The Story Behind Shundrawn Thomas’s Open Letter to Asset Management

Shundrawn Thomas (Illustration by Xia Gordon)

Shundrawn Thomas

(Illustration by Xia Gordon)

“This crisis demands that I find and use my voice.”

As he sat down to write, Northern Trust Asset Management’s Shundrawn Thomas knew it was time. And his timing could not have been any more poignant.

In “Breaking the Silence,” an open letter that has generated both internal and external praise since it was published on June 1, the Chicago-based African-American president of a firm with more than $900 billion under management wrote of a decades-old encounter with police in a Chicago suburb.

“It was profiling, pure and simple,” he wrote of the incident in which an officer unholstered his firearm after pulling him over for no other reason than Thomas being a black man in a white neighborhood. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident; he has suffered numerous similar indignities throughout his life. In the wake of the recent killings across the United States of three African-Americans in separate incidents that have generated worldwide protests demanding an end to racial inequities, Thomas was moved to do what many feel needed to be done: “break the silence as it pertains to issues of prejudice and discrimination” and give voice to the pain.

On the tenth day of protests across America, Thomas spoke extensively with Institutional Investor about what is needed now — not just in the C-Suite, but at every level within organizations around the world. He framed his comments in the context of the vast inequality that he believes the global Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare, and of the worldwide movement demanding change to the institutional and social structures that have exacerbated that inequality in America and beyond.

Institutional Investor: How have you, as president of a global asset management firm, straddled the dual crises of a global pandemic and the current protest movement? How important was it for you to raise awareness in this way and at this time?

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Shundrawn Thomas: There are three pillars that have served as ballast to steady me during the dual crises to which you refer.

The first pillar rests on my values. Values are deeply held beliefs. Values are not determined during a crisis, but they are revealed and tested. Years ago my wife and I established seven family values, which are faith, love, wisdom, accountability, leadership, competence, and generosity. They guide our actions and, most important, the way that we serve others.

Similarly, within the asset management organization I lead, we have established shared values, which include passion, intellectual curiosity, competence, diversity, and humility. Many critical decisions are values-based, so it is important to truly know your values.

The second pillar is vision. Our vision for our asset management business is to be considered among the world’s most respected investment firms. This has implications for how we conduct ourselves with all of our stakeholders, whether our clients, shareholders, or suppliers. To achieve our vision, we must set out to earn the trust of our stakeholders, act with integrity, and deliver exceptional expertise and service. This also means we must be an active participant in helping our communities address challenges such as inequities exposed by the pandemic and long-standing issues of discrimination and prejudice.

Finally, there is the pillar of purpose — or what I view as my personal mandate. Mother Teresa spoke of a powerful concept of a calling within one’s calling or vocation. Beyond my prescribed responsibilities, I have a personal mandate to lead authentically, productively, and compassionately. This third pillar is the cornerstone, as it gives me the sense of clarity and purpose you speak of.

II: This said, what’s really encouraging you in this moment?

ST: Today I am encouraged by the opportunity to have a positive impact on the lives of those around me. I am particularly encouraged by the way that the younger generation has mobilized and engaged during this dual crisis. It’s inspiring to see these widely diverse cohorts demonstrating true compassion, which means to suffer together. Their energy is needed to propel the dialogue — a dialogue that, quite frankly, previous generations often purposefully avoided and failed to progress more meaningfully. We must keep them engaged, through dialogue and ultimately by our actions. They are our future and personify our hope of achieving the ideal of equality, the promise of equity, and the true practice of inclusion.

II: In “Breaking the Silence,” you noted that “far too often and for far too many, the response to discrimination is silence.” What would you say to those in financial services who may be uncomfortable with the issues?

ST: For change to take place in our society, we all have to commit to truly looking and listening.

Truly looking means to look past our limited understanding and biases, conscious or unconscious. Truly listening means to hear with our heads and our hearts. Practically speaking, many of us spend most of our waking hours in the workplace. Establishing and perpetuating a healthy culture are critical to the long-term success of any organization. Interpersonal relationships are the common denominator, and they must be built on a foundation of trust.

