Sam’s Club CEO, Rosalind Brewer, is a rarity among her C-suite cohort – African-American and female. Since taking the helm as CEO, she’s worked to ensure gender and racial diversity among the decision-makers in her division. Passionate about mentoring women both within and outside Sam’s Club, Brewer doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk.
She was probably surprised earlier this week when her comments to CNN’s Poppy Harlow about the importance of diversity in leadership, both at Sam’s Club and among its vendors, sparked a firestorm in the Twitterverse. Some branded her a racist who is biased against white males, even though half of her executive leadership team is comprised of white men.
All this commotion got me thinking. On the one hand, the knee-jerk reaction and howls of racism hurled at this African-American woman almost seem too ridiculous to discuss. On the other hand, it brings to light a point many people take issue with when a business leader declares diversity a priority. Namely, some worry that a press for diversity means the company is lowering the bar on quality hires to ensure gender / racial goals are reached. And many of the people doing the worrying see themselves as being squarely on the losing end of that deal.
You see, there’s this thing that happens with clockwork regularity in business hiring – most people hire people who are like them. Since a disproportionate number of people doing the hiring are white men, companies tend to hire and promote white men. Maybe it’s just reflexive human nature – we want to feel like we can relate to the person we are hiring. The more like us they are, the easier that relating is to do. So, overriding our tendency to hire people just like us requires a conscious effort in a different direction. And if a company’s goal is to reach a diverse customer base, creating leadership structures that are microcosms of said customer base so that diversity is represented internally is crucial. It also requires thoughtful, committed effort to find and / or develop the most talented people across the gender and ethnic spectrum.
I think my friend, Markus Achord, former Diversity and Inclusion leader for CareFusion (and a white male), summed it up pretty well.
I find it impossible to view Ms. Brewer’s comments about diversity as anything but positive. I don’t know her personally but she clearly understands the value of having a diverse team… She’s simply sharing the belief that if you’re going to be the best team you can be, it can’t have only one race or ethnicity represented. I know when I walk in a room and it’s all white males (including me… and it happens way too often!) I’m automatically disappointed because I know the discussion will not be as rich or thoughtful as it could be.
Earlier this week, Rosalind Brewer declared the importance for leaders to prioritize seeking talent outside of old-school norms. Not only did she declare it, she (in accordance with Wal-Mart’s publicly declared goals regarding diversity and inclusion) is personally working to create a diversified leadership structure both within Sam’s Club and with her suppliers. From where I sit, that’s not just laudable, it’s smart business.