Fortune -- "On Leading" Interview with Thasunda Brown Duckett

FORTUNE – “On Leading” Interview with Thasunda Brown Duckett

Susie: Thasunda, so great to see you and to talk about your plans for TIAA and let’s begin with the question that’s top of mind for everyone these days, how do I protect my retirement savings with the stock market selling off and the U.S. Economy in trouble? What are you and your financial advisors telling people to do?

Thasunda: You’re right, our participants are calling us. They have lots of questions and what we’re telling them is to remember that it’s about the long game that we’re talking about their retirement income. And the most important advice is to stay investment and remember that at TIAA the have exposure to guaranteed income, guaranteed lifetime income. And so with that other feature within their asset allocation they can have confidence, they can withstand the market volatility.

Susie: Well you know for many people this their first time experiencing a bear market and it’s scary to see the money they you’ve been saving a lot of just disappearing and it doesn’t help that every day there’s a new prediction that a recession is coming. So that is emotional for many people. So what are the smart moves that you say people should be doing in difficult times like this?

Thasunda: Well money is emotional. And so I think it’s important when we are talking to them to meet them where they are, there’s a lot that’s on people’s minds but what’s important for them to know is to stay contributing to their retirement plan. To don’t cut short their contributions to their 401k or 403b. Secondly to make sure they are talking to us as their trusted advisor to make sure they can have confidence in their asset allocation and knowing that this is going to have some market volatility and we’re experiencing it all. But again to stay invested for the long term. And then lastly to make sure that as they are having these concerns event when they hang out with us to call us back or we’ll follow up and check in on you. Staying calm and staying invested is I think some of the most important things we can tell our participants to do.

Susie: You know since you became CEO of TIAA. It’s a year now, you said your priority is to help people save for retirement and to retire with dignity and to get there. You’re talking about closing the gender pay gap, closing the racial wealth gap and closing the retirement savings gap, what’s the first step in closing all those gaps?

Thasunda: Well the first step in closing the gap is asking every American a basic question, are you on track to retire? And by asking that question will bring awareness to an issue that many of us are not proximate too. And so when I think about that question, once we are getting out there and talking about the gap, talking about the statistics, the next step is to make sure we’re connecting with people in a way that they can take action at work asking your company do I have benefits like a 401k or 403b plan. Am I contributing? Can I contribute one more dollar so that I can get the benefit of compounding and starting to get on a path to being able to secure my retirement? And so yes, it’s a big lofty goal and there are questions that we want to make sure every individual is asking. Bu then there’s the accountability that we’re asking ourselves and saying, what do we have to do differently in order to close the wealth gap and that’s what we’re focused on doing at TIAA.

Susie: So many people are so impressed with what you’ve been doing. I’m sure you hear this all the time and there are high expectations for you be a change agent. I mean after all, you’re one of only 44 female CEOs on the Fortune 500 and you’re one of only two Black women CEO on that list. You’re smart, you’re energetic. I mean, it’s no wonder that people are looking to you for leadership. How do you feel about this responsibility and how much do you think you can really can change?

Thasunda: Well, first one could put more of an expectation that what I put on myself. In terms of responsibility, too much is given, much is required. And the fact that I am one of only two is progress. And still more progress is to be done. But I would also say that it is not just my responsibility alone or the 41 women that are leaving Fortune 500 responsibility alone. It’s also the responsibility of the boards of all the companies that may not have the level of representation as well as my allies and my counterparts that are leading companies to making sure that as a collective, we’re doing our part to make sure that we’re making progress.

Susie: You know, one word I hear you using a lot is intentionality. Talk us through what that means to you and why is it so important?

Thasunda: Intentionality is everything, operating with intentionality means you’re not going to stop at the problem. It means we’re going to say, what actions can we take? It means that we’re going to disaggregate the data. We’re going to look at our policies and progress. It does not take an external event to make us get focused. It’s inherent to who we are when we operate with intentionality that is the only way that progress can be done. And with intentionality, you’re going to think about sustainability. Not just a moment in time. So intentionality is the only way progress can be done, especially when you’re talking about gender and racial gaps.

Susie: Let’s talk a little bit more about intentionality because you bring that up when you talk about your goals for diversity and inclusion and when I spoke with your predecessor CEO Roger Ferguson, he was extremely intentional on this issue. What more do you want to do at TIAA?

Thasunda: Well, I want to continue to continue that level of intentionality. It’s at the heart of who we are. And with intentionality means that you’re relentless about the problem that needs to be solved. You’re relentless of understanding about what are the actions that we need to take. And you’re relentless about tracking the outcomes. And you understand that the job is never done. It is with that intention, that progress can be made.

Susie: Well, just about every CEO I interview these days in this post pandemic world that we are in is talking about how they’re accelerating their goal for diversity and inclusion on the board, on the executive team and their new employee hires. Are you encouraged by what you seeing is going on or what more do you want to see?

