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Rosalind Brewer is today one of only two Black female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. However, she has previously held a series of top jobs, including at Sam’s Club, Starbucks and Walmart. The current CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance says that bringing her whole self to work has been the key to her success

When Brewer accepted what was essentially a demotion by switching to Walmart from her position as group president at Kimberly-Clark, some questioned the move. However, she believes that she needed to start there in order to learn about retail. “I was in a learning mode, but I took a step back to get ahead. That’s when my career began to really explode,” she says.

After a series of top jobs at Sam’s Club and Starbucks, Brewer took the bold and courageous choice to accept a top spot at a healthcare company, namely Walgreens Boots Alliance, in the middle of a pandemic, which she admits was “a pretty gutsy move”. However, she says that she’s been fortunate to accumulate so many different learning experiences over her career and that she’s pretty adamant about making sure that she’s clear about her role, her intent and how she brings together her toolbox.

“I think the one thread that I can pull through all of my roles and opportunities is my personal leadership, and that’s the way I show up first and foremost. Because most of the business problems that I face in these leadership roles require character, guts, problem solving, and when I bring that basic toolkit to bear in these different roles, that has proven effective for me every time.”

She also admits that she’s very fastidious in her work, becoming a real student of the business whenever she takes on a new role. “I remember when I joined Walmart after being with Kimberly- Clark for such a long time, and being in consumer products, and going into retail. My job was based in Atlanta, Georgia, but I decided to move myself to Bentonville, Arkansas, and go on a learning journey for 90 days. And I stayed in a little hotel and came into the home office there and really studied them during what I call the honeymoon period, and it was the best thing I could’ve ever done. I met people. I learned more about retail. And I really put myself in a learning position and not in a position initially of leadership, and I chose to learn and be an advocate and open-minded about the opportunities ahead of me,” explains Brewer.

As if being a Fortune 500 CEO didn’t place her in a sufficiently elite group, she’s also both female and black, which makes her a true rarity. But how does she balance the pressure, scrutiny and expectations that come from being practically the only person of her kind in such a position?

I met people. I learned more about retail. And I really put myself in a learning position and not in a position initially of leadership, and I chose to learn and be an advocate and open-minded about the opportunities ahead of me

“Sometimes it’s a lonely position,” she admits, “because you don’t see yourself in different environments that you’re in, and then I look at myself personally and say, what can I do to change this, because it could be difficult at certain times? I think that the environment is opening up more to people recognising and appreciating the differences. Many times, I’m called upon and asked to give my opinion on diversity issues, and I will be honest with you: I am as frank as I possibly can be, because I do think I hold a unique position. When I get in these settings, I take advantage of the opportunity to learn and educate those around me, because I can feel it when they’re unfamiliar with me or my culture. I don’t hide my culture. I talk about it very openly. I feel like that is almost my second reason for being. Everybody has their purpose in how they get into a situation or an environment, but I take advantage of it and do everything I can to teach and expose people to my culture and who I am. I learned early in my career, I’d say maybe five to seven years out of college, that I really wanted to bring my whole self to work so I don’t cover up my culture at all, and I think that that’s helpful for me, because they know how to count on me and what the expectations are in terms of interacting with me.”

Throughout her career, she’s often found herself as the only woman, and even the only person of colour, in a room full of executives. But in this fast-changing world, she looks forward to the day when she’s no longer ‘the only’ in these rooms and environments, and she personally does a lot to try to make that happen. “The way I deal with this is really I’m no different than other individuals in the room, and I try to share that as well. My accomplishments come from hard work, from exposure. One of the things I find myself doing, fortunately or unfortunately, is having to run a few people through my resume, because I think they look at my titles and wonder if I really do the work and how I got here. But I have some absolute real lived experiences.”

She explains in more depth: “When I was at Starbucks, I worked the drive-thru window. When I was at Walmart, I had three trucks at night so I could learn distribution logistics and warehousing at those companies. So, I’ve done the worst and the best of the jobs. Sometimes I have to remind people of that. And it gives me credibility that I’ve not been a token. I’ve not been granted these jobs. I’ve absolutely had to work very hard to get where I am.

“And so, I find myself doing that. It doesn’t bother me. I’m hopeful, I’m an optimist, and I hope that is not what the next person has to do, but for now I find myself having to really go on a deep dive in terms of my experience and do a lot of storytelling about why I believe in what I believe. I’m on the Business Roundtable and we’re getting into some really courageous conversations around the new infrastructure bill. I happen to have a lot of experience in the space of what it takes to move goods across the United States, and I’ve been fortunate enough to maybe share a little bit of that, and maybe people didn’t realise that I had a background in that as well, because you can’t be in retail and not understand supply chain and logistics.”

