Conversations around diversity and inclusion can be uncomfortable — particularly in the workplace. In this new podcast, host Y-Vonne Hutchinson — CEO and founder of ReadySet, a diversity and inclusion consulting and strategy firm — speaks with business leaders who are driving discussions within their organizations and taking bold action to advance and accelerate change.
Working with CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion — the largest coalition of CEOs who’ve pledged to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace — Hutchinson discusses topics such as allyship, intersectional divides and mental health inclusion with C-suite leaders who are showing their organizations and their industries that now is the time to act on diversity and inclusion.
Interviewer: How important to you is diversity and inclusion in the workplace?
Man on Street #1: The most important thing when you are working on anything with, like, a team of people is diversity of thought. That’s the most important thing, and the only way you are going to do that is make an inclusive community that’s open to new ideas. As an owner myself, it is so essential for me to have different voices, different backgrounds and unique experiences all coming together to create a stronger company as a whole.
Man on Street #2: It’s very important. I think you have to really include everybody — no matter who they are, where they’re from or what they believe in. That’s really the only way that it can work.
Y-Vonne Hutchinson, Host: This is “Time To Act”. I’m your host, Y-Vonne Hutchinson. I’m a diversity and inclusion expert. And through my company ReadySet, I work with organizations to help them foster a corporate culture that helps to improve a sense of belonging to employees.
On this podcast, I’m working with CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, the largest coalition of CEOs who’ve pledged to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Throughout this series, we’ll explore and highlight the recent steps companies are taking to tackle D&I, and I’ll be talking to leaders of industry and diving into why they act as ambassadors for change.
In this episode, my guest is James Fripp, Yum! Brands’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. Yum! Brands is a global fast dining corporation, operating brands, such as KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. James has been leading D&I efforts at Yum!, starting with its global inclusive leadership platform that’s helping grow a culture of inclusion among its multinational brands. For context, I spoke with James prior to the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic. James, can you give us a little bit of an introduction who you are, where you’re working?
James Fripp: I am the Global Chief Diversity Officer for Yum! Brands. I’m based in Plano, Texas, out of our office there, but I bounce around the country and the globe and try to make our organization as diverse as our customer base, especially in the mid-level management up through our C-suite.
Hutchinson: James. I’m really curious: Since you’ve started working at Taco Bell, I’m sure there’ve been many changes to the menu. What is your favorite menu item?
Fripp: My favorite menu item at Taco Bell is something that we no longer have. It’s called the Enchirito. The Enchirito is a yellow corn shell with beans and meat and onions in the middle. And then you roll it up and you put sauce and cheese, and at the time, olives, on top. So, it’s a Taco Bell version of the enchilada.
Hutchinson: I think we need a content warning for folks who may not have eaten lunch before this.
Can you tell us a little bit about your family and upbringing?
Fripp: Sure, I’m one of eight. I’m number five: five girls, and my two brothers and myself. My father was in the military. He was in the Air Force. And if you know anything about the Force, he was an enlisted guy with eight kids, which basically means that you’re broke. I say that to say we didn’t have much at all. But what we did have was family. We were very close, which came from a hard, hardworking parent background. A lot of kids, not a lot of money, great work ethic.
Hutchinson: I want to transition to the workplace and talk about your journey through Taco Bell, to where you are today. I think what’s so interesting about your story is that you’ve been with the company for so long and you’ve kind of worked your way through. So can you talk to me a little bit about what that was like and what your process was to get to where you are now?
Fripp: My sister was working at Taco Bell at the time. And so, you know, you lean on your sister. You say, “Hey, can you kind of help me out and getting a job there?” And I got a job there. My goal in life was to graduate from high school, go active duty military and follow my father’s footsteps. When I went to go active in the military after high school, there’s a place called Military Entrance Processing Station, where you go to get your physical and you get ready to go off to the military. They said, “You’ve been permanently disqualified.” I said, “For what?” They said, “Because you have eczema, so you can’t go active duty military.” And so at that point in my life, I had to decide, “What are you going to do?” And Taco Bell was like, “James, we love you. We’d love to have you here.” And then I went all-in at Taco Bell. Ultimately, I did return to school and I got a degree in business management.
Hutchinson: Can you talk to me about your first leadership experience while working in the Taco Bell store and maybe some of the difficulties and challenges that you faced?
Fripp: The first was when I made that decision to stay with Taco Bell and they were going to promote me to a manager role, an hourly manager role. I learned a lot about leadership then. Yesterday, these folks were my friends that I worked with, and today, I’m their boss. What I learned is the two don’t necessarily go together, especially if you don’t have the skills to deal with that. And so now I didn’t fit with my friends from yesterday, but I also didn’t fit with the salaried managers. So I was in that in-between mode. So, I didn’t fit in either. That was a lesson in leadership around if you don’t have the absolute authority, all you have left is influence.
