Northern Trust President Talks Leading with Your Heart

By Nicsa posted 06-29-2021 11:06 AM


On June 1, 2020, Northern Trust President Shundrawn Thomas published an open letter to the industry detailing his personal experience with racial profiling during an encounter with police in a Chicago suburb.

At Nicsa’s Fearless Leadership Symposium approximately a year later, Thomas met virtually with CNBC's Sharon Epperson to further the conversation on diversity in financial services.

“When I candidly share what it means to be racially profiled — or what it means to show up as the headline presenter at a conference and be assumed to be part of the staff — it’s because these kinds of things make the experience more tangible,” Thomas said.

“And here's why it really matters,” he continued. “This isn’t an intellectual issue. This is a heart issue. If we’re not willing to share our truth and our experience, it prevents people from being able to, in a sense, hear with their hearts.”

Thomas said he received multiple responses to his open letter — but one stood out in particular. It was from a man who had moved to Chicago after being raised in an environment the man described as 100 percent monolithic.

“He shared, very transparently, some of the preconceived notions that he had about people of color when he arrived in Chicago,” Thomas said.

“He discussed how some of that had evolved, but he also spoke to how just reading my letter and making some level of personal connection challenged him, not only to continue to evolve some of his thinking but to honestly and transparently share that fact. That’s when it becomes a dialogue, and that's what we need to do to advance issues of diversity and remove it from being this proverbial third rail.”

From dialogue comes meaningful action. To that end, CNBC’s Epperson said that while much has been discussed on the recruitment of diverse candidates, retention is equally important. “I think it starts with feeling wanted, needed, and respected,” she said.

Thomas agreed. To ensure that diverse employees are retained and promoted within firms, he suggested three tactics.

1) Improve representation. “You can't be what you can't see,” Thomas said. “If you're serious about retaining talent that is diverse, you have to reflect it in your leadership so employees actually believe the words that are coming out of your mouth and your commitment to them.”

2) Expand opportunity. “What I've often found with women and people of color is that they're very talented, but we're not putting them in position for the right opportunities. In our business, to advance your career, you’ve got to be in those technical roles and get managerial experience, particularly early on. And you’ve got to get P&L responsibility. But too often, people are relegated to certain areas.”

3) Provide sponsorship. “Here's the bottom line: Somebody's got to be in the room, raising your name or waving your flag where the decisions are being made for two very important reasons: Number one, to access the career opportunities that typically arise when you are not in the room.” Thomas said.

“The second time it really matters is when we make mistakes,” he continued. “All of us will make mistakes in our careers; that is inevitable. What’s most important is how those mistakes are interpreted: as a career stumbling block or a stepping stone. That's why you need sponsorship.”

Note: Although the observations contained in this work represent the best thoughts of the individuals comprising the Nicsa panel, they do not necessarily reflect the views of Nicsa or any of its member organizations. Matters addressed in this work may touch upon legal or regulatory matters, however nothing herein is intended to be or should be construed as legal advice. You should contact your own counsel in order to obtain legal advice regarding these or any other matters.