The following is our Exclusive Interview with Richard D. Parsons, one of the dual covers of the Summer 2016 issue. The Summer issue features the Power 300: The Most Influential Black Corporate Directors and an alternate cover featuring a tribute to Muhammad Ali. Available at Barnes & Noble and newsstands now.
Richard “Dick” Parsons: Setting the Standard for Leadership and Blazing Trails in the Public and Private Sectors
by Meta Mereday
With a leadership career that spans global corporations and major sports organizations, Richard Dean “Dick” Parsons has blazed a significant trail across the business horizon. Parsons’ professional career began in his home state of New York after attending the University of Hawaii and Albany Law School. The proud native New Yorker knew early on that he wanted to be a change agent. “When I was growing up, I thought that I wanted to be a trial lawyer because I felt it was a way to change conditions around me.” After graduating first in his class from law school, Parsons, who was born in Brooklyn, began his career as counsel to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. After Rockefeller became Vice President, he retained the young lawyer and Parsons blazed trails as a senior White House aide under President Gerald Ford. “I count Nelson Rockefeller high among my professional mentors as he taught me a great deal about leadership and maximizing opportunities,” Parsons added. “But when I talk about role models it is my father, Lorenzo Locklair Parsons, who heads that list because of the values he instilled in me.”
Following his stint in Washington D.C., Parsons joined the New York law firm Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler and rose to become Managing Partner of the firm. “The law, particularly litigation, is something that you have to have passion for and there is a great deal that is beneficial in business that is gained from being a litigator; but, while I enjoyed trying lawsuits – and I believe I was pretty good at it – I knew that I wanted to broaden my horizons.” During this time, Parsons continued his involvement in the public sector and maintained his political connections including heading the transitional team for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani with whom Parsons had worked.
“One of the enduring hallmarks of a leader is recognizing a personal responsibility to help make the world around them a better place. Dick passes that test with flying colors. He is a catalyst for change and fractures all of the stereotypes. Dick is a man whose competence and conviction compels others to follow. He is also someone who treats everyone, no matter their station in life, with respect and kindness. Dick has the courage to shake things up and the skill, judgment and creativity to rally people to a winning cause,” -Kenneth I. Chenault, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, American Express Company
Parsons expertise as a corporate turnaround artist came into focus when he was recruited to serve as Chief Operating Officer of the Dime Savings Bank. Within two years, Parsons became CEO and managed to not only keep the institution afloat in the midst of a major savings and loan crisis, he also spearheaded a successful merger with Anchor Savings Bank in 1994. As a result of his emerging comeback skills, the newly created Dime Bancorp became the largest thrift institution on the East Coast and the fourth largest in the United States. “I am often asked how I can make transitions from one industry to another. For me, leadership is something that has basic parameters that work in any industry if applied correctly,” Parsons continued. “When you are in the role of leader you have to be able to communicate effectively to all your constituency groups both inside and outside the company; to articulate a clear message and lead folks to the objectives you have committed yourself to achieve.”
In less than a year, Parsons moved from the C-suite of a financial giant to the board room of a mega entertainment organization when he became President of Time Warner in 1995. In 2002, after the troublesome merger between Time Warner and AOL, Parsons became Chairman and CEO and was immediately thrust into the fray and had to “right the ship.” He immediately streamlined business divisions and restored a productive atmosphere within the company weathering the storms of public opinion and federal investigations. “When I first took the helm at Time Warner, I was still not well-known in the entertainment industry, but by that time I knew the business pretty well and brought the leadership skills to be able to engage with everyone involved because – at the end of the day – it is all about people and knowing what they need, from the stakeholders to the receptionist,” stated Parsons. Through these efforts, Parsons was named the entertainment industry’s “Top CEO” in 2005 by Institutional Investor. Parsons role as CEO was another trailblazing event as Black CEOs continue to lag behind their white counterparts representing less than one percent of Fortune 500 leadership according to Dailyfinance.com. According to Time Magazine’s Adam Cohen, Parsons made history as the “first African-American to lead the world’s most influential media company.”
After stepping down from Time Warner in 2008, Parsons’ expertise in emergency management, trailblazing spirit and turnaround artistry brought him to the financial giant Citigroup where he became Chairman in 2009 and took over the reins of a company reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. True to form, Parsons stabilized the company, reassured investors and helped to restore the institution’s credibility within the financial industry. His work done, he left Citigroup in 2012 and was now able to turn his attention to new ventures and to follow life-long dreams.
