Mastercard’s Former Chief Diversity Officer Donna Johnson: Advancing Company Culture

DONNA JOHNSON: One Friday afternoon, several of us got together to meet with a senior executive. And there were five women and one man – the man was white and the women were all women of color. And we’re laughing, and we’re enjoying the conversation, and there’s a lot of energy. And the door swings open, and one of our executives looks in the room and raises her voice and tells us that we need to be quiet. And as she proceeded to reprimand us, she saw the white man in the room and stopped. It is those small micro-inequities that make a difference to the way the individual feels about your organization. All she wanted to say was, “Keep it down.” What we heard was, “You people are too loud.”

PORTER BRASWELL: From HBR Presents, this is Race at Work, the show where we explore how race affects our careers and our lives. I’m Porter Braswell. I left a Wall Street career to start a company called Jopwell because I wanted to help corporate America build a more diverse workforce. Each week, we talk to a different leader about their journey with race, equity, and inclusion. These are the conversations we don’t usually have at work. But this show is a safe place to share and learn from each other.

PORTER BRASWELL: This week, my guest is Donna Johnson, former Chief Diversity Officer at Mastercard, who’s now retired. For those that don’t know, a Chief Diversity Officer is also known as a CDO. And that’s a role she pioneered at Mastercard in 2010. I’m excited to share this conversation because Donna was a CDO way before it was en vogue. And she knows what it takes for a CDO to be effective. So I started by asking her candid take on what senior leaders often misunderstand about diversity and inclusion at work.

DONNA JOHNSON: The most common comment I always hear or used to hear a lot from a lot of managers is, “I would love to hire a qualified woman, person of color, etc. and so forth.” And I would sit there, and I’d scratch my head and first of all I would sometimes say, “You don’t think I’m qualified?” But anyway. What does that mean? Of course–

PORTER BRASWELL: Define quality.

DONNA JOHNSON: We want to hire someone who’s qualified, of course. That really, you never say that when you have a general, quote, general slate. But when you’re looking to add a person of color or a woman, etc. and so forth, someone from a diverse background, it’s usually this qualified word that’s thrown in. The second thing that we hear a lot is, “We’d love to hire them but we can’t find them.”

PORTER BRASWELL: The elusive pipeline–

DONNA JOHNSON: Oh man, diverse people are always hiding from jobs. We never want to be found for those great jobs when you’re looking for us. But somehow we always are looking for jobs anyway. So I say to them, “Maybe we have to stop going to the same recruiters and look for different channels to find those people that you say you can’t find.”

PORTER BRASWELL: If we shift to your time at Mastercard, how were you successful in launching your initiatives? How did you go about getting buy-in from both junior and senior employees?

DONNA JOHNSON: You know, I was fortunate to work at a company that was trying to understand diversity and inclusion long before they had a dedicated CDO. But they also realized as we went from a private company to a publicly traded company that they wanted to make diversity part of their mission statement and their leadership. One of the first things, though, I did as the chief diversity officer was to really talk to leadership on down to some of the more junior members of our organization. “What do you see? How can we solve? What can we bring forward for you?” So, after those conversations, I really did look at diversity and inclusion at several levels. The first is, how do I brand this in a way that, as I said, every level in the organization can speak to it, can recognize it, and can embrace it? So, I do have marketing in my background, so I worked with our agency to create just that. We had our own logo, our own mission statement, we created branding around what diversity and inclusion meant. So that was very important because we got people to really think about a common language and understand a common mission. The second project that I worked on was building the business resource groups. Now we all hear about business resource groups, but early on referring to employees who were gathered to talk about, under the umbrella of diversity, to talk about business was a little different. They were usually affinity groups. But, again, looking at what our objectives were from top to the bottom: driving business, understanding the value of consumers and the diversity of those consumers was important. So we created business resource groups. These were groups that were focused on ways that we could improve the environment and our organization to make it more attractive to new employees, to help retain the employees that were currently in the organization–what can we do to continue to engage them and make them feel valued? And in many instances provide almost internal focus group, if you will, as some of our departments looked to launch either new messaging, new products, new marketing. And then the third thing I did was to again make sure that this was a global initiative. We do as D&I [diversity and inclusion] professionals, struggle with the notion that D&I, especially for some of the diversity groups like African-Americans, this is a U.S. issue. But in reality, it is a challenge that we face around the globe when we look at how do we get the best leadership around the world.

PORTER BRASWELL: So if you were looking for an opportunity to step into a chief diversity officer role right now, what would be some of the requirements that you would really impose to the organization for you personally to accept that type of position in today’s climate?

