By Giulia Pines
Christopher Rowland quotes Nas as easily as Martin Luther King Jr. He believes that the words of a multiplatinum rap artist can be just as influential as the words of a civil rights leader. People may come from diverse backgrounds and have different experiences, but they all have something to say, as long as we’re willing to listen.
It is this openness that defined Rowland’s upbringing and propelled him to where he is today. Raised by a professor and a school principal, first in Syracuse’s inner city and then its suburbs, he was exposed to many different role models.
In his role as global diversity officer for ManpowerGroup, a staffing and talent management company that operates across 80 different countries, he is responsible not only for attracting top talent but also for making sure that talent reflects the wider world.
ManpowerGroup puts millions of people to work worldwide, but, as Rowland emphasizes, “the focus is on impacting individual lives and what that means for communities across the globe.”
Diversity Woman: You’ve worked at ManpowerGroup for more than a decade. How did you come to serve in your current position?
Christopher Rowland: I like to say I was born and raised within our organization. I first worked as a temp employee for ManpowerGroup Solutions, which is the global leader for outsourcing services and large-scale recruitment. In 2013, I was part of an emerging leadership program where diverse and high-potential leaders receive accelerated coaching and mentorship. That process really pushed me to think about being more purposeful in my career. This led to some discussion about my passion for people, for communities, and for those who are marginalized and underserved. So they actually created a role for me as a global diversity officer. I didn’t have a predecessor.
DW: What kinds of skills are necessary for a diversity officer?
CR: The first is curiosity: absolute, genuine interest in other cultures and experiences. Learnability is something we use internally; it just means the desire or ability to learn new things quickly. Collaboration would be the other huge one. You have to get work done through others. Compassion and empathy: being able to understand different perspectives, not just the disenfranchised or underrepresented, but also those who are part of the “in” group. Lastly, I would like to add, a strong grasp of data.
DW: You work to “implement culture and talent strategies that leverage diversity and inclusion,” but what does that really mean?
CR: You hear so much about unconscious bias, but we flip it and talk about conscious inclusion. That is, building the desire, insight, and capacity to make decisions, lead, think, and act with the conscious intent of including everyone. It may be working with our learning and development team, or looking at hiring. It may be working with our marketing and sales teams, or with our business resource groups on events or activities that foster awareness. Helping leaders have an “aha!” moment where something clicks, or they realize a bias in their worldview. Sometimes it’s actual initiatives or a campaign, but sometimes it’s as simple as a conversation.
DW: What advice would you give to white people who are looking to be better allies to people of color in the workplace? What about men who want to help women succeed?
CR: Start with whom you are interacting with; look at your inner circle and step outside your comfort zone. There is this delicate balance between being purposeful and being organic. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of broad-brush training—people coming in for two days, then everyone leaves and the world is supposed to be changed. I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Make a connection with someone who is part of whatever that “other” is, and take time to listen. People will tell you what the challenges are and what they need. We tried peer-to-peer mentorship programs with mixed results, because sometimes forcing that connection doesn’t have the intended impact. Nudge someone to be more purposeful, but allow the person the space to choose.
DW: What are some lessons you took from your early years about how to foster diversity? Were there any formative experiences that stuck with you?
CR: My father was a professor and a director of African American history and theater. My mother was a principal and teacher in the Syracuse school district. I started out in the inner city, then moved to the suburbs. I had very strong role models of all different colors and ages, and also traveled quite a bit: I was really blessed to have parents who took my brother and me to Jamaica and Africa. I remember going to Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar in Senegal, and standing in a cell where slaves were kept, and almost having a spiritual moment, bringing me to tears. All these experiences have allowed me to be comfortable in different circumstances and with all types of people. I’m comfortable with strong women leaders. I’m comfortable being the only one in the room who’s like me. And when I see disparity or injustice between groups, part of me sees the best in both sides and it fuels me to want to do the work.
DW: How do you see the goals of the company changing when it comes to addressing issues like automation and remote work? How is ManpowerGroup preparing to face these challenges with respect to diversity?
CR: The world of work is changing very rapidly with respect to AI, robotics, and VR. There’s a natural tie to diversity within that discussion. It is very clear that repetitive jobs, regardless of sector, are going to be disrupted. They’re working on robots that can do the job of 10,000 employees if it’s a repetitive task. So when you think about finance, accounting, admin, manufacturing—all of those are going to be disrupted. The ability to upscale, to learn new skills and to learn them quickly, is going to become the new norm. In some ways it levels the playing field, which is really exciting, but there is a realistic kind of displacement people need to be aware of.
DW: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when asked how many women would be enough on the Supreme Court, famously replied, “nine.” What are some of your own “pie-in-the-sky” goals?
CR: We have some internal goals of 40 percent women in senior leadership roles by 2024, and we’re making great progress, but we are even challenging that, asking if that’s the right percentage. At the uppermost levels of Corporate America, is diversity reflected at those top levels, and who are the final decision makers? I don’t know if I have a number in mind, but better representation would be a great start. I think it would have an impact on companies, but also a strong cultural and political impact.
Then there are the qualitative goals, and these get more ambiguous. I love Martin Luther King’s “people judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.” I was thinking about Nas because he came to Milwaukee with Mary J. Blige. He has a song, “If I Ruled the World,” where he says, “no jealousies or B felonies,” just a fair and just environment for nonviolent offenders. When we start to see signs of that [in the workplace]—and I don’t know what the appropriate quantitative measurement is—that’s what I hope for. DW
Giulia Pines is a New York–based journalist and content strategist who writes about arts, culture, travel, and business.