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  • titleOur People
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  • titleSocial Impact
  • titleDistinctively KFC

John Mays: On inclusion and casting a powerful leadership shadow

KFCOur PeopleMarina P.February 19, 2021
John Mays

At KFC, we lead with heart – it’s at the core of our culture and part of our DNA. As part of that, we have prioritized creating a diverse and inclusive work environment where we welcome people from all backgrounds and everyone can bring their best self to work.

Like so many around the world, John Mays was left ruminating and feeling frustrated when Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were tragically killed by police last Spring. But, like millions of other people, it also sparked a fire in him to stand up against prejudice by affecting positive change.

John, who at the time was a Franchise Business Coach for KFC U.S., decided that he could spend his time being angry and distracted, or he could bring people together and try to heal. “I looked to my left and looked to my right and realized I was the right person to lead this charge,” John describes. “I was the highest-level Black person around me and I thought, if not me, then who?”

He began creating spaces for KFC employees, the Yum! Brands team in Louisville, and franchisees to talk. Leveraging his natural warmth, associates were able to come together to express how they were feeling in the moment and discuss things that could feel uncomfortable. John quickly found these groups were coming up with ideas and strategies to influence change both in the organization and in our communities.

These efforts continued to grow and John played an instrumental role in raising awareness, educating the brand on systemic inequities, and advising on an authentic path forward. John’s new position as KFC U.S.’s Director of Equity & Inclusion was formally created in August 2020. In this role, John leads the continued development and implementation of KFC's equity and inclusion vision and focuses much of his efforts on making sure everyone – regardless of gender, race or sexuality – feels welcome, valued, free to be themselves, and has equal opportunity for career progression.

We recently sat down with John for a quick catch up. Here are some of the highlights:

What does “right” look like? We can’t act like something we’re not. It’s a positive step to acknowledge we haven’t done everything we can do. We are committing to being better – not just letting people think we are – we want to actually be better. We need to do everything possible to ensure we’re being intentional about our recruiting and retention efforts for diversity, and we also need to build the right environment internally. This is an evolution. It is a journey. We aren’t going to focus on numbers because this isn’t about statistics, but we are going to focus on sustainable long-term culture shifts.

On changing perceptions: It’s important for us all to realize that this isn’t just HR’s responsibility, it lies within each individual. Every single person at KFC U.S. now has a more meaningful individual commitment, a unique statement, focusing on how they can ensure equity and inclusion shows up in their work environment. This is challenging people to really think about what they are doing personally to affect change and have accountability around it. We are also conducting a Belonging Assessment to help us identify where we need to focus our energy, what we are missing, and what are we doing well. We are introducing education, growing capabilities, and having more open conversations across the organization.

What inclusive leadership looks like: Another important part of our inclusion journey is the shadow our leaders are casting. What behaviors are they modeling in this area with what they say, do, prioritize and measure? For example, if our leaders talk about supporting and developing women in the workplace, they need to be measuring themselves against that. Following through on a commitment like that casts a really powerful shadow. Also, I have been really impressed by how vulnerable and humble many of our leaders have been. They are educating themselves and they are having open conversations about these topics and acknowledging that this is a journey for all of us. It is inspiring and it is helping to challenge everyone to take their individual next step.

The power of stories: In order to make stronger connections with each other, we need to share our experiences—including the difficult ones. Storytelling has been a really powerful tool for us to raise awareness of the barriers some people face in society simply because of who they are. We schedule time for people to get together and express themselves without judgment in a confidential space. This has really become a best practice learning for us actually. Ensuring that you provide a forum for people to listen and connect makes it appropriate to talk about these things in the workplace. You need to be able to understand another person’s experiences in order to really see them.

One thing we found after this summer was that we needed a forum for Black employees specifically. We ended up creating an affinity group for Black associates on the Louisville campus to specifically talk about issues affecting their community. Actually, overall, we have seen a growth of BRGs across our campuses. It is encouraging to know employees have a safe environment where they aren’t being judged and where they can vent, connect, and relate.

A critical piece of diversity and inclusion is helping people be comfortable enough to have a conversation about their experiences – whether they have been an outsider or on the inside. In order to take intentional action on any of these things, you have to have a shared understanding that there is a problem. Often times we don’t see a problem. There needs to be consciousness in order to have intentionality, and that is when you achieve sustainable results.

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