PGA of America’s Sandy Cross: Making Golf More Inclusive

SANDY CROSS: The PGA of America does not have a great historical track record. Back in 1934 to 1961 in our constitution, in our bylaws of our association, we had a “Caucasian-only” clause. The fact to think that that existed in our history is awful, it’s not something we’re proud of. But I’ll be honest, it’s something that we are open about now and we talk about now and we’re transparent about and we own that past. We have to have these conversations in order to advance racial inclusion in the workplace. It is not going to happen on its own. You’ve got to lead with inclusion, you’ve got to talk about it, own it, be transparent, and that is what’s going to affect and propel a positive change.

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: Up until 1961, women and people of color were barred from joining the Professional Golfers’ Association of America by its “Caucasian-only” clause. That limited who could work in the golf industry. Our guest this week is Sandy Cross, Chief People Officer of the PGA of America. In addition to driving a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture at the corporate level, she’s also working to increase racial representation in the golf industry.

PORTER BRASWELL: Before we get started, a quick disclosure. PGA of America is a client of my company Jopwell. And just to clarify, the PGA of America is a trade association for the people who own, manage, or work at golf courses and clubs, which is a separate organization from the PGA Tour. OK, let’s get into it.

PORTER BRASWELL: You played a pivotal role in lobbying the PGA of America to make diversity and inclusion a priority. So how did you make that business case?

SANDY CROSS: In 2014, the PGA of America leadership positioned diversity and inclusion for the first time ever in nearly our 100-year history. It positioned diversity and inclusion as a founding principle in our long-term strategic plan. At the time, we did not have a dedicated team or an outlined strategic plan of how we were going to bring that foundational commitment to life. And I was very fortunate, very blessed to be granted that opportunity to develop the team, develop the plan, form a diversity and inclusion department, and lead that charge. And I’ve been overseeing that area of our business since 2014.

PORTER BRASWELL: What was the reason for stepping up and saying, “I’ll take charge of this”?

SANDY CROSS: I was inspired, Porter, because prior to that moment I had an opportunity for three years to lead our women’s initiatives for the PGA of America. We were leading an industry effort called “Connecting with Her,” where we were trying to bring more women into the sport and retain them in the sport. We had done a study with the Boston Consulting Group and at the time there were 32 million women identified in America that were interested in taking up the sport [of golf], but one of two things: they were either too intimidated or they had never been invited. So it was leading the “Connecting with Her” strategic initiative, that opened my eyes to the world of diversity and inclusion and the dozens of dimensions of difference. And that was the work that gave me the inspiration to want to take on the broader inclusion and diversity effort for the PGA of America and really the golf industry at large.

PORTER BRASWELL: As you think about your work focusing on gender and then expanding that work to focus on race, what were some of the differences or similarities of your approach to increase representation within those two groups?

SANDY CROSS: So, the similarity between the gender work and the broader inclusion work including racial and ethnic diversity is education and skill development of our PGA professionals at the local level because that’s where the rubber meets the road. The PGA of America membership is not very racially diverse — 91 percent of our membership is Caucasian. It’s critically important that we elevate those PGA professionals’ understanding of diversity, as well as inclusion, the difference between those two, and the business case for them, and most importantly how do you operationalize inclusion at your golf facility. That’s the point of play in America, that is where consumers from diverse backgrounds are going to have a great experience or maybe not a great experience. So, one of the biggest differences, Porter, between the gender inclusion work and the broader inclusion work, particularly with racial and ethnic diversity that has really emerged for me as front burner, is realizing that the experience for our talent who is racially diverse and or customers at the golf course level who are racially diverse can be a very different one. We have to recognize that. And for many years there was such an emphasis on recruiting diverse talent, recruiting diverse customers, and there was such a laser focus on that. But what we needed to do more of was put equal emphasis on making sure that the environment we were recruiting that talent and those new customers, those new golfers, into was inclusive. When that talent comes in and those customers come in they’re going to have a great experience.

PORTER BRASWELL: Well, on the back of that, I grew up in a family that played a lot of golf. My sister was the captain of the women’s golf team at Rutgers University and she’s a phenomenal golfer to this day. And I’m somewhat of a hack, I’m okay, I’m a 10 handicap. But I’ve been in many settings within country clubs where I have found myself to be “the only.” And I’ve also been in many settings within country clubs where the only other Black person that I saw was a server. So, what level of responsibility does the PGA have to increase the representation, especially at the private club level where to the point of what you were saying earlier so much of getting into the sport is being invited into the sport. And when the country clubs don’t reflect what this country looks like, odds are as a person of color you’re not going to know a member who belongs to that club that looks like you. So, how does the PGA influence that, at a private club level?

SANDY CROSS: I believe the PGA of America has a tremendous responsibility to evolve representation at the local golf course facility level. Now, we don’t own and operate the golf facilities around America, but our PGA professionals, who we have recruited and trained and help get employment opportunities to run those golf facilities, we have a relationship with them. And again, we can educate and train, create awareness, and inspire them to lead the workforce diversification effort at their facilities, including private facilities.

