[Gale King Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, Nationwide and Cynthia Marshall Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Office of Human Resources, AT&T]
Tackling topics ranging from leadership and race to office politics and millennials, Nationwide Insurance Co. EVP & Chief Administrative Officer Gale V. King and AT&T SVP, Human Resources & Chief Diversity Officer Cynthia G. Marshall held a revealing, powerful “From The Corner” master class. The fireside chat, conducted by BLACK ENTERPRISE President & CEO Earl “Butch” Graves, Jr. and hosted by Dell Technologies, offered attendees an insider’s view of how Corporate America operates at the highest level from two leaders who recently made BE’s Most Powerful Women in Business list.
Let’s Talk About Race
Graves started the conversation by focusing on corporate leadership’s response to issues of race and social unrest that have grabbed national attention. He asked the two how Nationwide and AT&T, respectively, ensure that people of color and women are valued.
King said Nationwide created “Catalyst for Change” forums to bring together leaders and associates to engage in frank conversation over the impact of everything from racially-motivated gun violence to divisive political rhetoric. The meetings, she said, provide associates with a platform to share their “angst and fear” while gaining tools that promote understanding and empathy. To ensure that African Americans have not been “negatively impacted by the environment,” she also maintained that Human Resources monitors hiring and promotions to determine whether there have been declines in diverse representation at all levels. Said King: “Values are our North Star regardless of what happened in the external world.”
Marshall cited that the focus of AT&T’s annual employee resource group conference, which brought together 2,000-plus corporate leaders, was the promotion of company-wide unity. Moreover, she told the audience AT&T Chairman & CEO Randall L. Stephenson used the dinner last fall to address the issue of race head on, defending Black Lives Matter, charging that “tolerance is for cowards” and individuals must move to greater understanding. As a result, the company has created a diversity & inclusion resource guide as well as designed five-minute ”water cooler conversations” and 90-minute discussions to delve deeper. “We find that our teams and employees are learning more about the people that they have worked side by side for years, ” she said.
“A Bad Sister At The Table”
Graves said that King and Marshall are rarities as black women engaged in the decision-making process. As Marshall said during the session, “You need a bad sister at the table.”
Their corporate roles, histories and performance have enabled them to develop strong bonds with their CEOs, relationships built on personal and professional trust as well as open dialogue. And in making their ascent – journeys in which they admitted had great achievements and some setbacks – King and Marshall had to master office politics – valuable insights for the audience of ambitious executives.
When King was overlooked for a key position, she understood “that I was being watched to see how I would act. I was being watched by the powers that be. I was being watched by my enemies. I was being watched by my friends.”
She told the audience: “Everyone is not for you. When you know that someone doesn’t have your best interest at heart, manage that situation. Make sure you don’t give them something to use against you. Remember, there are no secrets in organizations.”
In response to Graves’ question about dealing with African American executives “who enjoy being the only one in the room” or place roadblocks making it harder for African American female executives to succeed, Marshall said, “Just as you’re not surprised when a white person does something to you, don’t be surprised when a black person does it. I role model the opposite.” In fact, Marshall said she’s advocated for diversification of corporate officers so she wouldn’t be the only African American female executive holding that position. At the session, she introduced a recent black female appointee at AT&T.
Millennials may be our salvation
In the last round, Graves asked how they managed millennials who operate much differently than Baby Boomers and GenXers and “have a sense of entitlement at times.”
“I actually think that our Millennials will be the generation that saves us from a technological standpoint, social standpoint and political standpoint,” said Marshall. “I think the sense of entitlement was created by us because we gave them what they asked for so they have high expectations. I manage them like everyone else. They want a sense of purpose. They want to do a good job. They want to get rid of [outmoded] policies, practices and processes. I think we have to listen to them to help us conduct business 2020 style.”