Beyond “White Hot”: Former Abercrombie & Fitch CDO Todd Corley on the new Netflix film, Brand Evolution and Representation in Retail

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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Todd Corley, Senior Vice President, Inclusion, Sustainability & Community at Carhartt, and Former CDO at Abercrombie & Fitch, joins the program to discuss his career journey. Additionally, with the release of Netflix’s “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch”, Todd shares insights and lessons learned from his time as the CDO of Abercrombie & Fitch.

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

TODD CORLEY: The advice I would give myself then is to avoid feeling like you’re not doing the right thing, meaning have the courage you need to have to have the challenging conversations. I’ve always believed in this thought about it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. So pushing forward and knowing that with the integrity that you have around the work, trying to do the right thing.

I got myself really wrapped up and tied into this work because in some way, I wanted to make a difference. Find your voice in it, find your comfort zone. And honestly, some courage to push back on things when you know it’s the wrong thing, because if you’re on the right side of the conversation, you’re probably on the right side of history.

 DOUG FORESTA: The Will To Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She’s a passionate inclusion and equity advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results.

Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to fortune 500 companies, she and her team advised top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of Greek upheaval and uncertainty. And now onto the episode. Hello, and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta and I am here with Jennifer Brown. And first of all, Jennifer, always great to be with you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh. Thanks, Doug. Yeah, I got all excited about this episode with Todd. So we’re going to talk a little bit about the context for all of that.

 DOUG FORESTA: Yes. So let me say first that you’re going to hear in this episode a conversation with Todd Corley, I know you sat down with him, and Todd is currently the senior vice president of inclusion, sustainability and community at Carhartt. However, prior to that, he was the SVP in global CDO for Abercrombie and Fitch. We’re talk about that a little bit later, but before we do that, can you explain to people what Carhartt is?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, Doug, in case folks don’t know who Carhartt is. They’re an American apparel company founded in 1889. You may have a Carhartt item in your closet and maybe you work on a farm and maybe you live in Brooklyn, but it has found a wide variety of audiences over the last 100 plus years. And they’re known for heavy duty working clothes, such as jackets, overalls, coveralls shirts, fire resistant clothing, dungarees, things like that. So they’re a family owned company, and interestingly they’re headquartered in Dearborn, Michigan.

So Todd, you can see the retail theme in his past couple of roles, including Abercrombie and Fitch, but he also really loves as he talks about in this episode, being the creator of the first DEI strategy in environments. And he has now done this several times and he really loves it and we get into why and how that can be beneficial and easier in a way, and also more strategic in the case of something like Carhartt, especially where he has multiple roles under his purview that really do beautifully when they’re linked together. And so I’ll just leave. I’ll put that there and then you’ll hear more, talk about that on the episode.

 DOUG FORESTA: That’s great. Yeah. I just want to say it’s so interesting that a company could have farmers and Brooklyn hipsters in other of their-

JENNIFER BROWN: Indeed, indeed. A new challenge for Todd. He loves it.

 DOUG FORESTA: Yeah. Yeah. So I did mention that prior to this, he was the SVP in global CDO for Abercrombie and Fitch. And I know in the episode you touched on the new Netflix film that came out in April, I believe over this year called White Hot. But I know you didn’t go deep into that. You didn’t take a deep dive into that. So I thought if we could talk a little bit about that and how it highlights the evolution of brands and social media. So yeah. I’ll send it over to you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, totally. Yeah. And I tell everybody, when I begin to talk with Todd to please pause the episode and go watch the movie. It’s really well done. Todd features prominently in it along with employees that brought a class action lawsuit actually in 2003 against the company for race and gender discrimination. And it was settled in 2004 with Abercrombie paying $40 million out to plaintiffs. And then, and then some commitments that were required by the settlement, interestingly. And then of course, I probably don’t need to say this, but maybe I do is that a little enforcement of changes in the settlement happened. And this is often what happens right. Or used to happen. The behaviors continued, the biases continued to be openly enforced in a way, and the company continued to struggle.

I think, but what is really inspiring about this, there’s so many things that are inspiring about this story is just I think the beginnings of how, Doug, employees … now we see many decades hence employees using their voice and really being the one thing that’s like pushing accountability with their employers and highlighting all the things that are wrong with cultures and unfair and inequitable.

But back then, these were really early days. And I love like thinking about how toxic this workplace was for people of color and anybody who didn’t fit the skinny White models of the Abercrombie photo shoots, which I’m sure a lot of us remember, and the CEO’s insistence that yes, we are an exclusionary brand. That is literally our bread and butter. We do exclude and we’re proud of it. We do perpetuate a look and an ethnicity, and the openness with which that was done and talked about and enforced, which led to this class action lawsuit where the staff was noticing they were mistreated. They were not given shifts. Their were offensive slogans on Abercrombie’s very popular graphic t-shirts.

And there were just years and years of this until the CEO, Mike Jeffrey, stepped down finally in 2014. And so it’s like the cautionary tale. It’s I think a window into what was okay and acceptable in the culture in those days. And it was, I think the beginnings of a generation finding their voice, which is really inspiring to realize like how far we’ve come and yet how much we still have to do. And then I wanted to say now that their whole brand is about inclusion and they’ve understood we make clothing for teens of all sizes and they now like really embrace all of this.

