Can They Redefine the C-Suite as the B-Suite?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because they are having the conversations that corporate America is too afraid to have.
By Nick Fouriezos
- A new LinkedIn interview series called “Leading in the B-Suite” goes deep with Black business leaders about the obstacles they encountered and how the system can change.
- Adam Bryant, a former New York Times columnist, and Rhonda Morris, a Chevron executive, are leading the project.
Every Sunday for around a decade, beginning in 2009, Adam Bryant interviewed CEOs in his weekly “Corner Office” column for the New York Times. But he never asked about their companies, instead focusing instead on life lessons and pivot points. And, when he interviewed women and executives of color, Bryant asked himself another what-if: what if he never asked them questions about gender or race? “That was my approach,” he says, and it was a good one for the times, when many minority execs felt that such questions tokenized them, distracting from the universality of their achievements.
But just because CEOs of color don’t want to air their dirty laundry publicly doesn’t mean they don’t talk with one another about the obstacles they face. Rhonda Morris, a Chevron vice president and chief human resources officer, recalls the story of Aetna CEO Ron Williams, who was mistaken for a chauffeur by an airport employee. Morris herself doesn’t wear black clothing when she flies with United Airlines, because she routinely gets mistaken for a flight attendant. When a colleague expressed her disbelief, Morris responded: “When you see me, you see this, but I don’t have ‘Chevron executive’ tattooed onto my forehead when I walk on to a United flight.”
Telling these stories on a public platform used to be rare, but more executives of color are speaking out, which is to say the times have changed since Bryant’s “Corner Office” days. And so Bryant, who is white, and Morris, who is Black, have teamed up on a new project, “Leading in the B-Suite” (a riff on the C-suite but centered on Blackness). The series is using the moment created by the George Floyd protests to discuss race in corporate America by interviewing Black executives and publishing their stories on LinkedIn.
For most Black people in corporate America who rise through leadership ranks, your existence is like the Sesame Street game, ‘Which of these is not like the others?’
Rhonda Morris, vice president and chief of human resources, Chevron
“We are in this moment in history, where there is this case for optimism. With this growing awareness of systemic racism, there is a sense that something will change,” Bryant says, and yet “there is also this pessimism, skepticism. As lots of companies make pledges and commitments, people fear this will be another hot news cycle, and the conversation about race in corporate America is going to die off.”
Exploring that duality of hope and caution is a key part of the interview series, which launched Aug. 25 and continues on a biweekly basis. OZY co-founder and CEO Carlos Watson is one of the guests, alongside Mellody Hobson (co-CEO of Ariel Investments), Bob Johnson (co-founder of BET) and Ursula Burns (former CEO of Xerox and Veon), among others. The conversations are meant to provide insight both to the next generation of minority business leaders and those who hope to be their allies. One question Bryant asks each guest: What are the tail winds that have propelled you forward, and what head winds have pushed you back?
“If you pull that framework back, it’s also what’s happening in society — are there now tail winds that will push through, and what tail winds need to be created?” Bryant says.
While the newsletter has nearly 40,000 subscribers, it’s fair to say that posting Q&A’s on a platform like LinkedIn isn’t exactly poised to break the internet the way, say, a YouTube show or a New York Times column might. And some wonder whether the newsletter’s focus on voices within corporate America may bias it toward solutions that don’t rock the boat of capitalism — at a time when many Black Americans are wondering whether the ship needs to sink for change to occur. As Black venture capitalist Brian Brackeen of Lightship Capital recently told OZY: “When you see it not serving you, or your friends, your mama or her cousin, you do start to wonder if it’s really for you.”
And yet a number of suggestions for how corporate America can make better decisions on race have already emerged from the conversations. “I’ve heard suggestions that aren’t popular,” Morris says, in particular, race-based quotas. “Quotas are against the law in the United States, so how do you set targets?” She notes that certain policies have unintended racial consequences, such as a rule of partnering only with companies that have more than 100 employees — which could indirectly shut out smaller, minority-owned businesses that would blossom if given a chance.
Still, one of the biggest problems remains representation. “For most Black people in corporate America who rise through leadership ranks, your existence is like the Sesame Street game, ‘Which of these is not like the others?’ and you are constantly reminded of this,” Morris says. With “Leading in the B-Suite,” the next generation of Black business leaders won’t have to search far to see role models who reflect their own experience.
Correction: This article originally misstated Rhonda Morris’s title at Chevron and, in one instance, misspelled Adam Bryant’s name. Both errors have been fixed, and two clarifications have been made regarding Bryant’s “Corner Office column and the story of Aetna CEO Ron Williams.