Being an advocate for diversity runs in Donna Alligood Johnson's family. Her brother, a partner at an architectural firm, is heavily involved with diversity strategy at his company, and her sister is a member of her law firm's diversity council.
This family passion for diversity wasn't deliberate, Johnson says. "It's interesting because none of us started out thinking we'd be involved in diversity in any form," reflects the MasterCard chief diversity officer. (MasterCard Worldwide is No. 15 in The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.) The inspiration for all of them, she notes, is their father, Doug Alligood. He has a long history as a corporate diversity leader and currently is senior vice president on the diversity council at a leading marketing firm in New York.
Johnson recalls how her father would talk about what he did at work and how understanding consumers and their different attitudes could drive the bottom line.
"Because of his work in advertising, my dad also served as a mentor to people coming into the business and helped new employees to better integrate into the business culture," explains Johnson.
"He embedded in me how to drive business by changing the culture," she says. "It certainly made me aware of the important role a diversity officer plays within an organization."
Resource Groups: The Value of Collaboration
That lesson paid off for Johnson in 2008, when she was approached by the chief diversity officer at the time to help start the company's first resource group—Lifting Employees of African Descent (LEAD)—and serve as its co-chair. "It was a great learning experience. I was able to take an idea about building a new organization within the company and aligning it with business objectives," she says.
The response throughout the company was overwhelmingly positive. Other groups were soon launched. MasterCard now has seven resource groups that are among the strongest in DiversityInc's rankings and were featured in our web seminar on resource groups. These include Pride (LGBT), East (Asian), Latin, young professionals and, Johnson's favorite, Workers with Accumulated Value Experience (a generational group for baby boomers).
Johnson is a member of all seven and actively participates in all their events. She is also a member of the MasterCard Global Diversity and Inclusion Council, the Executive Women's Steering Committee, and the Multicultural Steering Committee.
The need for the groups is directly tied to the company's business goals. MasterCard recognized that there were specific segments that would drive the business forward.
"If you want to build a culture more collaborative and efficient and want employees to feel more appreciated and connected, you need to identify groups by community and bring those people together to work collaboratively," she explains. "You also need to bring in people that have the experience, background and mental agility to work in that kind of environment."
Marketing to Diversity Management
Like her father, Johnson started her career in marketing. After receiving her degree in social psychology, which she says helped her develop an understanding and value for people, Johnson worked as an account manager at an ad agency for a variety of packaged-goods and service clients for several years before transitioning into a marketing-management role at a large bank.
"This bank was the first issuer of frequent shopper cards to produce point-of-sale info. It ignited my passion for information services," says Johnson. Her move to work in financial services at MasterCard in 1995 was a natural progression.
Not having an HR background has never been a hindrance, she says. After discussing the issue with her peers, she's decided that it is in fact "beneficial to being a chief diversity officer. You have an understanding for what business-unit managers are looking for when it comes to employees." Other benefits include knowing what skill sets are required, what training managers will need and what tools employees need to be successful in their jobs.
The latest addition to her leadership repertoire is a master's degree in marketing and strategic leadership. "I'm always interested in learning," she says. "It's needed to be successful in your career."
For more on resource groups and marketing, watch the video on Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation's Ethnic Resource Groups and Marketing: