Businessman Dick Parsons talks with Roland Martin about raising the level of expectations in education and finding qualified minority candidates for jobs while at Time Warner. Plus Parsons discusses his mentor Nelson Rockefeller.
MR. MARTIN: You gave a speech in Chicago, and it was for the Executive Club. I was actually in the audience there, and you were talking about education, and you said what we have to do is raise the level of expectations –
MR. PARSONS: Yes.
MR. MARTIN: — and not just say, “We’re satisfied here”; but, no, challenge these students to keep taking it higher and higher.
MR. PARSONS: Yeah, I believe that completely. I think I said in that speech that, if I had to think of a single word to describe why I have achieved some level of success in my life, the word would be “expectations.” You know, my parents expected certain things. My grandparents expected certain things. My community that we lived in – you couldn’t just go out there and act a fool and get away with it. You know, somebody’d turn you over to the folks and say, “You know, I caught this little,” you know, “crumb snatcher out here doin’ this, that and the other thing,” and you’d get a whippin’. Right? Because you were expected to act a certain way. You were expected to go to school. You were expected to achieve. You were expected to do this, expected to do that.
MR. MARTIN: They weren’t optional.
MR. PARSONS: No.
MR. MARTIN: [Chuckles.]
MR. PARSONS: No, no. We don’t – no. You didn’t even want to explore those options.
MR. MARTIN: [Chuckles.]
MR. PARSONS: And, lo and behold, if you put expectations on people, most of them rise to the level of the expectations.
Conversely, if you go into a class, and a teacher looks out, you know, at a sea of black faces and sort of says inwardly, thinking that they’re just talking to themselves, but it just shows on their face; it shows in their every manifestation, “Well, there’s not much I can do with these people, except just keep them,” you know, “from tearing each other apart” – if you – what do they call it – the subtle bigotry of low expectations.
MR. MARTIN: Yeah. President Bush –
MR. PARSONS: If you look at – [crosstalk] –
MR. MARTIN: — called it the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
MR. PARSONS: — yeah, right.
MR. MARTIN: Yeah.
MR. PARSONS: If you lower the expectations, people will fall to the level of your expectations.
So, one of the first things that has to happen if we’re going to get the schools to do what we need for them to do, which is prepare people to do two things: one, useful work; and, two, become constructive citizens. You[’ve] got to raise expectations for all.
MR. MARTIN: Speaking of expectations, you were chairman and CEO of Time Warner, and while there, you heard folks all the time say, “Yeah, Dick. You know, we can’t really find qualified” –
MR. PARSONS: Oh, yeah.
MR. MARTIN: — “folk for the jobs,” and that and the other.
So, you said, “Okay. All right. I’m going to go hire somebody, and her job is going to go find all those people and then go, ‘Here they go.’”
MR. PARSONS: Yep. When I became CEO, I got all my senior division managers together, and they didn’t believe that they were bigots. And, in fact, they really actually weren’t; but they would always say – when I said, “Well, we need to change the complexion of this company,” they’d say, “Well,” you know, “we looked, but we can’t find anybody,” you know.
And the reality is that they didn’t hang out at your club – right?
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. PARSONS: And they didn’t go to your church, so they couldn’t find anybody.
So, I did. I went out and hired a woman named Deborah Langford, and I said, “Debbie, you sit here. And whenever I have one of my division heads say,” you know, “‘I can’t find anybody,’ I’m sending them to you, and you find them somebody.”
And guess what happened? We started hiring a whole lot more blacks, Latinos and women and a few Asians. But you would put the candidates before the decision makers, and they’d say, lo, and behold, “Whoa! This brother’s good! Where’s he been? Let me get him in the house.”
MR. MARTIN: Biggest failure that you learned from.
MR. PARSONS: Trying to appease too many people. I remember when I was in Washington the first time, I was working for Gerald Ford; but I reaslly had been down there under the aegis of Nelson Rockefeller. And there was some piece of legislation that was moving through the House and Senate; and Nelson, who was then Vice President, called me up to ask, if there were a tie vote in the Senate, how he should vote on this particular piece of legislation.
And I gave him my view, and he said, “Well, have you told the President this?”
I said, “Well, you know, uh, uh….”
I sort of hemmed and hawed, and he said, “Look, your job is to call it the way you see it – right – and to advise on the basis of your best judgment – not to get along; not to be, you know, a member of the team, somebody who doesn’t raise hackles or rock the boat. Get back up there and do your job.”
That was memorable.
MR. MARTIN: You’re tearing up right now.
MR. PARSONS: Yeah.
MR. MARTIN: Why?
MR. PARSONS: Probably the recollection of Nelson. He was my first real mentor. You know, he was the guy who set me on the path. And, you know, I’m old now. So, I’m allowed to tear up.
MR. MARTIN: You talk about that mentor piece. What was it about him, though, that made him so special to you?
MR. PARSONS: You couldn’t ’ve had a better mentor than Nelson Rockefeller, you know. He was not only a Rockefeller; he was a robust individual who, if he was on your team, I mean he would do what he could do to make you successful.
MR. MARTIN: Young African-Americans must be watching this. Normally, is thinking, “I need a mentor. I need somebody who’s African-American,” when the fact of the matter is a mentor can be anybody who sees something in you.
MR. PARSONS: That’s correct – and who is in a position, as I say, not just to give you guidance and wisdom, but to create opportunities for you, or to create the environment in which opportunities show up.