SANDY CROSS: We previously were laser-focused on what we call player development bringing in new customers to the game. And while that is still critically important and growth of the game is part of our mission, we had a real “aha” moment when we looked at the data on the demographic composition, from a race and ethnicity standpoint, of the workforce across the golf industry. And there are approximately two million jobs in golf, there are small businesses all over the country. And we looked at that workforce out there particularly the full-time employees, senior management, leaders, and board representation, and the numbers were really, really poor. And we realized that we will never have a diverse playing populace within the sport if we do not evolve the workforce that is delivering the product. So, the workforce that is delivering the product has to reflect the demographics of America in order to attract in players. And thirdly, we have added a focus to diversify the supply chain of the golf industry. It’s an $84 billion a year industry, but if you think about our diverse-owned businesses, women owned, minority owned, LGBT, veteran, disabled-owned businesses getting a piece of that economic opportunity, if they participate in the economics of golf, their interest in playing the sport is likely going to blossom. This fundamental shift from just participation, who’s picking up a golf club, to who’s working in the game, who’s delivering the product and who is participating in the supply chain, and we’re really starting to see some traction with that expanded focus.

PORTER BRASWELL: So shifting the conversation a bit. How do you personally approach being an ally to colleagues from underrepresented backgrounds or in your personal life and why is allyship so important?

SANDY CROSS: Porter, I believe allyship is so important and personally, and this is something that I learned from my father. It wasn’t something that he told me to do, but I observed him doing it at all times — and that is having an others first mindset. It’s a little along the lines of empathy and empathic leadership but truly listening deeply and trying to put yourself in the other individual’s shoes. I think that’s a critical part of allyship. And also, so we’ve done this in our workplace particularly during the pandemic when we’re working in a distributed environment, is an always-on listening approach. So we have to listen more than ever and more authentically than ever. Some of that listening is through the virtual airwaves but a lot of it is also through weekly pulse surveys that we do, engagement surveys that we do, where our employees can tell us in a very candid manner, how they’re feeling, what is their experience and we monitor that on a weekly basis. And the reason that it was important for us to do that, Porter, is the PGA of America does not have a great historical track record. Back in 1934 to 1961 in our constitution, in our bylaws of our association, we had a “Caucasian-only” clause. The fact to think that that existed in our history is awful. It’s not something we’re proud of. But I’ll be honest, it’s something that we are open about now and we talk about now, and we’re transparent about, and we own that past. Because of that past we did not have authenticity in communities of color that we aspire to attract to the game, and the workforce, and the supply chain. In order to enhance our authenticity it’s been important for us to partner with strategic inclusion organizations who are willing to carry our message into communities of color, in particular, and validate that we are committed, and that we are doing the deep work, and that we are moving the agenda forward.

PORTER BRASWELL: Can you talk a little bit more about that clause and what that meant specifically for Black individuals wanting to join either the PGA Tour or the PGA of America?

SANDY CROSS: Back in the period from 1934 to 1961, at that time, the PGA of America and the PGA Tour were a singular organization. It was the PGA of America. And within our constitution and bylaws, we had a “Caucasian-only” clause that basically stated you had to be a Caucasian male in order to join the Professional Golfers’ Association of America. Racially diverse individuals and women were not allowed to join at that time. So in 1961, that was changed — repealed, if you will if that’s the right word. And then a milestone moment as well, it was many years later, Porter, but I’d love to share it, in 2011 our leadership under Jim Remy who was our president at the time, he posthumously elected into PGA of America membership three individuals, Ted Rhodes, Bill Spiller, and John Shippen, who previously due to the “Caucasian” clause were denied membership in the PGA of America. And at our PGA Annual Meeting in 2011, we did our very best with the families of those deceased individuals to try and right the wrong. It will never be right, but we wanted to do the very best we could to help, at least a little bit, heal some of those wounds. And I remember that annual meeting vividly because at the time I was our director of business development and I wasn’t working in the inclusion and diversity space. And I was sitting in the audience as a staff member watching this presentation unfold and I was so moved but also so surprised and so shocked. Because at the time I had been on the PGA of America team for 15 years and I had no idea that this was part of our history.

PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah, I appreciate that and I agree that acknowledging it and talking about it allows for people to understand what happened in the past, the context in which it occurred, and ensure it never happens again. So I appreciate you sharing that story. I do want to ask you about Wendell Haskins. He’s the former senior diversity director of multicultural initiatives at the PGA of America. He left in 2017. This past summer he wrote an open letter about his experiences as a Black executive at the PGA of America. He shared several examples of the explicit and silent microaggressions that he experienced while working at the PGA, the lack of representation throughout the organization, and the need for more diverse representation at the board level. How is the PGA of America acknowledging his experiences and how are you addressing it?

