AbbVie building and sign in front of a blue sky.

AbbVie’s Chief Equity Officer, Rae Livingston: ‘Listen With Curiosity. Lead With Compassion.’

Originally published at stories.abbvie.com. AbbVie ranked No. 19 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020.

 

AbbVie is committed to advancing racial equality through our continued growth and acceptance of each other; our way of doing business; our attraction and development of talent; and our service to the community. We know that there is more to be done, and we are committed to listening and working toward real, lasting and meaningful change.

AbbVie recently took significant actions to ensure the company is leading by example. To do all we can to fully embrace equity, equality, diversity and inclusion and loudly reject systemic racism and all forms of bias. One such action — the creation of a new senior-level position — ensures we are doing all we can do to enhance our understanding and address opportunities to help drive real change. To explore this more, we recently sat down with AbbVie’s Chief Equity Officer, Rae Livingston, to discuss the company’s efforts to tackle these tough issues of race, equity, equality and diversity.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about your role as Chief Equity Officer? What exactly does someone in this role do?

Livingston: This role is about making sure that within our organization, all of us – all AbbVie colleagues – have not just the same opportunities, but also the differentiated tools and resources needed to achieve our business goals and live out our ambitions and dreams. We all have had different journeys to get to the same starting point. We may not all need the same thing, but we all want to be successful, and sometimes that requires different support to get to the same starting point. To do this, we need to take the time to truly understand the degree to which our organization’s culture is exactly what we want it to be for all employees: a culture based on talent; a culture of performance; and, ultimately, a culture focused on providing all employees with equal opportunities to bring their unique characteristics to the table, without any inhibitions or roadblocks.

In this role, I strive to keep in mind our company’s highest priority, which is to develop and deliver innovative, life-changing medicines to our diverse group of patients. This type of commitment requires a level of thoughtfulness, creativity and innovation from each one of our colleagues, wrapped in their own uniqueness and diversity. To maximize every employee’s potential at AbbVie, we need to empower everyone to be themselves in their work environment; to provide a space where all are treated with respect and dignity. When we achieve this, we will create an atmosphere where even more of the best ideas are encouraged and inspired – from anyone. When we remove any potential roadblocks, we pave the way for unlimited thinking, more capability, and “best-in-class” mindsets. My role is really about championing our people, championing our culture and, ultimately, championing our patients.

 

As AbbVie’s Chief Equity Officer, what is your vision for the organization?

Livingston: Although my role may be fairly new, AbbVie’s focus on culture and embracing diversity and inclusion is not. From the first day we launched as a company, AbbVie realized the importance of culture in achieving success, and that ultimately inspires and attracts the best people and enables the best ideas to truly impact our patients. I recognized this about AbbVie when I joined the company in 2016; that we’re on a continuous journey to better our culture. We do this by keeping a pulse on what’s impacting people and humanity more broadly. I see AbbVie as a role model for creating experiences and workplace environments where people can flourish; where all employees are fully contributing and bringing their best selves to work. Internally, the hope is that every employee feels equally able to contribute, that we continue to elevate the culture at AbbVie, and that we examine – and continue to re-examine – any process, system, or part of the workplace experience that may be having a negative impact.

If we think about leadership as a big “L” – like the collective ‘AbbVie 47,000 strong’, what role can the big “L” play if each one of us pauses and reflects on how we contribute to the culture? Is there something we can do better? It’s about self-awareness and self-reflection; the ability to continually examine our approach from different perspectives while also continuing to identify potential gaps. If we look at some of these potential gaps through the lens of race, for example, how does that show up at work? I know – it’s hard to talk about. But, if you aren’t talking about it, it’s hard to examine it. And if we can’t examine it, how can we make meaningful change? Just creating the space for the conversation is critical.

Ultimately, my vision for AbbVie is that we continue to be this bright light in all the communities we serve. And I truly believe we are already doing this. One of my proudest moments at AbbVie came when it was announced we were going to build a middle school in North Chicago. I thought: what company decides on its own to break ground on a completely new school for someone else? It’s a company that’s committed, one that’s already in touch with the community, already believes in the community, and one that “walks the talk” – takes decisive action to strengthen the community. We’ve got to do more of that, for each other, one-on-one.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about your leadership style?

