Every great leader had a defining moment that shaped their success. Or, if they’re anything like Allison Grant Williams, they had many moments, one for each morning of their childhood.
Every day when Williams’s father left for work, he wore a white dress shirt and a tie. No matter how much flack he caught for being a “suit” on the South Side of Chicago, he took pride in his career. Whether managing a local grocery store or selling typewriters for IBM, he tackled the job with passion and a dedication to professionalism. Eventually, those values helped him routinely earn a spot in the IBM Hundred Percent Club. And they inspired his daughter to follow . . . you know. Suit.
“I took example from the pride my father had in routinely exceeding his sales quota, and the rewards of a business meritocracy,” Williams reflects. “And it was never the sense for me that work is just a job. Work is something that you do as an extension of your interests. You should be truly proud of the work that you’re doing, and happily engaged with the people that you work with.”
Today, Williams’s unparalleled levels of self-autonomy and spirit have made her an invaluable difference-maker on a number of boards. But before that, she made another kind of difference as one of the few Black women in Dartmouth’s second coed class.
“As a young Black girl, I knew I was going away to get a great education at an outstanding school. And it was not typical in the seventies for folks in my neighborhood or kids at my school to go to an Ivy League school,” Williams notes. “I didn’t necessarily feel pressure from my parents to do well because of that, but I did feel that because it was an opportunity, I needed to make the best of it. That was an opportunity that wasn’t garnered by most young, Black kids at the time.”
After Williams graduated from Dartmouth, she worked in financial services for a number of years. Later, when accepted to Harvard Business School, Williams sold her furniture and drove to Boston. Over the course of her career, she made a name for herself as an expert in enterprise risk management, talent assessment, succession governance, and strategic positioning.
As a credit analyst on the large corporate lending team at First Chicago Bank, Williams discovered an affinity for client relationship management—just as her father had at IBM. At the time, Domino’s was a regional pizza chain hungry for national relevance. First Chicago Bank didn’t have a risk appetite for many restaurant concepts, but Williams’s analysis supported the viability of the chain’s growth plans, and their strength as a business concept, and she successfully established a credit line for the chain with the bank.
Williams also left her mark as the chief administrative officer and chief marketing strategy officer at Northern Trust. As a member of the Exchange Traded Funds (ETF) Group/Asset Management Division, she launched the FlexShares ETF product series—and within the first three years, FlexShares was the fastest-growing ETF business in the US. Fast-forward ten years, and it’s now worth over $20 billion.
Williams was later promoted to chief operating officer for Northern Trust’s largest business units (Global Fund Services), in which role she managed more than two thousand employees across India, Ireland, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Additionally, she spearheaded the implementation of key strategies designed to enhance outcomes for mutual fund operations.
Williams also considers her years with Brinson Partners Inc., a hugely successful and widely acknowledged pioneering global institution management firm, as foundational to her professional investment experience. For fourteen years, Williams strengthened her strategic planning, investment communications, business development, client relationship management, and product management skills at Brinson’s predecessor firm, as a founding partner of the new firm, during the firm’s acquisition by Swiss Bank Corp., and then UBS.
All of those experiences have made Williams an asset in the boardroom—but she also offers one thing more. When push comes to shove, an average board member either lends relevant expertise or explains how to navigate the interests of stakeholders. Williams does both.
Just consider her leadership on the Board Director and Executive Committee at Keel Asset Management. Upon her arrival, the investment management start-up was in its early stages, but had a pioneering focus on socially responsible and environmental, social, and governance equity investment strategies. To Williams, the objective was clear: leverage her financial expertise and business savvy as a solution to achieve scale. She advised on strategic initiatives that drove the firm’s assets under management to $400 million within initial years.
Williams embraces a wider range of responsibilities on the board of trustees for Columbia College Chicago. In addition to her involvement in the construction plans for a $55 million student center—a collaborative project being undertaken by the president and the board and the board’s crowning achievement—she serves as chair of the board’s Academic Affairs Committee (responsible for the successful oversight of the accreditation process), a member of the Investment Committee, and a member of the Executive committee. Williams also offers input about the school’s central Chicago real estate holdings, which are under development by a renowned global architecture and planning firm. Beyond her work with Columbia College Chicago, Williams also acts as a trustee of the Select Sector SPDR Trust Board.
But despite her many accomplishments, the organization Williams looks back on with the most pride is not a company for which she worked. Nor is it an institution where she served as a board member.
It’s that three-letter business her father used to suit up for each morning.
“It all starts with those IBM words: think, communicate, act. That’s my personal mantra,” Williams says. “I can probably say that IBM—or my awareness of my father’s corporate job—shaped my awareness of the business world. And when it comes to basic values, my parents were the underpinnings of everything that my sister and I thought about in terms of being honest people.”
Thoughts from Guest Editor Michelle Collins
Allison’s values-based philosophy on work in financial services and corporate boards ensures that she would bring a level of maturity and steadiness—often called wisdom—that is highly sought after in the boardroom and not easily found.
Allison demonstrated strong initiative several times in her career, as well as her capacity and talent for entrepreneurial endeavors and innovation. She has successfully marshaled those unique experiences into board membership of mutual fund families and other financial products. These particular experiences position Allison very well for joining and becoming a productive board member for operating businesses.
When boards work extremely well, they consist of board members with diverse professional experiences and backgrounds who collaborate well with mutual respect and steadiness. Allison can contribute to such collaborations but also has the skills, network, and temperament to help boards achieve excellence.