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Sodexo’s Global CEO Leverages Diversity

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Only seconds into the conversation with Sodexo’s Global CEO Michel Landel and his heartfelt commitment to diversity management and an inclusive workplace becomes obvious. “We believe our culture makes the difference; this culture is a differentiator,” he explains during a private conversation in midtown Manhattan with DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti.

What makes this multinational hospitality-giant leader, who employs more than 350,000 people in 80 countries, so enthusiastic about diversity? It’s the value of diversity to business, the economy and the world, he says.

“The time I spent in the U.S. was, for me, a revelation because diversity was so high on the agenda here, so that’s probably where it became so evident to me that it was a business case,” he says. “There’s another thing that I really believe helped me understand this: my wife, who has always been a feminist … But I think she’s more than a feminist—she’s a woman who cares about the place of women in today’s world and she has always helped me understand that. She has challenged me.

Landel’s inherent honesty, realism and an unwavering leadership commitment to equality is what led Sodexo to the No. 2 spot on The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list—and what has helped to attract other great leaders to the company.

“What closed the deal [to work at] Sodexo was my interview with CEO Michel Landel,” says Senior Vice President and Global Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Rohini Anand. “His level of commitment, his vision, his leadership, his clarity on what he wanted to see happen was absolutely unparalleled … Michel’s big deal has always been diversity.”

How can we all learn from this remarkable man? Outtakes from DiversityInc’s candid conversation with Landel follow.

Michel Landel on Changing Customer Demographics

When you look at the Sodexo world, which is a very good reflection of the entire world because we’re in 80 countries and serve 60 million people every day, there are hundreds of national identities—and this is a group that’s changing. So if we can’t put [in] people who understand them and can’t feel what their expectations are, then we have a problem. We had this [school-district] account in the west part of the U.S. where, when we opened that account in the early ’90s, the population of 500 kids between 5 and 7 years old was all Caucasian. Ten years later, there were just two. The rest were people from Asia, South America and Africa. Those things tell you if you don’t change, if you’re not able to assimilate, then you are out of business.

On Creating Jobs

Ninety-five percent of our people, when they come and join us, have little education, sometimes no education. Our objective is to keep them, make sure they grow with Sodexo and have opportunities to have a career and develop. We take that very deeply. We characterize ourselves as a social elevator; we help people move and have a better life. We tell them that they can do the same for their customers—and that’s why we have very strong values about teamwork, service and the fact that in our business you have to challenge what you do. You can always be better than you were yesterday. We’re trying to make this be the DNA of the company and the DNA of the people. Fundamentally, we believe that the culture makes a difference; this culture is a differentiator in the marketplace and, especially, in today’s environment.

Finding Balance

We live in a world that needs to recover some balance, because we’ve lived in illusions for the last 40 years with this footprint of a very strong financial world. You know, banks have lent money that they don’t have to people, and that’s a big problem. It’s a fundamental problem in our society because it has created so much inequity in the world. By doing what we do as a company, which is doing simple things like trying to help create jobs, it’s definitely good.

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A Sustaining Vision

My responsibility as the CEO of this company is to ensure the sustainability of Sodexo for many years. My job is to make sure that overall this company grows in the right direction, that people don’t lose their jobs, that their standard of living increases. And I think it’s the job of all the companies in the world to do that. Now, I’m not sure that everybody is working in the same direction. Because of the financial tyranny, a lot of pressure is put on CEOs to have a good next quarter. And frankly, if you think about Sodexo, what is important for us is to make sure that we have the right people for the business in the long run. And for that, we need to continue to invest and make sure we keep the talent we have so that when the economy goes back on track, we have the talent.

Keeping Leaders Accountable

We need to have leaders at the top who behave as they should so that they are role models and their behavior should be aligned with our values. Also, we should hold them accountable for what they do. On the other hand, accountability does not mean you make a mistake and you’re out. The world is more complex; you have to allow for people making mistakes as long as you don’t do the same one twice. We’re all human beings and we all make mistakes.

Fighting Diversity Push-Back

There has been a lot of resistance [to diversity], and there is still a lot of resistance. The most important thing to do is to stay consistent, focused and absolutely determined—and that’s what we’ve done to set the bar, to say “This is where we should go and have a plan to get there.” Unfortunately there isn’t this straight line of ups and downs. As long as we’re making progress—and that’s what we’ve done—then we’re on the right track. But it’s a big undertaking when you’re in 80 countries and it’s not homogenous. Every country has its own culture, past, history and we have to take that into consideration. This diversity progress started in the U.S. … and now we’re trying to build this initiative worldwide. Not all the things are of the same importance in all the cultures, but overall we’re trying to build a culture where we accept differences, where we accept what we don’t know. The first thing to do is have the humility to say you don’t know. You can’t put yourself in others‚ shoes [without] making a big effort. That is why we have put a lot of resources in training and making sure we increase the level of awareness … It’s really an attitude that we have to develop in the organization.

Making Change

Role models are fundamental. We just created this SWIFt group, which means Senior Women’s International Forum for Talent. We put 20 top women leaders of the organization together and created that group from this kind of think-tank. [It's] an engine to change things, make proposals to the executive committee to move some processes and really push a target from where we are today in terms of women’s representation to a target of 25 in the next several years. By taking those initiatives and being very determined in moving them and not giving up, then we will be successful.

Doing Business Globally

We’re doing business in many countries [where] we have to accept the differences of the cultures. On the other hand, in terms of engaging those changes in diversity, there is no compromise. We have to do it—and we will do it. But we will do it at a different pace. At the end of the day, if we want to be a competitive company and a company that really walks the walk, then we will have to do it, and I’m convinced that will be possible. If you go to Syria [for example], 65 percent of the college graduates are women. That will make that country change. They will have to. But not every country will change at the same pace, and so we’re not compromising on values.

The Diversity Benchmark

We had some difficult times in the past. But we have changed, put state-of-the-art procedures and processes in place and are recognized as a leader. There’s probably no contract or RFP that doesn’t consider [the diversity] dimension—and that gives us an opportunity to demonstrate that we are on the forefront. With many clients, we’re actually providing advice … as we are a benchmark. But it takes a lot of time to change culture and mindsets … to have a company in which the culture is fundamentally on respecting differences and putting teams of different backgrounds or origins together. But when it’s built, I think the innovation, the creativity becomes very big. I’m absolutely convinced that we are on the right track. Moving the culture to a more inclusive culture is slowly something we’ve done. This is fundamental for us—and we have to keep that.

Click here to read Part II of this interview with Michel Landel, plus more videos.

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1 Comment

  • Anonymous

    Michael Landel is clear about the business case for diversity; good! I am hoping that we diversity educators and leaders will promote the ethical-moral case as being complementary to the business case as we move forward in our advocacy for developing inclusive organizations.

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