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Executive Roundtable: Walking the Talk on Inclusion

February 23, 2021

While the prominence of inclusion and diversity as a priority for corporate America is laudable, there remains a gap at many companies between the “walk” and the “talk.” How do leaders make sure inclusion is part of the fabric of their organizations? Adam Bryant, Executive Roundtable Editor, interviewed three experienced CEOs and public company directors to hear their insights and strategies. Their comments were edited for space and woven together in a roundtable format. 

This article was published in print and online in the Winter 2020 Issue of the Journal of HR People + Strategy.


  • Shellye Archambeau, former CEO of MetricStream and a director at Verizon and Nordstrom
  • Susan Salka, CEO of AMN Heathcare and a director at McKesson
  • Ron Williams, former CEO Aetna and a director at American Express, Boeing and Johnson & Johnson

People + Strategy: In your leadership roles, how have you made diversity and inclusion (D&I) a reality?

Susan Salka: We’ve been fortunate at AMN in that it happened organically at the leadership level. We’re in health care, where you tend to have more women in leadership positions, and we’re in staffing, which has similar characteristics. But I have a board of directors who don’t care whether you’re a man or a woman in leadership; they just want to make sure you can perform and build a strong culture for the future.

But it did matter that we had many female leaders early on in the organization’s development, and that helped inspire other women to come into the organization and develop their careers here. If they see a woman in the top leadership position or at the board level, it sends a message that, “This is possible. This is a welcome opportunity.” If you don’t have people in the top ranks that represent certain elements of diversity, it may send a message to others that they’re not welcome in those circles.


P+S: Shellye, what did you do while at MetricStream to make people more aware of the importance of diversity?

Shellye Archambeau: I talked explicitly about the importance of it. When you do reviews with people about their teams and who’s ready to move up, you have to have the conversation and say, “I’m disappointed in the team that you’ve built. Where are the women and people of color? What are we doing here?”

In terms of creating an environment of inclusion, it’s about giving people the ability to understand how challenging it is. When we kicked off the focus on D&I in our Bangalore office, I was proud of the fact that we had more than 25 percent women, but we still didn’t have the pipeline that I wanted to see in our top leadership level. So we kicked off a program around support and development for women in Bangalore.

When we had our very first meeting on the topic, I invited the folks who signed on to be leaders of this group, and I invited all of our leadership team members, which were primarily men, to a big meeting. When they piled into the room, the men started sitting at the big conference table and the women started sitting on the chairs along the wall.

I said, “Wait, stop. All the guys, you have to sit against the wall. I want all the women at the table.” More women came in and they’d still sit at the wall, and I said, “We’re not starting the meeting until all the women are at the table.” All the women were at the table; the guys were against the wall, and we proceeded to have the meeting.

“If companies focus more on getting people in the door rather than figuring out how to make them feel inclusive, that will just create a revolving door.”
—Shellye Archambeau, director at Verizon and Nordstrom  

Toward the end, I asked, “Why did I do this? Why was this so important to me?” And they’re all looking at me somewhat perplexed, and I said, “Okay, guys on the wall, how did you feel during this meeting?” One of them offered up that it felt very strange. I said, “Did you feel like you were at the center of conversation?” “No,” he said. And then I said, “That’s why I had you do this. You automatically sit at the table. You’re automatically the center. And it’s important to understand how people who are sitting along the wall feel.”

That’s what I mean by the importance of building empathy. That’s just one example. You just have to do things that put people outside their comfort zone.

P+S: Ron, you have an impressive track record of developing leaders, including a diverse slate of people who have gone on to be CEOs of other companies. What was your approach to developing an inclusive leadership pipeline when you were at Aetna? 

Ron Williams: First, you have to always be recruiting. Sometimes you have to get people into the organization even when there isn’t a particular opportunity but you’re confident there will be a fit or a role for them. Second, you have to give people the exposure and opportunity to understand senior roles and how you run companies.

For example, one of the women who is now a CEO was my chief of staff. She spent two-and-a-half years understanding how you run a large Fortune 50 company. That kind of experience was instrumental. She then went back to a line job, delivered what needed to be delivered, did a great job, and she ended up being recruited everywhere. One of the things you have to do is recruit and give people the developmental opportunities in ways that they get an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do.