And this is Abercrombie today with an inclusive and equitable spirit. The models on their website are diverse in ethnicity and size. They’re selling merch for pride month and Black history month and they definitely embrace it now, but it’s just really interesting to see how far we’ve come, how the change happened, how a brand could have been this popular and successful with a truly exclusionary brand and being very brazen about that. And then what ultimately forced it to change and the arrival of social media, Todd says that Facebook was literally a year old at some point in this time that this was happening and Twitter didn’t even exist yet.

So the transparency that social media has created, I think we can stop knocking on it for one second, at least. And think about that this was a demonstration of in its best manifestation, what accountability looks like and visibility looks like, and when retail employees all over the world can come together I’m sure with Todd’s shepherding as well to say, “Hey, this happened to me. Did this happen to you?”

It’s like the seeds of all the movements that have happened since then, I think there’s a lot of examples in here that are really, I think, instructive. So anyway, it’s for me as an ’80s kid, I do remember Abercrombie. I was not luckily at that young impressionable age necessarily where I was trying to fit into this, but I really felt for the young people a scant 10 years behind me who were seeing this and not seeing themselves in this company or in any retailers and how much that has changed and really just appreciating that.

 DOUG FORESTA: And you mentioned too about social media transparency. I think at that time, I remember how powerful brands were because they really controlled all the platform. And I think it’s one of the reasons they felt they could double down like that because there wasn’t really a counterbalance to that. Social media has really created a counterbalance to brands being able to just own all the platform. And I think about, it’s so interesting to think about this in contrast to Rana Reeves, we just released an episode recently with Rana about brands. And of course, he’s always talking about the evolution of brands and how brands now are being forced to take positions on social issues and what a contrast of how brands now have to think versus what they were able to get away with basically.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly. It’s so cool to see. Yeah. For me as a DEI practitioner, to see the seeds of all the things we talk about now, like the dress code at Abercrombie in those days clearly targeted black employees with rules about hairstyles or jewelry. And now we have something like the crown act, which protects all hairstyles and on the part of employers. And so anyway, I love this perspective and history of the evolution of our conversation and accountability. And maybe we can take a moment and say in these dispiriting times, we have made some progress, but I’ll just finish with this, that Todd shares that he would never trade this experience he had for anything. That was neat to hear.

A little bit maybe surprising because I would imagine this was a very toxic place for him to be. To be, and to do, right. This is the conundrum of we are in our lived experience in our body and in our identities. And we’re leading this conversation that’s extremely difficult in a company that doesn’t want to change against a leader that really is just toxic all over the place, but he really raved about it. And it was probably the challenge of his professional career to navigate this.

And what is really difficult for us as practitioners, I think teaches us so much. And what he was really grateful for is having a front seat and being a part of witnessing these folks finding their voice and David and Goliath scenario of this. And seeing this change happen at that moment in time and being a part of it. So it must have been really horribly painful, but also really profound. And he shares some of that on today’s episode. Todd, welcome to The Will To Change.

TODD CORLEY: Jennifer, thank you. Thanks for being with me. I enjoy it. I’m looking forward to it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I think this is going to be great. I rediscovered you and I have known each other and about each other for a really long time through a series of roles and then lo and behold, I am watching the documentary called White Hot, the rise and fall of Abercrombie and Fitch on Netflix. And whom do I see? But you, and it just reminded me. We’d been out of touch for a long time. And yet, you had been at the center of this really compelling and disturbing story as someone who does what I do, but albeit internally in organizations. And it just, I felt so compelled to reconnect with you. I reached out, you generously agreed to talk to me about your trajectory and how you weathered that whole storm. And I loved how candid you were in the movie and everyone else was as well.

And what a learning journey that movie really gives us, it’s a window into a different time. And yet there were so many things about it that felt very reminiscent of the work we still do in organizations, even though it was a while ago. So I would recommend everybody as you listen to this, or perhaps pause your listening of this and go check out the movie because you’ll have so much more context for what we’re going to talk about.

But Todd, it was really just neat to see our world represented on the screen. And I was very proud of how you spoke about DEI work and the transformation that we tried to do in organizations and all the challenges that we run into. So yeah, I hope we can get into some of those and you can give us a bit of your experience and how you feel about it all and what you’re proudest of and challenges and all that good stuff. But before we get into that, tell us I always ask people, what do you consider to be your diversity story or stories? And I just would love you to contextualize yourself on a personal level for our audience at The Will To Change, who’s just meeting you for the first time.

TODD CORLEY: Yeah. And again, thank you for having me. We have certainly crossed paths many ways, different folks in our lives. I would say for me, the personal story that I could share is I come from a family of blue collar workers. But in particularly a mom who actually still runs a group home for young people who are transitioning back into society. And these are folks who have some mental challenges, some physical differences, and in the context of a place for them to have a home, she’s always been there for them. She started out as a special ed teacher, founded her own business and has two facilities. One where people who are unable to be on their own stays in a home that she operates. But then also there are similar folks who are in what I would call a place of community. So they come together weekly, daily, monthly, whatever the routine is so that they can be together.

And seeing her probably do that for all my life. I can remember going to family events where she would call her clients are there, but they’re part of family. So always seeing that there are people who are other that to me, they were always the center of what I was about was just something that was just always natural. And honestly, when I fell into this work, which was years ago, it wasn’t defined. I mean, for me, the work was so I guess not where it is now. For context, the issue around sexual orientation was referred to as GLBT.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

TODD CORLEY: Those acronyms have changed, but has been added. So I’ve always been in the space and I just naturally found myself being at a place that was home for me doing this. I’m a financial analyst by training. I did that undergrad, my first job was doing forecasting in manufacturing facilities and that sort of thing, but it’s never fulfilling. So answering your question in a short order, the personal story for me was seeing family close members of my community just always be available and extend themselves. So I wanted to figure out what work I could do to do that. And I found this.

