Leading in the B-Suite™
Knock The Ball Out Of The Park In Your Job. Then People Will Listen To You.
January 3, 2023
George Nichols III, President and CEO at The American College of Financial Services, shares powerful lessons with Rhonda Morris and Adam Bryant for our interview series with prominent Black leaders, “Leading in the B-Suite.”
Morris: What were some of the biggest early influences that helped shape who you are today?
Nichols: I am fortunate that I had both parents growing up. My mother and father both quit school in the sixth grade because they came from large families and they had to work. My father worked three or four jobs because we were poor and he had to feed five kids. Ours was a very supportive family, and I have four sisters. I’m the baby of the family, and my sisters decided to make me a better man, starting at a young age.
But my mother was an important influence. She would say to me, “Whatever you do, I need you to figure out how to break the cycle of poverty. There’s no fun in this. It’s not enjoyable. So you’ve got to do that.” She also said, “Your father and I didn’t even finish high school, but you’ve got to go to college.”
The other advice she would give me was more spiritual. She said, “You might be successful and have money, but I want you to always remember that it’s better to be known of good name than of great wealth.” She also said, “I want you to understand that I don’t care what you do — only what you do for others will last.”
I also had the benefit, because of my sisters’ and my mother’s impact on my life, of understanding that Black women have had the most challenging lives of anybody on Earth. As a result, I have always tried to work to promote Black women and their opportunities, so that they can have the opportunities and chances that I have had.
Morris: Can you share the reasons behind your comment about Black women and how hard our lives are?
Nichols: It’s always difficult for me to share this story, but my father was physically abusive to my mother, and yet she stayed with him for the family. I then realized, as my sisters were entering relationships, that they had to deal with not just work problems, but also with Black men being abusive. Yet they remained strong. They were still the ones sharing wisdom and helping bring us along. That wasn’t lost on me.
I then married a strong woman who reminded me a lot of my mother, and I have two girls. I wanted to help create a life for them where they wouldn’t have to put up with what my mother and sisters experienced. I wanted them to know from an early age that they can be independent and have their own opportunities.
I also wanted to show my daughters, in my relationship with their mother, what it looks like to show respect for a woman. This is very important for me. My daughters will grow up knowing what to look for in a relationship as opposed to accepting it because they don’t know better.
Bryant: Did you ever confront your father about how he treated your mother?
Nichols: My mother died first, and then my father died of Alzheimer’s when he was in his eighties. But in his later years, I was his guardian and took care of him. He had lost my respect, and I struggled with my feelings about him because of what I saw him do to my mother.
But before he had Alzheimer’s, I started taking him with me on my trips, and he started sharing what was going on earlier in our lives. First, most Black men in our community worked in a factory. They started as janitors. None of them were working on the line in the factories. But at the time, labor unions were powerful, and the plants would shut down sometimes.
So, all of a sudden, all the Black men who had been going to work, where they were called “boy” and the n-word, were now sitting at home drawing unemployment, which was not enough to take care of their families. Their wives had to work harder, usually as a domestic, to make extra money. So, the burden and power structure shifted within the family.
As my father explained to me, “I was being called the n-word or boy every day at work, but at least I’m providing for my family. Now I can’t. Then my wife now is driving everything.” These are Black men who did not grow up being taught how to make that adjustment. So, the frustration around work, and the shift of power within the home, led to the fighting. This is no excuse, but this is the reality. And those scars still exist in me.
Morris: Do you feel like progress is being made for Black women?
Nichols: No. I see the same challenges. About 89 percent of Black single-parent households are led by women. In the business world, I don’t see many women getting a first shot. If you look at the statistics, we’re seeing more Black women trying to start businesses than White women. I believe that’s because they’re frustrated at work and so the only option is to walk.
Black women still have huge challenges in front of them.
And they’re not given any money by investors. Less than one percent of VC money goes to women. And less than one percent of that goes to Black women. So they’re having to take whatever they can get to start something. I’m seeing more Black women saying, “I’m going to leave corporate America and I’m going to go start my own business.” They want that autonomy. They want that respect. Black women still have huge challenges in front of them.
