A seat at the table
By Tonya McMurray
At Sysco Corp., diversity starts with the belief that everyone deserves a seat at the table.
It’s a belief that the Houston, Texas-based global food products distributor seeks to live out in everything from its supply chain to its hiring practices to the ways employees interact with one another in their day-to-day activities.
As the company’s new executive vice president and chief human resources officer, Ron Phillips believes that foundation creates a culture of inclusion that is quickly obvious to new employees. He joined Sysco in May after various HR leadership roles in companies such as McDonald’s, Comcast Cable Communications, CVS Pharmacy, Carnival Cruise Line and Ryder.
“When you’ve been an HR leader as long as I have, you can feel culture,” he said. “You can feel it in the halls. You can feel it in your interactions. As a new person, you’re always welcomed, but this is the warmest welcome I’ve ever received by an organization. People went the extra mile to make sure I felt included in this organization, and I think that’s critically important for inclusion and belonging. Those ideas are grounded in our purpose.”
Phillips, who was raised by his cab-driver grandmother in Washington, D.C., knows firsthand the value of diversity and inclusion programs from his early career experience at McDonald’s.
“I know the impact it had on me when I could see people who looked like me represented in the company,” he said. “And I know the impact of programs that I felt gave me the right surround-sound of support, contributing to growth in my career. Knowing what it did for me personally, I’ve always been a fan and advocate for this work.”
Adrienne Trimble, who joined Sysco in March as its vice president and chief diversity officer, also saw firsthand the impact of diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs in her work at Toyota Motor North America Inc. She joined Toyota’s HR team in 2016 after several previous HR leadership positions in the financial services, health care and media industries. A Toyota cross-training program designed to help her learn about the supplier diversity side of the business ignited a passion for diversity work.
“It changed my career trajectory,” she said. “I learned the broader implications of supplier diversity as it relates to economic impact, investment in communities of color and job creation in underserved and underrepresented communities. That started my passion for this work. My transition from human resources into supplier diversity, and then my experience aligning our manufacturing and sales organizations into one diversity strategy well-positioned me to step into the role as an executive on loan from Toyota to the National Minority Supplier Development Council [Inc.].”
Trimble came to Sysco after a successful tenure leading NMSDC from August 2018 to March 2021. Her efforts championing corporate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives include work with several regional councils and an executive committee role at the Billion Dollar Roundtable Inc. She is currently participating in the Herndon Directors Institute’s Corporate Board Development Program, helping to position executives of color for board placement with publicly traded companies.
Active and assertive leadership Both Phillips and Trimble credit a strong commitment from Sysco’s board of directors, president and CEO Kevin Hourican and the executive leadership team with the strength of Sysco’s DEI efforts.
An example of that commitment is the change in the company’s leadership team over the last year. When Hourican joined Sysco in February 2020, the executive leadership team included one woman; today, half of the executive leadership team is diverse.
“Sysco is going through a transformation, and diversity, equity and inclusion are right at the table as part of the strategy, so we can be sure it’s embedded in the way we do business,” Trimble said. “It’s a testament to the commitment of our company and the progress we’re planning to make and how that will trickle down into the organization.”
Phillips agrees. “There is active and assertive leadership around these issues,” he said. “Kevin’s style of leadership is to want to engage and to hear all perspectives around the table. Our board has been pretty vocal about expectations within our organization and how we will continue to evolve the program. When you’ve got board support, executive leadership support and CEO support, plus you’re listening to your colleagues and acting on what you’re hearing, it’s really exciting.”
Trimble said that commitment was a key reason she chose Sysco for the next phase of her career.
“In the wake of calls for social justice, there were a number of corporations looking for diversity officers because they needed to double down on their inclusion efforts,” she said. “Sysco was attractive to me because there was already a foundation laid for inclusion. The leadership team is driving this from the top, starting with our CEO and our board of directors. We have engagement from associates around the world that want to be part of our work. The path is wide open for us to make progress in a very meaningful and intentional way.”
One challenge for diversity efforts at Sysco is establishing priorities that will have the greatest impact and making sure those are infused throughout the global organization, Trimble said.
“There are a lot of things we could do, but we want to do the things that are going to be the most impactful to the organization and that will make a difference to our customers as well as our shareholders,” she said. “We are a global company that has made a number of acquisitions over the years, so that adds a layer of complexity, as we work to leverage our organization as a whole — to make sure everyone has the same level of inclusion and to demonstrate our commitment to our customers, to our associates and to the communities we serve.”
Substance over symbolism
As many organizations have examined their DEI efforts over the last year in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed, Sysco sought to engage employees across the organization in meaningful action.
“The further we get away from the George Floyd situation, the more people go back to business as usual,” Phillips said. “The challenge is to continue to engage colleagues, to continue to understand what it means to make sure folks feel included and feel like they belong in the organization. We have to continue to listen and make sure we’re focused on substance over symbolism. Internally at Sysco, we’re doing a full review of our retention programs, our leadership programs and the makeup of our leadership team. That’s the kind of assessment that drives sustainable, substantive change.”
To create a meaningful impact for Sysco’s diverse suppliers, the company is looking to expand its supplier diversity program from its core food products business to some of the more indirect services that support the organization.
Diverse suppliers doing business with the organization — as well as those hoping to do business — have access to a robust mentoring program to help ensure sustainable success and growth during their partnership with Sysco.
The company engages employees in its diversity efforts through a Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council that helps define strategy and provides feedback on initiatives, along with a group of DEI ambassadors who help carry its diversity message to their peers and colleagues. Sysco also runs a series of Associate Resource Groups, employee-led groups that connect individuals with similar experiences, interests and challenges to create communities that support and work toward a more inclusive culture.
Embedding diversity initiatives within Sysco’s culture is key to the success of its DEI goals, Trimble said. “It’s a holistic approach,” she said. “We aren’t just looking at talent. We aren’t just looking at supplier diversity. We’re looking at the broader ways we impact the communities we serve, the business partners we engage with and the associates we’re working [with] within our company.”
That holistic approach is essential for creating a positive and productive work environment, Phillips said.
“I’m focused on making sure Sysco continues to be a great place to work and that we continue to live out our purpose, and I think diversity, equity and inclusion are critical components of that,” he said. “Five years from now, we will continue to do the things that we need to do to care for one another and our communities. That will be represented by the folks we promote, the voices we have around the table and the diverse perspectives that we leverage to continue to serve our customers.”
To learn more about Sysco, visit sysco.com.