JENNIFER BROWN: And the work finds us as we often say, too. Right, Todd?

TODD CORLEY: That’s true.

JENNIFER BROWN: So, what was the pivot like then into when you’re … you had that aha moment where I know I had one where it was like, oh, this is a field. This is something I can do. Wait, this is something I can specialize in. When did you make that decision? And what was that first role? Which industry did you find yourself in?

TODD CORLEY: So I found myself in this pivot moment when I left business school. So for context, I went to undergrad and grad school at Jesuit institutions. Anybody knows Jesuits tradition, this term of [Foreign language 00:16:58] which is care for the whole person is a tenet. And in those educational environments, when I walked out of Georgetown, where I focused on OD and change management, I aligned it at a place called Towers Perrin, consulting firm in New York where the focus was around change OD, D&I. Again, back then, not really a defined profession, but I found myself helping clients figure out what it meant for them. Again, this is early in the journey.

So what I would say is when I started doing consulting work as foundational work to be in front of folks who had to be taught, nudged, encouraged, whatever you want to call it, to figure it out, that it was good work for me because I started seeing different organizations, whether it be financial services, consumer goods, utility companies, whatever it may be.

They all had the different pain points, but they all had the same thing in common, which was how do I get courage? And how do I build strategy around this? And my foundation in this work, I guess I would say is it’s about the change management framework. Like, how do you make sure that you change organizations based on what policies that they might have, what procedures they have in place, what learning behaviors are looked at, and you have to change all those things at the same time. Because if you change one and you think it’s going to stick, it’s not. So how do you change all of those things simultaneously so that you can get the behavior that you want to shift?

So the pivot for me was going into consulting, seeing a place that focused on change and DEI altogether, being in the industry early and being in a place that I could find myself in front of different client experiences at different stages of maturity, those who guided, those who didn’t, those who didn’t want me there, those who were like come back tomorrow. And then, and the occasional client who said can we do you for hire? Meaning you consult with other clients, but you work with us three days a week, so that you’re on site. So all those different experiences for me were life changing and things that I would do all over again.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love your focus on change management. I couldn’t agree more. When I mentor folks about this career and the skill sets, that’s where I always start. And it might be surprising because it doesn’t technically … it’s not associated often with DEI. People assume the skillset to do this work is somehow different, but really it does come down to, like you just said, lots of things all at once. Like putting the puzzle pieces in place and then making the whole equation work in order to change systems, which are so complex in their way, but it makes this work so interesting to, I think, dissect your strategy and think about how am I going to get this on board, that on board, buy in, resistance, quick wins? All those tenants of change management, which is a whole discipline unto itself.

And that’s what I remember discovering that and just really saying, this is what’s going to enable DEI to take hold. It’s the structure of it. So you did this in a bunch of different employers and industries. I know you shared with me a story about Starwood, your time there. And we talked about W Hotels. So what are some highlights of your DEI career when you think about it? Those proud moments, tell us about that story or any other story you’d like to share?

TODD CORLEY: Yeah. That was interesting. And I enjoyed that experience. So for me, I’ll give you a few milestones moments to be succinct. The Starwood moment for me was again, it was my first time inside of organization where I’m helping create a brand strategy around DEI. And we had this new concept at the time was the W Hotel. So for those who have stayed at the W now it’s not new, but for me back then, it was an image, a swatch, something on a board. And the GMs were trying to figure out what to do with it. So short order is, as that was happening, I found myself in conversations with them about how that brand could perhaps connect with different audiences. Because again, back then now looking forward Sheridan, W, Westin are all part of the Marriott properties, but back then it was its own, point is the W was something very new.

It didn’t have an audience. So the offer and the idea of it being something for a Black or brown audience, or back then a GLBT audience could make the brand be different. So it gave me the sense of how DEI, this is the first time it happened to me could be connected to brand strategy. And that brand awareness and integrity and personality could find its way with the DEI platform. So that was a big aha moment for me.

And then the next milestone moment was getting the call about a job in Columbus, Ohio around Abercrombie, which a brand I did not know at all. Took that as you alluded to earlier on, because it was another chance to say, okay, how do you connect it? But also how do you do it in the midst of a whole lot of drama?

It’s a light word, I guess, but figuring out how that could be connected. So I think for me, my world has changed in that I’ve seen the change piece, I’ve figured out how to connect it to brand and imagery, but I’ve also figured out how to think about it from a generational perspective, because for me, the generational shift in this work is probably what has changed me the most. Because I appreciate how younger people look at the work differently, and I would encourage anybody who’s getting into it to make sure they’re tapped into that audience, because it literally changes the game for you, how you do this work. And I benefited tremendously from that generational shift in values.

JENNIFER BROWN: Totally. So you find yourself at Abercrombie and like, I guess describe you back then, this was a while ago in, is it 2004?

TODD CORLEY: So yeah, so good memory. So I took the A&F job in ’04, November of ’04. And so for context, Facebook was one year old, Twitter was one year away. So this lane where the social connected conversation was starting to happen for younger people about what they wanted to see and become was in front of them, because now they were asking the questions of why can’t I be around people who are different, who are gay or lesbian, or are Black or biracial, or the fill in the blanks, because they were starting to force themselves. They were starting to see themselves with them by a Facebook post or a friend message or whatever. So that was the context of it all. And I think that really matters to me certainly as I think about how I do the work now, because that has changed a lot of things.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Yeah. The generational point is so pivotal and so pivotal to the Abercrombie story.

