Fair360 2021 Top 50 event: CEO Roundtable Conversation on the Intersectionality of Diversity and Inclusion

Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s 2021 virtual CEO Roundtable Conversation on “The Intersectionality of Diversity and Inclusion” was joined by panelists Greg Adams, Chair and CEO of the Kaiser Foundation, Health Planning and Hospitals (a Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Hall of Fame Company) and Chris Nassetta, President and Chief Executive Officer of Hilton (No. 1 on The Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021). Carolynn Johnson, CEO of Fair360, formerly DiversityInc, moderated the session. Here’s a look back at their conversation.


Johnson: So, we’re here to talk about the intersectionality of diversity because, while it’s true that you can focus on single metrics like gender or ethnicity to promote diversity within organizations, that’s only half of the story. Those dimensions of diversity don’t occur on their own — people aren’t just Black or just gay, there’s intersectionality all wrapped around that. Greg and Chris, it is a pleasure to have you with us today. 

So, let’s get right to it. After everything that has taken place over the last year and what we are still seeing in the news today, could you describe diversity, equity and inclusion at Kaiser and Hilton? What does diversity look like at your organizations right now? 

Adams: We’ve had a long history, leading as a diversity and inclusion organization. And I think, like most organizations — and like our society — the events this past year, George Floyd, the other [deaths], the pandemic, have caused all of us to step back and to really reflect on, where are we? How are we owning diversity? How do we understand equity? And as people are marching and engaged in our society, how are we engaged in our boardrooms and our C-suites? 

So for us, a number of things happened. One, we, and I in particular, essentially said that we would not go external and begin to talk about how good we were and what needed to happen initially. First, we would look in our organization and really understand that, over the 75 years that we’ve been in place, what values did we have [regarding] systemic racism issues?

And so we started by engaging and listening to our business resource groups and learned a tremendous amount from our African Americans, from Asians, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, from our groups of populations. That is to say, how would we change and look at promotions, how do we understand our leaders and their ability to understand their own bias? So we’ve been on a path developing a program within the organization that’s looking at our leaders and our employees and their ability to understand their bias, their ability to kind of own racism. And in addition to that, looking at our systems and our infrastructures, et cetera.

So I think for us, it was about reexamining and recommitting to what’s happening in our organization. And I will tell you, getting our people to speak up — the letters that I’m getting about microaggressions, we’re a microcosm of our society. So we have to own that. And now we’re beginning to look at, how do we raise our voice externally, and how do we make sure in our boardrooms that we’re overseeing and holding the entire organization accountable for owning diversity, equity and inclusion in a different way?

Nassetta: Like Greg, I would say that both because of the events of the last year, but more importantly, as Greg described for his organization because it’s been part of the DNA of our company for the 102 years that we’ve been around, D&I has been front and center. We started out 102 years ago with a founder who was, for his time, incredibly forward-leaning and thinking on these issues, he believed in his heart of hearts, which has been pretty well documented, that he could create a better world through travel. He viewed it as a function of building peace in the world by breaking down barriers between cultures and people with differences so that there was greater understanding. And that’s why he built the company. 

And that has been, I think, at its core — it’s all about diversity and inclusion. It may not have been called that 102 years ago, but clearly, to my mind, that is front and center in our company, and has been, as you know, because we’ve spent a lot of time and had, thankfully, a fabulous relationship with you all as we’ve been evolving.

It’s been a journey, and notwithstanding we’ve been at this for 102 years, like anything, things have evolved in incredible and important ways. And particularly over the last year or two or three, I think these issues have become front and center. They’re not only important, but sort of the way we all think about them is different — and needs to be different. 

And so, I feel like we’ve been on a journey, and getting good advice from organizations like you that have really helped us. But predominantly, it’s about listening to our people, and as a middle-aged white person, for me, it’s particularly important to live by the standard my father taught me, which is, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And Carolynn, you and I have talked a lot about that, to make sure that we’re listening and learning because I do set the tone. And so I have to spend even more time, even though I think I am very sensitive and I try and be very thoughtful on the issues, [because] I don’t know what I don’t know. 

