Pushing for a balanced, diverse workforce is worth it, says Mike Kaufmann, CEO of Cardinal Health: "You'll get the best talent in the world."

Last February, Cardinal Health CEO Mike Kaufmann and a number of the company’s leaders went to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—a place often called the “national lynching memorial.”

They walked through the sculptural steel monument memorializing the more than 4,400 Black people lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950. At the nearby Legacy Museum, they learned how systemic racism was perpetuated through Jim Crow laws and convict leasing, the practice of arresting mainly African Americans on exaggerated charges and then leasing the prisoners to corporations or plantations as slave-like labor. 

Afterwards, everyone gathered to talk, Kaufmann says. The men and women of various backgrounds who are part of the company’s 16-member Diversity and Inclusion Council used words like “angry” and “embarrassed,” in part because many did not know the depth of this dark side of U.S. history. As planned, the conversation turned to racial equity in the workplace. “For me, it helped get a lot of us really galvanized around making a difference,” Kaufmann says. 

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A few months later, after police killed George Floyd and protests spread across the U.S., the awareness around racism intensified. “We can’t waste this moment,” Kaufmann says. 

Kaufmann, who heads the Dublin-based company with $146 billion in annual revenue and roughly 50,000 employees worldwide, has long put his muscle behind diversity. He sees it as a good business decision. “It will help us be more innovative and more welcoming, which will help us recruit better talent, which will help us win customers.” 

For him, it is not just talk. Of Kaufmann’s eight direct reports, four are women and one is African American. Forty percent of management level employees are women, and in the U.S., 20 percent of executives are ethnically diverse. At the board level, 50 percent of directors are either female or are from diverse backgrounds. But he recognizes this is just a start. “We have a long way to go, and we know this is a journey.” 

He believes change must come from the top. “If the CEO doesn’t say it’s important, people won’t give extra time to it as they won’t think it matters to their career,” he says. 

The company’s Diversity and Inclusion Council gives feedback to Kaufmann on these issues when they arise for employees. The council’s chairperson and a senior vice president at Cardinal Health, Melissa Laber, meets monthly with Kaufmann. “He does not move the meetings, he shows up. Even with Covid. I thought he’d have to move it, and he showed up.”

Laber has worked with Kaufmann for 10 years and knew him when he led the companywide Women’s Initiative Network, designed to help women in their careers—his first official foray into diversity work. For Laber, it wasn’t odd that a man headed the initiative. “We need allies. He was passionate and influential. For me, I thought it was great,” she says. 

It was in this role that Kaufmann started experiencing what he calls “aha moments” around diversity. He learned that female employees are more concerned with safety than men, and that female managers don’t want to work nights at a facility in an unlit, industrial location. He insisted managers replace golf outings for the guys with ones all employees felt comfortable attending. And after reading that men are likely to apply to a job when they meet two of the five requirements, while women will wait until they’ve met all five, he called for “diverse slate” hiring practices, where applicants must include women and people of color. Now, 10 percent of bonuses are tied to meeting company mission and values benchmarks, which include diversity goals, though the company would not provide specifics. According to its website, one of Cardinal Health's nine-plus vision and values statements is inclusion. 

Conversation around race and racism remains strong. But how do you lead a movement on diversity and inclusion in a massive company when people have a variety of opinions and talking about race feels so fraught? 

“It’s very hard, it’s very uncomfortable,” Kaufmann says, adding that it will be particularly hard for white leaders. “They don’t even know if they should say African American or Black. They’re worried about choosing between those two terms and offending folks, let alone talking about Black Lives Matter. To assume that managers will suddenly be comfortable talking about this subject is not realistic.” 

One way to reach diverse employees at Cardinal Health, Kaufmann knew, was through the company’s African American leaders, people they respected. So in May, he put together a panel of African American leaders to talk to the leadership team about their experiences being Black. 

During the panel, one leader shared how, while dropping off their child at an elite university they attended, someone asked if they were an Uber driver, and could they move the car. Another talked about showing up at their vacation home, going out in jogging shoes, and then being accused by local security of not living there. 

“These are real stories that hit these leaders at an emotional level,” Kaufmann says. “And because these are leaders people love and think are outstanding, it makes people say, ‘This is not right.’ ” 

Talvis Love, a senior vice president at Cardinal, is one of the Black leaders who told his story on that panel. “As a result of that, I received an avalanche of emails and phone calls,” he says. “My white colleagues were asking, how do we engage in this conversation broadly? It opened the door to these really difficult conversations in corporate life in a way I’ve never experienced before.” 

Along with being a founding member of Cardinal’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, Love also sits on the African American and Black Racial Equity Cabinet, formed last December. “We see it as our responsibility as the cabinet to see what’s top of mind for Black people at Cardinal Health,” he says. 

Right now, the cabinet is fine-tuning goals and recommendations, and will meet with Kaufmann and other leaders this month to talk about setting those goals officially. 

The council has made one thing clear to Kaufmann: Until Black people say things are getting better, it’s not getting better. It’s not about sending people through trainings and saying the work is done. It’s about real change. 

But pushing for tangible equality is not easy, Kaufmann acknowledges. Still, “It’s incredibly rewarding, and you’ll get the best talent in the world.”

Amy Braunschweiger is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.