TODD CORLEY: 100%.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. So I don’t want to like spoiler the film for folks. However, Todd-

TODD CORLEY: Go see it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, go see it. Todd, you found yourself in some tricky spots, like as it evolved and you realized, I suppose, what you were trying to do and then what you were up against. And at that time, like you say, there was nowhere near the visibility of identity. There was nowhere near the voice that we see in the younger generation have today. And yet it feels like in your world, in the culture there, the voices began to be elevated. And it probably put you in this really tricky role because you’re trying to move this institution forward that is somewhat problematic or very problematic. And then there are folks within that company that are beginning to raise their voice about how problematic it is. And often we in this role are find ourselves in this tension. I mean, it is literally the definition of this role, I think.

TODD CORLEY: Yeah, indeed.

JENNIFER BROWN: So tell us about like, what that felt like and how did you see it at the time? Like in terms of how you navigated it and what you were most, I guess, worried about, concerned about? And I love like your earlier practitioner self, what advice would you have given that earlier version of you in finding yourself in that situation?

TODD CORLEY: Yeah. I would say that the advice I would give myself then is to … and it’s something that I probably said, because I live it now is to avoid feeling like you’re not doing the right thing, meaning have the courage you need to have to have the challenging conversations. I’ve always believed in this thought about, better to ask for forgiveness than it is for permission. So pushing forward and knowing that with the integrity that you have around the work, you’re trying to do the right thing.

I got myself really wrapped up and tied into this work because in some way I want to make a difference. And it’s the only way that I see the work. So I would encourage anybody who’s in it or going into it, find your voice in it, find your comfort zone. And honestly, some courage to push back on things when it’s the wrong thing. Because if you’re on the right side of the conversation, you’re probably on the right side of history. I did not know then now if I look back that we’d still be talking about it, but I felt in the moment that what we were doing was the right thing, because nothing around exclusion felt good.

But you got to figure out how to change that narrative, to get people to be your advocates and your allies, because you can’t do it all by yourself. And you got to find out where they are, who they are. But here’s the big thing. The big thing is when you can tie the work to business value and measure that, then people will, I’m not going to say get out of your way, but they will give you a bit more deference.

So for me, the A&F story was, we could measure how some cases inventory count would be better in stores where we had better results, where people who were received well and the store experience that was very different than stores who did not necessarily have those strong numbers of receiving people of different backgrounds. Those inventory accounts would be higher. Well, the logic is people are staying or not staying in the store. So that whole same thought about feeling like you belong is the same conversation that you have at a hotel, whether not you’re greeted or not when you walk in by concierge or when you’re in a coffee shop, or when you’re in a, I don’t know, you can just pick the experience in the place. And if you measure the right thing, then you can figure out how to move it in a way that it will stick because now it’s being measured against what matters to the organization that you’re working for.

So I guess, and I hope I answered the question, but it’s finding out what you have to move, what it has to be measured against and why it will matter to your audience. A&F experience was younger people wanted something very different. And as you started to see that shift and that change in behavior and less of the expectation of, ah, I think I’d like to see this happen to more of, no, this needs to happen because this is where the world is headed. Then you’ve got to follow that through.

The enthusiasm, the advocacy, the degree of protests and somewhat disobedience is also powerful. And what I would liken it to is what I see younger people do now, which is hold their own, get in as John Lewis said, get in good trouble, do all those things. And I think the joy that I’ve got out of the film is that there are people who respond now that in their life, as a parent, as a fill in the blank, that experience for them has helped them be better now than they would’ve been without it. And for me, that’s worth it, that’s worth it, because it is.

JENNIFER BROWN: So yeah, what happened there, it was illuminating even for me having gone through the ’90s and remembering how exclusionary the brand seemed to be, and that was their brand is exclusion. And so it must have felt really simultaneously, perhaps terrifying and exciting to find yourself in this shift in a brand and the accountability that was being introduced on the part of younger consumers and staff saying, hey we believe we’re being discriminated against. We believe the brand isn’t doesn’t want to put us forward and put us in roles where we are customer facing and you must have felt really like you aligned with that, and then you find yourself in the board meetings with leadership battling it out to get this message across. And I hate to say it, but Todd, I feel like that’s still happening every single day.

TODD CORLEY: Yeah. It is. It is.

JENNIFER BROWN: All of us have coped with this recently, are still coping with it now. Yet, wow, it was such a stark. When you watch the movie, it was such a stark … you say to yourself, like, how could this have happened? How could this brand have gotten to this point with being so exclusionary? And you probably knew that on some level, but what was the moment you were like, oh, this is going to change. Now it’s bigger than me. I’m sure there was when you were in the system, and all of a sudden you find the wind at your back. The tide is really changing. Do you remember that moment or what that time felt like?

TODD CORLEY: Yeah. So just to be clear, so you asking the moment when I thought that I knew that change was going to happen.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. It was bigger … what you had started or participated in was actually beginning to change the brand.

TODD CORLEY: That’s a really good question. I don’t know if I’ve been asked that. I would say that the moment for me was, wow, it was probably a year or two. Probably two or three years in, I would say two or three years in, when I just started to see the younger people become more courageous, more defined in their authority about asking for different things. Without me in a room, started seeing the level of activity with our … we did these international get togethers and global calls with stores, the voices that you would start to hear two or three years in were voices of more confidence about pushing back on what was in front of them and asking for more of what we were doing around teaching and education and tools and techniques that I didn’t have to necessarily start to, or keep drilling into anybody.