Speaking more broadly about workplace diversity, she explains that the corporate world is striving to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, through so-called DEI strategies, but that few people really understand the core of the issue as it stands in America. “When the George Floyd incident happened, I actually thought I knew it all and I had been doing a good job in DE&I. And I quickly realised that, even myself, who’s been a huge proponent of it, myself, who is a double minority, myself, a mother of a young black male, I thought I understood this, but I realised that I didn’t. I realised that I hadn’t been asking all the right questions; I hadn’t been focusing on the parts of our environment and our social environment that are very much broken. I think we have been focusing on the D of DE&I, and not on equity and inclusion. And I say that because what really happened with the George Floyd incident is that I don’t think people understood the race issues that are happening in our country.

I’ve done the worst and the best of the jobs. Sometimes I have to remind people of that. And it gives me credibility that I’ve not been a token. I’ve not been granted these jobs. I’ve absolutely had to work very hard to get where I am

Those that are left out and those who don’t see a way out of their current situation. But we do see putting numbers in place and hiring numbers. But have we asked the questions: how can someone survive on minimum wage; and where is our country on great education and access to healthcare? It also made me think back. I took it personally, when all of that was happening. As you can imagine, I didn’t know George Floyd, and not many of us did, but I tried to put myself in the shoes of him and his family. And I think about the work that I was doing at Walmart. I was just so adamant about clearing the way and thinking about, “How can I close in on food deserts.” Right? If people have proper food and access to the best price, the best cost in food. So, I did everything I could do to put Walmart stores in the right zip codes. That was my focus… So, if you put the food right near them, and there’s still not proper nutrition and proper healthcare in those places, what’s causing them to not be able to thrive and rise above the minimum wage job, and go to the next level, and the next level?

… I was listening and I wasn’t acting. And I wasn’t drilling down enough. And I think that’s the next level of leadership: that we’re going to have to get pretty gritty about listening and acting and making people feel included in the environments that we create, as leaders.”

Her first takeaway, thus, is that business leaders should leave their phones in their pockets. And even when there is diverse representation, corporate cultures can produce a kind of group-think and group-speak. This is why Rosalind, who goes by the nickname Roz, has been thinking less about diversity of ethnicity and culture and more about the kind of diversity of viewpoints that trace varied experiences and backgrounds.

“One of the things that I think about when I’m thinking about diversity is diversity of thought. Because we can also realise that there are individuals who may not be of diverse culture, race, or gender themselves, but where is their mindset? How do they think about different cultures and different environments? One of the things that I began to do in my career is to put agile teams together. And what I mean by that is, a lot of times, you have your finance team working in their silo. You’ll have the tech team working in their silo. But what I really think works is when we create these agile teams and put them against the biggest problems to solve. That’s one of the things I’m doing right now at Walgreens Boots Alliance: make sure that this organisation understands the biggest problems that we’re going to solve? It’s not a question of whether we have enough technology, but whether the technology we have is fulfilling the need for efficiencies in the organisation. Is it creating the right tools for our team members at stores and for our customers?”

As Roz concludes, “you can have the best strategy in the world, but if your team operates in a silo-driven environment, you’re not going to get the results that you expect. For instance, right now we’re trying to create a tech-enabled healthcare company. I have the same message for the entire group. And the biggest problem to solve is, how do we become the best performing stock in the Dow? And so, when you put that team together, you are forcing finance and technology and operations and manufacturing all to be in the same room, in the same discussion, against the biggest problem to solve. And it’s not finance solving a finance problem. What that actually does: it gets the diversity of thought to happen. And then you have different people sitting around the table. And in some cases, one of the outcomes that I’ve seen is that, in certain functions, we have heavier opportunity for diversity than we do in others. I would love to see more diversity in technology. It’s coming, but right now I have a lot of diversity in finance. So, I get the opportunity to put a diverse financial team with a growing diverse tech team in the room. Diversity of thought is happening around the problem to solve, and then the cultures are coming together. And, hopefully, we’ll move all of those opportunities up. But it’s about creating these agile teams and putting them against the unique problems to solve. And forcing them to relate to each other and think about how to solve the issue at hand.”