The self-proclaimed music lover and jazz enthusiast was able to open a Harlem restaurant and jazz supper club – The Cecil and Minton’s. Parsons, who is the Chairman of the Jazz Foundation of America, was able to create a critically acclaimed location for people to dine in Harlem at The Cecil which is a casual 150 seat spot and, right next store, bring back the famed jazz club Minton’s Playhouse where legends including Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk played. “I enjoy being able to go out and have a great meal and to listen to good music and, while the restaurant business has its own set of unique challenges, I am enjoying the results and the opportunities that the experience is producing.”
His work with the Jazz Foundation also involved saving the homes and pride of America’s elderly jazz and blues musicians, including musicians impacted by Hurricane Katrina. “Through the foundation and the club, we are able to assist these musicians who are not looking for hand-outs, but opportunities to showcase their talents and support themselves.” Parsons was also able to enjoy his passion for wine when he purchased the ll Palazzone, a vineyard in Italy, in 2000. As with all his professional and personal interests, Parsons is hands on with the vineyard and participates in the harvests as well as the blending for each vintage.
As Parsons continued to live his dreams, his efforts helping others were not forgotten. In 2014, Time Warner renamed its awards that recognize employee volunteers “the Richard D. Parsons Community Impact Awards” because of his extensive philanthropic efforts and community service. “One of the enduring hallmarks of a leader is recognizing a personal responsibility to help make the world around them a better place. Dick passes that test with flying colors. He is a catalyst for change and fractures all of the stereotypes. Dick is a man whose competence and conviction compels others to follow. He is also someone who treats everyone, no matter their station in life, with respect and kindness. Dick has the courage to shake things up and the skill, judgment and creativity to rally people to a winning cause,” shared Kenneth I. Chenault, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, American Express Company.
Also during 2014, Parsons was once again recruited to address a new crisis and this time, it involved the sports industry. When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made the offer to Parsons to become interim CEO of the Los Angeles Clippers after the fall of owner Donald Sterling, he accepted. Once again inheriting an organization with a load of problems and bad press, Parsons brought his business savvy and professional presence to the forefront to restore the confidence internally and externally for the sports franchise. “There are truly few leaders with the tremendous talent and personal attributes of Dick Parsons. His unique success can be seen in mastering businesses across industry boundaries, from banking to entertainment. To do it “all” takes a special intellect, wisdom and heart. Dick has been blessed with all three and a very special fourth attribute: a joy in sharing these talents with others,” commented Deborah C. Wright, Chairman, Carver Bancorp, Inc.
In addition to being one of the most powerful executives in the United States at the helm of a major entertainment company as well as a financial giant, Parsons also made time to focus on public service and community empowerment. Along with the many corporate boards that Parsons sits, he also has a broad portfolio of community and civic involvements. In addition to the Jazz Foundation of America, Parsons also serves as the Chairman of the Apollo Theater Foundation of New York. Parsons has advised many presidents starting with President Gerald Ford to President Barack Obama.
Parsons’ leadership and trailblazing – while restoring order and revitalizing struggling corporations with a calm reserve and open communication – continues to resonate within the many corridors through which he has passed and has established him as a premiere mentor, business advisor and role model. Currently, Parsons is a Senior Advisor of Providence Equity Partners, a leading global private equity and credit investment firm.
“Dick Parsons is a Rare individual who perhaps has no equal. Dick is the “Wizard of Oz” on any issue. If you’re on a career journey and need directions or lost your way…Dick Parsons will not just show you how to get there, but more than likely he would be carrying you to your destination,” – John Utendahl, Executive Vice Chairman, Global Banking and Markets, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
In addition to being taught the importance of hard work by his parents, Parsons has long been inspired by his wife Laura, whom he met while at the University of Hawaii. They were married in 1968. The couple have three grown children, Gregory, Leslie, and Rebecca. “At present, I am focused in the areas of community and non-profit orientations including Teach For America and the exciting work I am doing with Lonnie Bunch and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture both of whose boards I serve on. The anticipation is growing and the plans for the opening in September will set a new standard.”
While Parsons continues to share his expertise and to broaden his extensive horizons now within the non-profit arena, he gets the most enjoyment interacting with people. There is one special group who get top billing in his life – his grandchildren. “Yes, they have taken over and I love it,” Parsons happily admits. “Everything they say about how the grandkids get anything they want is true.”
Richard Dean “Dick” Parsons has set the standard for global leadership, established his legacy for blazing trails in the public and private sectors and has maintained the basic ingredient for success – appreciating the importance of people.