NEW YORK — The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis has sparked a national conversation on racial injustice and economic inequality that could provide an opportunity for real change, including in corporate America.
“This awakening light has had all of us across corporate America having this conversation,” Walgreens Boots Alliance executive vice president and global chief human resources officer Kathleen Wilson-Thompson noted recently. “Locally, nationally and internationally, we will all have the conversation, but also move to action.”
Wilson-Thompson’s remarks came during a panel discussion sponsored by WE, an organization dedicated to empowering women leaders in the retailer and supplier communities to advance wellness.
The discussion was part of a “WE Move Forward” panel series, and was focused on developing African-American talent in the retail and consumer packaged goods industries.
In addition to Wilson-Thompson, the panelists were Latriece Watkins, executive vice president of consumables at Walmart; Esi Eggleston Bracey, chief operating officer and executive vice president of beauty and personal care at Unilever North America; and April Mills, the marketing director in charge of global brand development and licensing with iHealth, a division of DSM nutritional products.
The discussion was moderated by Wendy Liebmann, who is chief executive officer of the global consultancy firm WSL Strategic Retail.
One thing that is different for companies in this moment is that symbolic gestures and empty talk will not suffice.
“You can’t commit to action and then do nothing,” Watkins said, arguing that companies and leaders who say they want change but then pull back when the spotlight goes away or when things get hard will never build the trust necessary to make change.
“I do think that at the forefront of this change are businesses and people like us who are leading in companies and people like us who are influencing their companies to be different and act differently,” Watkins said. “But you can’t put up and shut up. That’s where I am today. And I think it’s really important with all the commitments that people and companies are making to know that the expectations are high and there’s a lot of urgency to the need.”
One concrete step companies can take is to make sure their boards and their leadership are open to African-American voices and talent.
That is not the case today. African Americans make up about 12% to 15% of the U.S. population, and account for 10% of the nation’s college degree holders and 8% of its professional class. But they represent only 3.2% of executive/senior level officials at U.S. corporations and only 0.8% of Fortune 500 chief executive officers.
Many companies that want a more diverse workforce and leadership team step up their recruitment of Black and other diverse talent, but Bracey argues that is not enough on its own. She advocates an approach based on the acronym GRASP, where the G stands for Goals.
“At Unilever, we want to have a workplace that is representative of the consumers that we serve,” Bracey said. “And that’s not just for altruistic reasons. It makes business sense. And of course, we want to have a business that’s inclusive.
“R is recognition. Recognize your black talent. You need a culture of inclusivity that recognizes the strengths and contributions of diverse talent. This is where companies often fail. They try to solve it with recruiting alone and the recruiting does not lead to retention.”
Bracey says the A is advocates, who can champion Black talent, and S is for sponsors, who are like advocates but have the authority and influence to get people assigned or promoted to specific roles.
“And then P is for deep planning to address the systemic issues,”Bracey said. “That includes succession planning and understanding the barriers in your culture to having black talent excel.”
Mills noted she was part of a generation of Black executives who got their start at companies that partnered with such organizations as the National Urban League to create programs that address the unique needs of African-American professionals.
“There is an opportunity to create a safe place for these professionals to be honest and open and transparent,” Mills said. “And then collectively they can start to address some of those systemic barriers that it’s difficult to address as an individual.”
Watkins agreed that companies need to do more than just have the right policies and procedures in place.
“I heard a quote one time that said, ‘Customers won’t love a company until their employees do.’ So you’ve got to do something that draws the people who work for you into a place that feels safe, where they can be heard and where they see people trying to understand them,” Watkins said. “You’ve got to have a heart and a conscience as an organization that helps connect the people to your brand. And I think that’s where some of the diversity work and inclusion work is.”
Wilson-Thompson said she is seeing some of that work being done in her organization, and at an accelerating pace because of the spotlight that the current moment has put on the issue.
“I think that’s a result of how diversity and inclusion are truly being treated as part of the business, and not as something that was a special team within HR. Everyone in the organization now wants to become a part of it holistically. They understand this awakening, and it’s given us license to have those discussions that otherwise we had not had as openly as we’re having them now through listening sessions, through town halls and through people asking for change.”
The panel discussion, held on July 28, was the first in the WE Move Forward panel series. Three more discussions are planned, under the titles “How to be an Ally,” “Next-Gen in Our Next Chapter” and “Supporting African-American Entrepreneurship.”