The year 2020 was a tipping point in multiple ways across cultures, economies and attitudes that drove people toward self-reflection and sometimes vocal and violent expressions of frustration and anger. It will go down in history as the year a global pandemic shut down nearly everything and inadvertently cleared the way for a narrower focus on racial inequities and the system that’s accused of perpetuating them.
Against that backdrop, the efforts of Shundrawn Thomas might seem almost subtle, but they are not. In fact, little about Thomas, the president of Northern Trust Asset Management, is subdued, although his demeanor and general presentation suggest otherwise. Without preaching or even getting agitated, Thomas talks about “the unfortunate deaths of people of color not being a new thing” even though it drew a lot of attention in 2020.
“I can track the story of my own life in the years leading up to that point,” he said. “The difference last year is it was occurring in the midst of a pandemic that created an environment where you have everybody’s attention.”
When Thomas was promoted to president of the $1.2 trillion asset management division in 2017, he became the first person of color elevated to the top tier of management at Northern Trust Corp.
Thomas, 47, has worked in financial services since 1994. He joined the Chicago-based asset manager 18 years ago, and moved up through the ranks by doing exactly what he would suggest to anyone trying to find success at any endeavor.
“You have to really focus on the discipline of being a consummate professional, and provide more service than you get paid for,” said Thomas, sounding pretty understated for a man who doesn’t seem to have many gaps in his schedule for what most of us might describe as down time.
In addition to his demanding day job, he is a husband and father of two boys, and he’s involved in his church and active in alumni affairs at his alma mater, Florida A&M, as well as the Toigo Foundation, which fosters career development for underrepresented talent.
He’s also written four books, the most recent of which is “Discover Joy in Work” (IVP Books, 2019).
The 2021 winner of the InvestmentNews Excellence in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Lifetime Achievement Award is not the kind of person who seeks recognition for his success nor status as an African American in an industry where women and minorities in leadership are still rare. But Thomas appreciates and enthusiastically shoulders the opportunity to challenge the status quo, and to help make success stories like his more common.
That side of Thomas was on full display in the fall of 2020 when he penned what has been described as a letter to corporate America, reflecting on the state of race relations in the workplace, and in his heart.
The essay, which was published in September by InvestmentNews, launches into the topic with the example of a 29-year-old Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who was shot seven times by police after appearing to ignore their orders. In his classic style, the essay offers a direct message and call to action through masterful writing that is personal and informative, and simultaneously deadly serious and nonthreatening.
“Race, racism and racist ideas have impacted me in tangible ways through my life and career,” he writes. “What is remarkable, however, is the current shift in the dialogue about race and the increased acknowledgement of the unique experience and experiences of Black people in America.”
In addition to heartfelt anecdotes, perhaps the most touching part of Thomas’ message is the empathy for others.
Reflecting on a lesson he learned from his mother, who pursued a career in social work in a troubled inner-city neighborhood, Thomas wrote that he came to realize how much those lives mattered to his mother.
“I fully understood her sense of calling and care for the human community,” he wrote.
When asked today about the events of 2020 as an inflection point for race relations in the U.S., Thomas is quick to clarify in a way that comes well short of celebrating success.
“We are at an inflection point as it pertains to our dialogue and discourse,” he said. “If we’re having this conversation two years ago, there are still third rails that nobody touches, and race was one of those things.”
If 2020 represented a tipping point in the collective consciousness regarding racial equality, it only went that far, according to Thomas.
“I feel like in terms of the dialogue, we definitely went through a pivotal point, but we have not reached a tipping point in terms of changing the underlying trends, outcomes or results,” he said.
That message about society in general is at least as pertinent when it comes to the industry where Thomas has spent his entire career.
“Leadership representation has not changed materially in my three decades in financial services,” he said. “I can’t point to material positive progress; if anything, we’ve regressed. Just think of the business I’m in. How much money is managed by women- and minority-owned firms? And think about the unique situation of my role.”
Those who know and work with Thomas describe him as a man of strong conviction, but also incredibly enlightened, thoughtful, and intelligent.
“Shundrawn is a thoughtful friend, someone you can connect with on big issues, and he also has a remarkable blend of gifts as a leader,” said Steve Preston, president and chief executive officer of Goodwill Industries.
Preston, a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, first met Thomas more than a decade ago when they both served on the board of directors at Wheaton College.
“I’ve seen a lot of leaders in a lot of places, and when I’ve heard Shundrawn speak about issues of race, he brings incredible perspective to everyone in the room,” Preston said. “Everyone leaves smarter and with a deeper understanding.”
Connie Lindsey, executive vice president of corporate social responsibility and global diversity, equity and inclusion at Northern Trust, works closely with Thomas on the company’s ESG executive council.
“He leads from a very authentic place, because he understands what is good for business and the kind of talent we need,” she said.
In terms of his leadership style, Lindsey said Thomas “takes the kinds of risks that are also good business decisions because he leads with a deep level of ethical behavior.”
“When it comes to discussing how we want to shift or change things, there’s not always unanimity, but Shundrawn is that leader who will articulate why it makes sense,” she added. “We are both people of deep faith, and he’s able to live his faith in a way that is not proselytizing.”
Thomas’ profile at the top of a company managing $1.2 trillion is not in any way lost on him.
Even though he expects anyone trying to succeed to put forth significant effort, Thomas said a lot of success can still come down to “grace and timing” and that people should be open to that idea.
“Yes, I have to put in the work and be effective at what I do, but even when that happens, say I come to Northern Trust two years later than I did,” he adds, giving a nod to a bit of luck that could strike anyone at any time.
The other crucial component to success, according to Thomas, is “allies, mentors, and sponsors along the way.”
“For those who might not be cut out of central casting, so to speak, it starts with a sense of belief,” he said. “I’m a person of deep abiding faith, beyond that my belief is that of people. The system is not equitable. But there are many wonderful people who are willing to be allies. You have to believe that those people exist and that you can find them. And you have to put yourself in a position to be a recipient of the grace and timing.”
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Andrew is half-human, half-gamer. He’s also a science fiction author writing for BleeBot.