Thasunda: I’m very encouraged and I’m encouraged because I fundamentally believe that talent is created equally. Opportunity is not. And so when I see progress at the board level, when I see progress at the C-suite level, that’s telling me that we are opening the aperture of talent, we’re not compromising, we’re not watering down. We’re actually expanding. And what I think we’re going to see in the long term is that we’re going to see more innovation. We’re going to see the ability for leaders to tackle the toughest problems because we’re going to have a diverse group of people at the table running companies and for that that leaves me very optimistic.

Susie: Well you have a tremendous opportunity to groom the next generation of leaders. Not only is your company maybe, but at many other companies. So what kinds of things are you already doing to make that happen?

Thasunda: Well you know, one of the old sayings is that you have to reach as you climb. And I hope that I am modeling what a CEO can look like and how a CEO can lead in creating additional chapters so that every young so that every young person can see themselves, not just in the CEOs that have become before me, but also within what I represent. And it’s important to make sure that young people understand that there is not one path to starting in Corporate America and there’s note one path to ascend. What’s most important is you are authentic, that you connect to your history to your perspective and you bring your voice. And that you give yourself permission to go for the job regardless if you see someone who looks like you or not - because you maybe that first trailblazer.

Susie: I’m sure a lot women look at you with awe and say what do I need to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company? I mean what do you say to that? What advice do you have for young women who are ambitious and want to get ahead and be you?

Thasunda: I mean the same advice that I share with women, I share with men in terms of course first, you want be intellectually curious. You want to do your job with excellence, you want to be bold. But when I think about the nuances of being a woman, I think about the mental gymnastics that were in my head. And so what I would share too women, get the mental gymnastics out of your head. I know that you are worthy and deserving and that your voice is required and necessary. And know when you walk into a room and you may be the only, don’t lean back, pull up the chair, sit next to the person at the table make sure you’re bringing your voice and your perspective.

Susie: You told an audience of business leaders recently that this is an exciting time to lead. Tell us why you feel that way.

Thasunda: What I feel so incredibly proud of being a CEO at this moment and at this time is that we get to tackle some of the toughest issues like mental health. We get to acceleration of technology and how that can unlock greater innovation, what it means to work and how do you work? And we are at the forefront of one of America’s toughest problems, which is to retire inequality. So yes, there is a lot going on. There’ a lot of headwinds, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to be in the car driving it.

Susie: Well, how is this a different way of leading than the many years that you were leading at JP Morgan where you were a top executive there? What’s different?

Thasunda: Well what’s different is the buck stops with me. You know, at JP Morgan Chase, I was one of the lieutenants, but Jaime Diamond was at the helm and so being to come into TIAA, building on Roger’s success, but also all the learnings from someone like Jamie Diamond or Gordon Smith. I’m able to bring all of that TIAA, as well as my own talents and my own strength that I’ve been able to accumulate over the years and lead well in all of those years.

Susie: In all those years that you were you working at JP Morgan, you had a lot of contact with CEO Jamie Diamond and you said there were a lot of learnings, what was the most important learning or lessons that you learned from Jamie?

Thasunda: I’ve learned so much from Jamie. He definitely is one of the most impactful CEOs of our time and what I can tell you is that when I was named CEO of TIAA, Jamie checks in on me. Even though I’m no longer at JP Morgan Chase, he’s one of the people that checks in to see how I’m doing. He one of the people that will read what’s going on at TIAA and give me his perspective and thoughts. And so what I value and appreciate is that he’s always being a teacher and he is always and continues to be available to ensure that hopefully the impact I was able to provide at JP Morgan Chase, I’m able to do that on an even greater level here at TIAA.

Susie: You also tell many stories about your parents and the big influence they had on you and on your success. I mean what did you learn about leadership from your parents and how it guide you?

Thasunda: My parents are my biggest inspiration when I think about leadership, they taught me resilience, they taught me empathy, they taught me courage, they taught me to reach for the moon because even if I miss, I would be among the stars. Ultimately, they said that I have a voice and that I can make an impact. That’s what they taught me.

Susie: Well, you know you’re working at a legendary company. TIAA as you mentioned a moment ago, has been around for than 100 years. So how do you want people to describe your years as CEO? How do you want them to describe your mark as a leader?

Thasunda: I want to make impact and I want to inspire. And having the opportunity to leader a company like TIAA I get to inspire people every single day, inspire them to never lose sight of our North Star – to be the best version of themselves to deliver for our clients, and ultimately that will drive impact, impact for our participants, impact to continue to have TIAA be such an impact maker for the next 100 years. But also the ability to impact people’s lives on a personal level. That’s what I hope people will remember me for or my legacy, inspiring and making impact – lasting impact.


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©2022 Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund, 730 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017