And I guess it was just one of those things that just started happening and you just saw it, because it became more interested in forming their own councils and forming their own groups and forming their own communities. Again, the social media was very different back then, but you could see them wanting to and posting things in ways that were like, okay, we’re taking this real serious. We’re going to be really creative about it. And the next time I have a meeting, I want to see that my manager’s doing X, Y, and Z.

So I would say that it was probably a few years in which is generally this thing that you have to look at for a change process to really start taking hold mm. Which is year three. And it just kept going, but it wasn’t without issue and headwinds, because we still ran into those for the entire time that I was there. And it’s more of a gradual thing. I don’t think it’s a light switch. I don’t know if I can point to a light switch. I would just say a window of time where people started to behave, talk and ask for different things without apology.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. I love that. I wonder if that’s still true these days or if the cycle of changes shorter, given that so many other cycles have shortened.

TODD CORLEY: Yeah. I mean, that may be. I mean, I think now with technology way that it is, how information is so quick to transfer from one phone to the next a millisecond or something to go viral that change probably happens a bit quicker. I think that the tricky part is, I don’t know that it has much time to stick like it should. And what I do think that I was really proud of is some of the things and given, if you look back at the brand now, if I’m right, I think this is year 16 or 17, I believe the brand is still on. I’m sure this is true on the HRCs corporate equality index. So when I walked in, they weren’t at all. We got them on in two years by year three, they were on, they’ve been on there ever since. And that’s certainly post me, so point is some things were supposed to stick that did. Not everything does, but I don’t know that things stick as quickly now. Because I think it moves a little bit faster, but you got to be more sophisticated too.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh definitely. Definitely. Definitely. Brands are under a lot of pressure right now. I mean, we’re doing this interview May 2022, everybody. So you should be reading about how brands are navigating these really tricky moments now where really nothing is hideable if you will, and there’s so much scrutiny. And so this story wouldn’t happen today and yet-

TODD CORLEY: Hope not.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Right. Exactly. It would all be exposed. It might happen, but then it would be yeah. The exposure and the apology and the fix and the diversity delegation would ride in. But it was so like, when you think about the movie [inaudible 00:35:31] and then the film, did it capture everything in the way that you think is most effective in terms of delivering its message and what do you really think the message is of the movie? When you think about what do you hope it leaves people feeling and thinking about?

TODD CORLEY: Well, I hope it leaves people feeling like there is … if there is collective action, if there’s accountability … and I penned this article for, it must have been SHRM, I guess, in ’20, around inclusive and responsive leadership and how a leader shows up. So what I would help people understand is that how the leader shows up matters. If a leader shows up in a way that they are hearing the voices of their consumers, if they’re hearing the voices of their associates, if they’re hearing the voices of their community and their other stakeholders, then there’s an accountability that will move the organization forward. So I hope that people understand who leaders are. It’s certainly how I made my decision to be in places. I mean, in every job that I’ve had, I’ve been the first in the seat.

And like the [inaudible 00:36:49] that I have with Carhartt, which is again, it’s first. It’s even taken my experience to another level in that it’s also looking at how do you think about inclusion, but also sustainability, charitable giving all that ESG conversation. So the leaders there certainly convinced me that they wanted to not just look at DEI as a one dimensional sport, but as a 3D game, that is where you want to be.

So short answer to your question is, you got to make sure where the leader is and the leaders showing up in a certain way will dictate whether or not the organization is in it for the long haul or not. Because if you’re in an organization that’s checking a box, you should get out because you’re not going to get anything done. I think also to me, personal point of view, I think it also matters who you report to. I think you need be reporting to a president or a CEO, because I think if you’re reporting anywhere else, it can be a challenge to get all the resources that you need.

Now, again, some companies are very different, but that’s my point of view. But I think, again, it comes down to where the leader is and how accountable he or she is to the organization and all the stakeholders, community, internal, external. Not just shareholders, because shareholders is a different relationship.

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure. Yeah. It’s a why I love stakeholder capitalism. When you think about that shift from shareholder to stakeholder, it’s the consideration and what your leader at A&F missed was the changing or didn’t care about is the changing demographics, right? The voice of that next generation, that was much more committed, much more diverse, had social media for the first time as a tool to elevate and create transparency.

But I’m sure the warning signs were there about your leader there, who is the visionary and the creative. And so it’s interesting to hear you. I wonder if you’d make a different decision, knowing how important that relationship is and that leader is if you’d make a different decision about jumping on where you jumped on. And I’m sure you thought about that, or maybe you were glad to live through it.

Sometimes when I mentor people, I say dealing with a company in trouble on this stuff is super instructive and it’s a challenge in a very different way, but it’s a huge learning opportunity. So I wonder, what did it make you swear you would never do again? Or when you reflect on you how it forged you as a practitioner, can you point to something that you were like, wow, that just taught me this about myself, my role in change, my voice, how I deploy my tools. Anything that you’re like, and I’m just curious if you regret the experience or if it’s something that you really celebrate in terms of your skillset today.

TODD CORLEY: Oh yeah, no. With clarity, I have no regrets at all about the job. I’ve told people this, I would do it all over again. Because for me, despite the challenges I think the universe speaks to you in certain ways. And this had to be my experience for me to be who I am now, and I still have a lot more to do and to achieve, to accomplish. So wouldn’t be talking to you about this now, if I didn’t take it obviously, but I wouldn’t know what I know now. So I think there isn’t a job or an experience that you have at least my personal point of view is, that are ones you regret. I think what you have to think about is deserving what you need. And if it isn’t, then how do you do something different?