The candid addressing of these issues will be uncomfortable at times — [but] the prize is worth the temporary pain. The crucial dialogues allow for exchanges of perspectives that unite the culture. In order to reach our fullest potential, issues of discrimination and inequity must be addressed in our work settings. At a minimum, we ensure that our cultures are emotionally safer for our colleagues.

II: You have included personal experiences in your messaging. What prompted you to do this, and how has it been received internally?

ST: There are so many wonderful aspects of the human experience and the progress of societies over time. However, we must acknowledge an acute failing, which is our propensity to discriminate based on characteristics such as gender, age, ability, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

One of the most persistent and seemingly intractable divides is rooted in the concept of race. Prejudicial or racist ideas are the result of pervasive conscious and unconscious biases. Certain prejudicial ideas are institutionalized, creating inequities and discriminatory practices that have plagued human relationships throughout history.

Everyone wants to be seen and heard. Being seen means being known for who we really are and not a stereotype or one-dimensional. Being heard means that we can express our authentic voice or perspective and that our unique contribution is valued. I, like so many other individuals, have been subject to prejudicial treatment and discrimination. It is an unfortunate and recurring part of my experience. I am not exempt based on my executive position or my socioeconomic status.

And as I stated in my note, I offer my intimate perspective to give voice to the silent pain that many of our colleagues, friends, and neighbors are currently experiencing. My respective leadership positions within my professional and personal communities afford me a unique opportunity to use these platforms to address important issues.

I therefore view my personal engagement on these issues as a responsibility and a calling. The first step toward increasing engagement is to advance the dialogue that has been avoided or silenced for far too long.

My open letter has been met with an incredible response within and outside of my organization. The heartfelt and transparent narratives from diverse people of all backgrounds and experiences encourage me that this is a righteous and vital pursuit. For me personally, this is not my starting point — but rather another step on my journey. It has not been easy, and challenging work lies ahead. As we move past this galvanizing moment, the conversations will get harder. We all bear biases that we have to address and engage in behaviors we have to unlearn. However, as a distance runner, I am prepared for the mental endurance required to advance this cause over a longer period of time.

II: So what’s the way forward for asset management? As we slowly emerge from a pandemic that has thrown much into question, what do leaders such as yourself see on the road ahead?

ST: The way forward for asset management — and financial services broadly — is not different from other sectors with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion. While there are a number of systemic issues that must be addressed over time, I can offer specific areas of focus with respect to each of these.

With respect to diverse representation, I firmly believe organizations must start at the top.

The leadership, starting with the executive management team and extending to the board of directors, must reflect the diversity of society in order for us to achieve meaningful and lasting progress. This has to be more than one person; there is a tipping point of representation that changes the nature of the management and governance culture, which then permeates throughout the organization.

With respect to equity, individual companies must change existing talent management practices. While opportunities abound, empirical and anecdotal evidence shows that access to opportunity is inequitable. This is reflected in hiring practices, promotion decisions, compensation practices, and a host of other related areas. If there are no substantive changes to current human resource practices, no amount of good intent will produce different results with respect to equitable progress. Conversely, innovative and effective talent management practices will deliver positive results. There are market best practices as well as eternal resources companies can draw upon.

With respect to inclusion, the industry and individual companies must change the nature of the dialogue as it pertains to diversity, equity, and inclusion. An essential part of changing the dialogue involves directly addressing the persistent and systemic discrimination that has plagued our society and industry. I wrote [in the letter], “While we all are part of many communities, we share one community in common — the human community. Our diversity, in all its wonderful forms, distinguishes and defines us. We recognize that our unique perspectives and attributes, if allowed to flourish, make our collective stronger.”

This hearkens back to my early call for deep listening. This requires us to listen intellectually and emotionally — or, as I like to say, with our head and our heart. This is undoubtedly enabled through specialized and continuous training. This requires transparency and vulnerability from all of us, even when the dialogue is unfamiliar or uncomfortable. And it requires leaders to hold themselves and their senior managers accountable for tangible results.

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