Fair360 2021 Top 50 event: Fireside Chat with Carole Huntsman

During a Fair360, formerly DiversityInc 2021 virtual Fireside Chat, Carole Huntsman, Head of North America, Sanofi Genzyme and U.S. Country Lead at Sanofi (No. 27 on The  Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021), spoke about allies in corporate America with Carolynn Johnson, CEO of Fair360, formerly DiversityInc. Here’s a look back at their conversation.


Johnson: As we have all seen and experienced firsthand, allies are an essential resource for women in the workplace and in society as a whole. This is especially true for women of color, Black women, Latinos, Asian women, Native American, Pacific Islander women, women who identify as one or two or more races. Allies lend support, share in our struggle, and help to make sure our voices are heard. 

Change can not come about without their assistance in this fight.

Here to share her story as an ally and have a very honest, candid conversation with me is Carole Huntsman, North America’s head of Sanofi Genzyme and U.S. Country Lead. Welcome, Carole.

Huntsman: Thank you so much, Carolynn. It’s really great to be here.

Johnson: So we’re going to dig right in, OK? Carole, can you talk about what allyship looks like to you, and why it’s important around the conversation of belonging, and equity and inclusion?

Huntsman: Absolutely. Well, to me, an ally is someone who actively and continuously works to promote justice and end marginalization. I think the keywords here are “active and continuous,” and I think it really requires a lot of listening and learning and advocating. I talked about action, and I think it really needs to be intentional action. I think it provides an opportunity in the workplace to fight injustice and promote equity, but also to really work on improving policies and practices, as well as the culture. I think it also really allows personal relationships to flourish and allows especially leaders to show public acts of sponsorship and advocacy.

Johnson: Yeah. When I talk and think about allies, it seems like it’s almost a natural reaction to, when you hear that word, think of a white man or to think of a white woman. But the reality is that anyone can be an ally to someone else. I think we mix up sponsorship and mentorship. With that in mind, Carole, when did you realize that you could be an ally to someone? Can you talk a little bit about that moment?

Huntsman: Absolutely. When I think about that moment, there was a time that I was relatively new in my role. I was at a national meeting with some employees who were relatively new to the company. I happened upon a group of women. They were actually five or six women of color, and I — it was our first opportunity to meet, and meet face-to-face, and at the time, we weren’t in a pandemic. We weren’t meeting in Zoom or in Microsoft Teams. We were actually live, and I greeted them and they were asking a lot of questions, a lot of great and challenging questions about what career development was like in the organization.

One of the employees was a woman of color. She told me that despite the fact that she had had significant previous people-management experience and had decided to step out of the management role for some family reasons for a number of years, she was told in our company that she needed to go right back to the drawing board as if she had never been a people manager, that she had to go through the management development program again, and through the associated selection process. She was wondering why that was, and as I told her that evening, it didn’t make any sense to me.

That’s when I realized not only that I could and should, but that I really must get involved to be an ally to this employee. It was really in that moment that I realized that not every employee with the same résumé of experiences would likely have been given the same answer by managers in our organization. I engaged with her general manager and clarified that, indeed, she would not have to start all over again in our management development program as if she had never been a people manager, and provided her with some supportive development on interviewing skills. I personally got involved with her mentoring, and I would say it was really a two-way mentoring. I learned a lot from her about sponsoring.

She did interview for a couple of different positions that she didn’t get, but then she did get a management role in one of the therapeutic areas, where she grew and learned significantly. Actually, just recently, she applied for a role that she really wanted, working for a manager that actually is one of our mentors, another woman of color, and she earned the role. So she’s, since that time, had a lot of success in the organization.

I wanted to go back, Carolynn, to the topic of allies again, because the importance of allies in the workplace can really not be overstated. I wanted to mention that one of the things at Sanofi is that we’ve actually had a relationship with an organization called Catalyst since 2017, and actually a program that they have called MARC, which is Men Advocating Real Change.

I had the opportunity with my leadership team to go through the MARC program in June of 2018. It is a program about understanding unconscious bias, about really developing critical inclusive leadership skills and strategies, sharpening awareness of inequalities, and also learning about your own privilege. It was such an incredible program. It made such an impact that after the program, my leadership team and I decided that it was so compelling that we needed every manager, every people manager, first-line manager and above, to go through that program. We actually did do that. We ran a special course for more than 300 leaders on our team in December of 2018. Now we have MARC alumni representing all businesses and functions throughout our company.

Why I’m saying this is that this is really — I think when you engage leaders in becoming allies to really try to move forward D&I efforts, you talked about the relationship between allies and driving D&I efforts, that’s really how you drive change, I think. I think for us, engaging so many leaders in our D&I efforts, many of those leaders have turned into true allies and they have really accelerated our change efforts.

“An ally is someone who actively and continuously works to promote justice and end marginalization… When you engage leaders in becoming allies to move forward D&I efforts, that’s really how you drive change.”