Bryant: Given what you just said, what are your feelings about the prospects for Black people overall in this country?
Morris: I actually am more optimistic than I’ve ever been, and here’s why. Sometimes, we as a community always look at the downside of things as opposed to the positive things that are happening. We have had a Black president, and you would have never convinced me early on that I would have ever seen that in my lifetime. And there are some companies now that are led by Black women. We have to acknowledge the number of Blacks who are college-educated and who are doing well. The problem is that there’s not enough of them, but we have to acknowledge the progress.
I’m also seeing shifts in attitudes in the next generations. I used to say that I live in a predominantly White neighborhood because there was one other Black family, but they moved out. So now I just say I live in an all-White neighborhood. My wife and I were driving through our neighborhood during all this national unrest a couple of years ago, and there were a couple kids on the corner holding signs protesting about Black Lives Matter. So if there are White kids protesting in White neighborhoods, there’s hope.
Morris: But it’s still hard to have the conversation about race in this country. Why do you think that is?
Nichols: The biggest problem is that we are putting too much pressure on each other to be sensitive. But the reality is that it’s going to be an uncomfortable conversation. Why don’t we just accept that? Black folks don’t have the lock on saying things the right way. So, if we know it’s going to be uncomfortable —and we start by saying, “If nothing else, we can’t use any derogatory terms about each other” — then we are more likely to find things we all have in common, which creates a leveling effect.
I talk to a lot of White CEOs and they often ask me, “What should I do?” And my response is, “Well, what have you done? Because I can’t answer what you should do until you tell me that.” People can’t expect to build trust overnight, especially if they haven’t done much to promote diversity in the past. There has to be an acknowledgement of the past, and a commitment to do better. And that starts with listening and empathy before moving to the next step of taking action.
Bryant: What career and life advice do you give to young Black professionals?
Nichols: The first thing I ask them is, are you knocking the ball out of the park in the job you’re in? That’s the first thing. If you’re not, then I don’t have any advice for you. But if you are, then people in your organization are going to want to talk to you, because we all want to talk to our top performers.
So now you’re going to get an audience. Then the question is, how do you want to use your voice? Are you going to use those moments to ask for your next promotion? Or are you going to use your voice to talk about how to make this situation better for everyone?
You can become a confidant to all the leaders above you, and they’re going to listen because they have accepted the fact that you get that we’re in business and we’ve got to make money. They will also know that you can help them do better at understanding a part of the community.
Sometimes we try so hard to assimilate that we think we don’t have to represent our community.
I learned this when I was about 32 years old. I told my wife that someday I want to be on the board of a bank. And I focused my energies on a community bank in Louisville, Ky., that was owned by some Jewish businessmen. I made some connections, and they said they wanted to talk to me.
Before my meeting with them, my wife and I sat down the night before and made a list of every White person we knew in the community. And in the meeting the next day over lunch, I was dropping names of people I knew. And the chairman interrupted me and said, “George, I know all of those people, too. I’d like to know the Black people that I don’t know and that you know.”
When he said that to me, I began to understand that I had been wrong in the way I approached things. He wanted me on his board because I could perform. I was knocking the ball out of the park. He wanted to do more business in the Black community, and he knew I could help them.
Sometimes we try so hard to assimilate that we think we don’t have to represent our community. In every situation I’ve been in since then, I’ve also known that I have to knock the ball out of the park, but also try to create more opportunities for Blacks. Because I have clout, I can make introductions, and I’m able to use my platform in a broader way.
The last thing I’ll share is a message that is important for Blacks and other minorities. The most important group in DE&I is White males. If we don’t get White males engaged in what we’re trying to change, it won’t ever change. They’re the only people in a position to change things, and the best to way engage them is to talk about what we’re doing to make the business better.
It’s not a social program. I really do believe the best leaders, the real leaders, regardless of whether they’re White males, want to make things better. So let’s try to create the right environment for everybody for us to do that.