But there’s probably a reason why something happened. And that role for me was the why. So, no, no regrets at all. I mean, again, I would be comfortable going back through it again. I would have been short changed of my life experience without it. And I believe that to my bone. And I made some great relationships, but again, it helps me think about the work in a different way now, because I had the experience and that’s not something you want to exchange and give back because it had to be somebody’s lived experience. So no regrets at all.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s such a great way to look at it. Yeah. I do think that the challenging client it’s like, for me as a consultant, it really causes us to be really creative and really dig deep and really like, ask some questions about, what is my integrity? Where are my boundaries? How am I respected in a system or not? And how does that feel? Noticing that, noticing the seat at the table you had, or you didn’t have, and then deciding in that next position, what do you want to be different? How do you want to be positioned differently? You just talked about reporting structure, like these things really matter, buy-in, support, et cetera. But it’s a luxury to walk into an opportunity where everything is aligned already. I mean, I think that’s so the exception.

TODD CORLEY: Yeah. And anybody who’s ever worked for me, they will tell you if you see the movie there’s a young lady in there named Toya Spencer, who was on my team, her or anybody else I’ve ever managed. I always tell them, think about two roles from where you are right now. What do you have now? And what do you want to see yourself in two positions after that? Point is, you always have to be thinking about the one that you have and getting the experience that you need for the next couple of moves so that you can be where you want to be. So that’s why you really shouldn’t be regretting. You should not regret where you are. Again, unless it’s toxic and you can’t, messes with your health. That’s a different conversation. But if it challenges you to be better, then go for it.

JENNIFER BROWN: And you never really crossed into the toxicity, Todd, at any point in your experience. I was like, hold on. I’m sure that there-

TODD CORLEY: Touche. No, no was of course … It was certainly toxic. But I guess I would say this work is about self care, and I think people have to figure out how to take care of themselves. They have to create boundaries. You said it, they have to create space for them to be okay. I think when I use that word, I say it in the context of, if you don’t have guardrails for that, then that’s when you have to go.

But if you can cover that out, carve that space out. Again, for me, it was a generation of people. Millions of young people now who are in places who are alums and doing different things in different roles who are doing some phenomenal things like surrounding yourself with folks like that, who you didn’t didn’t know it then that you see it now are change agents in their own right, that’s what you want to be around. So I have that luxury.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love how complimentary you are to the people who inspired you while all of this was going on. And that it still continues to inform so much of your work. Paying attention to those generational changes and values and expectations of what do these things DEI mean, and to whom?

Because you and I, even being of a generation, define it differently, understand it differently, have experienced it differently. And I often think our job is to really be paying most attention to the future voices and those experiences, and then shaping the organizations that we work in to work for that talent. And that may represent a really different lens than what we’re used to and what might have worked or not worked for us. And that’s not only okay, but I think that means we’re doing our work.

You know, it’s living into the future if you will, and really humbling yourself, even at that point in your career where you are more mature, you are more knowledgeable. But the humility around, okay. I think I know the answer about this. I’ve seen this work here, here and here, but I also want to acknowledge that we’re actually creating a new playbook that I’m not familiar with. And it’s really fascinating. Do you believe like DEI practitioner skill is like really different now than it was back then in terms of what we have to pay attention to?

TODD CORLEY: 100%. I mean, I think now you have to be thinking about the margin for error, because it’s much different. Because now I think at least for me, a lot of my work spills and bleeds into what societal norms and behavior is in a way that I wasn’t used to seeing. I’m sure somebody who will tell you back in the ’60s, it would be the same. But I think now, again, it goes back to leadership. When you see that we have choices about who we want to lead our groups, our organizations, our communities, our country, all these other things we have to be really mindful of asking for and demanding better. And if we don’t figure out a way to go after that and a way to hold people accountable, then this work is not going to get any better.

So somewhat of answered your question, the professional now has to know that their work isn’t just nine to five, like it is every day outside of work for work online in their community. In a proxy statement in a board meeting, wherever it is because you got to go after things that are written down, things that are structurally wrong, things that are subtle messages, things that are imagery based, all that is for real now. And it is three dimensional. It is not a 1D sport. It’s societal, you have group that maybe rural, versus suburban, versus city, all those folks have their different lenses of the work. So as a D&I practitioner, you got to think about them as not only just your customer, but decide that you might be working with partnerships on.

Like, how are they going to interpret your work that you’re doing? Because are they going to now accuse you of being woke because you want to support a Juneteenth event or you want to promote women’s rights or whatever it may be, or immigrant rights. And that now isn’t just confined to just a DEI role inside of a company, because those life experiences are pouring into what we see every day.

Again, I think at a rate and a pace that has ever been seen before, because society’s different, technology is different. I mean, information can be [inaudible 00:47:37] to even be correct or not. So what is truth? There’s only one, but if somebody spins it differently, whoever controls the information may have an nefarious intent behind it. So I think the work is more complicated now than it ever has been. I don’t think you can separate it. I can’t divorce myself from just doing this job inside versus I’ve seen society because I have the purse string around charitable giving, which needs to be aligned to an inclusive behavior maybe an environmental justice issue. All those things have to be tied together.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. It’s nuanced, it’s complex, it’s fast, it’s holistic. All the things you just enumerated are things we’ve got to pull in and consider and weave together really. It makes the Abercrombie situation feel very, like, it was very specific, right? It was hiring and it was representation and it was bias and stigma. But you’re talking about now, the expansion where this touches literally everything in brands exist in this really complex combination of stakeholders and shareholders. Yes. And this ecosystem where you have to be basically attending to and understand deeply each part of these ecosystems and how to get them to talk to each other, how to connect the dots between them, which is actually, which is so cool about your role, that you touch like several different functional areas. And you want it that way.