Carole Huntsman, Head of North America, Sanofi Genzyme and U.S. Country Lead at Sanofi

Johnson: Yes. Even though the numbers are ultimately guiding us, Carole, many leaders struggle with communicating the initiatives that are not up for discussion. This is not something that you do when you have time or when you decide to do it — this is a requirement if you are going to be a leader here.

So when you get that pushback, maybe sometimes the questions are, “Well, why do we have to do this?” Or, “Why do we have to do X, Y, Z?” Or when the enterprise’s direction is getting challenged, how are you navigating those conversations? Because I know that I deal with those issues, and sometimes it’s because… I think back to conversations that I would have with Luke [Visconti, founder of Fair360, formerly DiversityInc], and I would say, “You know what? I think it’s interesting because they never would have said that to you.” Right? So even as a woman, how are you navigating those conversations, and firmly holding people accountable?

Huntsman: That’s a great question. An example I can share is that we had a global employee engagement survey in 2018, and we shared the results with our team at an all-employee meeting. The results for the I&D component were actually quite good. However, after we shared the results, a couple of employees went up to our I&D lead and said that their experiences were not completely consistent with the results. Obviously, this was really concerning to us, so we knew that we needed to understand more about this. We decided to engage culture at work, to conduct some blinded employee voice sessions. We conducted the survey at the end of 2019, and we received the results just before COVID hit last year.

The results were really, really difficult to hear from my perspective because they showed that while our racially diverse talent is very, very ambitious from a career perspective, many did not really feel that they could actually advance to more senior positions in the organization. They also noted that while their direct managers were empowering and effective and engaging across differences, and executive leadership was thoughtful and aspirational, many of the senior leaders in the middle were disconnected, and they didn’t feel that they were willing to change. Also, some noted experiences of negative bias and issues with how race was handled in the organization.

So, obviously, this was extremely upsetting, but we felt that we needed to take on this issue transparently. We shared the results transparently, first with those who participated in the research, and we own the results. I presented the results alongside our I&D lead and assured the team that we were taking feedback very seriously and working on a plan to address the key issues and drive change. We let them know that we were going to share the results with all of the managers in the organization, and this is really what I’m getting to. I think the results were so jarring. They were really upsetting to me, personally, that in our leadership team, that it really… There was a hard line there, and we were very clear that it was really just unacceptable for this kind of environment to continue.

It made the conversation actually very, very easy. It gave me an opportunity to speak directly to all the managers on the team, and also the North American leadership team, to speak with one voice about our expectations, and for me, that there was just going to be no way that we were going to have any tolerance, absolutely zero tolerance, for any kind of racial discrimination or, actually, any kind of harassment for any underrepresented population in our company, that it was just completely unacceptable. We were clear, and if people weren’t on board with this, then maybe Sanofi’s not the right place for them.

I think the results of those employee voice sessions gave us a platform to really have those clear conversations, and that’s continuing in what we call our Diversity Operating Reviews, which give us the same kind of platform to continue to have those clear conversations.

Johnson: No, and I love what you said, “Maybe this isn’t the place for you,” because I think sometimes everything up until that moment is said, and that, I think, is the key part to helping people understand that there’s a certain way in which you will behave when you are working within and representing this organization, and this is not negotiable. I like that. I think people go right up to that point, but they don’t close, and that’s the most important part.

In talking about the next part of this, how are you empowering other leaders? Because it can be said, to you or to me, “Well, you have the title — you can hold people accountable that way, but I can’t.” So how are you empowering other leaders to navigate these conversations with the same confidence that you have, knowing that they have support from you?

Huntsman: Well, I think there are a number of different ways. One of the things we do is that we have an Executive I&D Council with leaders across all of our global business units and our functions in the U.S. Then within Sanofi Genzyme North America, we have an I&D Council as well. All of our leaders on our leadership team sit on that council. We meet regularly, and they have a representative from their team also on that council. So not only our business leaders sit on the council, but all of our cross-functional partners and representatives from their team. Everything that we talk about in there, as leaders, there are members and representatives of their team who sit in there as well.

They hear what’s said. All of the leaders hear what’s said, and we speak as one. We speak about I&D at every… Every time we’re in front of the team, we have I&D topics. I should also say that each one of the businesses that sit within the North American organization also have I&D teams, so we are really consistent and we speak with one voice. I know that the leadership team is fully empowered on that from that perspective as well.

Johnson: This next question is really around advice that you would offer to people in the corporate space looking for allyship in the age of COVID-19. What advice would you give people looking for a meaningful and impactful way to connect in this environment?

Huntsman: If you’re in the corporate space and you are a leader who’s looking for other leaders to be allies to help drive change within your organization, I think you can look for other leaders who are people champions, and sponsors and advocates, or amplifiers or upstanders, who are going to take action or lead change. People who are taking action. And obviously, allyship has to sustain, so I think this is a very important piece.