While CEOs talk a lot about diversity, I always ask how many of them chair the diversity council in their companies? Very few. When you ask them what are they doing to promote women and people of color into senior role, they give the usual answers, including, “Well, the availability of talent isn’t there.” And then I ask, “What are the on-ramps? What are you doing to say, ‘What are the core attributes we need from someone, and who we can help learn how to do this?’” For example, I didn’t start off being a health care expert, but I am now. To me, it is a lack of attention.

P+S: What misconceptions do companies have when they think about creating a culture of diversity and inclusion?

Shellye: If companies focus more on getting people in the door rather than figuring out how to make them feel inclusive, that will just create a revolving door. That approach is significantly more expensive for companies than figuring out how to create an environment in which all people feel valued and are able to contribute. Right now, there’s a lot of focus on pulling people in the front door, but then if you look at the back door there’s a lot of people who are leaving. You would never be comfortable with that if that was your customer base.

I believe that inclusion starts with empathy, and that starts with understanding others’ experiences. But a lot of people just fundamentally don’t understand. And when I say they don’t understand, I don’t mean that people are not making an effort to understand. If they haven’t had certain experiences, they just flat-out don’t understand. It would be like giving someone a calculus equation and expecting them to understand it even if they had never seen it before.

So we’ve got to figure out how to build more of a sense of empathy, and to give people an inkling of understanding so they have the ability to want to help others or try to figure out how to help them. How do you build empathy? You build empathy by having experiences in environments in which you are the absolute minority.

P+S: Susan, what else have you done at AMN to ensure everyone is walking the talk on D&I?

Susan: First of all, what you say and how often you’re talking about it does matter. You’re making a statement about what’s important, and then always backing it up with practical examples about where we’re going to get better and how we’re going to do that. At our monthly town halls or annual meetings, I’m always talking about where we’re doing well on diversity, equality and inclusion and where we need to make improvements. Wherever possible, we’re sharing statistics, and then we give examples of where we’ve made progress.

For example, we just added another director to our board, and it happens to be another woman. We’re now at 44 percent female representation on our board, and I’ll point that out to our team members. Because if we’re serious about equal representation within the company, then that should be true at the board level as well.

I also do a quarterly business review with each of our leaders. They talk about their business performance, but then we always talk about their talent, and a part of that is a scorecard on their workforce, including things like retention and diversity. What do the metrics look like? We don’t have a hard-and-fast rule that you have to be at a certain percentage. It’s more about making progress towards a better place. Our leaders’ performance and progress on diversity, equality, and inclusion are also taken into consideration when we make decisions about merit increases, promotions, and equity grants.

We’ve also implemented mandatory diverse slates for all of our hiring decisions, and that could include an internal promotion as well as an external hire. That has definitely opened up the opportunity to make some movement. It takes longer because often there aren’t as many diverse candidates available, internally or externally, for specialized leadership roles. But if you work at it hard enough, you’ll find a strong, diverse slate. It’s about setting the expectation.


P+S: Ron, what are some of the approaches you’ve seen to making people more aware of the importance of diversity?

Ron: One approach is to put people in different circumstances. Black Enterprise used to have a golf and tennis outing of African-American executives from corporate America. I used to bring my executive committee. For many of them, it was the first time to be a minority in any situation in their lives, and it helped them be more empathetic. It was about giving them the experience that I’ve had all my life of being the only person in the room who sees the world the way you see it.

It comes down to focus, understanding, empathy, placing yourself in situations where you develop a broader perspective.
— Ron Williams, director at American Express, Boeing and Johnson & Johnson

If people are going to sit around and talk about golf to a kid you just recruited from a state university who’s never played golf in their life, that’s exclusionary, and people don’t realize it’s exclusionary. It would be like people having a conversation about something you didn’t know anything about. It comes down to focus, understanding, empathy, placing yourself in situations where you develop a broader perspective.


P+S: How did your executive team react to those outings? 

Ron: I heard feedback that said they learned a lot about what it was like to feel excluded in ways they didn’t fully appreciate. It wasn’t that people were mean to them. People were having conversations about music, social events, and cultural things, and they didn’t have any idea what they were talking about. And so I think that’s an example of what it’s like to be a woman who goes into the executive committee and you’re the only woman there.

P+S: Take us inside the boardrooms, when there’s a talent review and people are looking at succession and leadership pipelines. What are the conversations that have to happen there?