And so, I think this is a journey for us, one that I think we’ve made real progress on, demonstrably. We’ve made really important strides forward and are doing it, I think, the right ways. But we’re never done. I’d say where we are at Hilton is, recognizing that there are real issues and that while we are certainly, in our minds, contributing to building a better world for diversity and inclusion for everybody, we can do more — we can be the tip of the sphere and helping others understand these issues and how they can do more.

And so we’re really proud of the fact, even though we had some pretty ambitious goals, as you know, that this year we set new goals because we’ve been making great strides on the old goals. And we said — I’m not one to let a lot of grass grow under my feet and never have been — I said to our team, we should be ultimately really ambitious, like, we should have diversity that is representative of the population. So where it is at Hilton right now is saying, we want parity because that’s the world.

In the U.S., we want to get to at least 25% ethnic diversity, because that’s where the world is. And while it will take us some time to get to those goals — and there’s a lot behind it, which we can talk about — I’m very proud that, as we did 10 years ago, we set ambitious goals. And then, like any other goal that is important to our business, we go about accomplishing that. And in this case, this is obviously — from a societal point of view — critical. I mean, everybody needs to feel included.

But also, I think about our business, and the reason it’s always been front and center is, of course, the DNA and the founding, the premise of the company. But it’s also, we serve 200 million people a year in 120 countries. We serve the most diverse customer base on earth. The reality is, we will not succeed as a company over the long run without being incredibly thoughtful on these issues, because we will not ultimately be able to serve our customers the way we need to. And so for all the reasons in terms of making the world a better place, which is our purpose to driving performance in our business, this is and has been and will be front and center at this organization.

“Today is really about this moment.… People are open to understanding these issues in a way they’ve never been. This is a moment that we simply can’t let pass.”

Greg Adams, Chair and CEO, the Kaiser Foundation, Health Planning and Hospitals

Johnson: Greg, in your opening remarks, you talked about bias. So on that note, what are you doing internally at Kaiser to address internal bias and create measurable change within the organization?

Adams: I think the first thing is the message, and how we frame the message and our commitment. And it is really important today that we get it right. And I’m not sure we got it right, but we’re trying. And so I stand before our employees and I say to them that we must… accept the 400 years of systemic racism that our Black and African American colleagues and employees have faced. And we do that as gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender. We do that as Native Americans. We do that as Latinx. We do that as Asian Pacific Islanders. And as we lead, owning that, moving forward with them, we open and create a new beginning for all of us. So we are about [that], and in that are straight white men.

So we’re about inclusion. But we must own first the sin, if you will, that’s occurred for African Americans in this country, and then we embrace and move us all forward. So I think that is hugely important for us. And then we, our board and its leadership — the board made a decision this past December that we would shift our quality program to really looking at outcomes, that we would look at our outcomes through the lens of equity or through the lens of race and ethnicity.

So we’re really revamping how we look at care and outcome, and understanding where we have issues related to race and ethnicity. And then if we go back to our employee population, Carolynn, I think those listening sessions were phenomenal for me in terms of what I heard. I heard one Asian Pacific Islander employee talk about being at a store — and this was before everything came forward recently in the news — and having her and her two children threatened with pepper spray.

And… stories [from] Africa American employees, talking about [their dealings with other employees]… So for us, it is an opportunity to just really own that — as much as we’ve led, as committed as we are, we have to look every day at what’s occurring in our organization, just as we look at what’s occurring external to the organization, and we must be committed… People come to us as they are, with their life experiences. And I can’t change that. But I can, and we can create what is acceptable behavior, what we expect in terms of relationships within our organization.

And so we are about supporting our employees, helping them understand their internal bias or issues, but also being clear about what’s acceptable in our organizations in terms of behavior and acceptance of others… The value of diversity in our decision-making in our leadership, in our providing care to our members. Our commitment has always been that our leadership, our workforce should reflect the members we serve. And we absolutely understand and know that having a diverse multicultural organization, one that looks like our members, allows us to provide better care and better outcomes.

