Fireside Chat: DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson Talks with Dow CEO Jim Fitterling

Dow (No. 37) CEO Jim Fitterling has beat cancer and was named No. 1 of the “Top 100 LGBT+ Executives” on “The Financial Times annual “OUTstanding in Business” list in 2018. He also appears frequently in the media as a representative for Dow.

In 2014 on National Coming Out Day, Fitterling came out to 53,000 people in a company meeting. Since then, he has been an advocate for diversity and inclusion in corporate and educational settings. In March 2019, he was featured in the Bloomberg Businessweek article “How Dow Chemical Got Woke”.

On Tuesday night at DiversityInc’s Top 50 annual event, Fitterling met with DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson for a Fireside Chat to talk about how he has helped Dow become more diverse, why it’s important and also what inspired him to come out in front of tens of thousands of people at the company.

JOHNSON: Jim, you came out in 2008, after you were diagnosed with cancer. And you were selectively out, basically telling close colleagues. And you took a major stance in 2014 by coming out in an internal company event for National Coming Out Day. Why did you take that stance? And how did that transparency propel your drive for a workforce culture that fosters diversity and inclusion?

FITTERLING: During the time that I actually came out in a global webcast to 53,000 employees… Which is a mind-altering experience, if you’ve never done that… You have to do a little preparation for that. But what went on really, during that time, was… You had people in my position around the world who were being outed. And I made a decision that I would rather tell my own story than be outed. The cancer part is important, because in 2008, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and it was pretty far along. So I had to undergo a few kind of horrific surgeries, a year of chemo, and I had a recurrence in 2010.

And those things kind of change the way you look at things in your life. And after the recurrence, I was already back and forth around… Was I gonna continue to work or not? What was important to me? And I wanted to continue to work. I was still young. But I said… If I’m gonna do this, I’ve got to remove some stresses out of my life. And when I looked at all the things that I could change, one of them was trying to lead two separate lives. One at home and one at work. And you know… The era that I grew up in was probably the same era that brought you the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell philosophies and policies. And at the time, there was more risk than reward for coming out. And still today, even though it’s more acceptable, more than half of the people at work who are LGBT don’t feel like coming out.

As I was moving up, I had the chance to make a run to be chief operating officer, and so after that second surgery, I went and talked to my boss, Andrew, and I said I think I need to do this. And he was very supportive. As part of that run, I needed to go see each individual board member of the company, and every single one of them, to a person, was supportive of that decision. Which made it a lot easier. To the importance of allies, which I know is a big discussion that you’re gonna have today. You had today and you’re gonna have tomorrow probably as well…

The year before I came out on the global broadcast, on Coming Out Week, we always have a global broadcast for our GLAD team. Beth Brook at EY had come to speak at the group. And she’s a great lady. I had been traveling. I got home that weekend. I looked at that video, and I said… Wow. You know, the story that Beth is telling could be me. You know? And I said… So I’ve got to do this. And it inspired me to go through with the process. The response was amazing. But the simple reason for doing it was… There were a lot of people in the company that probably guessed that I was gay. And if I was gonna be in a leadership position and I had LGBT employees working in the company, and they looked at me and I’m afraid of being out… Then what does it say to them about their chances to get ahead? And I said… Look. This isn’t right. We have to change this. And so I’m in a spot where I think I can make a big impact. I’m gonna do it.

JOHNSON: So you’ve been a visible, intentional ally for women. Karen Carter, who spoke during one of the panels earlier today, I think she basically just talked about everything you were gonna say on the stage. I’ve also known that Karen has been promoted to an officer in your company. She’s the first African American female officer at Dow.

FITTERLING: That’s right.

We had a chance to make a leadership change. We just spun out from Dow-DuPont on April 2nd. And I was named last July, when Andrew retired. And really, between July and September, we had a chance to reset the leadership team. We’re at 6 out of 17 right now females on our leadership team. Karen is our chief HR officer. We’ve got our General Counsel, our chief sustainability officer, our chief information officer, and two of my seven business presidents are female. So a big change in the organization. And Karen’s got Alveda. Karen and Alveda are kind of the one-two punch on inclusion and diversity at Dow.