Livingston: I try to lead from the perspective of everybody has their own “hilltop,” and I explain it in the following way: imagine if you and I were sitting atop two hilltops (of equal height) –separated by a valley. I’m atop one side and you’re atop another, and we plan to meet down in the bottom of the valley. We begin our trek downward at the exact same moment and eventually meet in that valley, as intended. When recounting each of our respective journeys down the mountain, we would most likely have very different accounts of our travels. Sure, we both met in the valley, but what about the terrain: was it exactly the same on both sides of the mountain? Some hills are full of rocks, covered in snow, or full of dangerous slopes; others may be smooth, level and easier to traverse. So perhaps one individual climbed down cautiously due to rocky terrain, while the other came down quite easily.

When recounting each of our stories, we oftentimes gloss over the details, never taking the time to lean in with curiosity to truly understand each other’s journey. And so the assumption becomes that the trek down was exactly the same for both parties; that two different individuals with distinct backgrounds, experiences and obstacles had the same exact experience. But the reality is … we all start from different hilltops. In AbbVie’s Equity, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EED&I) organization, we try to focus our discussions on the actual journey, and not just the final destination. It’s the respect for each individual journey that is critical to cross-cultural understanding. When colleagues are sharing their experiences with you, I invite you to take a moment to stop … think outside of your own unique experience(s) and check your own potential biases. It’s the ability to be open and receptive that builds bridges of understanding, as well as acceptance – validation – belonging for the person next to you. All because you simply acknowledge that their journey may have been notably different to get to the exact same place. The intention is to acknowledge that all journeys and experiences are different and to ensure we respect those differences.

 

As a woman of color in such a high-level, prominent position at such an important moment in American history, do you feel an immense amount of pressure?

[Rae smiles and chuckles]

Livingston: I’ve felt this type of pressure most of my life. So yes, there is a lot of pressure at the surface level to address issues at hand, be inclusive and do a good job. Some of the pressure is inflicted from within; some from the role itself; and some is from the intersection of time, circumstance and expectations — so the answer would absolutely be yes! It’s one thing for this role to be difficult; to run into adversity, naysayers or people who come from a completely different mindset (or different ‘hilltop’). I fully expect to have competing perspectives on the subject. So yes, there’s a lot of pressure at the surface level to do a good job. But perhaps what makes this role more challenging is the current climate, with exponentially more eyes and ears on the subject, and the fact that EED&I is so dynamic and ever-changing. My current position requires me to be laser-focused on building a strong foundation; a mandate (of sorts) to discern, delineate and prioritize. Hence, there are decisions my team needs to make that some colleagues may not understand or see the fruits of immediately when those choices are made. Ultimately, this means that at times I have to make choices that are unpopular, or even – flat out – say, no – to ensure that our efforts are aligned toward our highest priorities in this work.

Do I worry about making a mistake? I do – in fact, I’m sure I’ve already made a few. And I wonder if I’ll make a mistake tomorrow. But I’m only human, so I don’t let that consume me. I am informed by data when making decisions; I try to follow the facts and yet I also listen to my heart in making what I think is the best decision for AbbVie. The good news is I feel incredibly supported. AbbVie is committed to this work and not just in thought or in words, but in our actions.

 

Can you shed some light on what your life is like outside of work?

Livingston: First whether at work or at home, my faith is essential; that’s my personal “north star.” On the home front, I’m a daughter, a wife, a mom, a sister, a niece and a friend. We are a sports family, and I am a sports mom. I’m that parent yelling supportive cheers from the stands like: “go team,” “you can do it,” “get in there,” “they’re getting ready to pass,” “get the rebound” – somebody’s got to do it. Saturday nights you’d probably find us curling up on the couch as a family, watching a movie and enjoying ourselves with popcorn. We also like to travel. With COVID, of course, this has been curbed a bit; but in normal circumstances, we’re always down for a good road trip.

 

What inspires you to come to work every day?

Livingston: I love what I do and the people I’m doing it with. It has purpose. It has meaning. In a company of more than 47,000 employees, it’s an honor to be entrusted with one of our leadership roles that focuses on how we continue to foster a culture of belonging, respect, and individuality, while also encouraging innovative ideas and constructive debate. To help foster connections and strengthen community amongst our employees so we can potentially unlock the next great idea, or the next great medicine is magical. And, so, what inspires me is to demonstrate to others the magic that can be unlocked when we do more than just tolerate people we may not agree with. What happens when you accept and embrace them? Instead, we can appreciate others while at the same time being different, having different thoughts and different perspectives.

I have been fueled at different places and points in my life by people thinking something can’t be done. But I truly believe we have the power to create the world we want to live in, and the legacy we want to leave. A world we feel proud to pass on to our children and grandchildren. What inspires me is to help people understand that if you just listen with curiosity AND lead with an open mind and heart, you are just one impactful, a pivotal moment away from the next big discovery.

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