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Volume 23 No. 14
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Executives advocate making hiring pipeline ‘bigger and broader’

Panelist Jamil Northcutt, vice president, player engagement, MLS; panelist Kathy Behrens, president, social responsibility and player programs, NBA; moderator Brandon Gayle, director, global sports partnerships and solutions, Facebook; panelist Kevin Warren, chief operating officer, Minnesota Vikings; panelist Inga Stenta, senior director, global brand marketing, Reebok.
Photo: tony florez (5)
Panelist Jamil Northcutt, vice president, player engagement, MLS; panelist Kathy Behrens, president, social responsibility and player programs, NBA; moderator Brandon Gayle, director, global sports partnerships and solutions, Facebook; panelist Kevin Warren, chief operating officer, Minnesota Vikings; panelist Inga Stenta, senior director, global brand marketing, Reebok.
Photo: tony florez (5)
Panelist Jamil Northcutt, vice president, player engagement, MLS; panelist Kathy Behrens, president, social responsibility and player programs, NBA; moderator Brandon Gayle, director, global sports partnerships and solutions, Facebook; panelist Kevin Warren, chief operating officer, Minnesota Vikings; panelist Inga Stenta, senior director, global brand marketing, Reebok.
Photo: tony florez (5)

A panel of sports business executives addressed issues around diversity and inclusion — from recruiting to employee training to community outreach — at the CAA World Congress of Sports in April. Excerpts from their discussion have been edited for brevity and clarity.

BRANDON GAYLE: There was an article recently in the Wall Street Journal about Goldman Sachs actually implementing the Rooney Rule. At Facebook, we have something called the Diverse Slate approach, so basically no recruiter or hiring manager can actually go through their process without seeing a diverse slate of folks before we make an offer. … Does the Rooney Rule work? Is it doing what it’s intended to do and is it right for other industries to be looking for this as the model right now?

KEVIN WARREN: Personally, I look forward to the day when we don’t have to have the Rooney Rule any more. We need to create an environment that regardless of who you are or what you stand for that you feel comfortable. So we hosted the first LGBTQ Symposium in the NFL at our facility. I don’t want people to feel like they’ve gotta be in the closet. We need to be intentional, but we also need to be aware. Our VP of finance … has a young child. One of the things that I noticed in her office, she has pictures of her son. … That says a lot because some companies you go into, women who have kids don’t even put the pictures up because they don’t want to be perceived as someone who may not be able to work in the workforce.

GAYLE: What advice does the panel have for how to improve recruiting?

JAMIL NORTHCUTT: The University of Texas has an African American Male Research Initiative. That group of individuals is coming to our Major League Soccer office. … We’re going to put on a program for them to talk about getting their foot in the door. But more importantly, it’s a relationship type of thing. I know we have these different hiring practices. That’s why we have the Rooney Rules and certain things in place, but we all know this business is like the mafia. When you start looking at statistics, 85% of jobs are already filled before they’re ever even posted. We have to be mindful about that. For others that are looking to get into the industries that are minorities, again, how you create and develop relationships is huge. Any employability studies, they show you about social capital and how important you have to be in these social circles to be considered for these opportunities. 

KATHY BEHRENS: You just have to break down that tradition of, “It’s who you know.” If it’s a relationship business, every department, every sort of traditional function, whether it’s on the business side or the sports side, for our case, basketball operations, there have to be nontraditional pushes to make the pipeline bigger and broader and you have to do more to help prepare people for what the next opportunity is going to be so that people don’t feel stymied in the role that they are in. That’s something that we’re very focused on as well in creating opportunities for former players, whether WNBA players or NBA players, not just in the basketball space, but on the business side as well. You just have to be very intentional. There are lots of different strategies to employ. It has to be done with a sense of purpose.

GAYLE: Another big piece of culture and climate is unconscious bias. There’s a lot of research around what we bring to work that’s sort of packed into our subconscious and how that affects our interactions with folks. … How do you guys think about programs around tackling that issue and training, specifically?

NORTHCUTT: The training piece is critical. We have compliance trainings centered around that, and that’s something that every employee has to go through. … We just added a new talent development person. There are succession plans that are put in place to help people grow and develop within the structure of our office, but those trainings are really a good way for us to tackle that particular issue.

