By Barbara Frankel
How did a white chemical executive from Scotland end up as the executive sponsor of an African-American resource group? For Derek Fairclough, the assignment was serendipitous but resulted in his becoming a better leader.
When Fairclough was appointed to his current role at BASF in 2011, he was told that his predecessor had been the executive sponsor of the African-American resource group.
"They asked me if I wanted to do this moving forward. I recognized it as an opportunity. I'm not sure if I went in with many expectations up front," he recalls.
The experience, which he would very much like to replicate with another resource group in the future, has been eye opening. "It's helped me understand [and grow] the way we attract people to the company and how we develop the talent. The stories of many of the African-American employees really gave me a different perspective. I realized it was necessary to be proactive to address some of these issues," he says.
Being a Corporate Diversity Leader
Fairclough has the ability to do that as a corporate leader and an executive on BASF's diversity council in North America. He's proud of the progress the company is making, especially earning on spot on the DiversityInc Top 50 for the first time, at No. 31. BASF was named DiversityInc's Top Company for Diversity-Management Progress at an Oct. 16 event in New York City.
"We've decided to take some substantial steps," he says, noting multiplepartnerships with Historic Black Colleges and Universities. He cites as an example the company's relationship with North Carolina A&T University and BASF's efforts to recruit more Black students.
"I've taken a personal role in this and we've had outreach to the university to make BASF a company that is attractive to the students. We tell them what opportunities there are," he says.
Fairclough also notes that the company has been rolling out and emphasizing its cross-cultural mentoring programs and trying to provide employees more access to senior managers so they can better understand opportunities for development.
He also personally mentors several employees and notes that the company's mentoring program was piloted with the African-American resource group in Charlotte, N.C., for which he is executive sponsor.
A Global Perspective
Fairclough is a native of Scotland who attended university in Glasgow and then moved to Northern England to work for Hickson and Welch before returning to his homeland to join Ciba. BASF acquired Ciba in 2008, and Fairclough moved to the United States when the two companies were integrated in 2009.
"I've learned to appreciate the vast diversity that exists in all of these countries," he says. "One of the things I've experienced is how it feels to be a little bit of an outsider and not know the culture. That's a help to me to understand how it feels to be a minority employee in a large organization," he says.
He also notes that he has learned to appreciate the impact of diversity on high-performing teams. "I've seen many different people come together. It can be a little challenging at the start with different cultures, perspectives and experiences. The results can be outstanding and ultimately benefit business performance," he says.
For BASF in the United States, Fairclough feels there are much higher expectations from both customers and employees on the need for diversity and inclusion. As a global company headquartered in Germany, "it's even more important that we can connect to our customers and meet their requirements. Having a very diverse and open culture really helps us drive our business goals," he says.
The greatest challenge for the company, in his view, is "to create the culture where people feel more empowered, more capable of contributing to the business—that's both a challenge and a huge opportunity." He notes BASF's increased use of its resource groups as a talent-development and engagement tool. "It's a big help in connecting with employees and we are starting to see results," he says.
Up next is getting all the senior leaders to understand the increasing importance of diversity and inclusion to business goals. "People look for actions. They want visible and active leaders," Fairclough says. "A proactive leadership approach is extremely important. Don't just sit back and be passive."