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raceAhead: Richard Parsons On Race and the C-Suite

I’ve been mulling over this Fortune Unfiltered interview with Richard Parsons, the former Chairman of Citigroup, and, as CEO of AOL Time Warner, the only black boss I’ve ever had. (Many, many, many layers removed.)

Parsons, almost Zelig-like, has appeared in leadership roles during one major crisis after another, bringing a consistent calm to very challenging times. First, at Dime Bank, just as the S&L crisis hit. Then, tapped to prevent the storied brands of Time Warner from disappearing under the weight of a poorly designed merger, all while trying to invent a new digital future. (We still have work to do, he said kindly.) And he managed to help keep the lights around the world on as the Chair of Citigroup in 2009, arguably one of the institutions hardest hit by the financial crisis.

“The financial global financial system could have gone dark,” he said. For too-big-to-failers, his account of keeping the financial regulators at a “respectable distance” while navigating a path forward is a must listen. (Around the ten minute mark.)

Parsons is one of very few black baby boomers who rose to the highest ranks in corporate life. But, as we’ve covered extensively here, the list of black C-Suite executives remains a small one. So, it’s no wonder that many next-generation executives of color, specifically men, wonder if he did enough to pave the way.

Parsons shared a poignant tale that speaks to the world he walked into, and the world he’s leaving behind. One of his first professional jobs was as a staff lawyer for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, an early insight into how business and government worked.

Ironically, his grandfather had been the head groundskeeper on the Rockefeller family estate. (The Rockefeller family had a long history of hiring black people in a variety of functions, which helped create a small, but loyal cadre of moderate, black Republicans in the Northeast.) Parsons talked about visiting the estate in the 1970s, fresh from a lawyerly stint in D.C., and meeting some of the people his grandfather had hired. Many had been there for three decades or more. One woman, when she heard that “Old Judd Parsons’” grandson had shown up, assumed that he had been hired to work the grounds, too.

“Principle reason I hadn’t is because of how dramatically the country had changed in the 30-40 years since,” he said. “African Americans could go get quality education and could compete for and hold higher end jobs. Probably the big difference. Wasn’t that I was the swift guy and my grandfather wasn’t.”

His advice for young people of color today builds on that. “The sky’s the limit. Those barriers that were almost impenetrable a generation ago, certainly two generations ago, are gone. There are other structural things that we need to do in our society to level the playing field but you can go from the top to the bottom almost irregardless of race, origin creed or sexual orientation.”

Coming from a groundskeeper’s grandson, I get the point.

Parsons was a regular fixture at the various employee resource groups around the Time Warner sphere, and he tended to give more tactical advice. “It’s up to you to bring yourself to the attention of powerful people around you,” he once told a small group of us. Share your ideas, your passion, your plans. “They’re not going to find you on their own.”

But he was also making a bigger point. It wasn’t so much that we needed their attention to succeed, though it would certainly help, but that we were worthy of it. And that changes the conversation dramatically.


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