As I’ve talked to you and gotten to know you in this role with Carhartt, you get excited about that and challenged in a good way, by the challenge of connecting the dots with these different domains, because that’s going to actually ensure that DEI has legs like real staying power. That’s why I get excited about it is this is environmental. This is governance related. It is social and it’s happening in our society. I love how this has evolved to this place. And then you hold a role, more and more people hold roles like the one you have now, where we need to have multiple domain expertise and be really good at holding these pieces that have existed in silos before. And you’re actually their first DEI leader at Carhartt, which I also think is fascinating too. That in a way it sounds like it’s your preference to be that.

TODD CORLEY: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s your hallmark, I don’t know. But like, maybe you’re a glutton for punishment, but.

TODD CORLEY: True. I’ll take that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. But tell us about, do you think there’s going to be more roles, these combination platters, if you will, of these really critical pieces and why do you love it so much? And why do you love starting up a function at a company?

TODD CORLEY: Oh gosh. So we might have to have a part two of this, if you invite me back. But for what I will say is I like the blank slate because I really get frustrated when someone says, oh, we tried that before. It doesn’t work. I don’t want to hear that. That’s one part of it. Other part of it is my mind is wider in the way of, I want to start to connect dots and imagine things that people don’t see already, because that’s the fascinating part of the work.

And if you can do that, then you may be able to connect the right things and make it stick and stay, Starwood, Abercrombie, Carhartt, anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s always been the first one. And I think for me, that’s the excitement of it all, but steadily the level of responsibility and complexity has changed to your point.

So what I would say is, I like being able to help companies figure out how to do this, but I also hope that companies, this is to answer your question, I hope companies are going to start to see the value in making sure that these roles are not just CDO roles only, right? So they’re chief diversity only roles. Again, I get the whole movement about how we had to be better post George Floyd’s murder in front of us, that company is signed up and they want to start doing different things. I think I read a stat where 400 HR professionals who represent 11 million people, 85% of them said that they now have more work around DEI. Well, that’s nice. I’m glad, but it’s singular. Who are they reporting to? What is it connected to? So I’m hoping that there’s a movement.

It’s not just hire more chief diversity officers, but there’s time to foundational things for a brand. At Carhartt, for example, the brand, the foundation is the environmental play, the community play, the charitable giving play, the DEI work. Some of those are new. Some of those have been around and tinkered with, but now all under one umbrella brand new, that allows us to make sure the foundation … I mean, so you look at our three year strategy. The foundation is part of that. And I would imagine any company, your listeners who are with brands or any company, doesn’t have to be retail facing has a DNA that they’re trying to promote. Our DNA happens to be around, make sure hardworking people are doing the right thing in the right way and being supported. And that we’re giving back to a way that we’re building a better world.

So, and I know a lot of people say that, so that’s a big cliche, but if that’s yours also, then how do you do that? Well, you’re inclusive. You’re a steward of the planet. Your charitable giving is connected to those things that matter. They can be visible to people and someone says, “Oh, you’re actually given to something that’s a really good cause as opposed to washing money.” So there has to be a way that you thread it all together. So if I don’t have control over those things, who knows what charitable giving will go to, if it’s not tied to the things that matter, around being, I don’t know, a place that cares about reducing greenhouse gas emissions or whatever the thought is. Well, if it’s being spent in that way, then you know what? Then you probably could be really transparent.

You could probably have anybody invited to take a look at you under the hood and say, you know what, nothing here, and that’s what we want to be able to do. And I think people want that. Again for me, the value now is, I don’t believe that’s exclusive to folks who are older generation, who are younger, who are outdoor enthusiasts, who are city dwellers, who are college students who work on a farm, handed down, they all want the same things. So a brand has to figure out how to get there and get there quickly. And it’s been a blessing for me to one, to be in the role, but to also pick up some other things along the way. I think I shared that I joined the United States Department of Agriculture’s board on equity.

So that whole equity commission USDA work now connects to the work that I’m doing at Carhartt, because it’s about the land. It’s about the environment. It’s about tribal communities, it’s all those things. So now I can figure out to play in that space and connect the dots, and that’s what it should be about. But if you are focused on DI only, it’s a bit more of a challenge, but if you get that role to get in, to get the experience, just try to push it forward and at least connect with those partners who might own those other assets. Don’t take yourself out of the game, but make sure you get enough out of it for you and the organization.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I was going to ask you if the role wasn’t scoped in that way, how you can effectively create those partnerships across silos to make sure that you’re aligning your work and that you’re the checks and balances on each other, between the foundation, the environmental practices and DEI. I mean, there’s so many connected tissues between these things, like you’re describing.

And yet, we haven’t looked at each of those other functions through the DEI lens. I mean, looking at marketing through the DEI lens. Every function can be seen through this and needs to be seen through this lens. And I think that’s hopefully the message we bring into organizations where we enter, but to actually own it from a job perspective, it just makes it so much easier. And I think that is the way of the future. It’s one of the ways, right. And I agree with you.