People who are strong leaders, who are very strong people leaders, who create a trusting environment, who are approachable — these are going to be the leaders I think employees will be willing to share their experiences with and have the confidence to stand up and speak out against inappropriate treatment statements or actions. I think these are going to be people who might be able to drive that change that you’re looking for, as being those change agents within the company. 

If you’re an employee who’s looking for a meaningful or impactful ally relationship, I think then you’re looking for an approachable leader, someone who has a reputation as being an inclusive leader who appears to be asking questions, listening, learning, paying attention, championing or advocating for employees.

You might talk to others to see who’s a known ally, whether there are leaders driving change in the organization. You might check in with your D&I team, or your HR business partner, or your employee resource groups. I know that even during COVID, our employee resource groups have been extremely active. In Sanofi Genzyme, 48% of our employees are involved in employee resource groups, so we have a very, very active team. Our employee resource groups have been running an incredible amount of programs during the last 15 months to support our teams. Certainly, around all of the events of the last year, we’ve been very active in supporting team members. I think it’s a great place to look at leaders who are involved as sponsors of the employee resource groups who are very active there. I think that’s a great place to start.

“Very strong people leaders who create a trusting environment, who are approachable — these are the leaders employees will be willing to share their experiences with, and have the confidence to speak out against inappropriate treatment… These are the people to drive that change you’re looking for.”

Carole Huntsman, Head of North America, Sanofi Genzyme and U.S. Country Lead at Sanofi

Johnson: Kind of shifting gears, focusing on the personal aspects of this, how does the concept of being an ally to people who are different than you — whether the difference is through experiences, or ethnicity, orientation or disabilities, seen and unseen — how does being an ally fit into your legacy personally? I’ve interacted with you several times, so I’m clear on what the goals are professionally, but personally, how does this fit into your passion and your purpose?

Huntsman: To be honest, I’m not really focused on my legacy so much, but what I will tell you is that I am extremely committed professionally, and definitely personally, to our employees, especially those who are underrepresented or in marginalized groups. I’m really committed to ensuring that they, and all employees, can really bring their best selves to work every day. There’s really not much that is more important to me than everyone on the team, especially those who have not had an equal voice, feeling like they have an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed, from a career perspective, at Sanofi.

When people ask me what keeps me up at night, my answer is always the same. It’s people that keep me up at night because I feel that if we can’t attract and retain the best people, then we will never be able to do as much as we would like to for patients. It doesn’t matter how many incredible products we have in our pipeline. We’ll never be able to do as much, deliver as much, for patients with those incredible products, unless we have the best people. If we do have the best people, we’ll be able to solve any problem externally or internally. If we can’t attract and retain the best people, then we’ll fall short.

When I talk about attracting and retaining the best people, this means an incredibly diverse group of people who can bring their best selves to work every day and feel included and feel that they can succeed in our company. We are not there, but it’s my… I’m incredibly passionate about trying to get us there. This is really what is very, very important to me, personally.

Johnson: Well, Carole, I have one final question, but I want to make sure that I give you an opportunity to cover anything that we may have missed.

Huntsman: I think just the only other thing that I would mention is, we’re very much on a journey at Sanofi. We are focused on really leveraging talent management processes, enabling, as I said, this culture of inclusion that we’re trying to get to. We want to improve clinical trial diversity, and we really want to amplify corporate social responsibility as well. What’s fantastic is that we also have launched a new global inclusion and diversity strategy, and we’re working very, very closely throughout with our global partners and in the U.S. 

I think just the other thing that I would mention is that in the past year, we have also for the first time set an ambition beyond gender in the U.S., for people of color. We have set specific goals for Black employees, Latinx employees and Asian employees. This is something new for us in the U.S., and specifically within Sanofi Genzyme. We’ve taken a very specific data-based approach. We’ve taken an approach that’s very much like we would take for setting our forecast, and we have gone… We are reporting out every six months. We have a quarterly target, and we are reporting out every six months. We’ve reported our first six-month period where we met our overall goal, as well as each one of our three-segment goals. 

What I learned before I got here today is, we’ve already met our second six-month goal with only our first-quarter results. We’re really excited about what we’re achieving in each segment, not just our overall goal, so this is a step forward for us as well. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re on the path and we’re committed to making change in the long term.

Johnson: That’s outstanding… Mind you, that intersectionality that we were talking about, oftentimes you hear people talk about gender goals, but the need to talk about that drill-down of what is the experience within that category based on ethnicity, based on orientation. I love the fact that it wasn’t something that you stepped away from and said, “Oh, it’s just too hard. We can’t do it,” but you found a way to treat it like any other business challenge, and I think that is outstanding.

I’m happy to hear that you are ahead of the timeline of achieving those goals. So again, congratulations. The team at Sanofi is awesome. You are as well. We appreciate your participation in the Top 50, but most importantly, your time here today because I know you’ve got a lot going on. Again, thank you so much for your time, Carole.

Huntsman: Thank you so much.