Why Steve Pemberton Has Found a Home at Walgreens

Steve Pemberton thought his earliest, most vivid memories were a recurring dream.

Picture a small boy peering out a car window. There’s a feeling of trepidation, of uncertainty; he doesn’t know where he’s going. There’s another little boy in the car. He doesn’t want to leave him. But eventually the car ride ends, and his young riding companion is removed.

At first Pemberton was convinced none of it had happened. But as he investigated his life, gained access to social services records and read his early situation firsthand via his own 300-page case file, he realized that dreamlike car ride was actually the last time he saw his birth mother. While he doesn’t remember her, he remembers that scenario because it was the last time they were together.

He went into foster care, but no one knew what to do with him. Thanks to a white mother and a black father, he was half-African-American with blue eyes, a blond Afro and his mother’s Polish last name, Klakowicz. He adopted his father’s surname, Pemberton, in 1991. He was a walking example of diversity, but should he go to a black family or a white family? As the authorities tried to figure it out, they forgot there was a child in the middle of the debate who needed a home.

“Fast forward all these years later, you can understand why I don’t subscribe to traditional definitions of diversity,” said Pemberton, 46, the divisional vice president and chief diversity officer for Walgreens. “I know what’s lost when you do. In my case it was a childhood that I couldn’t get back and nobody could return to me. I’m a lot more interested in trying to connect us than going to our separate corners and qualifying our experiences based on the narrow lens of our own. Had I been viewed a bit differently, my childhood outcome would have been different, that’s for sure.”

In the end that boy riding in a car on a mysterious journey landed on his feet. Perhaps understanding even at a young age that it was up to him to rewrite his particular story, books became his ticket out. Pemberton would later go on to write his own, “A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, A Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home” —which has sold more than 60,000 copies and been translated into Chinese — for his children, Quinn, 13, Vaughn, 11, and Kennedy, 8.

“Tragedy allows you to understand the importance of looking from different perspectives,” said Deborah Ashton, chief diversity officer at Novant Health. “You’re saying this is diversity. It’s not just race and gender; it’s broader. It’s making sure that you are able to effectively communicate and work with folks from various backgrounds.”

Ashton, who grew up in the housing projects on the South Side of Chicago, can speak firsthand to how early environment can shape a person and inform work and career later. She said for her that early material morphed to become a personal commitment to diversity. That commitment makes it important to challenge people in the workplace who have preconceived notions, whether it’s about the poor or people who are well-to-do. “It’s about owning issues yourself, letting go of some of your own baggage. It’s letting go of assumptions, even when you have had some exposure, because you understand that does not give you the full picture. You have to be open to a larger story.”

Pemberton’s road to Walgreens, which he joined in 2011, was academic. He earned a political science degree from Boston College. He then stayed on for nearly a decadelong stint as the senior assistant director of admissions, where he helped the school diversify its student body. During that time the number of applications from students of color doubled, as did enrollment in the traditionally Jesuit, Irish-Catholic institution that wasn’t considered a popular destination for students of color. “But we made it exactly that,” he said. “Today that student body is composed of roughly 25 percent students of color.”

Pemberton said having an impact that continues after you’re gone, as he did at Boston College, is the ultimate measure of success for anything, and it is also his biggest priority. After he left academia he started his own firm, Road to College, in 2003, intending to do his part to help minorities lay the groundwork for career sustainability. In 2005, he was recruited away to be chief diversity officer at Monster, where he helped the organization recruit and retain a diverse workforce.

“When you sit down with that many companies and you hear the same challenge over and over, everything from, ‘We can’t keep people’ to ‘We can’t find talent,’ you realize these are the same conversations that were happening 15, 20 years prior,” he said. “If we’d had our ladders against the right walls I contend we’d see a lot less of that.”

Hence, the focus on sustainability. Pemberton said he is not convinced that having one face for organizational diversity can produce the discretionary effort and dynamics needed to create business impact. “I never want the work to solely be about this cult of personality,” he said. “To the degree that we can empower and inspire others to own this, that’s where you get sustainability; that’s where you get integration.”

Of course, organizations go through phases where they will hire one person with a very small budget as a way of testing the diversity and inclusion waters. But for Walgreens, with more than 250,000 employees, multiple locations, stores, clinics, distribution centers and more, Pemberton said, “you need a full team to really apply and integrate the science here.

“I don’t know the first thing about what it’s like to be a woman, to be gay or to be disabled. I’ve got things to learn, too. We all do, which is part of the message we need to deliver,” he said. “That even those of us in these roles, we are students too. We have to be. The same investments we’re asking others to make, we need to be able to make too.”

