Nowadays, Ebbie Parsons III is best known as the founder of Yardstick Management and global managing partner of consulting at Diversified Search Group, one of the fastest-growing executive search firms in the world.
But as a 10th-grade starter on the defensive line at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, where he played tackle and end, Parsons was focused on a much different career.
“College football, and maybe the NFL, was always in the cards for me,” Parsons recalls. “(When I was in 10th grade) we won the metro conference, but then lost to Country Day in a really tough game, like maybe by a touchdown.”
Which compelled Parsons to make a rather quick decision.
“Frankly, football was a very important part of my upbringing, and Country Day kept beating us, so if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And that’s what happened. I transferred to Country Day and I was MVP in both my junior and senior year. My junior year, we lost in the state championship, and then won it my senior year. I was All-State, first team everything, and won all the accolades.”
Parsons was more than ready for college ball, but with a significant caveat.
“I had that cocky, high school football star arrogance,” he concedes. “I wanted to go to a school that was going to allow me to start. And Northern Illinois University was the only school that guaranteed me a starting position as a true freshman.”
Which was great for Parsons — except the team “finished the season 1-10,” he says, glumly. “That’s what made me transfer again.”
For Parsons, the decision wasn’t only logical, but obvious. “I transferred in high school because we couldn’t win against Country Day,” he says. “Then I transferred in college because we couldn’t win at all. So I went to Florida A&M University and we ended up being the Black college national champions, and I was a two-time All-American.”
Given the success of his football journey up to that point, the NFL seemed like the next rational step for Parsons.
“I had some workouts, but I was undersized for my position,” he notes. “I wasn’t tall enough, wasn’t fast enough, but I’d had the success. What’s funny is several of the guys who backed me up actually went on to play in the NFL, but I didn’t make the cut.”
Parsons did, however, earn an industrial engineering degree at Florida A&M — perhaps not exactly what would be expected for a guy who spent his high school and college years focused on being a professional football player.
“To be really transparent (about my degree), it goes back to Detroit,” he says. “My education over-prepared me for college. I graduated cum laude with that engineering degree, and it really came fairly easily to me. Cranbrook and Country Day were so challenging that college was a breeze.”
A strong argument could be made that the groundwork for Parsons’ success in the classroom began long before he entered high school.
“I grew up on the west side of Detroit, on the corner of Prest and Florence, right at Six Mile and Greenfield. It was a really traditional 1980s-1990s neighborhood in Black Detroit. A lot of kids’ parents worked at the auto plants. There were a couple of teachers, a couple of contractors, your standard Detroit mix. You played outside, drank water out of the hose, yelled at cars while you played football in the street, and there were always fireworks on the 4th of July.”
Parsons pauses here, as if to savor a certain memory, then chuckles and says: “If you didn’t listen, your friends’ parents had the right to spank you.”
Growing up, Parsons’ parents were educators. “My mom taught science at Taft Middle School and my father was a substitute teacher at Cerveny Middle School,” he says.
His dad also was an entrepreneur and a small business owner.
“We were the first family to be street vendors in the city of Detroit,” he says. “My father had sole proprietorship agreements with Cobo Hall (Huntington Place), Chene Park (Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre), and Joe Louis Arena (since demolished) for any high school, college, or even middle school graduation. And back when the Detroit Pistons won (the NBA championship) in 1989, I was 10 years old selling T-shirts on the corner. My parents really instilled a work ethic and entrepreneurial values in me.”
After Parsons earned his bachelor’s degree at Florida A&M, he pursued and received an MBA from the University of Minnesota. Following graduation, he took a job at American Express, which is where the first seeds were planted for what became Yardstick Management.
“Even though I was a junior employee, I wanted to be able to diversify the executive rungs of all the companies I worked for,” he says. “I had a pretty big job at American Express, where I had direct exposure to the C-suite. We had Ken Chenault as CEO, and this was the best place for diversity in business at the time. But even with a Black CEO, we still had minimal representation. And so I thought, if this is one of the best places for diversity, I can’t imagine what everywhere else looks like.”
