Jeff Gennette is usually all business, focused on steering the $25 billion Macy’s Inc. into a fast-moving future as chairman and chief executive officer.
But as the industry stops to mark Pride Month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, Gennette — one of the very few openly gay ceo’s of a major public company — talked to WWD about the importance of diversity and inclusion (and stepped in to correct at least one unrecognized bias along the way).
Gennette also touched on, for the first time publicly, his own experience as an LGBTQ executive.
WWD: What do businesses gain by having a more diverse c-suite?
Jeff Gennette: I believe we understand the customer better with a diverse team. We’re a national retailer and we serve an incredibly diverse customer base and that base is only going to grow.
It’s not just Macy’s, every consumer brand needs to be thinking about this.
Diversity at all levels is important — from front-line colleagues to the board of directors. It keeps your customers’ voice in the room. When you don’t have diversity of perspective, there’s a bigger risk of disconnect from the customer.
The Macy’s operating committee — the senior team of 35 people — is more than 25 percent ethnically diverse and 50 percent female. Our board of directors is the same. Both include LGBTQ representation.
WWD: What are some tangible things fashion/retail/beauty companies can do to be more welcoming specifically to LGBTQ executives?
J.G.: I think as much as a diversity challenge, our industry has an inclusion challenge. One of my mentors says: “Diversity is having the right players on the team. Inclusion is getting them on the field.” And we need our whole team on the field! Building an inclusive culture is hard work. It doesn’t happen overnight. It requires nurturing diverse perspectives instead of accepting assimilation. It means ensuring every voice is heard — not just the loudest voice or most familiar ones.
For the industry, I believe it’s less a question of “welcoming” and more one of managing the talent pipeline to ensure that all diverse talent — including LGBTQ — are getting the development and experiences they need to advance to senior leadership. At Macy’s, we need to improve retention of diverse executive talent in their mid-career. We’re losing too many at this critical stage. So we recently launched Mosaic, a development program for our high-potential, ethnically diverse talent. Mosaic provides education and support for both the colleague and their manager.
WWD: LGBTQ people in fashion see you as a role model and a powerful statement of what’s possible. How do you see yourself and what would you say to them?
J.G.: I made a decision early in my career to be myself, openly gay, and while it was scary at first, I have never looked back. Bringing your whole authentic self to work gives others permission to be themselves and there is power in that authenticity. It takes down barriers. It builds trust. And trust is the essential ingredient in a productive work relationship. My success has been based on the teams I’ve built and the results we’ve delivered.
I know firsthand the importance of everyone having a sense of opportunity and inclusion. I’m lucky to be in a company with a culture like Macy’s. And I’m committed to creating the same open culture and opportunities for each of our 130,000 colleagues.
WWD: I’m a straight, white guy trying to understand the diversity in the business context. What do I personally need to do? What can the “mainstream culture” do to understand this issue better?
J.G.: I think that your concept of “mainstream culture” might be dated and a bias that should be challenged. We all have biases. It’s important to be self-aware, understand what your biases might be, and address them. My advice is to be intentional about getting diverse perspectives around you. Work to understand cultures different than your own and learn from them. Be an ally.
At Macy’s Inc., one of the ways we do this in the business context is through our Employee Resource Groups, or ERG, which have a wide range of affinities and that we’ve activated to play a key role in building a culture of inclusion. (Pride/LGBTQ, Onyx/Black, ATeam/Asian-American, La Voz/Latino, WAM/Women, Go Green/Sustainability and others.) I love our ERGs — interacting with them gives me access to the organization at a grass roots level and a different lens on what’s going on in our society. The ERGs give our high potential talent an opportunity to take on leadership roles early in their careers. For instance, our Pride ERG was highly involved in all aspects of this year’s Pride + Joy campaign — from merchandising to marketing to cause and special events.
I’ve encouraged every member of my senior team to engage with at least one of the ERGs so they gain exposure to that group’s unique voice and challenges. And that connection helps our business and strengthens our culture by ensuring that even the most long-tenured members of the team are gaining a fresh perspective.