How WW International Is Trying to 'Be Better and Do Better' Right Now
Jessica Abo talks with CEO Mindy Grossman and Chief People Officer Kim Seymour on the steps the company is taking to address racial inequality.
In response to the country's recent protests, executives of WW International (formerly Weight Watchers) worked with employees to create an action plan addressing racial injustice. The plan includes a donation of 1 million dollars to nonprofits that positively affect Black lives and the hiring of a Head of Inclusive Leadership. Jessica Abo spoke with CEO Mindy Grossman and Chief People Officer Kim Seymour about the plan and how the company is aiming to "be better and do better."
How did you land on the "Be Better and Do Better" messaging for your employees and the broader WW community?
Grossman: Community has been at the core of our brand and our business for 57 years, creating an inclusive and safe place for them to be able to live their best selves. That's the same for our employees. When we came out with our Impact Manifesto two years ago and our purpose and mission, to inspire healthy habits for real life: for people, for families, for communities, the world, for everyone. We meant for everyone.
As someone who is a staunch believer that diversity has to be at the core of everything we do, we pledged to make progress and have impact. But when the murder of George Floyd and the other deaths and incidents that have happened over the last number of weeks brought to life the tragic and undeniably unacceptable situation that we have around racial injustice, I knew, we knew, that no matter what we were doing, we could do more and we could do it more deliberately, more measurably, and we could take actions that were going to help our employees, help our members, and help society as a whole.
We immediately held a town hall and spoke to the organization about just that, and said that in a period of days, we would work to formulate what that action plan is.
How is WW supporting its employees during this unprecedented time?
Seymour: It started with talking to employees, which seems a novel idea to a lot of companies, but we didn't want to come up with an action plan in a vacuum. We wanted to make sure that we were having the most impact that we could in all of the ways that our employees thought were important.
We focused on employees, our members, and our communities, and came up with ways that we wanted to make an impact given that we knew that we wanted to be tailored, we wanted to be focused, and we wanted to be intentional about that. Moving to action was crucial.
From a community standpoint, we wanted to impact social justice, we wanted to impact the mental health of Black people, we wanted to impact their health and wellness, we wanted to delve into prison reform. We actually went on a mission within ourselves to crowdsource what organizations we could partner with in order to make a meaningful contribution. We came up with the ones that we listed.
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Then we turned inwards. How did we want to influence our own culture to be more inclusive so that everyone had a chance to live up to their highest potential? We were very specific about what we wanted to do. We wanted to bring in a leader of inclusive leadership, and we've named that person very quickly. We wanted to have a series of programming, and a curriculum, so that the people who were reaching out saying, "I don't understand, but I really want to help," had resources to help them to do that. We wanted to influence our own WW shop to have Black merchants and their products featured. We now have a Black women's health initiative that people can donate their wellness wins to.
These were all specific and targeted to help the Black community. Our employees feel so supported because it wasn't someone talking at them and handing them the solution, it was getting everyone involved in that solution.
Were there any surprises that made you go one way or another that you were not expecting?
Seymour: The culture that we have of community at WW really came through and shone through with the outreach, from non-Black employees to Black employees, to say, "I was a little uncomfortable at first and I wasn't quite sure what to say, but I felt the need to say something. I'm getting past that, I'm getting past the discomfort of it, to extend the hand, to reach out, to see how you're doing." That's so in line with our culture.
I should not have been surprised, but I think I was because this is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people. It's even more uncomfortable to say, "I'm not where I want to be on that."
How is WW supporting those who feel alone?
Seymour: We've extended our already established Employee Assistance Program within our company to people to highlight it, to say, "Look, this is unusual. Don't feel like you have to attack this by yourself. We have resources for you."
We've brought people on to calls, we have calls scheduled going forward, to make it okay that you're not okay. I think that piece of it, that human aspect, really helped us as we pivoted to action, because we can only sit around and be sad and mad for so long before we quickly had to get to what do we do about this and how are people going to partner with us to help eradicate this?
What kind of impact do you hope to have given what you're doing both internally and externally?
Grossman: We espouse every single day that you can have an impact at any stage of your career, any stage of your life, you just have to use whatever platform you have and use your voice, listen and act. We've been communicating that.
We're also a brand that has the breadth and the scope to truly have impact beyond ourselves. We're working on a whole body of work around the health disparities, whether that's in the Black community or other underserved communities. We're going to be creating an advisory board similar to our academic advisory board and our youth and family advisory board. We're going to have an advisory board to address that systemic issue in our society. We've always had the goal to be the brand that can partner with others that will have the impact to change the health trajectory of the world. Using our voice and using our platform, we want to have impact beyond that.
How do you advise other corporations that are in the mapping phase of what they're going to do?
Seymour: The easiest thing to do first is talk to your employees. Crowdsourcing ideas really, really does work, and it doesn't take a ton of money. We've seen all of the corporations make pronouncements, and I think that that's all good, and it's a good starting point. But quickly pivoting to intentional, sustainable action to address racial injustice is what is needed.
Our employees told us that just making connections with Black universities where you can go and have speaking engagements at these universities and establish a relationship, that doesn't cost money, it just costs time and intention. Internships, hope from your interns, internships open for a Black intern to come in — again, not a tremendous capital investment. It just takes intention and time.
There are so many ways to start when you want to improve your diversity, but the easiest thing is to just hire diverse people, and there are partners out there that can help you do that. There are digital platforms like AboveBoard, there are companies like Jopwell. There are so many resources out there that focus on this. It just takes a little bit more time to establish a relationship and to make sure that you are making an environment that people can be successful in once they do get there.
Grossman: The most important thing for people is to educate themselves. I've been a big believer that diversity is a core business attribute as well because there's clear empirical evidence that those companies that are diverse are going to have longer sustained success.
What advice do you have for a CEO or someone in a leadership position during this time?
Grossman: It's critical that the conversation about diversity and the plan no matter where your company is, is known that it's at the forefront of your mind and it's a core to the company and to you, and that has to permeate throughout the organization.
You have to look around you. I always say, "I want to be surrounded by the most diverse, brightest minds in the room," because we will have the best conversations, we will have the best innovative breakthroughs if we're comfortable with productive discomfort and we have the right diverse voices. You have to make it a critical imperative for both you and the company. If you have a board, you need to talk to the board about it, and you have to look and talk to the board about, is the board diverse enough? We now have six men, six women, two Black women, and they come from all areas of business. For me as the CEO, I'm able to have robust conversations with my board because I have all different ideas and voices that can come together and synthesize, and it's so important.
What are the first steps a Chief People Office should take when handling diversity and inclusion?
Seymour: First find yourself an accomplice like Mindy Grossman. I mean, you cannot go into this by yourself. You must have allies.
Then I would say, understand that you're in a business, and the language of business is data and metrics. Don't be afraid to lean in on the metrics and get everyone aligned that we're going to take a look at where we are with clear eyes. No judgment, no defensiveness, just a clear look at what are our numbers at this particular time. You can't be afraid to look at those numbers and act on what they tell you. Now, once you do figure out what those numbers are, then I think you really have to get very intentional about where are you going to put your time, money, and efforts to move the needle internally.