And the Carhartt. I know you gave an example too, of different kinds of diversity that are showing up in your strategy with Carhartt that respond and reflect to and reflect the changing face of the customer. And it is this brand in transition, right. Which is so fascinating. Can you say a little bit more about how it is in transition and how is DEI responding to that there?

TODD CORLEY: So I would say one of the things that’s unique to us is as we’re building it, we have an opportunity to cater and identify communities who may be present, but we need to be more present with. So again, I try to connect the dots. So we had a unique opportunity to support a school, PENSOLE Lewis college of business, which is the HBCU it’s actually the only HBCU in Michigan, the only HBCU that’s … obviously now it’s based in Detroit, but the only one of HBCU family that has ever been closed and come back online. And the only one that is focused on design careers only.

So in our partnership with them, that’s based in Detroit is we’re taking their students to a master class to figure out how do we get them involved in the process of design, creativity, design careers, which are elusive for many people, many White, Black, whoever, but certainly for people of color, because it’s not a natural “pathway” to anything, but it can be, and it should be.

So Dr. D’Wayne Edwards who runs that program in Detroit has given us an opportunity to make sure that we think about not only them as HBCU, but as I think about HBCU as a strategy for us to now go recruit and hire talent from other HBCUs and other wherever they may be, so that we can be authentically in front of them as partner, as opposed to that we wrote a check. Because that’s the one thing I’m not doing. I’m not writing checks to just write a check, that doesn’t excite me. I would advise any of your folks to not do that just because of, and to get back to a question you asked, so I can close it a little bit.

DI, you know this better than most people, DI professionals are supposed to figure out how to connect with others. So even if you don’t have this work around other areas, you should be figuring out how to work with them anyway, whether or not they’re marketing, environmental work, charitable giving, whatever it is because you have to, by default, be connected to other groups, otherwise your work by itself, it can’t get done. So we’re trying to find partnerships, but there are ways to leverage that. And ours with PENSOLE has been early on a phenomenal partnership.

JENNIFER BROWN: Cool partnership. Thank you for sharing about that. Yeah, I’m definitely going to be look on the lookout and it strikes me you’re growing your own talent pipeline through something like this, too. And it is so beyond writing a check and it’s introducing a career, like you just said, which has been not easy to even know about let alone making it accessible to all kinds of young people who may end up designing for Carhartt, right?

TODD CORLEY: Yeah, yeah. To go somewhere else. That’s still fine. We want them to be ready. We want them all, but we want them to be ready.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so awesome. I love that. Todd, congratulations on your pivot and the impact you’re making right now. And I’m going to encourage our audience to evaluate our role or the role we think we want and like where we’re playing and who we’ve relationships with and whether it’s our job or not, or within the scope officially, I hear you loud and clear, Todd, that we get our work done through others. And this is true for all kinds of professionals. We get it done through understanding what’s important to others, but also bringing our lens. And this is where our thought leadership and DEI really matters to say, have we thought about this, or we shouldn’t be supporting this, or we need to find a different partner here, or we need to invest differently beyond checking the box here.

We are the conscience of the organization, and it’s a really wonderful place to be, especially if you’re aligned with leadership in the ways that you’ve described today. Because I don’t want any of us to become so … the fatigue comes from, I think the banging against the screen, the flag against the screen, over and over again, knowing you have something so important and yet not getting the audience, not getting the partnership that you know is very future focused. I mean, what we hold in our hands and in our expertise is the keys to reinvigorating organizations for the future. Nothing less than that. And it’s powerful. It comes with a ton of responsibility, and Todd, you’ve used your voice really bravely.

And I just want to say, thank you for being the light that you were to those employees at Abercrombie, because you’re humble about it, but I’m sure you made sense of a nonsensical situation and a very harmful situation. And you were probably a port in the storm. You were the lighthouse for a lot of people and they still tell you that they appreciate you. I know they do because you really demonstrated what leadership looks like from where you sat. And I think it was very early as we look back, that was a while ago. I also just want to celebrate practitioners that have been at this for so long. It’s been a long time of pushing and may we extend this moment we’re in now of greater openness, greater appetite, greater support, greater tailwinds behind us and what we want to do. And I just wish you best of luck with Carhartt. They’re lucky to have you. And I would, again, everybody check out the movie and send Todd some fan mail.

And I hope we can get the word out because it’s just such an amazing, like I said, very singular opportunity to see the inside baseball of this work, where it goes wrong and how at the same time people find such resilience through it like you did, and also how to use our voice, which that tale is as old as time. I mean, and it’s not going away. And if anything, our voice is getting louder and more insistent. And we’re in this moment too of just great, great possibilities. So thanks for being an early, early voice, Todd, and where can folks follow you, find you? What would you recommend?

TODD CORLEY: Yeah, I would recommend LinkedIn is probably my go-to. So just send me a LinkedIn note. I will tell you it was madness, but I enjoy it. If you send me a note, I’ll respond eventually, probably not too long, but I will and connect. And if I can have a conversation with you, chat, message, I’m happy to do that. So knowing that could be overwhelming, but people gave it to me. So I’ll give it back to anybody.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know it feeds you, and it definitely feeds me too to hear about that next generation and know we can be helpful. So thanks so much, Todd, for joining me.

TODD CORLEY: Wonderful, Jennifer, thank you so much.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at JenniferBrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

 DOUG FORESTA: You’ve been listening to The Will To Change uncovering true stories of diversity and inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit JenniferBrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening, and we’ll be back next time with a new episode.