JOHNSON: And so when we talk about the intentional shaping that went into your leadership team, why was that important?

FITTERLING: Well, it was important — there were two things that I was trying to do. I didn’t want there to be a double standard in the company. I wanted that everybody on my team could go to the shop floor and talk with anybody in the company, and roll their sleeves up and be part of the team.

I didn’t want it to be a “corporate” versus everybody else. We had to get rid of that. And we were becoming a smaller company, in terms of total number of employees. So we could be closer, and we could communicate more. We’ll have 37,000 employees, as the new Dow.

And so we had a couple of objectives. The leadership team had to walk the walk. In front of everybody. That meant they had to be people that everybody respected. And they had to be authentic, and they had to have good character. And so that was a big part of the drive. And then our other thing was we had to re-recruit 37,000 employees. When you go through a big spin like that, a big change, transformational change, people get nervous. And they make a lot of their decisions about the environment and who they’re working with and whether they want to stay around. So I needed people in the organization that reflected that.

JOHNSON: And in talking about recruiting, as if walking the walking wasn’t already enough, as you’ve done, you’re also the executive sponsor for the African American employee resource group. The ERGs are so critical to Dow, and you required all of your people leaders — so that’s like 2,000+ people — to participate in ERGs. Please talk about your personal experience with sponsoring the African American ERG, and how you hold other leaders accountable.

FITTERLING: Yeah, so every one of our senior leaders — my executive team — needs to be a sponsor of one of the ERGs. And that includes me. I had been involved with the women’s innovation network, which was our oldest ERG, for quite a while. Since I was in sales and product management days. And so we decided to make some changes, and my feeling was that the African American network at the time was what we called it, and it was just a US-based network. It really needed the strongest support possible. And it requires intervention to make sure that things happen and there’s fair and equitable treatment in the organization. And so it was a strong message to them that I had their back.

At the same time, we were trying to change a few things, and some of my learnings out of the LGBT organization was that allies are important. And when I would go to — let me just give you an example. Our LGBT group, GLAD, has been in existence for 19 years. It is the largest ERG in the company. It is 75% allies, and when you go to an event, you can’t tell who’s who. Because everybody gets along and mingles, and I would go to an African American network event and it was predominantly African Americans. There were no allies in the room. So one of the things we did with Karen’s help and with the help of Syn Marshal, who supported us — is she here? I would have heard it if she was here, probably.

JOHNSON: You would have known!

FITTERLING: We decided that all the ERGs needed allies. Because how are we gonna get these discussions — the ERGs are meant to be a safe place for people to have a discussion about what’s good and what’s bad in the company. And if there are no allies there, it can just degenerate into a complaint session. And I wanted them to be action groups, and so we said: Everybody’s gonna be part, and if you’re gonna be a leader in this company, you’re gonna be at those ERGs, and you’re gonna participate, because if you’re not, you’re cutting yourself out of some very, very valuable information that you need to run the company.

And part of the reality in being in a science and technology company is you have a lot of great people that are very technically smart, they’re innovative, they’ve gotten where they are because of their knowledge base, and in some cases, they’re not good people managers. And if you’re gonna be ahead in this world, you’ve got to have leaders in those jobs. That means they have to do both the technical part and the personal part. They’ve got to make sure that people can live their lives and bring it to work.

And the EQ has to match the IQ for them to get ahead. And that’s one of the things we’re working strong on, is: Get the leadership there. Our ERG participation jumped from 18% to 34% in one year. And it makes a difference when the leaders are engaged because other people follow them into the ERGs. So we’ve got a double benefit out of doing that.

JOHNSON: And one note to end on. I think you need to look around the room. Because leaders who are really engaged in this topic, they show up. And if you look at your table, if you look around the room, your leaders are here, and they are showing up for you. So Jim, thank you for showing up. We really appreciate you.

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