Hutchinson: Can you give me an example of a story that illustrates that lesson that you’re talking about?
Fripp: Let’s go back to how I’m now responsible for these people in this restaurant — and we’re really, really busy — and I’m going to exert my leadership skills. I’m going to tell some of yesterday’s friends, now, today —employees that I’m responsible for — that they’re not doing their job fast enough and they really need to get faster and hurry up. One of them said, “Who do you think you are?” And that’s when I said, “I’m your boss.” And they said, “Well, not anymore,” and they walked out. That’s when I figured out, OK, this leadership thing is actually fluid. I went back to what I did best, which is work with people and support people where they need to be supported. And once I did both of those things, the shift came together. In fact, folks started to rally around me.
Hutchinson: Eventually, James worked his way through the ranks from a shift leader to a general manager of Taco Bell and, as general manager, was in charge of hiring and training other managers. Being really impressed by James, Taco Bell created an HR role for him on the corporate recruiting side.
Can you talk to me a little bit about how you moved from HR into D&I?
Fripp: I went from associate generalist to full-on HR generalist and really started working with other generalists and teaching them the craft. Then our Chief Diversity Officer at the time — our Director of Diversity, my predecessor — she was at an event that I was at as well. Afterwards she said, “You know what? I think I’m going to have to retire. Would you be interested in this role?” And I said, “What do you do?” She said, “Well, you know, I make sure that we look good for, you know, people looking at our organization and things of that nature.” I said I’d like to learn more, and so she talked to me more about the role itself and talked to me about what she did. And I said, “You know what? I would be interested in exploring.” And so I met with our CEO and ended up getting the role.
Hutchinson: I’m curious. What were your expectations when you walked into the role, and what were some things you wanted to accomplish?
Fripp: First and foremost, we had been on the “Black Enterprise Top 40 Companies for Diversity” list for about six years in a row prior to me getting in the role. And what I struggled with was every time we made the list, people would ask me, “Who did we pay to get on the list?” I did not want that to be the case for me. My expectation was that for any awards that we got, our people would be able to say, “I know exactly how we got it. I know why we got it, and I’m proud of that.”
So when I interviewed for the role with our CEO, he said, “Do you have any questions?” I said, “I have one question. Are we serious?” And he said, “Why would you say that?” I said, “Because, you know, we made this list. Here’s what people are saying about that. I don’t feel good about that.” And he said, “We are indeed serious. And James, what we want you to do is we want you to come in and help us get better at this.” When he said “better,” at the time, that meant making sure we had more diverse talent in our mid-level management ranks up through our leadership. And so that’s the goal. That was what my expectation of the role was. That’s what I was looking to do, and we’re still working at it.
We’ve been addressing diversity and inclusion as a science: the data, the numbers. We have to address diversity and inclusion via the fears, apprehensions, the obstacles. In fact, what I would absolutely do is change the words. What if we call it inclusive leadership?
Hutchinson: So Yum! Brands began globally implementing a form of experiential, unconscious bias training, or “inclusive leadership,” as James likes to call it.
Fripp: A good, great young lady — her name is Carolina Romero — she’s on our KFC international business team. She said, “James, what if we rounded out the experience by going to people’s homes after being in the session all day and having dinner with our people’s families in their homes?” And so we piloted on the KFC international side, myself and some others. We went to about four or five different homes, about four or five different people. And the feedback has just been phenomenal. The differentiator is when we go to people’s homes, it takes it from being this notion around this work relationship, to now this authentic, holistic family relationship. Our leaders see our people differently.
Hutchinson: One of the reasons why I’m sitting with James is because he’s part of CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion. CEO Action allows organizations to come together and learn from a broad spectrum of people. And it encourages companies to have tough conversations about what’s working and what’s not when it comes to diversity and inclusion initiatives.
What do you think are some of the biggest barriers to building diversity at a larger organization? ’Cause Yum is huge.
Fripp: One of the biggest challenges, especially early on, for me personally, is I have to remember to meet people where they’re at, not where I’m at. The other thing I have to tell myself is, do I want to be right or do I want to be effective? Whoo, I have to tell myself that every day.
Hutchinson: Let’s talk about that.
Fripp: Let’s talk about that, because, oh my goodness gracious. Yes, “Do I want to be right or do I want to be effective” is how I live, because the way that I think we should get there may not be the way that other folks see it. And I have to consider, do I want commitment or do I want compliance? If I want commitment, I need to meet people where they’re at. I need to be open to others’ ideas and I need to be the one who’s viewed as supporting the organization and where they’re going, not the one who is leading the organization by the nose. I want to be effective because if I’m effective, then people will do what I mentioned earlier and we don’t have to make inclusive leadership mandatory. People will be asking for it.
