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Nielsen CEO and chief diversity officer: How to be an advocate and transform your business by embedding D&I

Lianna Brinded
·Head of Yahoo Finance UK
·6-min read
David Kenny, CEO, Nielsen
David Kenny, CEO, Nielsen

In 2020, society is being forced to confront the systemic racism that permeates every part of life for black communities, as well as for other people of colour. There is an urgent need to collectively bring about change in our societies to create a better future.

The world of work is no different. Bosses of companies, middle managers, co-workers — in short, everyone — are being confronted by the need to step up when it comes to listening, learning, and taking action to fight racism. There is a renewed urgency to make the workplace safe and inclusive for all staff.

Every year, major diversity and inclusion membership organisation INvolve publishes lists called EMpower — supported by Yahoo Finance — to celebrate ethnic minority executive and future leadership talent from around the world. Now more than ever their voices need to be amplified and recognised.

Alongside those lists, INvolve publishes the EMpower top 20 advocate executives list, which celebrates senior leaders who are not people of colour but are dedicated to creating a more diverse and inclusive business environment for ethnic minority employees.

All executives were nominated by peers and employees. Nominations were then reviewed by EMpower’s judging panel, which included head of Yahoo Finance UK Lianna Brinded. The panel scored nominees on: the influence of their role; their impact on ethnic minority inclusion inside and outside the workplace; and their business achievements.

David Kenny, CEO of Nielsen (NLSN), topped this year’s advocate list. Kenny oversees 44,000 people across 100 countries, bringing about major change in society to help combat racial injustice.

Kenny embeds diversity and inclusion into his leadership — he’s not just the CEO, he’s also the chief diversity officer.

In his role, he has:

  • Implemented numerous accountability measures, including tying executive incentives to D&I contributions;

  • ensured executive leader representation for every ERG;

  • set the expectation that all people managers must be active in the ERG programme;

  • updated the company’s annual performance to include personal contributions to D&I;

  • and implemented an inclusion index as part of Nielsen’s employee engagement survey.

Outside of work, Kenny used his platform to file an Amicus brief with the US Supreme Court calling for the exclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census, which would have potentially discouraged minority participation. He brought together industry bodies to oppose the undercounting of diverse populations.

As a result, the Supreme Court questioned the administration's motives and the citizenship question was removed. He has also supported preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme and the signing of The Hispanic Promise.

Nielsen claimed a place in the 2019 DiversityInc Top 50, a prestigious list that ranks public & private companies on their commitment to workplace diversity. The company also ranked second in Forbes' 10 Best Employers for Diversity in 2019 and was named the Top Company for Women and Diverse Managers on the Diversity MBA 50 Out Front list in 2018.

Last year, Nielsen earned its first-ever 100% score on the Disability Equality Index and the company has scored 100% on the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation's Corporate Equality Index for seven consecutive years. It was named as a Best Place to Work for LGBTQ Equality in 2013.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance UK, Kenny said companies need to put tangible metrics and plans in place to create a workplace that’s truly diverse and inclusive. He also talked about how leaders can move from being actors to advocates for change and reflected on the fact that even if you think you’re doing well in this realm, there is always more to be done.

Lianna Brinded: The killing of George Floyd has re-energised the focus on racial injustice throughout every aspect of life. As a company leader, what are your thoughts on this? How has it been addressing this moment and what needs to be done to drive change?

David Kenny: These incidents have been tragic, and my heart is heavy for all the families who have been affected by racism throughout the years. I’m encouraged by the numbers of people protesting and demanding change. There are many changes needed and it’s the burden of everyone to solve the issues. After George Floyd, there was Rayshard Brooks. We need to stay active about changing the system.

We need to engage policy makers and the government to build out comprehensive reforms including policing and education. And here at work we need to make room for people to share stories of injustice, microaggressions, and inequity and for others to listen and act to change wherever and however we can.

LB: As a leader, how do you see change manifesting itself in the workplace?

DK: First, we need to connect as people and use this moment to more deeply share experiences. This goes for those who have experienced aggressions, as well as others who are strong allies, and others who are just beginning to understand the depth of the problem.

We all must be anti-racist. And we need to create the space to have open and honest dialogues about these issues. At Nielsen, we’ve had metrics on diversity, but I’m really pushing for a new level of accountability, beyond just diverse slates. This will take up a greater portion of board meeting agendas and HR reviews. Not just the metrics around representation, but also the creation of opportunities.

LB: How do you make sure that all your reports are helping drive that change in the company and make sure the company is as inclusive as possible?

DK: I start the annual reviews with people and inclusion metrics, instead of putting it at the end.

We talk about: How are you doing with your team? How diverse is it? Who got promoted and who got hired? I read the engagement survey data to see what each team is telling me about their leader.

We have to be people first. If you get that right, success with financials, clients, and products will follow.

LB: As an ally and advocate, can you explain how you foster a space for learning, understanding and action for those who are still uncomfortable with the topic of racial injustice?

DK: First you need real humility — you can’t understand the injustice until it happens to you. You have to listen and have people trust you enough to really share their story, because you can’t learn without first understanding it.

Then you have to accept that systemic racism exists. It’s not your fault, but don’t deny its existence. Acknowledge it so you can be an ally to individuals and advocate to change the system.

Particularly if you are a CEO or in the C-suite, a lot of power and responsibility comes with the job — so you have to be sure to address the system and not just individuals.

Then you need to develop an action plan to address racism both for individuals inside your company and the systemic racism in society. We are on our way at Nielsen but this will be a long road and I’m committed to working at this as long as it takes.

LB: Even though you are an incredible advocate, what would you say has been the bigger learning point over the last few weeks?

DK: I’ve learned that people go to great lengths for their own survival to be someone they’re not.

They are masking their pain, compartmentalising it and not sharing it, even though it’s their life experience. I didn't know how pervasive it was — I have to work harder to be an ally who listens before being an ally who talks.