As CEO of Buffalo-based regional bank M&T, René Jones is only one of four Black CEOs in the Fortune 500, a cohort whose number he’d like to increase. Jones, the son of an African-American soldier and the Belgian wife he met while serving in World War II, joined the bank in 1992 and benefited enormously from its executive training programs. A accountant by training, he took the reins of the bank in 2017.
Jones says companies have to do more to put promising Black executives on a management track: steps like recruiting from a broader array of schools and helping communities bridge the digital divide. In the case of financial institutions, that means helping more promising entrepreneurs get the capital they need.
But while many focus on creating pathways for Black businesspeople in current Fortune 500 companies, Jones says it’s important not to overlook entrepreneurs, whose companies could become the Fortune 500 companies of the future.
This conversation has been lightly edited.
Fortune: Why are there still so few Black CEOs in the Fortune 500?
René Jones: Part of the reason is that that cycle is very, very long, when you think of the time it takes for someone to get to the level of CEO. The factors that were influencing me in my career happened literally 40 years ago.
What can large companies, banks or otherwise, do to help?
Job No. 1 is lifting up the next set of CEOs of color in the Fortune 500. We, too, often look to the Fortune 500 largest companies, when in fact it’s probably very logical that the next leaders today sit outside the Fortune 500. And it’s our job to begin to find them and bring them along.
It’s our job to seek them out and help mentor them into the next phase. As long as we seek them out, give them access to capital, mentor them, focus on their needs—I think a lot of our energy helps to pick the next leaders.
What role can companies like M&T play in bridging the digital divide that is impeding talented Black people from reaching their potential?
We believe that small and mid-tier cities in America are in a race for relevance. We also believe certain communities within our communities are underserved. If you think of what’s going on in the digital world and the proliferation of technology and the idea that some communities don’t even have Wi-Fi, we realize we’re going to have to upskill and give the opportunities for people to get that modern skill set. [M&T has set up a Tech Academy that helps staff develop their skills, and it has opened up hundreds of slots to nonemployees.]
What can an ambitious prospective Black CEO do to help his or her own trajectory?
Mentoring is key, but it’s also a two-way street. As a corporation, we have to set up opportunities for mentors, but the real value comes when that person of color is advocating for themselves, seeking out mentors, not just within the corporation, but often outside the corporation, because you need someone to strategize with who has a clear view outside your organization and is able to coach you. I think access to P&L [profit & loss, or a distinct business unit] is really important, but access to a breadth of experiences and relationships is more so.
You can’t get to where I am, to where [Merck CEO] Ken Frazier is, on an easy path. It’s a lot of hard work, and if you don’t find yourself in challenging roles, you’ve got to change that.
Is there any truth to the idea of a glass cliff for Black executives?
When other people are hesitant to step up, taking on big challenges are the moments that stick with you for your entire career. It’s a wonderful opportunity to surprise people. That’s exactly what is required to show leadership.
Most of my roles started in finance as my day job, but I had [informal] “night jobs” like being in strategy groups to determine things like, Should we be in health care lending? We had a CEO who gathered some people, and I was one of them. Time and time again, I was lifted up and given opportunities and possibilities that I never foresaw.
Do corporations really need to embrace diversity?
As a financial institution, if our communities are weak, we’re weak. It’s one of the reasons I worry so much. There’s been a tremendous eye-opening to the lack of progress in terms of opportunities; there’s been a tremendous realization that it’s an untenable situation among corporate executives.
Corporations are not just doing it because they think and know it’s the right thing to do. But it actually is good business. Being inclusive is going to strengthen our customer base.
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