It’s hard to overstate the significance of Rosalind Brewer succeeding Stefano Pessina as the new chief executive of Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA).
Brewer is, first and foremost, an outstanding leader in her own right with a distinguished track record at corporate giants like Starbucks and Walmart.
She will also become the only black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company when she takes the reins in March with Pessina moving into the role of executive chair.
Just days after the United States swore in its first African American and Asian American vice president – as well as its first female VP – it’s of huge consequence at a time of heightened awareness of racial inequality that a major corporate has backed up its rhetoric on diversity by making Brewer the most senior member of its leadership team.
Retailers have recognised for some time that they need to perform better on issues of diversity and inclusion. In a recent RWRC Be Inspired’s column, Walgreens Boots Alliance senior director of diversity and inclusion Fiona Ibáñez-Major wrote: “In light of the racial pandemic, over the past few months we’ve seen an increased focus on the racial equity movement at all levels, and retail has not been immune to a hard look in the mirror.”
She went on to talk about WBA’s global vision “to create a culture where diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are at the centre of everything we do”.
The company’s latest diversity and inclusion report showed representation of people of colour in US leadership roles at 20% and set a target to increase this to 22% by the end of the fiscal year.
Such transparency is to be welcomed, however there remains a general lack of data on diversity in senior roles not just in retail but across the entire business spectrum.
For WBA, the symbolism of Brewer becoming CEO is arguably as important as any targets the company sets. Many businesses quite rightly expect recruiters to provide diverse candidate lists that help foster an inclusive, effective workforce. But until the most senior roles start being filled by people from ethnic minority groups such instructions can feel rather like window-dressing and do little to shift the impression that true equality in opportunity does not yet exist.
As Starbucks’s current chief operating officer, Brewer will join WBA from another business that has led the field on diversity. Like WBA, Starbucks has begun linking executive pay to diversity targets and has committed to publish corporate level representation of different ethnic groups.
From a business perspective, I’ve commented before on the strong synergies between retail and hospitality and the ability of leaders to switch seamlessly between the two. Both are consumer-facing sectors that require a relentless focus on the customer and operational rigour; both are also in the midst of a digital transformation accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.
By combining operational experience with a customer-centric approach, Brewer appears an ideal fit to lead WBA as it continues to shift its focus away from wholesaling to making its core retail business fit for the future.