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Mentoring with a Different Lens: Insights with DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson


In this installment of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association (HBSHAA) Q&A series, Michael Wong speaks to Carolynn Johnson, CEO of DiversityInc, about changing diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) trends among the most progressive companies and DiversityInc's vision to be the preeminent, data-driven source of knowledge and guidance on how to manage and navigate the 21st Century workforce and workplace.

Michael Wong: When I first met DiversityInc’s founder (Luke Visconti) in the early 2000s at my previous employer, AstraZeneca, he stressed the importance of leveraging data into diversity business cases since it could provide objectivity into a subject matter that sometimes is fraught with emotion. Still, while many Fortune 500 leaders have recognized the business value that some diversity opportunities present versus other potential strategic investments, has COVID-19 pivoted their attention away from this theme?

Carolynn Johnson

Carolynn Johnson

Carolynn Johnson: The data submitted during the 2021 DiversityInc Top 50 competition shows that the companies that were already effectively developing, implementing, tracking, and externally benchmarking their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies and outcomes doubled down on their effort, leadership support, and other important organizational resources because they recognize the importance of how it fits into their overall talent management, business strategies, and ultimately long-term shareholder value.1 While The Economist and other media have rightfully highlighted the qualitative implications of The Great Resignation,2 hard facts point to how employers are struggling with recruiting and retaining employees. With last month’s 4.8. unemployment rate, many c-suites are scrambling as they were during the pre-Covid-19 days of 4%.3 With a majority of new entrants to the workforce being non-white and, with women earning more bachelors, masters, and Ph.D.s, DiversityInc’s vision is to be the preeminent, data-driven source of knowledge and guidance on how to manage and navigate the 21st-century workforce and workplace.

Company Submitted Data, collected through the annual DiversityInc Top 50 competition, uniquely positions us to execute our vision. For 20 years, the rankings have been the trusted measure of:

1. Employer and investor data transparency

2. The effectiveness of diversity equity and inclusion strategy, policies, and practices

3. Fair and equitable human capital outcomes for major US employers

Our survey is the only free-to-participate annual survey for US employers with at least 750 employees that offers a comprehensive comparison of the total workforce and the top four levels of management for the following dimensions:

  1. gender
  2. ethnicity
  3. orientation
  4. age
  5. disability
  6. active military/veteran status

12.8m full-time equivalent employees across 28 industries were represented in 2021 by CEOs, CHROs, and other C-suite executives that decided to compete for a spot on one of our lists.

With more than 2,000 participants, we recognized 138 employers across six lists. They are

  1. Hall of Fame (8)
  2. Top 50 (50)
  3. Top Noteworthy Companies (41)
  4. Hospitals and Health Systems (12)
  5. Regional Companies (20)
  6. Utilities (7)

We also published 15 ranked specialty lists that focus on talent development, leadership accountability, talent acquisition, and executive representation of POC and women and one index on Top Companies for Environmental, Social and Governance, ESG.

Participants in our rigorous data-driven process have a business foundational need and competitive thirst for understanding how they stack up against competitors in their industries and other verticals. Voluntary participation secures access to a free report card,4 assessing their performance versus competitors along across the six categories our survey measures which are:

  1. Leadership Accountability
  2. Human Capital Diversity Metrics
  3. Talent Development
  4. Workplace Practices
  5. Supplier Diversity
  6. Philanthropy

Effective Boards of Directors and C-suites recognize they are and have always been competing for top talent with specialized skills (digital transformation) desired by other industries (which echo findings from your recent interview with a Harvard Business School professor, Dr. Joseph Fuller). The bottom line, they are studying best practices across our Top 50 list.5

Looking at the recognized companies on DiversityInc’s Top 50 lists for the past twenty years,6 one can see many firms which are well regarded for their human capital strategies. Still, with DEI sometimes being a contentious topic in many Fortune 500 firms, what are your three key mentoring recommendations given its importance for attracting, developing and retaining top talent?

First, for C-suite officers, be strategic and evaluate where and how your peer groups invest their DEI resources. What types of support programs have they deployed to connect mentors and mentees who might have different perspectives given their affinity. In particular, it has been interesting to see how professional services and healthcare firms have been quite proactive in their efforts.7

Second, for mentees, take ownership of your career aspirations by investing time in your mentoring engagements. Learn about what is available by joining professional groups like the National Black MBA Association or an alumni group like the HBS African American Alumni Association.

Moreover, often untapped resources are at your own company. Most Fortune 500s have various Employee Resource Groups for African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Veterans, and others. These ERGs tend to have a common theme of inclusivity, so you can join and learn from colleagues who might have a different lens on a particular topic so that you’re both learning by sharing ideas in a trusted manner.

Third, for mentors, be deliberate when it comes to mentoring. For example, the motivation might be that your C-suite has included mentoring as one of your upcoming KPIs for 2022 bonus consideration. How will you demonstrate an above-average KPI for an activity that might be challenging to quantify if that is the case? This question should prompt you to be deliberate about the frequency of engagement or the type of support and advocacy you will bring to the relationship.

As for our mentors worried about engaging with younger mentees because of potential harassment accusations,8 remember, be deliberate in terms of your communications and be intentional about how to be a resource for people whom you don't immediately identify with or feel there is something you have in common.

One needs to, regardless of if it’s a boomer male mentoring a recent college graduate or a boomer female mentoring a Gen-X new hire, state your intent. Be transparent about your values, purpose, and passion. Share what you bring to the relationship, such as institutional knowledge of how the company operates or advocacy and introductions to senior leaders of the organization. In turn, be transparent about the potential value that you expect to receive from the collaboration. It might be related to the company, such as the employer is looking to build its image as a strong supporter of DEI, and you have volunteered to help champion it. Or it could be personal such as you’re hoping the person can provide reverse mentoring given your interest in understanding how to better communicate with their generation. But again, be deliberate and state your intent with trust and transparency.

Regardless of your job title, effective mentoring requires much effort. So, while perfection is not possible, participation is a must!

Carolynn Johnson has 18+ years of experience in corporate and academic positions, including Board roles at The Center for Healthcare Innovation, INROADS, Bennett College for Women, Howard University, Rutgers University and the Ph.D. Project. Ms. Johnson completed the ASCENT fellowship at The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and received her MBA from Rutgers Business School.

Michael Wong is an Emeritus Board Member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.


1. https://www.diversityinc.com/top-50-vs-ftn-500/

2. https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2021/06/21/americans-are-quitting-their-jobs-in-droves

3. As of Sept 2021, the US unemployment rate declined by 0.4 percent to 4.8. percent. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf

4. https://www.diversityinc.com/media/2021/01/2020FreeReportCard_SAMPLE.pdf

5 .https://www.diversityinc.com/diversityinc-top-50-2021/

6. https://www.diversityinc.com/diversityinc-top-50-lists-since-2001/

7. https://www.diversityincbestpractices.com/

8. https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/3/31/15132730/pence-women-alone-rule-graham-discrimination

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