Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

3 minute read

Does the "who" matter?

When I teach business classes, one of my favorite discussion sessions looks at whether the personal characteristics of the person make a difference when choosing a CEO. I use the example of Avon when they appointed Andrea Jung as CEO, the first woman to hold that position. The question I pose is this: was it important for Avon to appoint a woman as CEO? Were there personal characteristics about Jung that made her particularly appealing?


I argue that "yes, it does". In the case of Avon, this is a company that sells to women. Yes, they have had a line for men (I don’t know if that’s still the case), but their customers are women. More importantly for Avon, their sales force of 5 million worldwide are women (with some exceptions).


I argue that Jung was appointed for several reasons, including (1) she’s a woman, (2) she has a strong track record of accomplishment in growing a business (at Avon and Neiman-Marcus)


I would argue that "who" is important in top positions. As Avon CEO, Jung "is" the company. Blessed with beauty and style as well as brains (Princeton – get this – English Lit major) she made herself a visible presence in the company. The race among three women to be named CEO of Avon in 1999 was a lead business story in and of itself, which helped put Jung in the public eye. For the sales force, she also represents a woman of achievement, as many of the sales forces have goals of financial success from selling Avon products. While she comes from educated parents and had the advantage of growing up in an upper middle class community and graduating from Princeton, her first job was a management trainee at Bloomingdales. Today, she was recently named to the board of Apple, partially reflecting her success in doubling Avon’s sales as well as being a woman.


The Economist ran a story this week about Barack Obama. Part of the appeal and their reasoning to support him was put this way:


Most of the hoopla about him has been about what he is, rather than what he would do. His identity is not as irrelevant as it sounds. Merely by becoming president, he would dispel many of the myths built up about America: it would be far harder for the spreaders of hate in the Islamic world to denounce the Great Satan if it were led by a black man whose middle name is Hussein; and far harder for autocrats around the world to claim that American democracy is a sham. America’s allies would rally to him: the global electoral college on our website shows a landslide in his favour. At home he would salve, if not close, the ugly racial wound left by America’s history and lessen the tendency of American blacks to blame all their problems on racism.


See the "Economist" article here.


The point here is not that the "who" makes Obama the better candidate for president. The point is that the "who" is part of what makes him a viable candidate, and is a legitimate consideration in making a choice.  For too long, the "who" was an excuse to exclude, to focus only on white, Christian males. Diversity is not about numbers. What diversity is about is understanding and reflecting the interesting and ever changing mix of race, ethnicity and culture that make up the customers we serve or could be serving. The people we want with us in our companies bring this with them in terms of not only the characteristics that they were born with, but how these characteristics are reflected in the kind of people they are, their judgment, outlook and experience.