Resolution is a tough goal to sell, at least in the short term. This is a 400-year-old problem, so is it realistic to expect that we can solve it in five years or even in two decades? I do think, however, that we can make progress that may feel or look small at first, but if it’s sustainable and generational, it will continue to help the problem well into the future. I believe many of these initiatives fail because organizations think about a quick fix or a cure, instead of the process and the progress. If we remain focused on these instead, I believe we can make a real, meaningful impact on these issues in the years ahead.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview George Nichols, President and CEO of The American College of Financial Services.
George Nichols III is the 10th President and CEO of The American College of Financial Services, where he shares its commitment to benefit society by educating and influencing the financial services profession. He joined The College in 2018 after a 17-year career at New York Life, where he held a number of principal roles in sales, strategic initiatives, and public policy, including most recently as executive vice president in the Office of Governmental Affairs, and served as the first African-American elected to New York Life’s Executive Management Committee. Prior to joining New York Life, Nichols also held several roles in the public sector, including the first African-American insurance commissioner of Kentucky, where he lead regulation of the state’s 10 billion dollars insurance industry, executive director of the Kentucky Health Policy Board, and the first African-American president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Thank you so much for doing this with us George! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in a big Southern family — my parents, four supportive sisters, and myself. We were rich in love and togetherness, but financially we were very strapped. We all learned so much from our parents about self-worth and the true definition of wealth — not how much money you had. My mother instilled in all of us that only what we did for others would last, and she constantly reinforced that it was, “better to be known of good name than of great wealth.”
This upbringing shaped my servant mindset that I’ve carried through my family life and my career in financial services.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
During several moves, I’ve kept a few core books on the shelf in each home. One is “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t” by Jim Collins. I first read this book during my time leading the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and in part, it talks about Level 5 leadership. My biggest takeaway was that a chief executive’s biggest responsibility is making sure to build a self-sustainable organization outside himself or herself, so that no matter what happens, the company will be in a better place than when the executive took charge.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
The quote I always lean back on is Proverbs 3:5–6. It reads, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” As a young man, I wanted to be a federal mediator, and I’m so glad I didn’t listen to myself at that age.
Above everything else, I believe I’m on God’s path, and I’m constantly paying attention to what he wanted me to be.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I start with my servant mindset, because I believe every effective leader must be focused on how they impact others.
Then, when I think about leadership — I think about what I call poised urgency. I think urgency is a feeling or posture that many leaders don’t know how to properly comprehend or communicate. It’s not frantic. Composure and poise are sorely lacking in many organizations. Some leaders think frantic conveys speed and purpose, but instead it causes chaos and confusion.
Urgency is also not emergency. The first comes with a greater purpose focused forward to create impactful change and reach tangible goals. The latter is a reactive approach that leads to finger pointing.
I believe urgency is in the way you prepare and communicate and is borne out of the execution of a well-thought-out plan. And poised urgency is so crucial today, especially as leaders are staring at multiple crises with no defined end point. True leaders will guide their organizations through today and put them in position to thrive tomorrow.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
My wife, CJ, and I always joked that my dream was to be a college President, yet it didn’t seem like I was on that path during my years in corporate America. Then, the job at The American College of Financial Services became available, and I truly believe I was called here to lead The College during this time in its history.
I’m a very spiritual person — so faith and prayer are very important to me and are good ways to release or relieve stress. I work long, sometimes odd hours, so I enjoy exercising at home or taking a long morning walk. Those morning walks allow me to think in peace and really put my mind in a good place for the day.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Racial injustice and inequality have followed a certain playbook for decades, and no matter the statistics or the screams for help, they have always continued. So, why should what happened on that Minneapolis curbside come as a surprise to anyone?
You hear the stories of black men and women navigating poverty inside America’s densest projects; the malnutrition, the financial stress, the entrenched inequalities in our system that eventually boil over. They become fearful of the cops, of creditors, even of each other while fighting on the streets for survival.
Make no mistake — that’s what this is, not what it’s become. I lived this life as a kid in the segregated South — and five decades have not solved these injustices. Fifty years of powerful people thinking they must always fill the sting of silence with their own words, when it’s not their void to fill.
