Fireside Chat: DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson Talks D&I with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson

During the DiversityInc Top 50 event on May 7 in New York City, Carolynn Johnson, CEO of DiversityInc, sat down with Randall Stephenson, Chairman and CEO of AT&T, (No. 1), to discuss diversity and inclusion.

“It starts with it’s the right thing to do,” Stephenson said to open the conversation when asked why AT&T constantly challenges itself to place such high value on this topic. Stephenson touched upon the danger of unconscious bias. By eliminating an entire group of people from consideration for senior-level positions, businesses lose out on unique perspectives as well as pieces of the market.

“If you don’t embrace equality, you are going to miss a huge element of your employee body, in terms of taking advantage of their skills, in terms of taking advantage of there abilities,” he said.

Referencing Steve Phillips’s opening remarks, he stated, “Who is your market? Your market is a very diverse market.” He learned this firsthand living in Mexico for four years trying to market to a culture he did not understand. It took him bringing in Mexican workers to assist in developing a marketing plan for their culture before they were successful.

This understanding is impossible to accomplish without putting together a diverse team. When asked about how he has been so vocal toward social issues in the past, while other CEOs shy away from making any statements, Stephenson commented, “It’s ok to talk about this stuff, in fact, I think we need to talkabout this stuff. We need to be engaging on a regular and constant basis, we need to have a dialogue.”

The conversation wrapped up with Johnson asking Stephenson how he leads by example. He commented on the people he surrounds himself with. Stephenson goes beyond just the board of directors and executive team, he ensures throughout all management levels that teams are diverse to continue to foster equality throughout the company.

Below is the complete conversation:

CAROLYNN: So Randall, we’re gonna dig right in. When we talk about diversity and inclusion, why does AT&T constantly challenge itself to place such high value on this topic?

RANDALL: It starts with… It’s the right thing to do. At the end of the day, it’s just one of those things you should do. It’s an “ought to”. Everybody in corporate America ought to be focused on this issue. And we have our set of values that we put forward. This is the umbrella. The values that we as a company live under. Whether you’re in Warner Media, the entertainment media business, or communications, these are the values, and one of the principal values that we live under is to embrace equality. And I just think we as a country have to be more and more focused on embracing equality. But there’s more of an issue. Not more, but an equally important aspect to that, in that really it’s good business. I oftentimes wonder that, if I had an unconscious bias towards people with blond hair… Not that…

But think about… If I had this unconscious bias against people with blond hair, how many really gifted and talented people I would just exclude from consideration in my leadership team. And I think when we have unconscious biases towards gender, towards race, towards sexual orientation, you’re leaving a really serious element, and really creative and smart people out of consideration for senior and executive talent. And I just think it’s nonsensical. To run a business and not force yourself, driving yourself, constantly challenge yourself to ensure that you’re including everybody within the employee body in consideration for leadership positions within a company.

CAROLYNN: Absolutely, absolutely. AT&T updated its corporate values last year, after completing the Time Warner merger. These eight corporate values apply across the entire company. I want to ask about one in particular, which is embracing equality. What led to that being one of the eight?

RANDALL: It’s a bit of what I was just talking about. And that is: If you don’t embrace equality, you’re going to miss a huge element of your employee body in terms of taking advantage of their skills, taking advantage of their capabilities. But just as importantly, and this is kind of an extension of what I was talking about a moment ago. At the end of the day, if you’re operating in the United States of America — the first speaker, Steve, I think was his name — talked about this. Who’s your market? Your market is a very diverse market. And I lived in Mexico for four years. I learned a very, very valuable lesson.

I went down there to Mexico as a white male who grew up in this industry, in the United States of America, and tried to apply the same marketing principles that we use in the US, and was an abject failure. And until we basically brought in Mexicans who knew the Mexican market, and they began to instruct and educate me and us on what that market was about, we couldn’t succeed. Only when you had people in leadership positions who knew that market did we actually begin to succeed. And the thing took off. It was the same here. A huge element of our marketplace is African American. If I have no African Americans in the senior executive team, how do you know what those markets expect? What they anticipate? The cultures and so forth. Same with Latino markets, same with Asian markets, same with female markets. So we just have to have people leading these companies who know those markets, what they’re sensitive to, what they’re culturally acclimated to as well.