DONNA JOHNSON: I would first ask just how important diversity is to their company as their mission, their vision, and their bottom line. I tend to be a little uncomfortable when I hear leaders say, “Well, I’m interested in diversity because my daughter–she’s a female and now I want to make sure that she has opportunities and I’m aware of that.” The reason why I’m concerned about it is because if you’re basing your drive to diversity because of a relationship you have, then does that mean you’re not as sensitive to those who aren’t like your daughter or like your wife? And so it really has to be a vision of a business focus, not simply one that’s based on a relationship that you might have. The second is like any other department, what kind of funding are you willing to put into this? Are you willing to invest in the time and the capital that’s needed to build a strong diversity initiative? I see a lot of companies really ready to state their mission, and they’re really ready to do those special food days and music days and put art on their walls, but when it comes to investing and bringing in new talent sometimes they’re a little reluctant to do that. So I really would ask you to invest in diversity and that would be the second question I would ask. The third is their long-term plans around diversity. It can’t be a reaction to an initiative or a social issue that might be happening in the country or in your city today. It really has to be something that you’re looking to invest in long term, with goals that are measurable and trackable–so that you are constantly updating and reassessing your success against these goals.

PORTER BRASWELL: Well if a company is being reactionary to what’s going on in the moment, and they are making decisions because of the current climate that it’s unlikely that they’re going to be successful. So, this summer there was a flurry of companies trying to hire a chief diversity officer, and it seemed like every day that there was another headline of another company that hired another chief diversity officer. And it was all in the midst and the backdrop of what was going on throughout the country with the protests and the murder of George Floyd. If you had a crystal ball, and you looked into that ball, what would you say will likely happen to those companies and those individuals who accepted those senior Chief Diversity Officer positions in two years from now when they were hired in the climate that they were hired in?

DONNA JOHNSON: If I had a crystal ball I would say that 50 percent of them will feel that they were less than effective in their roles. Because if the reaction to hiring their first diversity officer is in response to, and a real genuine response to the social unrest, the civil unrest that is going on in the country – that is a true recognition that a change needs to be made. But without the mission, without objectives, without goals, without funding, some of these diversity officers will find themselves either being challenged to make a difference that’s measurable or will eventually find that they’re absorbed within the HR department. And while it doesn’t diminish their role it could lessen their impact overall. So, I predict we’re going to see some of these individuals struggling two years from now.

PORTER BRASWELL: When would you advise a company to bring on a chief diversity officer?

DONNA JOHNSON: I think that’s an interesting question. I don’t know if companies think about the right time or the best time. But I think it’s important for companies to have one now. So, if you are looking at bringing in talent, if you are considering ways that you can build new products, reach a new consumer base, if you are simply looking to sell new products and more products, it’s important for you to have a diverse talent in your company, as well as that pool of talent to reach into. So, if diversity is something that is important to your bottom line and to your business overall, you need to have a diversity officer in your leadership team.

PORTER BRASWELL: From a hiring perspective, given that this is such a senior role, most times it’s going to be the CEO that’s going to be involved in this particular search, if not the board. Now, statistically, that CEO is likely going to be a white male – if you just look across corporate America and the demographics of those that are CEOs within the fortune 500 companies. So what would you advise them on how to be able to identify, when they’re interviewing that CDO, how should they evaluate that person, how should they get a sense if they’re going to be the right person for the organization, when they typically don’t come from a diverse background? Help the listeners kind of understand, what are those things that the CEO can look for during that interview process to really identify the perfect candidate?

DONNA JOHNSON: So I would step back and say, “Well, think about what you would look for if you were interviewing, let’s say the Chief Marketing Officer. Or if you were interviewing the Head of HR, what do you look for?” Look for an individual who can speak to the business, if it’s marketing or diversity and inclusion, with passion and intelligence and with knowledge. You would look for an individual if they were the chief marketing officer to say well, do they have that executive presence, would I feel that they could talk to my peer at another company about how we could partner to drive D&I [diversity and inclusion]. It’s still those executive skills that we should most focus on, if we want to have an effective CDO and a D&I strategy.

PORTER BRASWELL: Now oftentimes, the CDO is the only person of color on the executive team, why is that?

DONNA JOHNSON: Great question. And I think a lot of us in the CDO roles struggle with that because when companies are looking to fill that role they will reach down into their talent pool and select someone who has a diverse background. That will be a woman, it can be any person of color, it could be a person of the LGBT community, it could be someone with a disability. So it is a challenge because some people do expect to see a person of a diverse background in the role.

