AT&T’s David Huntley Talks About Race and How Far We Have to Go

November 3, 2017 12:39 pm

I interviewed David Huntley, AT&T’s SEVP and Chief Compliance Officer, some months back and we had a very good discussion; in fact, we went over the allotted time by 20 minutes, and that doesn’t include the conversation we had before we got started. The interview definitely went off script but in a very positive way.

We posted the first part of the interview in September — AT&T’s David Huntley: Understand Where the Growth Opportunities Are.

This is the second part of the interview, and the conservation got real and deep.

Shane Nelson: Your dad was a chauffeur during a time when Blacks were not treated as equals to whites. Did he experience any bias toward him and his family? How did he communicate that to you and your brother? And what did he say about being resilient and overcoming that?

David Huntley: He was born in 1912, so he grew up during the Depression, and I could tell you that he saw a lot of ugliness in his time. But he always said, “You can’t let that stop you from being who you are, because if you do, you’ll never be a happy person.” He always lived in the future. He saw that things were changing. He saw what the movement was all about, and he saw that we were making strides and headway.

You know, he was fortunate to work for somebody who was a good person and who treated him with respect and allowed him to be who he was. And that really was his safe harbor. But that didn’t mean he was oblivious of what was going on around him. So in terms of what he did for me and for my brother, the biggest gift he gave us was he didn’t pass along hate.

He always told us that it was the art of the possible, that’s the future. “Look ahead, don’t look back; but look at what is to come.” He saw things were changing and he said to us, “Be prepared. Be prepared for when things change and for when things open up.” That’s why when I talk to groups of young people, and my sons in particular, it’s always about being prepared and how you ca position yourself to take advantage of the future.

Shane Nelson: You’re deeply involved in the community. What is the importance of organizations and corporations having relationships with external organizations in recruiting or just external organizations in the community and how you can work and leverage in that space?

David Huntley: When you work in the community and you help others, it should give you some perspective. That perspective should cause you to appreciate what you have. It can also give you an appreciation for what more there is to do.

But sometimes I think we get caught up in ourselves. Sometimes we can just get caught up in our own families and we don’t think about others. I’ve always wanted to make sure that I have the perspective of others. I don’t operate in a vacuum. We don’t operate as a company in a vacuum. And so, I think that it helps round me out the more involved I am in the community.

I need it. I don’t know how to answer this in any way other than to say it helps me be the best me that I can be when I have that external component, because it’s a part of the diversity that I think we bring to the table, and that is perspective. So yes, it’s a huge part of who I am and what I encourage others to do.

Shane Nelson: I want to ask how you felt when Randall came out last year at your ERG summit and addressed the elephant in the room — racial tensions in the U.S. (referring to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson Forthrightly Addresses Current Racial Tensions, Says ‘the dialogue must start with me’).

Randall has talked with us many times over the years and he has always embraced diversity and inclusion. He’s transparent about it, he’s forthright about it. But this was different, it was groundbreaking, it was a powerful message. How did you feel about it?

David Huntley: I have some insight on that. I knew what he was planning to do, and I had a preview of his remarks. I knew that for him, he was taking a risk. You know, it turned out really well. It was embraced by the business community. Essentially, just about everybody embraced it.

But how did I feel? My first emotion was pride. I felt really good that I worked for a company who had a CEO who had enough courage to take the step that he took to speak out on this subject.

I think it went to the heart of the matter, which is, “Forget your politics.” It’s about who we are as people, and it is whether we are willing to see past color to try to understand who that other person is. I understand that point of view because tolerance, as he said in his speech, is for cowards, and because you don’t have to do anything when you tolerate somebody.

But to understand somebody, that takes work, because you don’t always like what you hear. And so his remarks — you said he’d always embraced the subject, diversity inclusion, but to me he went deeper, and he looked inside, and he said, “Why doesn’t this matter?” And that’s what I would hope we would all do, is look inside and say, “Why should it matter?”

Yes, I was incredibly proud of him because he was honest. That was the other thing about it. It was honest. It wasn’t a gimmick. He wasn’t trying to appease anybody. That’s how he felt at the time, given the circumstances. What he did, in my opinion, is he stepped up.

