The Great Communicator

By Jesse Rhodes


Online Article Leadership

The November/December 2020 issue of NACD Directorship, launched this week, celebrates this year’s NACD Directorship 100 honorees. In this excerpt from the issue, we feature 2020’s B. Kenneth West Lifetime Achievement Award winner.

Does a bank have a soul? Harris Bankcorp CEO B. Kenneth West posed this existential question to a group of business school students in the early 1990s, shortly before his retirement. In West’s own estimation, it did—by virtue of its obligations to shareholders, employees, and the community at large. By that standard, Ronald L. Thompson has been the soul of the privately held Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) since 1995, where he first served as an independent trustee and, since 2008, as independent chair.

During that time, Thompson has led TIAA through strategic executions that evolved the single-line retirement company into a respected Fortune 500 entity that today offers a broad range of financial services. Thompson’s impact, however, extends well beyond the factors of economic growth.

“He has presided over significant improvements in company performance, nurtured leadership development, and navigated the ever-evolving regulatory environment associated with the financial services industry,” wrote TIAA audit committee chair and trustee James R. Chambers in a letter of recommendation to support Thompson’s nomination for this award, which has been given annually since 2006. “His interaction with management is exemplary—he can push while remaining supportive, inspire while remaining grounded.”

TIAA president and CEO Roger W. Ferguson concurred. “Ron Thompson was integral to my integration into the role of president and CEO of TIAA,” Ferguson said in an interview with NACD. “He was always there to mentor me quietly as I got going. The board appropriately recognized that I had never been the CEO of any organization, and so they asked Ron to be a mentor and guide. I started as CEO in 2008 during the crisis, so the ability to bounce ideas off Ron in an informal way, to have him call me in response to any question I had, was really helpful in helping me think through some tough decisions during a then-unprecedented financial crisis.”

Marta Tienda, who serves with Thompson on the TIAA board, cited his masterful communication style: “He listens to this cacophony of voices and then digests them into a very coherent letter that communicates not just some of the voices, but all of the voices, to convey the strengths of the board, [but also] the strengths of the organization. And he does it in a way that doesn’t intimidate management. It’s all about the relentless pursuit of improvement and excellence, and Ron knows how to balance constructive criticism with praise when it’s well earned.”

“Ron is the ideal nonexecutive director,” said Patience Wheatcroft, who serves with Thompson on the board of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, is a director at St. James’s Place, and is a peer in the House of Lords. “He is absolutely on top of the facts and figures, reads the paper assiduously, and is therefore in a position to challenge. But he’s never confrontational. He’s always seeking information to guide, but never [to start] an argument. I think he’s got it down to a fine art, so I’m full of admiration for his leadership style.”

Jesse Rhodes
Jesse Rhodes was the managing editor of NACD Directorship magazine.