Then also there are some things that we do that are just sort of basic humanistic things that we need to do. The lunches that we have around our office, the fellowship that we create. These are the things that break down barriers. We can do all the programs and trainings all we want to, but when we spend time with one another, when we relate to each other, we have conversations, we learn about people’s families, where they come from, what sports teams they like.

INGA STENTA: Likewise, we have the unconscious bias training. Those conversations can get really uncomfortable, but having a space that allows for that and provides that feeling of safety and community makes having those conversations that much easier to have.

The Vikings’ Kevin Warren, Reebok’s Inga Stenta, MLS’s Jamil Northcutt, the NBA’s Kathy Behrens and moderator Brandon Gayle of Facebook on stage at the CAA World Congress of Sports.
Photo: tony florez
The Vikings’ Kevin Warren, Reebok’s Inga Stenta, MLS’s Jamil Northcutt, the NBA’s Kathy Behrens and moderator Brandon Gayle of Facebook on stage at the CAA World Congress of Sports.
Photo: tony florez
The Vikings’ Kevin Warren, Reebok’s Inga Stenta, MLS’s Jamil Northcutt, the NBA’s Kathy Behrens and moderator Brandon Gayle of Facebook on stage at the CAA World Congress of Sports.
Photo: tony florez

GAYLE: How does this extend to the community?

STENTA: We have to be a reflection of our consumer as a brand, but then within our own offices, we are doing the same things. We’re trying to create more of these employee resources groups. We’ve just rolled out five more. I’ve talked about the working parents one. We’ve got LGBTQ. We’ve had a women’s one going for a few years. A passport one, I think it’s called, because we have a lot of folks within our organization from all around the world. Those have been a huge asset for us and certainly gives the employees a place to connect, a place to find others like them, and also just bring that diversity of thought that is so integral to us being a strong brand.

BEHRENS: The reason why diversity and inclusion is so important, I think for our industry, is because all of our sports reflect the best of that diversity. When you look at the composition of the best teams, on the court or on the field, they are diverse and they know how to work together in order to be successful. Everything that we do, in terms of our community work, is the opportunity that sports has to bring people together and to bring communities together, to bring different cultures together. The global nature of the game of basketball, I think, gives us a sort of special imperative to be right in this space, to be active and engaged in it. It’s also ongoing. There is no destination here. It’s a real journey. 

Diversity is not just gender and color. … What are we doing on the LGBTQ side? What are we doing for those with mental disabilities? Are we creating opportunities for people who are marginalized? It is a much bigger picture. The community work is important. The business focus is important. The employment focus is important. It all has to wrap together.

GAYLE: [Shifting] to retention as a third pillar of this work. Kevin, talk about reformatting, reorganizing the way the Vikings look to build a diverse pool of talent to build a bench for succession planning and getting the next leaders ready to take those roles.

WARREN: We have to really focus on getting young people in our organization, young people in the pipeline. … We need to do different things at an ownership level. I have two young, African American men in college who I pretty much have said, “Your summer internship is just to shadow me. Just to be in there. Your work is basically to sit in meetings and to learn.” People that look like us have not had that opportunity. Women have not had that opportunity in the past. I want people to know. We’re not saying to take jobs away from white males or white females. We’re saying, “let’s come together and be better.” Statistics show companies that are diverse are better run and more profitable, which would create more opportunities. 

BEHRENS: We think about mentorship a lot, but it’s really sponsorship that I think has really got to drive the next round of change. … How do you identify people and how do you make sure that the senior people are sponsoring that next generation so the retention happens, but also so that the opportunity happens because this can’t work in silos. You have to have the pipeline. You have to have the development. Then you have to make sure there’s opportunity. Otherwise, people are going to get stuck and unhappy and that’s terrible for your culture as well.

NORTHCUTT: You have to layer it as well. You can’t just think the pipeline is at the bottom and they have to kind of work their way up, which is fine. But there are people who are ready to step into executive-type roles, they just need the opportunity, making sure that you’re placing individuals in those opportunities to succeed. 

WARREN: I’ve had a 29-year career, and I’ve never replaced someone in a job. Every job I’ve ever had has been created. Why is that important? That means it has been relationships. The majority of these jobs that happen in the sports business … typically, it’s someone who knows someone who knows you that you’ve spent time with, and that’s really important. Just look around this room. This is great, but look at the lack of people of color in this room. People are going to come away from this week with jobs they didn’t have, maybe didn’t even know about. We need to make sure that we put people in these positions because it will make the world a better place and a better place to work, which is really important.