PORTER BRASWELL: Do you think a CDO can be effective if they’re not from an under-represented background?

DONNA JOHNSON: I think that a CDO should be viewed as someone who has the training, the skill set, the passion, the understanding of how to drive diversity and inclusion as a skill set, as opposed to their diverse background. I think though that for a person who is no-diverse to be the CDO, they really have to work hard to ensure that their team is reflective of diversity, and that they are as engaged in all of the aspects of diversity and inclusion that their employees represent. So getting educated around that is very important. So I am of the mind that if we want to really have a real, important conversation around D&I [diversity and inclusion], let’s all get educated about it. Let’s stop trying to assume that the person of color in the room is the most knowledgeable. They have to have that role, but I think the knowledge and the influence is so much more important than just solving for “Let’s just get a personal color in there.”

PORTER BRASWELL: Absolutely. Now you have said that your parents were your greatest source of inspiration. So, how do they prepare you for your career, especially with regard to race?

DONNA JOHNSON: I’m going to take my time thinking about that response because there’s so much to that question, Porter. I grew up in a small town–one of 10 families of African American descent. And so, my experience was very, very much in an environment where I was usually the only, the first, or one of four. So it did prepare me for the challenges I would face as I went on to college and then went into the workforce. My dad, however, actually was one of the first African-Americans to be hired at a general advertising agency. So I was fortunate to be able to sit at dinner every night and hear some of the things that he was doing to make a difference for others and grow that pipeline in marketing and communications. My mom worked in the medical health profession, and so she understood that there was always going to be the challenge around access to medical services, from a diverse perspective, long before I was even in diversity. So their awareness was driven not only from a personal experience, as to where they raised us, but also in their chosen professions. So when I got my first job outside of the babysitting and doing all of that, I worked as a summer intern at the advertising agency that my dad used to work at. So my background is a little different because I grew up almost understanding the challenges that one would face when working in corporate America. I would not say it made it easier, but it certainly made me more aware of how I needed to stand up for myself at all times because I had done that for most of my life. One of the things that struck me was, I was still in the ad agency and, at the time years ago, when you were starting out the whole thing was, “What do you want to do in 5-10 years, what is your goal?” Your manager or your mentor or some senior leader, if they were interviewing you for a job, they would ask everyone that. And it was the thing at the time to say, “Oh, I want to be the President or the CEO. I want to be a Senior Vice President of the company.” And this manager looked at me, he’s a white man and he looked and he took a puff at his cigarette. And he said, “That will never happen for you. There will never be an African-American woman running a general ad agency.” Now the good news, he was wrong, that did happen. But I will tell you, if I didn’t have the background that I grew up in and if I didn’t have the experience of my parents always telling to be the best that you can be, bring your best to everything that you do, that could have defeated me. That could have discouraged me, knowing that my white coworkers were going to always be considered for those positions that I wouldn’t be considered for by this individual because of the color of my skin.

PORTER BRASWELL: I appreciate you being vulnerable and sharing that story. Last question– this is a question I like to ask all my guests. Should race be discussed at work?

DONNA JOHNSON: Race should be discussed at work. Yes. We talk about race as if it is a bad word. How many times have I had someone come up to me and say, “Oh, do you know, you know Jim?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t. They’re two Jims. Which one are you talking about?” “Well, Jim, he wears glasses…” “Is he black?” “Yes, he’s black.” That’s actually not a bad word, it is the color of his skin. It is not wrong to describe someone that way. And I think as you get comfortable with the idea around race, using words that are not by definition inflammatory should be okay. The second reason I think it’s important to talk about race is that you can’t have diversity and inclusion without talking about race. You can’t have D&I without understanding the importance of race, and you will not really be able to retain the best talent that you have without acknowledging that it comes from a lot of different backgrounds, including race.

PORTER BRASWELL: Well, thank you for your perspective and taking the time to share your experiences and providing lessons of things that you learned throughout your journey. It truly helps to validate, I think, a lot of the conversations that professionals of color are having. And to have somebody in your position validate those stories, it’s incredibly impactful and helpful. So thank you for joining us on the podcast.

DONNA JOHNSON: Thank you so much, Porter, I enjoyed it.

PORTER BRASWELL: That’s Donna Johnson, former Chief Diversity Officer at Mastercard. This episode was produced by Amy Chyan and edited by Anne Saini. I’m Porter Braswell. Thanks for listening to Race at Work, part of the HBR Presents network.


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