Symantec, Guitar Center and PwC on diversifying the C-Suite

Gordon Murray
Guitar Center's Charles Smith; Symantec's Cecily Johnson; PwC's Aaron Nutter

Diversity and inclusion are not just about ensuring equity in the workforce, but also in the markets companies serve — and progress begins with creating the time, space and tools to foster robust, if uncomfortable, conversations. That's according to executives from Symantec, Guitar Center and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

They belong to CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, "the largest CEO-driven business commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the workforce," as described by Aaron Nutter, director and national chief of staff for PricewaterhouseCoopers during a talk Wednesday at GreenBiz 18 in Phoenix.

At first blush, the diversity onstage was lacking — the panel comprised Nutter; moderator John Davies, VP and senior analyst at GreenBiz Group; Cecily Joseph, VP of corporate responsibility and chief diversity officer of Symantec; and Charles Smith, VP of human resources and diversity at Guitar Center. (Shannon Schuyler, chief purpose officer at PwC Foundation, was unable to attend due to travel delays.)

Nutter said that the real story is about how the CEO coalition, now counting over 350 CEOs representing 85 industries, nonprofits and academic institutions, came to be and how it quickly gained momentum with the aim of supporting employees regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability or veteran status or other aspects of diversity.

PwC Chairman Tim Ryan was spurred to action after a series of racially-driven, violent events in the U.S. during the summer of 2016 (among them in Baton RougeSt. Paul and Dallas).

Management "took a day and said 'Stop, close your laptops, put your pens down and talk to your peers about what's going on in society,'" said Nutter. PwC employees were advised to "listen to each other, learn from each other and where people are coming from to support each other" about issues of racial equity.

The conversation spread to other CEOs, some of whom felt a sense of responsibility, and others fear, about leading similar conversations within their organizations. Out of that, said Nutter, CEO Action was born.

"Anyone getting started on their diversity and inclusion journey can get involved," said Nutter. The three items that participating CEOs pledged to uphold are:

  1. Creating safe places for discussion.

  2. Unconscious and implicit bias training (although there is controversy about whether such training shifts the needle on diversity).

  3. Sharing actions and best practices and also those that haven't worked.

At the official launch of the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion in June, 175 companies had committed. One month later, nearly 100 more CEOs committed themselves and their organizations to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Obstacles to hiring people of color can lodge — often unconsciously — in the minds of those managing the hiring process, according to environmental and diversity nonprofit Green 2.0. Meanwhile, population projections show that there will be no "minorities" by 2020, making it imperative to open equal opportunity to all ethnicities and genders in the workplace immediately to have productive, safe and fair economic opportunities across the board.

Research has shown that companies that commit themselves to diverse leadership are more successful, and they can avoid risk: BlackRock recently asked all Russell 1000 companies with fewer than two female directors to explain how that aligns with their long-term strategies. Embracing board diversity also helps organizations capture emerging market opportunities.

"Women are flocking to renewables" and cutting-edge clean energy technology, said Britta Gross, director of advanced vehicle commercialization policy at General Motors (helmed by CEO Mary Barra), at a later GreenBiz 18 session. 

Boards that include diversity and inclusion in sustainability functions provide a foundation for companies to be responsive to their employees and also to talk about their work publicly, said Rose McKinney-James, managing principal of McKinney-James & Associates and Energy Works.

And there are more reasons why diversity is shifting from a human resources concern to one about sustainability, said Symantec's Joseph: "Diversity used to be seen as an internal function, seen as attracting and advancing talent. We kept it inside and didn't talk about it externally."

Now, it's a CEO issue that is discussed among employees and stakeholders in conversations about corporate leadership, even if it's an uncomfortable conversation for an executive who stewards a company.

"It's important for our CEOs to be a part of something that's about collective action," she said. "It's about culture, it's about transparency and [sharing] practices that work and don't work."

Four drivers for inclusion at Symantec include: Attracting, retaining and developing talent; creating an inclusive culture; looking at diversity through the value chain; and partnering with forward-thinking brands.

"Companies and organizations that are more diverse are more innovative and creative," said Joseph. "There is a business case … If you want your company to win and be more competitive, you need to get on this train."

Rock 'n' roll hangover

Retail organizations such as Guitar Center have unique challenges.

"We have a rock 'n' roll hangover dominated by white males," said Charles Smith, VP of human resources and diversity at Guitar Center.  "The music industry is so much broader and should reflect the communities in which we live and work."

With the CEO's support, on LinkedIn Guitar Center began targeting underrepresented minorities, women's groups and other demographics as part of its recruiting efforts.

So, how do you make sure that the conversation isn't tone deaf, as in Starbucks' controversial "Race Together" campaign, which invited customers to discuss racial violence with baristas in a fast-moving line of people seeking caffeine?

"We’re making progress [although] retailers are notoriously late adopters to everything," including diversity, inclusion and sustainability, Smith said.

Transcending numbers

Symantec's CEO was 10 months into the job when he got an email from the head of PwC inviting him to join CEO Action for Diversity.

"We used that moment in time to begin that conversation with him," she said. "Now, we have the CEO reporting quarterly to the board on diversity and inclusion."

And yet, the numbers haven't shown much progress. Symantec still has 28 percent women on staff, but Joseph said the transparency about efforts and outcomes is already a step forward.

"We're struggling with how difficult it is to make real things happen," she said — and there's an added challenge of starting the conversation over again if a new leader comes on board. But "when you talk about measurements, we don't pick a number and say we have to get to 50 percent [by a target date]," but to move the needle to show measurable progress.

"Diversity is not a light switch that you turn on and off," said Charles. "It takes years to come to fruition."

Following his panel discussion, 10 young adults named as GreenBiz 18 Emerging Leaders took to the stage from a variety of countries, walks of life and disciplines, as if to prove that such a future may not be so far away. One of these, college student Michael MacMiller, hopes to teach sustainability principles in low-income neighborhoods and communities and match individuals to entry-level sustainability jobs.

Topics: