In December 2013, T. Dallas Smith got a call from Cushman & Wakefield Central Region President John O’Neill asking him to help O’Neill promote industry diversity in O’Neill’s upcoming role as president of the Atlanta Commercial Board of Realtors.
“Being one of the few Black brokers in the business since 1983, I have heard this sentiment from a few white brokers over the years and to say the least I was skeptical,” said Smith, president and CEO of T. Dallas Smith & Co. “He asked me if I would help him but instead of answering the question, I gave him a homework: an assignment to watch the movie ‘42’ about the life of Jackie Robinson. And he said, ‘But you are going to help me, right?’ And I said, ‘Watch the movie and give me a call.’”
After O’Neill watched the movie, he followed up with Smith.
”I said, ‘John, the reason I wanted you to watch the movie was to understand that baseball was integrated by one white man making a decision to do it and that was Branch Rickey,’” Smith said. “I also told him the hell that Branch Rickey took from his peers in baseball and the white community overall. Crosses were burned in his yard, he was kicked out of the country club, and on and on. I said, ‘John are you willing to put up with that backlash?’ And John said, ‘Dallas, if they don’t come along, forget them. We are doing this.’ And I said, ‘I’m in.’”
Under his watch as ACBR president, O’Neill championed the formation of the diversity committee and welcomed the Empire Board of Realtists — established in 1939 by Black real estate brokers who were denied membership into the National Association of Realtors trade organization — to have a seat on the ACBR board. From the diversity committee grew the ACBR mentorship program and CRE Studio, a speaker series to promote diversity within the organization, and, finally, the CRE Race Awareness Workshop, a two-day event addressing issues of race within the industry.
O’Neill’s advocacy efforts for diversity within ACBR were an extension of his efforts within Cushman & Wakefield, where he has worked for 17 years.
“Immediately after George Floyd’s death, John was one of the first senior leaders to address the racism matter and the current events with our employees,” said Sabine Apollon-Lopez, senior director of project and development services at Cushman & Wakefield. “He genuinely was concerned about our Black employees’ well-being and safety.”
O’Neill, together with Cushman & Wakefield employee resource group BUILD (Blacks United in Leadership and Development), embarked a series of town halls on racial equity and racism, Apollon-Lopez said. His commitment continued to date with his participation and impact on the Cushman & Wakefield Racial Equity Advisory Board, she said.
O’Neill is a Corporate Diversity Champion honoree in the 2020 Atlanta Business Chronicle Diversity and Inclusion Awards. The award recognizes the leader of a metro Atlanta corporation who has promoted initiatives, resources and/or community involvement in advancing diversity in the region.
For O’Neill, there are three principles to increasing diversity and building a culture of inclusion: strong leadership, being intentional and having unwavering commitment.
“First, serving in a leadership role is an awesome responsibility; it’s a privilege,” O’Neill said. “Whether you’re leading a small team or a large organization, the tone a leader sets is powerful. People will, consciously or sub-consciously, model the behavior they see, and it will cascade throughout the organization. The tone at the top is a real force multiplier; it’s the foundation which everything is built from.”
Second, he said, it is critical to be intentional about inclusion.
“You must create opportunities for your team to develop meaningful relationships and appreciate their differences,” O’Neill said. “For example, standing up employee resource groups, hosting listening sessions, doing community service projects together — all important activities to foster a culture of inclusion. And it’s critical to consistently survey how people feel, learn from the results and then improve.”
And finally, you must have unwavering commitment, he added.
“You never master inclusion. There’s no point in which you declare victory. It requires an on-going commitment. … I have many friends that fear the focus and energy on DE&I in 2020 will fade away over time,” O’Neill said, “and that’s why strong leadership, intentionality and an unwavering commitment is so critical to sustainable change.”