Shellye: When looking at succession planning and the pipeline, almost every company shows the high potentials who will be ready to move into bigger roles in three to five years. But you have to watch for how broad that pool is. I’ve seen reviews where the same three women are part of succession planning for five different jobs. It looks like we have women in all the categories but it’s the same women.

If you see the same people who are always three to five years out, and then it’s three years later and they’re still three to five years out, the question becomes, what are you doing in terms of development?

I was in one boardroom conversation and we were talking about succession plan for one of the senior officers and there was a senior woman who wasn’t on the list. I asked why she wasn’t on the list. After all, she had had experience in very senior jobs. They had a hard time putting their hands on what might be holding her back, and they started listing different items like polish and presence. I said, “Has anybody talked to her about it?” The answer in situations like this is usually “no,” to which I say, “Well, how is she going to fix it if nobody has talked to her about it?”

P+S: I’ve noticed that a lot of companies use phrases of “We need to find the best person” or “Let’s not lower the bar” when talking about talent, and it often comes up in the context of D&I.

Shellye: This is a pet peeve of mine. Here’s how the conversation goes: “We need to bring in more diversity and we need to get more fill-in-the-blank—more women, more people of color, whatever.” And then somebody will invariably say, “But we cannot lower the bar.”

The meaning behind that is a belief that, in general, men are capable and, in general, women and people of color are not capable. Nobody ever says, when we’re trying to fill positions and we’re looking at men, “But we can’t lower the bar.” People need to call that out because what that says is that they fundamentally believe—and it’s probably unconscious—that there aren’t people out there who are capable who aren’t white males, or that there are so few good women or people of color and that they’re all taken, and therefore we can’t lower the bar.

“Not quite ready” is another common phrase. Then you hear these broad and nebulous definitions, like they’re not strategic enough. Those kinds of rationales tend to fall more to women and people of color.

Susan: Phrases like those insinuate that if you’re going to hire a diversity candidate, that you’ll be sacrificing competency and lowering the bar. In fact, if you just continue to have a cookie-cutter approach to hiring the same people with the same experience, you’re going to get more of the same. But if they break the mold, they’re more likely to get a different outcome, which oftentimes is even better.

“A lot of inclusion is how you act on a daily basis—that you are inviting diversity into the conversation and all elements of our business.”
— Susan Salka, CEO of AMN Heathcare and a director at McKessonRon: When succession planning is underway and you’re trying to figure out who moves where, someone might say, “Well, I’m not sure she’s quite ready for that.” But then someone can weigh in and say, “What do you mean by that? What experience have you had with her?” Then the person might respond, “Well, one of my people worked on a project with her and said she wasn’t as… whatever.” So we’re supposed to act on third-hand information? That’s why having other people at senior levels is so important because they raise the level of the dialogue to say, “Let’s look at her results. What has she produced? Let’s talk about that.”


P+S: When you look at the broader statistics in corporate America, there’s still not a lot of progress being made.

Ron: No, and there are a couple points I would make. We didn’t just talk about diversity in our company and supply chain. We also looked at our investment banks. We looked at our law firms. We looked at our consulting firms. We looked at all of the professional services. You have to look broadly at every relationship you have to make certain that it’s reflective of your customer base, broadly speaking.

P+S: Were those tough conversations with those companies whose teams weren’t very diverse?

Ron: There were some that were quite easy, and we heard a few more excuses for some of them. I said, “Well, you’re bright people. I have confidence that the next time I see you, you’ll have solved it.”

P+S: Susan, if you were at an all-hands and somebody put up their hand and said, “What does ‘inclusion’ mean to you?” how would you answer?

Susan: A lot of it is about how you act on a daily basis—not just that you’ve got diversity around you, but that you are inviting that diversity into the conversation and all elements of our mission and our business. It’s a subtle thing. It can’t be a formula or a policy. It’s got to be something that they just see happening.

I did have one employee ask me at a town hall, “Why is it so important to you that we have such a strong D&I environment at AMN, particularly around people of color?”

I said, “It’s the right thing to do. It’s good for business. But also not everyone is aware that I have five adopted children, and some of them happen to be black. I’ve seen over the years how they are treated differently and the issues that they have to overcome that maybe their white siblings don’t face. I want to make sure that never happens at AMN. I want to make sure that everybody in this organization feels they’ve got equal opportunity to achieve whatever goals they may have.”