That constant integration between diversity and business negates the celebratory culture that Pemberton said has sprung up in the diversity industry, one based on accolades and awards and such that suggest, “We’ve made it.” But he said no savvy sales executive will ever say, “Well, we hit our sales numbers for the last quarter; we’re all set for the year.” And no marketing executive will ever say, “The last marketing campaign was really effective. So we’re all set.” So for diversity, he added, there should always be a spirit of continuous improvement, a desire to innovate, grow and compete.

Customers Have Many Faces
Walgreens stores in the Pacific Northwest need to look different than those in Miami because the customers are different. That means being aware of, and responding to, shifting demographics that are shaping the country. “For example, more and more communities — Lincoln, Neb., Des Moines, Iowa, Salt Lake City, Utah — are becoming increasingly Latino. That’s a reality for our business and how we operate.”

Diversity management is one of Walgreens biggest areas of focus. On any given day the company has a sense of where it stands with regard to representation, performance management and succession planning, all of which are quantitatively driven. Pemberton and his team understand the percentage of women of color, demographics related to pharmacists and the level of engagement in those populations.

“Representation we have to share as a federal contractor. The OFCCP reserves the right to ask where your commitments are in diversity,” he said, referring to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. “What good-faith efforts are you making vis-a-vis hiring and outreach? We then build our strategy based on what quantitative data tells us and focus accordingly. The employees sustain the effort.”

Part of the company’s diversity management effort is to look at how best to leverage the organization’s strengths. This stands directly opposite a more traditional approach that begins with diversity work pointing out what’s wrong. However, Pemberton said a fundamental rule of culture change is to start with what’s working. “We have many strengths, and we’re able to share across business units practices that have been particularly effective. It winds up galvanizing people.”

In the end diversity is one more strategic lever creating opportunities for the Walgreens workforce to effectively serve its customers, but only if it remains attentive to those customers’ needs and their culture, language and how they perceive health and wellness. That’s why the company has been focused on creating its footprint in communities where it can help to correct the absence of healthy food, access to information and high rates of diabetes and other diseases that hit minorities especially hard. Pemberton said the company has become a leader in HIV centers of excellence, and others are looking to Walgreens for leadership.

There is an obvious benefit to knowledge sharing professionally, but he can relate to that desire personally as well. As he was writing his own book, Pemberton asked his father’s family about his parents, who he has no memory of. He wanted to know what happened to his nuclear family, particularly his father who had been a talented fighter by all accounts, widely admired and adored. He learned that his father’s derailment began with the loss of his mother, who died of heart disease at 40. He was one of 13 children, and the family never really recovered.

“I think about my grandmother often, the impact it had on my father. That was an issue of health and wellness,” he said. “Because we’re in those communities already, we have a say. This particular place has been both on my professional continuum, of course, but it’s also on my personal one.”
That commitment to fairness, opportunity and equality is something Melissa Donaldson, Walgreens’ director of diversity networks and communications, shares with Pemberton, who hired her in February 2012. “It’s something that resonates with both of us, and we share the desire to have diversity and inclusion move toward demonstrations of true strategic advantage when it comes to the competitive landscape.”

Despite its legacy of diversity — the tale of how Charles Walgreen paid black pharmacists the same as white ones thanks to a 1928 letter from a pharmacist’s wife asking that he keep that promise is well-known internally — Pemberton is the company’s first chief diversity officer. Donaldson said he built a team from scratch and turned diversity and inclusion into a formal practice.

“As the first ever chief diversity officer, he has done a great job of not just sharing but really architecting our strategy and being able to socialize the strategy to his peers and his superiors in the organization, including gaining the trust and the credibility of the CEO, Greg Wasson,” she said. “That has allowed him to be able to make investments in the team, resources and funding that we need to execute effectively on our strategy. As a result, and in a very short period of time, Walgreens has gotten notoriety in the space of diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion have gained more credibility internally. There is a renewed sense of potential and possibility which has encouraged more engagement from our co-workers as well.”

That diversity and inclusion-generated potential and possibility translate into actual business results because Walgreens started in urban communities. Donaldson said today 75 percent of company locations are within five miles of urban communities, and 65 percent of all stores are within two to three miles of ethnic communities, particularly African-American or Hispanic.

Further, the business has not strayed from those communities. Instead, it has expanded and improved its presence there, which has prompted economic development — hence Pemberton’s supplier diversity responsibility. “We realize that while we’re not where we were,” said Donaldson, “We are not necessarily where we want to be either. That speaks to being able to target the right resources for the right opportunities to demonstrate that we truly are that No. 1 destination for health and daily living and we understand how to help everyone get, stay and live well.”