America now lays bare its weakness in this moment of immense pain. It’s spilled over into the streets of cities and towns across this nation — an anger so deep-rooted leading to glass sitting on sidewalks framing defaced storefronts. I echo Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in urging those protesting to remember the message they want to deliver. He said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Put down the rocks, and pick up the megaphones. Amplify your Instagram audiences. Rally the voices of black churches, and the motivations of black activists. Mobilize a communications effort as wide as these protests can stretch. While America is still largely staying at home, there’s a captive audience bigger than ever before.
I really hope our nation is ready to listen. But, more importantly, I hope that those marginalized and mistreated for so long are heard and understood. Because this is bigger than a commitment to hiring a few more people of color, or setting up a diversity council, or cloaking the systemic struggle black people face with a program that means well, but stops a few steps short of feeling uncomfortable.
We can all do more to create equal opportunity in this world, to establish a fairness doctrine that spurs economic growth from the bottom-up, to re-assess how we’ve lived up to Dr. King’s ideals. We honor his birthday, but how’s that anything close to enough?
As a nation, we start conversations on race I don’t think we ever intend on finishing. This time must be different. The College will hold itself accountable for affecting real change through real dialogue and challenge our partner companies to do the same.
And, more than anything, we have the opportunity and responsibility to become a platform for progress, where the communities we serve drive the ideas and actions we take. For far too long, pontificators have read some words on race, offered their thoughts and prayers, and America moved on. That cannot continue.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
Diversity has always been at the forefront of my thinking and organizational planning, and I’ve been intentional and mindful about surrounding myself with diverse voices and working to elevate different perspectives throughout my career.
I will mention two quick standout examples. When I was the Insurance Commissioner of Kentucky, both of my deputy commissioners were women. Then, at New York Life, I was heavily involved in establishing the organization’s Diversity and Inclusion Office in 2006.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Simply put, I believe the make-up of an executive team should look like an organization’s customer base at the very least, and should strive to look like the nation as a whole. Different life experiences and perspectives help improve organizational decision-making.
Diversity has shaped all of our lives — some of us grew up in a Manhattan apartment building, others in the segregated South, or even in another country. It’s important that organizations tap into those life experiences because they not only shape who we are as people and professionals, but they can help shape the strategic vision and internal culture of an organization.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
I can share five very broadly.
As the only non-profit, accredited institution dedicated to financial services education, The College believes that the financial services industry has a pressing obligation to effect change given its role in helping people accumulate, retain, and distribute wealth. For far too long, those people have been predominantly white and already affluent — a cycle of entitlement that must stop in favor of a platform that promotes upward mobility and wealth building in Black America.
A viable, actionable plan for sustainable, generational change will help narrow the wealth gap and have a lasting effect on how the financial services profession best serves a fast-becoming majority-minority nation. These are the financial industry’s future customers. Standing on the frontlines now will afford the profession a monumental opportunity to understand these communities and support their financial needs.
As an industry, we can repeat the efforts of the past and achieve the same insufficient outcomes, or we can find common ground around a generational cause. The College proposes that the financial services industry devotes its financial and intellectual capital to participate in Four Steps Forward.
We are still fleshing out the details, but I can tell you that we are putting stakes in the ground around 1) financial literacy for Black women, 2) an executive leadership program, 3) Black study groups and mentorship, and 4) a collective impact initiative that brings together the financial and intellectual capital of the nation’s top financial services organizations to work alongside the advisors, agents, and leaders in communities to effect that change we are talking about.
And a fifth and final point, think and act like Nike — just do it! The time is now.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Resolution is a tough goal to sell, at least in the short term. This is a 400-year-old problem, so is it realistic to expect that we can solve it in five years or even in two decades? I do think, however, that we can make progress that may feel or look small at first, but if it’s sustainable and generational, it will continue to help the problem well into the future.
I believe many of these initiatives fail because organizations think about a quick fix or a cure, instead of the process and the progress. If we remain focused on these instead, I believe we can make a real, meaningful impact on these issues in the years ahead.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would have loved to meet and talk with Nelson Mandela. Years ago, I was in Johannesburg meeting with the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, and they tried to arrange a meeting. I still to this day marvel at his courage and will to undergo so much injustice, but to have the strength to forgive and then to lead.
How can our readers follow you online?
I write a blog twice per month on The College’s website about our initiatives, the industry, or a topic of importance like gender and race. I’m also semi-active on Twitter @TheAmerColPrez and I’d love to connect on LinkedIn.