CAROLYNN: Wonderful. So one of the ways that I prepared for tonight was — when I came to Texas, and I was at your headquarters…

RANDALL: When were you in Texas? You came to Texas and you didn’t say, hi?

CAROLYNN: I’ve been to your headquarters a couple of times. But in preparing myself, I was listening to interviews and everything, and a lot of people like to think that your groundbreaking speech when you were talking about Black Lives Matter, which a lot of leaders won’t even allow to come out of their mouths… That wasn’t it. That was in 2016. But then after that, you were very vocal about the comments that Roseanne Barr made, and after that, you got on stage with Bishop TD Jakes and talked about the talent in his pews. Even those who are looking for a second chance after felonies on their records. That AT&T is a place where they can work. So can you talk about what you’re personally doing to promote diversity at AT&T?

RANDALL: At a personal level, that speech you referred to was the result of a lot of thinking I’ve put into this issue. Particularly around race. And as you remember, 2016 was a very difficult time in our country. And it occurred to me… If you and I complete this interview and I walk offstage, and somebody said… How is Carolynn? What do you think of her? Now, Carolynn, if I said… You know, I tolerate her… That probably wouldn’t be very flattering to you. Right?

CAROLYNN: No, it wouldn’t be!

RANDALL: So we have within our companies this strange mentality that we ought to be tolerant. And I’m not sure exactly what good that serves. I don’t want our people to be tolerant of each other. And I said: We’ve got to move past tolerance. We need to move towards understanding. We need to get really active and engage with each other. And understand each other. Understand where somebody with a different sexual orientation is coming from. How are they thinking? How are they processing what we say and how we treat people? African Americans and so forth.

It’s all about understanding and not tolerance. And so what we have done and what we have tried to continue to do is give our people license. It’s okay to talk about this stuff. And in fact, I think we need to talk about this stuff. We need to be engaging on a regular and constant basis. And we need to be having dialogue. Let’s not take these issues, shove them under a rug, where they just fester. And so one of the things — you asked what I do on a personal level. I’ve tried my best to model that behavior. And I’ve tried my best to propagate and perpetuate that behavior throughout our company. We’re having success. We’re not perfect. We’ve got a long way to go, but we are having success and moving the needle.

CAROLYNN: And I just want to ask one final question. And that’s around modeling leadership behavior. So when we were looking at AT&T’s submission this year, the representation of women and specifically women of color at AT&T is amazing. So can you talk a little bit — yes. That deserves a round of applause.

RANDALL: One of my newest female executives is right here. Angela Santon.

CAROLYNN: Hi, Angela! So can you talk a little bit about — like, modeling leadership behavior? And a very similar question to what I asked Jim. How are you leading by example and making sure that people make sure that they have diverse teams? And that it’s not okay to just have White men in the room? Because “we’re working on it”.

RANDALL: Right. So if somebody wanted to test my seriousness about making sure that I have this breadth of input coming to me as a CEO and the chairman of the company, the first place, if I were you, I would go look is: What does your board of directors look like? Who have the shareholders put around you to represent this?

And I just lost a great one. Joyce Rocher. African American female. I have four women on my board. I had — until Joyce just retired, two African Americans, and so it’s a very diverse board. I take great pride in the diversity of my board. And you’re gonna see this continue. There’ll be a couple of board additions this year.

CAROLYNN: Wonderful.

RANDALL: And you’ll see that continue. Obviously, as you look at my board, then you ought to go down and look at the executive team. And you’re never where you want to be on the executive team. But are you constantly pushing it? And I would tell you, one thing I take great pride in is this man right here. Bill Blaze, who is the head of HR for AT&T.

He and I have a process that I think is about as disciplined as any I know, where we’re not only worried about what does the executive team look like, but what does the funnel at all levels of the management team look like, and are we identifying and developing people from the various diverse sectors of our employee body, and making sure that we’re getting people ready for when these positions come up? And so I try, we try, at AT&T, all of us, to model this behavior, set it as critical, and as important, from our board all the way down to how we do hiring at the entry levels of this company.

CAROLYNN: Well, I thank you for your time today, Randall. I thank you and your team for making the trip from Dallas. I know there’s a lot of revenue-generating people in the room. So we’re gonna get you back to work.

RANDALL: This is important to us, Carolynn.

CAROLYNN: So thank you so much, and hopefully you’ll be able to stay ’til the end of tonight and find out who earned a spot on this list. Thank you so much.

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