Shane Nelson: Now you mentioned risk. What was the risk?

David Huntley: You know what the risks are when you’re a CEO and you step out and you take on what might be an unpopular position to take. But you know what’s interesting about that is he was the perfect person to step out and do that, because if I had done that, they’d say, “Yeah, right.”

But for him to do that, they said, “Wait a minute. What?” You look at his politics. You look at his color. Yes, it was a risk.

You know Randall knows what the risk was, but he was still going to do it because it was the right thing for him to do because he was so passionate.

That’s what integrity is all about.

We have an unofficial tag line from a compliance prospective: “Just do the right thing.” The reason we put the “Just” in front of the “do,” is because if I just said, “Do the right thing,” that’s me telling you what to do. But if I say, “Just do the right thing,” that implies that you should know what that is on the inside.

And I believe that integrity means you do what’s right when nobody’s looking. It’s doing what’s right when it’s hard. That’s what integrity is about, and we need to call our integrity into question at all different levels and at every turn. That’s what a lot of our employees are asking me from time to time. In this day, what does integrity mean?

Shane Nelson: Given what’s going on in the country still — we have police shooting Black kids, a Black young man just died over the weekend, 15 years old, for no reason at all — what conversations are you having with your kids, with your sons? Your dad had the conversation with you growing up, you and your brother. We’re still going through what your dad went through, right, in those days?

David Huntley: Exactly, exactly right.

Shane Nelson: What conversations are you having with your sons?

David Huntley: The same conversation. It’s the same conversation. It’s the same conversation that I remind my white counterparts that they don’t have to have. I gave a speech, when I first took this job, to the Urban League State of Black America. I started out, I was given remarks, when I said, “I can’t say that.” I had to ask myself when I was making the speech, “Are we making progress?” To your point that another shooting just occurred, are we making progress? Are we making progress when there was, at that time, Trayvon Martin?

And most particular was closer to home at that time. Remember the chant on the bus in Oklahoma? (Referring to Fraternity Chant Goes Viral in the Worst Way Possible).

My son knew that young man. That was close to home.

So when you talk about the conversation, I had a conversation with my oldest son that night about his friend’s brother who said something like that. He had spent the night at their home and he was trying to make sense of what it meant. The kid called him back and tried to explain, he tried to apologize. I thought my son’s reaction was perfect. The kid said, “Are we good?” and my son said, “I don’t know. I’m going to have to work on this.”

It just means we have a lot of work to do. I’m hopeful, if we put our heads together collectively, just like we put a man on the moon, we can solve this. But we have to put our heads together; it has to be an open debate and an ongoing discussion.

A wise man said to me, his father, it’s a process and we have to think about it as a process, because I think we think about it as a “want it done” kind of thing. That we’re going to sit here and we’re going to have a conversation and we’re going to solve it, but it’s a process and it’s going to take time to do that.

We haven’t figured out what the process is to solve it. So what happens is, there’s a shooting, we’ll talk about it, and then that’s it. But what’s the plan to solve it? There have been a lot of things tossed out about how to solve it and it’s a big equation, but it’s solvable. It starts with education, healthcare, job opportunities, all those different things.

There isn’t one easy solution, but I think it is solvable if you approach it as a process that has a beginning and that should have an end. But we just have conversations and then nothing happens. So you’ve got to get the right people with the right interests at heart.

We are definitely grateful to have companies like AT&T and others really speak up. Senior leaders speak up and address their workplace, workforces, and really let them know that things like this won’t be tolerated in the workforce.

I do think it starts with companies. They do a lot of the hiring and I’m hopeful that they can work with the government administration to really try to take the lead on this. But we’ve got a long way to go.

You thank us for the work we do. I have to tell you, I really thank DiversityInc for the work it does to make sure that bar is high. When I talked to senior leadership, we consciously went after this and said we need to make sure that what we do gets translated to you the right way. We want that recognition. The ranking isn’t something that you just give away — you have a high bar. The higher the bar, the more work people will do to rise to the occasion.

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