into a sustainable movement, and advocating for them to break their silence.

In this series (taken from an edited interview with CIO managing editor Christine Giordano), Thomas continues to outline what he’s been up to, lay out a path for the years to come, and explore how he hopes to add diversity to the finance community, as well as other areas of society.

Christine Giordano: In your third letter “I Can’t Feel My Pain,” you acknowledge that, similar to religion and politics, discussion on race is a third rail in corporate America.

Of course, perhaps, that has changed over the past year. Can you talk about that, what the benefit to starting a dialogue is, and how you suggest doing so?

Shundrawn Thomas: I think it’s changed to a degree, so I would say while I agree directionally with your statement, I am not at a place where I would plant a flag and declare victory.

There’s a certain amount of genuine openness to conversations on race that hasn’t existed previously. But we’re so much in the early stages that I think we need to remind ourselves that this is not the first time in history that this has happened. And notwithstanding moments like this, we’ve often regressed, so I do have to transparently point that out.

But to answer your question, I have this statement that I use: How do we translate this moment into a movement?

And how do we move from this period where we have this increased openness to make it more of our norm? I think the way that you do that is through a couple of things: You have to have an ongoing dialogue; it can’t be a one-time topic.

Here’s the other thing that has to happen: I’ve often seen when we’re talking about race or gender issues, we usually start by saying, “We need to have the person from the diverse background, the minority, or the woman tell their story.”

All right, that’s a starting point, but if we begin and end there, we’ve actually failed.  Because, all of us—regardless of our background—experience diversity in different ways. We have perspectives; we have stories. And I think we will not have fully gotten where we need to get in the dialogue until everybody is putting meaning into the pool. And I’ve shared this with some of my white male majority counterparts. I said, “I’ve taken the first step. I’ve been brave, I’ve been courageous, I’ve given my story, so to speak. You have a story. There are perceptions that you have around race. There are ideas that you’ve had. Experiences and preconceptions that you’ve made. And what has happened here is, you have been able to sit in the room and remain silent.”

And until such time where we’ve achieved a dialogue in which we all are participating, one in which we all are bringing meaning to the pool, we should be hesitant to say that we’ve truly progressed on this issue of race and racism, as well as sexism, and are actually moving toward systemic change by engaging in a way where people really are hearing one another with their head and with their heart.

CG: Shundrawn, that’s such an interesting concept, but I can see a lot of people wanting to hide from what they’ve experienced or from exposing their own backgrounds of bias. So what is the safest way for someone in that situation to express themselves?

ST: The safest way is always in the context of a trusting relationship. The reality is that the vast majority of people live in monolithic communities with people who look like them, have the same socioeconomic background, faith conviction, and all these different things. The interesting thing is, for most people, their workplaces is the only place that they really experience diversity.

And so what that means is something basic, and it’s an inconvenient truth: Most people don’t have true meaningful relationships with people that don’t look like them.

If we really want to address this, the basic step is you have to make friends with people who don’t look like you. Not just knowing their name, but by deepening the relationship, because, in the context of that trusting relationship, here’s what will happen. You will actually share.

If you trust me, and we have a relationship, the thing that you don’t want to say in the big room because you think it might not be politically correct, you’d ask me (in private), and we could exchange. That does happen to me in personal relationships. And I know that if we could accomplish more of that, then when we come together collectively, people would be more encouraged to speak openly and honestly.

The second thing: Leaders have a big role here, and so if you are a leader of an organization, if you’re the CEO of the firm, if you’re the CIO of the investment group, everybody is looking to the signal that you make. Everybody is looking at the example you set. And if the people in those positional leadership roles are transparent, if they model transparency and vulnerability, the people who report to them, the people who are in their organizations, will respond.

But the opposite is true, as well: If those individuals are closed, if they’re not transparent, if they’re not vulnerable, it will signal to everyone else in the organization that it is not safe to do so.

CG: In your letter “I Can’t Feel My Pain” you write “without reservation I affirm that all lives matter.” You say that doing so helps affirm the Black Lives Matter movement. But doesn’t this take the focus off racial inequities and injustice for long-suffering Black people?

ST: I’ll tell you exactly what I was doing there. So, contextually, I did expressly say what you said, that I affirm that all lives matter. I won’t go through all the detail, but I also said specifically, Asian lives, Latino lives, Black, gay and straight, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu.

The point that I was making is this: emphatically, all actually means all. Inclusive.

You were hearing this retort, “Well, we can’t affirm that Black lives matter,” but in a sense, that’s like suggesting that the Black lives are not part of the all. And it is a false narrative that suggests, if someone says “Black lives matter,” they are being exclusionary. And here’s the irony of the whole thing: The practical reality for many Blacks is they have been consistently and systemically excluded.

They have been discriminated against. I live in and grew up in Chicago. I’ve lived other places, but think about something as heinous as redlining, that there was actually a line drawn on a map and it decided where you, as a Black person, could live and not live, and the impact that it had on not only you, but your families and your ability to build wealth and all those things for generations.

And so I purposely wanted to say what I did to really point out the fact that in our discussion, this is not a head issue, it’s a heart issue. And “all” should mean “all” which, by definition, means we have to, in confirming that all lives matter, be able to also say, specifically and emphatically, that Black lives matter.

CG: In my early reporting career, I found myself in deep Florida where the people were six generations deep in some cases. They weren’t accustomed to people with Italian last names in the community. They asked me if I was a member of the witness protection program, which I wasn’t. They were being innocent, not meaning anything negative by it.

But I can only imagine the kinds of odd questions that you’ve received throughout your career. What is the best way for someone to answer those questions that doesn’t close the door to communication?

ST: This is a great question and obviously you have experience where you can appreciate this. The first thing that I’ve had to learn—and it’s something that really, honestly took time—is that you must steel yourself and not respond emotionally.

I don’t label people, so I don’t get into the debate of calling this person a racist. We have to understand in the culture that we live in, it is infused with racist ideas. And they affect all people, right? And so, to your point, the real question is, “How do I respond if I am confronted with what is a racist idea, a sexist idea, or a prejudiced idea.” Because it happens all the time. The first thing I have to realize is that my issue is with the idea and not necessarily the person.

We want to rationalize everything to make sense of the world. And so in our story, there has to be a villain and a victim. That’s just a natural story. There has to be a protagonist and antagonist. But, sometimes in a sense, the villain is also the victim.

In a sense, that somebody might be perpetuating a racist idea, but such individuals might have been wronged by the way that the idea was infused into their lives. And if I can react in a sense, in a truth-telling way, in addressing that issue, I can even share from my perspective, and how that might affect me. And if I can do it in a way that still maintains a relationship, well—we would say in my faith tradition to speak truth in love—then I think that we can be more effective. Because, again, at any given moment, I may have the opportunity to change the perspective, to show somebody a side that they hadn’t seen. But I can also lose that by the way that I respond.

Now that’s a tremendous burden and I’m sympathetic to people of color —especially if you’re in a role, like mine, who often are the only one in the room [of color]—since it’s a burden we carry a lot. But I’ve learned that there is good that can be achieved if you approach the situation the right way.

Related Stories:

Q&A: Shundrawn Thomas Discusses His Push for Diversity, Empathy (Part 1)

Part 2: Q&A with Shundrawn Thomas: Effective Mentoring 

Op-Ed: How Corporations Can Help Confront Rising Inequality

Op-Ed: ‘Widening the Aperture’—A Key to Enhancing Minority Recruitment

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