So one of our Executive Medical Directors talked about where we’re going, and they talked about equity and inclusion being the oxygen that kind of gives life to our organization. So, [we have] a ways to go; we’ve got a history, but I think today is really about this moment. And as I listened to Chris talk about his experience, we’re all there. And people are open to understanding these issues in a way that they’ve never been. And so for each of us individually, and certainly for our organizations, this is a moment that we simply can’t let pass.

Johnson: In our first virtual event last year, Michael Dowling, President and CEO of Northwell Health joined us. And during that conversation, I asked him, in his opinion, was racism a healthcare crisis? And he said yes. And we know that the CDC has also recently agreed with that sentiment. And so, with those things in mind, Greg, why is Kaiser really trying to tackle issues such as social justice and racism?

Adams: I was asked this question recently and it was framed in terms of, “Are you getting out of your lane?” And I said this is our lane. And when we look at Kaiser Permanente and our history and our mission statement, it’s always about the health of the individual, the member and the community. We’ve always understood that the community impacts our health and that every person deserves an opportunity to live to their fullest potential regardless of race, regardless of where they live, regardless of what they make. But I would take it a step further and say we will continue to do that work in terms of equity and disparities in healthcare, but we will never solve the problem if we don’t understand the root cause. And the root cause is what’s happening in our society in terms of education for all people, in terms of wealth for all people, in terms of access for all people.

So we have to be a part of the foundational issues that cause and create healthcare disparities in order for us to get to a place in healthcare where we are truly able to eliminate disparities. So it is hand in glove. It is doing what we do in the communities in terms of care and outcome, but it is also lifting our voice as so many other organizations are doing, and saying that today is the day that we own this differently and we call it differently. And I’m so appreciative of everybody who has helped us get to this place.

Johnson: Among other initiatives, you both demonstrate outstanding CEO leadership by chairing your Executive Diversity Councils, a diversity best practice for CEOs who want sustained irreversible progress. So Chris, right now, are there any specific areas of focus that you really want the organization to build upon when it comes to diversity?

Nassetta: Yeah. First, on leadership, be the master of the obvious. And I sort of said it in my introductory comments, leadership matters, right? And the tone at the top matters. I don’t care, like you could have the best team focused like crazy on these issues, setting ambitious goals and talking the talk, but without the tone at the top being the right tone — and not just tone, but leaning in and putting a shoulder into it, making sure everybody in the organization knows this is important and sees in your behaviors that it’s mission-critical — it doesn’t happen. Like anything else in big global companies, it doesn’t happen. And so it’s critically important that I chair the Executive Diversity Council, it’s critically important that I am deeply involved…

And so I can’t spend every minute of every day on this, but I spend a lot of time on it. My team spends an immense amount of time on it, and we lean into it. We put our shoulder into it, and we set the right example for our teams. And that’s one of the ways — I chair that council and they see me and I am active on the issues and I have opinions. And there are generally strong opinions on these types of things.

There are a number of things that have our focus right now. You’ve heard me talk many times about sort of top-up and top-down and bottom-up. And so, making sure that, as we think about recruiting talent and making sure that we have incredibly diverse slates of candidates, that we have the right partnerships, which we’ve been building to create that pipeline of talent. It’s been a real focus on making sure that we’re developing our internal talent because the best way to get to the right answer is by having the talent that is already embedded in this company. We have massive diversity, as you know, in this company, making sure that we’re developing that talent to bubble up.

And then, whether it’s bringing new people in or existing people, making sure that we’re creating the right sort of environment, that we’re focusing from a cultural point of view on celebrating diversity, making sure they know why it’s important, that it is important, and why it’s important leading into our TMRGs in a way that’s not window dressing, which I think it can be. And I think two to three years ago with us, it was, honestly, and now my own view is that it’s substantive — like we’re learning, we’re changing the way we think about things and the way we do unconscious bias training. Greg was just speaking very eloquently about the issues of bias. Well, there are a lot of people that don’t get it. They may not be evil, they may not be malicious, but they just don’t — back to, they don’t know what they don’t know.

