In late 2021, CEO Roz Brewer of Walgreens Boots Alliance sat down with The Harvard Business Review for a chat. The thrust of the interview? Empowering employees, importance of learning the inner-workings of business, and the problems we still face in diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI).
Brewer is a Black female CEO — one of two in the Fortune 500s — and has an impressive career stretching from drive-thru work at Starbucks to trucking for Walmart and, most recently, helming one of the biggest health and wellness companies in the country.
Her experience is a gold mine for entrepreneurs, as the HBR interview revealed. Not only does it show what would-be business leaders need to do to climb the ladder (hint: pay attention, listen, work in the trenches, and do the “worst and the best” of the jobs so you really know the business), but uncovers the embarrassing DEI ruptures that still rift the workforce.
Perhaps most insightful was this excerpt from the back-and-forth with HBR, notably the last line:
“… [this is] the history that we know in the United States: give someone their start and then they take it to the next level. …[But w]e haven’t done enough work to study and think about, what happens in someone’s life, when you’re single parenting more than one child, and you’ve got to care for that child? And it’s more than cost, it’s about their self-esteem. And so we began to look at things like, how do you feel about yourself and are we developing that in people?”
For many with ladder-climbing ambitions in the business world, the focus is on efficiency and productivity practices at the beginning of the journey: How do you position yourself to be a successful leader? How do you get to the top rung and stay on top?
Brewer, however, shines the spotlight on the work that still needs to be done when you’ve reached the top, emphasizing more than just dollars and cents. It’s about the people. Instead of asking questions about best practices for staying at the top, the questions should become: How do I give my employees a fair and equal opportunity to climb their own ladders?
This, she implies, is not about sweeping statements or generalized programs but about asking individuals: What do you want, and what do you need to get there?
It’s about equity, Brewer says. It’s about ensuring that the people who make your company successful feel seen and heard, given a fair chance to succeed on their own terms.
“That’s the next level of leadership,” she explains. “[W]e’re going to have to get pretty gritty about listening and acting and making people feel included in the environments that we create, as leaders.”
That’s not just how you combat The Great Resignation — that’s how you thrive in a modern business world.