Our board members are more than just great visionaries for Taproot. They are also leaders in their own industries and communities and have lots of professional wisdom to share. For the next week, we will be spotlighting the five newest additions to our stellar board of directors through a series of interviews.
Akihiko (Kiko) Washington is Executive Vice President, Worldwide Human Resources for Warner Bros., where he manages global human resources, including organizational planning and development, recruitment and compensation, and employee communications. Kiko previously led human resources efforts for parent company Time Warner and spent 15 years at HBO, Time Warner’s premium cable television network. He is also on the board of United Friends of the Children, First Entertainment Credit Union. and the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications. Kiko and I chatted about the state of pro bono in the human resources sector and the qualities of an effective board.
When you were in third grade, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was probably thinking about being a professional sports athlete. I was heavily into baseball. I was a pitcher, and I was quite large for my age, so I was able to dominate. Then in fourth grade I realized that folks were catching up to me, so I started to think about just playing and having fun and going to school and seeing what would eventually happen.
Besides awesome pitchers, who were your role models?
I can tell you on the spot it was John F. Kennedy. I was born in 1958, and I remember exactly where I was when he was assassinated. It’s probably my first deep memory of an event that occurred during my childhood; I was five. After that I heard a number of his speeches about giving, about the Peace Corps, about asking not what your country could do for you but what you could do for your country. That spoke to me: I can give back to people and the community. I caught that bug pretty early on in life.
So how did you end up in the people business? Human resources is not the career choice most children dream about.
I went to Wharton for my undergraduate studies and was on my way to law school. As I tell people, you never know how your career will take a bend in the road. You should always be open to what the world brings to you. So there I was, sitting in a bar having a beer, and a fight broke out. I wound up helping this guy who was getting the crap beat out of him. We ended up in the hospital, and he ended up being the head of human resources for Gulf and Western. He offered me a job, so instead of going to law school, I got into human resources working for this guy, who then brought me with him to HBO. And that’s how I got into the media and entertainment business from an human resources perspective!
That’s fantastic–and you stuck with it! What do you get out of it? Where do you find your bliss in that work?
I think there’s kind of a balancing act between the present and the future. You’re looking at how you manage the current workforce and provide the right resources and developmental opportunities while also keeping an eye on the future and where the business is going. So for me it’s an interesting role because it’s constantly changing.
I think it was John Gardner who said human resources , when done well, is like a trampoline, but when it’s done poorly, it’s like putting cinderblocks on people’s feet. How do you make sure you’re helping people jump higher, not hindering them?
You need flexibility and a solid understanding of the current and future environments. I think it absolutely has to be tied to the business. Human resources can’t be a function that’s sitting on the side. It has to be one of the business objectives–an integral part of ‘where are we going’ and ‘how do we get there’–so you’re partnering appropriately to move the business forward.
What’s the human resources professional’s case for corporate pro bono?
I believe that providing an environment where people can give back and become part of their community helps to attract and retain the best and the brightest employees. What is going to solidify their commitment to you better than a spirit of giving back within your organization? And that’s a reflection of my personal belief: giving back fills your heart, it fills your soul, it gives you the opportunity to do for others what will make a difference.
What are the human resources issues nonprofits face, in your experience?
There are huge voids insofar as recruitment and staff development, and in order to succeed, they need the financial and people resources to make it happen. I think it all wraps around the human resources plan.
How prevalent is the pro bono ethic in the human resources community in Los Angeles?
I think most human resources people, when asked, will do whatever they can to help. There has been a disconnect between the need and the resources, and this is where Taproot comes in to be that bridge in the community. I sit on the board of United Friends of the Children, so I can help provide executive search for them or developmental programs for the kids as we transition foster youth from transitional housing to gainful employment. Many of my counterparts I’m sure do the same, but they are one-off efforts with no single funnel to help connect them.
What are the key characteristics of an exceptional board?
One is leadership: the energy and vision that the leader provides to the organization so that people believe in where it’s going. Secondly, I think it’s active board members, working board members, not board members who are there for another line on their resume or because it sounds good to sit on boards. It’s important to insist that each board member gives, whether it is donating financially or building connections or developing programs. Finally, each board member should there because the specific issue is something they honestly believe in and have a track record in, and they’ve worked in that area. I think choosing those members is a very important part of the equation, and I think Taproot has historically done a really good job at that.
Our board members have brought a lot of passion and skills and commitment–and a willingness to take risk. It’s hard to govern in a high-risk entrepreneurial setting.
I agree with you, and I think that risk-taking is important not only on boards but within organizations. When you look at any new startups cornering the market, many times they are a function of old industry not adjusting or adapting and allowing someone else to come in. Boards need to be flexible, looking to the future and moving forward–strategically, of course, but also aggressively.
When you someday retire, what do you want to look back and say your impact was?
What I hope to have done in a very small way is to have everything I touched made a little bit better, whether that’s through Taproot or United Friends of the Children or any other organization. What is wonderful about Taproot is it can touch United Friends of the Children and every other not-for-profit–it becomes a bridge in helping to grow those organizations. I just hope to make a difference in helping kids find their way and find their careers and find their love and take care of their families, and eventually they can give back the same way.
Years from now, when the Kiko Washington story someday comes out, who do you want to play you?
You’ve got to go with Will Smith.
And who would play your wife?
Well, we consider ourselves to be the United Nations. My mom was Japanese, and my dad was half African-American, and his other half was Native American and white. My wife’s mom is Mexican, and her dad is white. So we kind of have that rainbow thing with our son, whose name is Austin Salvador Takeda Washington. So if I think of my wife, I’d probably cast…Salma Hayek?
Having never met your wife, that works.
Yeah, I’ll go with that–Salma Hayek.
Aaron Hurst is the President & CEO at the Taproot Foundation.