That revelation prompted Parsons to make another significant shift in his career.
“I wanted to figure out how I could really level the playing field,” he says. “I thought that improving education would improve representation in the executive rooms. And that’s when I started my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, to learn about education.”
What Parsons learned was disturbing.
“There was no real spending by companies, or systems that would actually tackle the bias (at the time),” he says. “That’s what made me want to launch Yardstick Management — to be laser-focused on diversifying the C-suite and help organizations think about being inclusive in every facet of what they do. It started with Black leaders, but we diversified and brought it to all marginalized communities.”
Ask Parsons to summarize the goal of Yardstick Management, and his response is immediate and succinct.
“We brought management consulting to DEI,” he says. “We do surgery on the organization that brings us in, first from the 30,000-foot-high level, then a deep dive analysis, and figure out where that data takes us. And then we go into what systems exist to allow for these types of behaviors — or what systems don’t exist, and how can you prevent certain behaviors? We basically do the research to tell (company management) the truth they may not want to hear.”
Parsons offers an example of how a Yardstick consultation might work.
“If a woman wears a hijab to a job interview, how is she perceived differently than a woman with straight hair? Those are real differentiators that impact an organization’s decisions on who they bring on board, how they promote people, how they pay people equitably, and how people grow within an organization.
“Does everybody have equitable access to promotional opportunities or stretch opportunities?” he asks. “These are things that were (largely) missing in the workforce before us.”
Parsons is especially proud of Yardstick’s role in the commitment Netflix made in 2020 to move 2 percent of its cash holdings, around $100 million, into Black-owned banks and other Black-led financial institutions in the United States.
“We were the company behind that,” Parsons says, proudly. “That was the largest investment in the history of American Black-owned banks. But behind Netflix’s $100 million, $4 billion followed (from other companies), which is the largest reallocation of resources into Black-led financial institutions in history.”
And last January, there was another significant milestone for Yardstick.
“We went through a pretty historic exit transaction to become a wholly owned part of the Diversified Search Group, which is the largest search firm in the world to be led by a woman, Judy von Seldeneck,” Parsons explains. “She’s a pioneer who pretty much invented DEI in executive search. It’ll be 50 years old next year, and who better for Yardstick to sell to than a company with diversified in its name? It was a match made in heaven.”
Now based in Atlanta, the 45-year-old Parsons stays in touch with his roots as a devoted fan of the University of Michigan football team.
“Growing up in Detroit, you make a choice,” he says, laughing. “It’s MSU or Michigan, and that’s what you care about until you die. It’s been tattooed on my heart that I’m a Michigan fan through and through, and I bleed blue.”
Parsons still has lots of family in Detroit. “I have cousins and uncles and aunts there,” he says, adding that he also owns real estate in the city. “I’m one of the founding members of a group that invested in a whole neighborhood of properties, and a number of my friends are all investing in the city, too. And several who were, at one point, expats have repatriated back to Detroit. So it’s beautiful to see.”
Parsons’ resume is lengthy and impressive, ranging from his time as a faculty member at both the University of North Carolina and the University of Southern California to his service on an array of corporate boards.
He’s also had leadership roles with cultural institutions like the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Guild, served as a fellow for the Aspen Institute, and is a member of its Aspen Global Leadership Network.
But Parsons is basically a Motor City kid at heart — and a grateful one, too. “If it weren’t for Detroit, none of this would be possible,” he says.
Reflecting on his upbringing, Parsons reveals that the whole time he was playing football as a kid and focused on a career in the NFL, he had already discovered another sport he loved almost as much: He started swimming at a recreation center in his neighborhood when he was 8 years old, and continued to compete on the varsity swimming teams at both Cranbrook and Country Day.
“I think that helped me become a great football player, because of the level of conditioning swimming takes,” he says. “It teaches you how to breathe like no other exercise. And so I really attribute a lot of my football skills to being a pretty strong swimmer.”
Maybe his life skills, too? “Oh yeah,” Parsons replies. “I need to shout out to the Adam Butzel Recreation Center in my neighborhood in Detroit. If not for it, I wouldn’t be here.”