Paying It Forward

Procter & Gamble’s chief diversity officer believes that we must bring an empathy lens to both our organization and our personal life

By Julissa McClean

William P. Gipson lives the Procter & Gamble motto every day: he is “touching lives and improving life,” through his work at P&G and beyond. As the newly appointed president of End-to-End Packaging Transformation, he oversees products most of us use on a daily basis—from Crest to Bounty to Vicks, to name a few. Gipson also serves as chief diversity officer for P&G, a role that affords him the opportunity to create growth for the company. He previously worked for P&G in Brazil and Venezuela.

Gipson has a history of contributing to the bigger picture. He served in the US Air Force from 1976 to 1980. Today he is involved with multiple organizations, serving as a member of the board of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, a member of the Cincinnati Business Committee Education Task Force, and a member of the board and executive committee of the Cincinnati Scholarship Foundation.

He received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, in 1984, and joined P&G the following year as an engineer.

Diversity Woman: Tell us about your new role as chief diversity officer and president of End-to-End Packaging Transformation.
William Gipson:
 The recent transition, particularly in the diversity and inclusion space, is the same as it was before, with one significant difference—I am now back in the United States. Coming back to Cincinnati enables me to touch the significant portion of our diversity program, which is US based, although we have a sure opportunity globally. Most of the work in the diversity space remains from a US-centric standpoint, with gender being one of the three areas that is more global. But it allows me to now be with a majority of our lead teams and get into engagement opportunities. The other role, with End-to-End Packaging Transformation (the practice of eliminating as many middle steps as possible to optimize performance and efficiency in a process) is totally different from what I was doing before, and that’s exciting. In a 30-year career, when you get into something new and different, it just rejuvenates you, so I am looking forward to that piece.

DW: How do your two roles intersect, and how do they complement one another? 
 About six or seven years ago, P&G began to blend a line leader’s role with the diversity area. We did that with the intention of challenging ourselves to think about diversity in a different way—diversity as a growth opportunity for the company, a lead into innovation, a lead into how the enterprise operates. We’ve talked for some time about diversity and inclusion and how it’s sort of baked into our DNA. By combining these roles, we are not only saying that, but are actually living it by the way we choose leaders to come and do these combined roles. So the good thing about it is I get to think about diversity and inclusion not only conceptually but also in a pragmatic way. I am now speaking from example, and it brings more weight to the space—and that is fantastic.

DW: You began with P&G in 1985 as a process development engineer. What are the most notable advancements and achievements you have seen and been a part of? 
 Looking back on affirmative action when I first started, I don’t think we had targets. We knew we needed more women and those of African ancestry involved, but we didn’t have clear corporate targets of what that should be. As the company continued to go global, we needed to design objectives. We needed our employees to convey the sentiments that the consumers of our products experience every day. Our mission became to represent our consumers from inside our organization. Our motto grew from a place of affirmative action to a place of everyone included and everyone valued.

DW: How would you describe your leadership style? 
 My thoughts on leadership have evolved. Before, when I thought about leaders, they appeared to be all knowing, exceptionally bright, exceptionally aware, very visionary in their approach, and very articulate in expressing how to lead a company forward. I think most enterprises today are challenging themselves on ways to redefine leadership. Today you have to rely on the folks who are closer to the day-to-day than you had to years ago, and therefore a leader must find a way to bring out the best in an organization and not just walk into a room and say, “This is what we are going to do.”

So the engagement model I’ve tried to work on as a leader includes forcing myself to listen more and direct less. Insist that the people sitting around the table share their thoughts with me, and then arrive at an answer informed by those different perspectives. My leadership style has become more patient. It has become more of an engagement model. It has become more inclusive. I no longer see myself as commanding. I see myself as engaging a room of people, and that makes all the difference.

DW: What advice would you give to the future workforce looking for longevity and eventual leadership opportunities? 
 The idea that people need to cross industries or change companies shouldn’t be at the level that you’re troubled by it every day. You shouldn’t walk into work every day thinking, “I need a change.” Find a place within an organization, an excellent company where you can renew, and invest in yourself and learn a new component. Find a way to get outside your borders and look abroad to see what is there. The whole idea of perpetual learning is, I think, what you should be seeking, more so than a different corporate shield.

DW: As a leader who is a man, what advice would you give to other male leaders who want to help women succeed in the workplace?
 I want every male leader to think of a point where you walked into a forum and you were not at a place where your best was being brought out—and think about how you felt. Think about what you had to offer that wasn’t necessarily easy to share. Think about the times you had to go with the flow, and then in your quiet time thought to yourself, “I really wish I had my voice.” If you can reflect on those instances, I think you will be more willing to support someone that culturally is not being invited to the table, not being fully engaged. You should step in, invite her in, and insist that those points of view be heard. And you need to let her know that you support her. Find your point of empathy when considering someone that is different from you, or has been oppressed for whatever reason, and offer that comfort of sharing your stories.

You need to do this in front of women and also when you are meeting privately with men, so they know the standard that you are setting for conversations with and about women, both publicly and privately.

DW: Was there a moment, whether in your childhood or early in your career, that drove you toward getting involved with D&I on a big picture level?   
 I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, in the ’60s. It was an epicenter for a lot of social rights movements. But I also felt very protected, surrounded by family members that sheltered me from a lot of that [turmoil]. They found a way to put me in a cocoon. That enabled me to think I could do anything. When I look back on some of my dreams and aspirations, it’s hard to imagine how a kid growing up in that environment could have aspirations. Now that I have gotten older, I have come to understand that not everyone has had that rich development, and not everyone has been that protected from things that could harm them at a very formative point in their life. I want to do all that I can to pay forward the level of support that I got. I want to be a source that helps people believe they can be more than their circumstances. People in our nation, our world, need to know they aren’t limited by where they started. DW

Julissa McClean is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Women’s Health, Latina, Vice, and Prevention.

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