And so, making sure that culturally we’re working on that. You agreed to participate in our courageous conversations here that we started and you were fabulous by the way, people are still talking about it. The reality is an amazingly important part of what we’re doing, particularly in the environment we’re in: One, it gives the priority that it deserves, meaning that we’re putting it front and center and people understand it. It allows me to be talking to our teams, but importantly, it’s really educational, right? So I’m really proud of that. We’re going to continue that on. I hope you’ll come back again and join us. But that has been something we just started over the last year.

And, honestly, I think it’s really moved the needle. The conversations I’m having as a result with our teams are amazing. I mean, not that I didn’t have great conversations with folks all around the system, because I believe I’m very tied in through all levels of the company, but this has just allowed people the freedom, and sort of the safety, to follow these conversations, to reach out and realize it’s OK that maybe they think there are opportunities for us to do things better than they might’ve been before, they might have been concerned about sharing. 

And so those are some of the things I’m proud of. What I’m most proud of, though, is that I think that we’re getting results, that we’re setting targets and we’re getting there. But more importantly, this company, even through the pandemic, we’ve been performing at the highest levels. And in the end, that is because of the culture we’ve built-in critical elements, and it is diversity and inclusion.

And so, my own belief is to really, ultimately, get to the place we all want to get to and have it as really, innately, part of the DNA of the organization, it’s that it all fits together. My dream is, honestly, that in my lifetime at this company, I don’t have to set goals. And I don’t have to measure them anymore, and I don’t have to compensate people to do this. That’s my dream. Because then [that would mean] people understand the value proposition. They understand, not only is it good for society, but this is good for our business. This is mission-critical for our business, and everybody gets that. And it’s part of our day-to-day existence. 

Now, we’re not there. I’m sure there’s somebody who may be there, but that is my dream and that is my goal… and I am really, as you know, very, very focused when I have goals and dreams. And so in any event, those are some of the things we’re working on, some of the things that are still a work in progress.

“On leadership, be the master of the obvious. You could have the best team focused like crazy on these issues, but without the tone at the top being right — making sure everybody in the organization sees that it’s mission critical — it doesn’t happen.”

Chris Nassetta, President and CEO, Hilton

Johnson: If you think about this year’s Top 50 survey submissions, there are some organizations who really doubled down on their commitment to this topic and to the communities they serve and their suppliers, and some folks backed away. 

And so, even with that, the velocity of change positively, there is still, there’s not one organization, not even a company in our Hall of Fame that is doing everything right and pulling all the right levers at the exact same time. Greg, can you talk to us about what keeps you up at night regarding making sure that D&I is part of everything that you do, especially during a pandemic?

Adams: The pandemic, I think, opened the world’s eyes to the issues of disparities and, again, those root causes, and it’s continuing to play out, obviously playing out in our Black and Brown communities still as we sit here today in the States and across the globe. 

So I think the first thing is, I think we’re all open to — and I hope owning it — the need to move this nation forward and to address many of these systemic issues and where we are now, as I look at Latinx being impacted five times greater. If I look at the deaths that are occurring and have occurred in the African American community, we moved fast. I think we responded with speed. We struggled through, led through, I think for the most part we’re proud of what we did within our organization.

I’m proud of how we were able to lead at the state and national level. And as we look at what happened in our society in terms of the kind of disparities, the racism, and as we look inside the organization, I think the thing that — I don’t know that it keeps me up, because we’re owning it, and we’re going to lead through it — but it’s that the level of unconscious bias that exists is pretty striking when you stop and begin to think about it and begin to really feel it. And it is so unintentional, right?