Hutchinson: You were saying you have to meet people where they’re at. And I say this as a practitioner who’s African American, sometimes that can be a little bit hard. So can you tell me about maybe some of the challenges that you face as a leader in that way?
Fripp: It’s very difficult because what I’ve learned about this space is there’s very little forgiveness for the D&I professional. W supposed to be the know-it-all. We’re supposed to be the one who knows how to make this thing come to life in a way so that everybody’s on board and everybody’s comfortable. The reality of it is that not everybody’s on board and not everybody’s comfortable.
And so what I do, in terms of meeting people where they’re at, is I try to assess where the individual is at. I share where we’re at, what we’re trying to accomplish. I watch body language. I listen for questions. The fact of the matter is, it’s been proven through research that diverse teams produce better outcomes. It’s been researched and proven that when you have more than two women on a board, the organization performs better. And so when people ask you questions, what I listen for is what they mean, not what they are saying. I have to answer the questions that aren’t being verbalized. And when I answer the questions that aren’t being verbalized, then I become more effective, because then people start to ask me what’s really on their hearts and minds, which then allows me to address that, which then does what my goal is every day.
Hutchinson: One other question I had — and it’s not necessarily unique to your context but I think it definitely characterizes your organization — is about global presence. You can go to Pizza Hut. I went to Japan when I was 12, the first meal I had was at a Pizza Hut.
Fripp: Thank you for that.
Hutchinson: My Japanese family was kind of confused, but you know, you see Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC everywhere all over the globe and the brand is global. So how do you think about D&I in that global context, and what are some of the challenges there?
Fripp: It’s a real interesting challenge in that, in every country — we’re in over 140 countries — “D&I” means different things, and in some cases the “D” doesn’t even exist; it’s more about inclusion. And so what does that look like in that country? The biggest challenge is to make sure that wherever, whatever country we go into, and whenever we’re talking about diversity and inclusion in said country, that we’re respectful of the country that we were in. We cannot come with a U.S.-centric mindset. We have to get insights from the folks who are on the ground and let them lead us in the context of how we help bring inclusion to life in those countries. That’s the biggest issue that we have, is making sure that our minds are open to what inclusion and diversity look like in other countries, versus coming with our U.S.-centric lens.
Hutchinson: I would really love to hear one of your biggest lessons learned, like what is your D&I pro-tip?
Fripp: Diversity and inclusion — while the numbers matter — is about the art. It’s about the relationships and the trust. People have gotten jobs, and I’m sure others who are either listening to the podcast or can relate would say they’ve seen somebody get a job and they couldn’t figure out why the person got the job, because they don’t seem to have any background and experience in that work. They got the job because the leader trusts them. That trust comes from relationships.
Where I see us have the biggest gap in D&I, and where somebody won’t put their name on somebody who’s different than them, is because they don’t know them. If they don’t know them, they’re not going to trust them. And when it comes down to it, who gets the job are those that I trust, those that I know. We need to build relationships.
Hutchinson: During my conversation with James, something that stood out to me was our focus on leading inclusively and meeting people where they’re at. The phrase that he said, which really struck me, was the idea of commitment, versus compliance, and how important it was to have people who were committed to the mission. And I don’t think this is just the case with D&I. I think that we can look at leadership overall and say that teams are more active, they’re more engaged. They’re more committed when we shift away from compliance and we start building relationships.
As we began to emerge from an incredibly difficult time for companies and their employees and we see businesses begin to rebuild their teams, I think more organizations could stand to learn from James’s example. So often when we think of leadership, we think of a command and control model, where we order people to do something and then they execute on our behalf.
We now know that that doesn’t exactly build a healthy workplace culture. We need to invest in people’s learning. We need to listen and we need to approach our teams with humility. And I think this kind of approach to leadership could go a long way in building healthier workplace cultures and really making sure that the people who work for companies that may feel left behind, or may not feel like they’re part of the mission, feel more engaged and feel like they’re a part of their organizations.
So what did you learn today from James Fripp, and what do you think companies should be doing to build inclusive leadership? Let us know in the comments section. We want to hear from you. We also want to know what you think of the show, so leave us a review.
Subscribe to “Time To Act” for free. You won’t want to miss upcoming conversations with people who are leading the charge to improve diversity and inclusion in their companies and across industries. I’m Y-Vonne Hutchinson. Let’s keep the conversation going.
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“Time To Act: A Podcast About Diversity And Inclusion,” presented by PwC and CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion™, features CEOs and C-suite leaders from multinational brands and regional businesses discussing why diversity and inclusion are defining factors in a company’s growth and success at scale. It’s more than checking the boxes — together, business leaders are listening, understanding and taking action for real change.
Produced by RYOT Studio and At Will Media. For a deeper dive into corporate diversity and inclusion in action, visit HuffPost.
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