SANDY CROSS: Porter, Wendell had a challenging experience at the PGA of America and, as you mentioned, he did write an open letter this past June, I believe, to share some of those experiences. And while the letter doesn’t disclose the full context — and unfortunately I’m not at liberty to share the details — we do take that letter very seriously. And our CEO Seth Waugh spoke to Wendell after the letter was published. Seth really took the letter and what Wendell shared to heart. Seth spent time after that with some of our team members, trying to gain more insight and perspective on what might’ve happened those number of years ago. And what I can say is that we are a much more mature organization, from a workplace inclusion perspective, than we were five years ago. We now lead with inclusion versus let’s focus on hiring diverse talent and stop there — really making sure that we have an inclusive environment. So we learned a lot from the experience. We learned a lot from Wendell sharing his perspective in the letter and some subsequent articles and interviews, and we continue to learn.

PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. As a senior leader within the organization and somebody tasked with building the culture — you were one of the individuals that were named in the Sports Illustrated article. Are there things that you have personally learned from his experiences that have helped you evolve in this dialogue, as well?

SANDY CROSS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ve learned a tremendous amount and to follow on your point, Porter, I was one of four supervisors that Wendell had during his time at the PGA of America. I was the second of the four. And I know I keep emphasizing it, but the most important thing was the leading with inclusion and the authentic listening. The workplace experience for racially and ethnically diverse talent can be a very different one, unless we are deliberately and actively making sure that it’s not.

PORTER BRASWELL: So, I know the PGA of America did a language audit. Can you tell me about how you found that language affects your ability to engage with people across differences?

SANDY CROSS: Yes we did do a language audit and baked within the fabric of golf, or the culture of golf, are words and phrases and sometimes etiquette and mores, if you will, that can inadvertently be off putting or be exclusionary. And one of the examples that I like to use — I imagine many of our listeners are golfers, but some non-golfers as well — is on the golf course on each hole there are tees, typically five sets of tees. And when you step up to the tee box to place your tee in the ground and set up for your shot, you have to select one of the tees, tee yardages. And oftentimes at golf facilities you will find that the forward most set of tees, which are the shortest length, are referred to as the “ladies’ tees.” And if you think about that, that inadvertently suggests to everyone that women’s skill and ability is less than a male’s skill and ability, when it comes to golf. So that’s one example of something that came out in the inclusion audit. There’s a lot phrases embedded in the game that we’ve tried to again minimize and move out of the language.

PORTER BRASWELL: Do you ever get direct pushback on your efforts to increase representation? Are there people that are so bold to tell you, “Let’s keep golf the way it is.”

SANDY CROSS: I don’t often get direct pushback. If there’s pushback it’s more subtle or simply someone disengaging or under engaging but not blatant instances of pushback don’t come to mind for me. It’s just more maybe a low energy, lackluster, little disengaging. You know, you can tell when someone wants to partner with you and help you advance the agenda. You can tell very quickly whose heart’s in it, whose mind is in it, and who is walking the walk.

PORTER BRASWELL: So, for corporate leaders listening to this, when they come across individuals within the organization that aren’t as motivated or passionate about increasing representation within their organization — what advice can you provide for leaders to try to bring those people along the journey? Or should the attention be focused elsewhere, on those that want to be a part of that journey?

SANDY CROSS: I do think it’s absolutely worth the effort to try to collaborate with them. And one thing that we have found to be very successful and impactful, and I would recommend this for others, is to not prop up this standalone diversity and inclusion function and tuck it into HR where it is not embedded across the business. Now, you do need some people who are dedicated with a focus on diversity and inclusion but they should be tasked with partnering shoulder-to-shoulder with their colleagues across all of the lines of business to help those colleagues look at their line of the business through a lens of inclusion. And help them understand the power of diversity and inclusion and how that can more easily help them attain their goals and objectives within their area of the business. It’s a little bit of the what’s in it for me approach. I think that is particularly impactful when you take that partnership approach and show them what’s in it for them.

PORTER BRASWELL: So one final question, and I like to ask all of our guests the same question, should race be discussed at work?

SANDY CROSS: Race should absolutely be discussed at work, in my opinion. And it goes back to some of the sentiments I shared earlier, Porter, about ownership and transparency. We have to have these conversations in order to advance racial inclusion in the workplace. It is not going to happen on its own. You’ve got to lead with inclusion, you’ve got to talk about it, own it, be transparent, and that is what’s going to affect and propel a positive change.

PORTER BRASWELL: Well Sandy, I appreciate you joining us on this podcast. You all have such a unique opportunity, as the changing demographics in this country keep evolving towards being a majority-minority country — what the PGA can then represent and become. There’s still a lot of progress to be made and a lot of opportunity to create impact at such a large scale. So thank you for joining us, and I appreciate the conversation, and looking forward to many more conversations in the future.

SANDY CROSS: Thank you as well, Porter, it’s a real pleasure.

PORTER BRASWELL: That’s Sandy Cross, Chief People Officer at the PGA of America. 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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