And so part of what I struggle with is, how do we lead this in a way that allows us to be inclusive in a way that allows people to not be discounted in what we say, what we do? I’ll give you an example, I hope it’s not an inappropriate example. In inviting people to raise their voices and to be heard, I get lots of letters, and I read most of them and I don’t always get to respond to every employee, but I read them. And I read one letter from an African American employee that kind of made me emotional, [about them] telling their story and how the HR investigation or review reviewed it and said, “None of this is substantiated.” I read it and I could just feel the bias that’s coming through in the interactions.

And so I think what overwhelms me a bit is, how do you change that in an organization when people don’t know that their bias is impacting their conclusions? And it’s bigger than Kaiser Permanente, it’s bigger than Hilton, it’s about who we are as a society. So I think the hard thing for me is to be… We’re an organization that — we’re committed, we’re leading, but so much of this is, we all grow up, we all have biases, but [we need to] have a moment where we stop and begin to learn what they are and to understand how they’re impacting others and the subtlety that’s in this. It is really something that I find very profound now, looking at our organization and seeing where there are issues.

And it is not easy to always help people to understand that there are issues and there is bias in the way you put this. The great thing is our leaders are owning it. We, like Chris, are going through these courageous conversations. And that’s even new in terms of how do you have a conversation for people so they’re able to understand not only the role that they have played but also the role that a larger society has played? And how do you talk about this in a way where people can really embrace it and own it? So I guess “systemic” is the word, but when you see it and you understand it at that level, and good people trying to do good work but [with] tremendous bias, it’s a challenge.

Johnson: Earlier today I asked Roy Wood Jr., “What advice would you give to people to help them have a similar positive impact to what you’ve had?” He said, “If you can’t make people laugh, help them feel.” And then I think about our session with David Cordani of Cigna, and he talked about how seeing George Floyd being murdered on that pavement, it kind of created a feeling — and I’m paraphrasing — but it created a feeling and a level of vulnerability and a new understanding that he hadn’t experienced before. 

And I feel like that’s important in this conversation right now. We now know what to call it, and now we cannot look back. We must deal with it. We have to use our influence so that people can one day, if they choose to, be honest…

And so if you asked me what keeps me up at night, it’s the intersections of my differences that have people not hear me or not see the impact that I’m trying to positively make… So with that, can you talk about what you are most proud of? 

Nassetta: Well, I sort of talked about it in my last answer. I got a bit carried away, like I can do, because I’m very passionate about these issues. And so, I think there’s much work to be done. But I am proud of the progress that we’re making. I’m proud of the fact that we are trying to learn what we don’t know, as you guys described.

One of the things that keep me up a bit at night, that I focus on, and that courageous conversations have helped, is fear. I think one of the great enemies of an open mind is fear. And this requires that people open their minds to garner greater understanding; but if people are afraid, my experience is, whatever the issue is, they won’t — they close their minds. And so what I guess I’d say that I’m most proud of is, well, we have a ways to go, we’re opening people’s minds. We’re trying to do it in our industry, not just our company… And we’re trying, and I’m trying, and our team is trying our level best to make sure [we’re having] the conversations that create a safe environment, that take the fear away, that allow… the understanding to build, which is the foundation to ultimately finding the right solutions.

Adams: I would say first, I’m proud of our employees. I’m proud of them for being willing to raise their voices. I’m proud of them being involved in all of these groups, and then they’re about change, and they’re about helping our organization change. I’m also proud of our clinicians, the work we’ve done on disparities, the commitment that they have to continue to lead in this space — it’s just phenomenal. But I’m proud also of our board, who said we will own, we will lead, and there is not a board meeting that we have where this issue is not front and center all the way through our meetings. So I think as an organization with that leadership report level, we’ve got recognition and we’ve got our employees that are really kind of leading and owning. So I’m very proud of all three of those components of our organization.

Johnson: I appreciate that. And I am sad that this conversation has to come to an end. This has been awesome. So thank you so much, both of you, for your time today and also for allowing Diversity to have the relationship that we have enjoyed with both of your organizations over the years. Have a great day.