Executive of the Year, Large Organization: Keith Sanders

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Keith Sanders may have grown up in Winter Haven, Fla., watching his parents work blue-collar jobs, but he learned from them gold-standard skills.

Sanders' father ran his own lawn-care business, and his mother was a maid. They showed him both the value of hard work and the need to ensure everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and that no one is better than anyone else.

Those traits have led Sanders to the upper echelon of management at some of the nation's most recognizable organizations, and have enabled him at each stop to foster a culture that promotes diversity and puts employees first.

"I have always wanted to be in an environment where I could help people, in terms of them being treated fairly, and, along the way, provide the opportunity for development," says Sanders, senior executive vice president and human resources director at Huntington National Bank.

A graduate of Florida Atlantic University with a bachelor's degree in business administration, Sanders started his career in Atlanta with Federated Department Stores Inc.-now Macy's Inc.-as a buyer in men's sport shirts, and was ultimately offered a promotion. The problem: It involved a move to New York, too far from his family.

So Sanders was instead invited to take on a training role at Macy's, which served as his introduction to human resources. "Having the view of a buyer, I knew the importance of selling and the sales approach," he says. "And by training people as new hires, we could start with a focus on customer service from the first day."

Sanders spent 14 years with Macy's, rising to regional director, before being recruited to Target, where he expanded his skills in employee relations and diversity.

He recalls working in Target's Tifton, Ga., store, which even in the late 1990s was heavily segregated and had the worst employee survey rating in the company. In 20 months, Sanders guided it to become the second-best-rated store in the organization by listening to employees, leading by example and showing that the company valued and respected people.

After five years, Sanders joined PepsiAmericas as chief diversity and inclusion officer, and on a global stage continued his quest to advance a company by treating its people with dignity and respect.

Two years ago, Huntington came calling. The bank sought to make a cultural change to an inclusionary, high-caliber workforce that reflects the customers it serves and the communities in which it operates. Sanders, his co-workers say, was perfect for the job.

"Keith is a tremendous leader," says Zahid Afzal, a senior executive vice president and chief information officer at Huntington, who nominated Sanders. "When he came here, we didn't have human resource services other than internal generalists who were benefit focused, but did not have a focus on talent development, or being creative in providing services to our colleagues in terms of benefits. There was zero inclusion of diversity in the company.

"With Keith, it is a night-and-day difference in the services we receive and the environment of the company."

Nicole Kraft is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the August 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.