WW Chief People Officer Kim Seymour On Being A Black Executive And The Role Of American Corporations In Ending Systemic Racism

Kim Seymour, Chief People Officer at WW (formerly Weight Watchers), has built her 20-plus-year career by forging connections, delivering insights and linking talent to strategy in senior leadership roles at organizations that include American Express and General Electric. We sat down with Kim to discuss the anti-racism movement in America, her personal experiences as a Black executive and what corporations can do to help end systemic racism, starting with their own organizations.

During our conversation, Kim called on all American corporations to be intentional in their commitment to helping Black employees. She said companies that develop programs to help Black employees progress free of potentially racist obstacles and that invite Black employees to the table to be part of the solution will lead the way. “Forget your corporate slogans or what you say you stand for,” she said. “Show people who you are and the culture you want by who you hire, fire and promote.”

What sorts of challenges have you faced personally based on the color of your skin?

When you become a Black executive, people assume you are “the exception” in a lot of ways. But when I walk into a room, you cannot see my degrees or my job or the money I make—just that I’m Black. For me, this has led to noticeably different treatment in a variety of arenas, ranging from constantly being seated by the restrooms in a restaurant to being asked for double IDs when I use my credit card, and even being followed in department stores all over the world. I’m so used to it that I automatically adjust for it. As Black people, we constantly and automatically think about how to navigate in the world.

Have these issues been present in your professional life as well?

Throughout my career, I can recall many instances when people assumed I did not have the education I have. Most of the time, until I open my mouth, many people in a meeting might not consider that I’m the most senior person in that room. And they very rarely assume I’m the one who will be leading the meeting…and signing the checks.

Even when you’re in a company that appreciates your talents, you have to guard against your passion being seen as “too much” for some people or being labeled as “aggressive.” This matters because how you come across affects not only your own career and brand, but also the careers and brands of others who look like you, people you’ve never even met before. It is a big responsibility. If you are a Black executive, you are aware of it daily.

Imagine being in a big meeting where the sample size of Black executives is maybe five or six out of 100 people. If we all decide to talk together, it’s a “thing” and it gets remarked upon. For that reason, it’s so uncomfortable that we don’t feel like we can converse. We remark to each other that we should disperse and we accept that fact. Has anyone ever regularly remarked on a gathering of white men congregating at a meeting? Of course not.

It is moments like these that feel never-ending and exhausting.

How has this shaped how you have guided companies or put practices in place or changed them?

I always start with a goal of contributing to the success of a company through the optimization of all talent. To me, an integral and absolute part of that equation is a focus on diverse talent—including Black talent—and bringing more voices and perspectives to the table. I start by assessing what the true appetite is in terms of diverse talent and where a company is on its journey. Is the company begrudgingly coming along? Is it committed to the diversification of talent? That assessment of appetite only determines how far I take them and how fast. We’re going regardless.

Then I present the metrics and give direct feedback on what the numbers tell me. Numbers don’t lie, so no matter where the company is on that curve, I start with a conversation around “what must be true in order to support these results.” If the results are poor, we challenge the logic by asking questions like “Are Black people inherently not as talented? Not as smart? Or might there be some systemic, unconscious or historic bias that led to these results?” If I’m able to get a nod, I invite the company to come with me further and begin to discuss some potential solutions.

We then have a conversation about representation, attrition, rate of promotion and the ratings Black employees are given when assessing progress. We then compare if they are statistically different than the metrics for the majority of the population that works there.

That is where it matters what the company’s appetite is, as solutions can range from something as benign as making sure the company brings in diverse talent for interviews to something truly impactful like holding board seats for Black members or making representation and promotion influence compensation. WW’s board of directors didn’t diversify by accident. Our Executive Committee didn’t either. It was an identified need and a conscious action. And we are going further to impact the entire organization.

What actions can corporate America take right now?

Racism is a systemic issue, and one of the biggest systems on the planet is corporate America. This is why corporate America simply must be a big part of the solution.

The first step is to make Black people feel seen and heard. Whereas corporations may have been hesitant to specifically target Black employees for hiring and promotion a few short weeks ago, it is now not only accepted, but expected. Organizations must support Black employees professionally and mentally as well as in their communities to combat racism. It’s no longer enough to say “diversity matters.” From jobs to opportunities, financial progression and promotions, companies play a big role in the outcome of all of this. And it starts with conversations they are all having right now.

I’m not a fan of hashtags, but if using #blacklivesmatter can help organizations connect with Black employees, it’s a first step. We have to go further, though, and get beyond the hashtags and slogans to true and lasting change.

In hiring, you have to be intentional and make the commitment. Do not be content with saying, “We can’t find them.” Of course you can. Require recruitment partners to bring you viable Black candidates or hire a search firm that specializes in Black recruitment. Engage with digital platforms that have a ready-made pool of Black talent. Fund a scholarship at one of the many historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that includes an internship and possibility for hire upon graduation. Establish a work-study program with an HBCU. Consider engaging with organizations such as Black Girls Code, the National Society of Black Engineers or the National Black MBA Association. Ask your Black employees to mine their own networks and provide a referral bonus when they do.

When it comes to promotion, corporations absolutely need to start programs for Black development. Unapologetically. Call it whatever you like; it could be “RISE” or “IMPACT.” What matters here is setting a goal of identifying and developing talent so that Black employees can meet their full potential, free from obstacles and outcomes that are possibly racist. I go back and forth on the viability of forced mentorship, but intentional connections and awareness can work. Consider putting in a program that pairs Black employees with senior executives for virtual chats over coffee. Accountability is also key, and companies should consider solidifying hiring and promotion metrics the leadership team has to meet that impact their ratings and compensation.

Importantly, don’t create and implement Black programs and initiatives in a vacuum. Invite Black employees to have a conversation and involve them in crafting solutions. Crowdsource ideas and flesh out the ones that make the most sense and are the most impactful for employees and communities.

What guidance can you give other Black executives in these times?

A couple weeks ago, we were thrust into the role of being the Black voice to all people. If you have the position, speak loudly and directly on behalf of the Black employees in your organization and in your communities, with no apologies and in no uncertain terms. At the same time, you’ve got to bring the majority along with you. You want them to be allies...accomplices. This may require a lot of explaining, translating and guiding while balancing the very real and strong emotions we are feeling as Black people ourselves. But moving the needle requires we all be courageous and intentional in our actions and conversations for lasting change. We achieved these positions of influence in order to use that on behalf of those who don’t have as much of it. Yes, it is exhausting. But we cannot get tired.