For companies seeking to diversify their workforce, “It can’t be about numbers,” William Hughston said. (Courtesy Spectra)

Spectra’s Hughston adds chief diversity officer role

Spectra has named the company’s first chief diversity officer, elevating its senior vice president of human resources, William Hughston, to the position. Hughston will continue to handle his duties as head of HR as he adds responsibility for leading Spectra’s strategy and initiatives in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Creating the position is part of Spectra’s effort to formalize over the past several months its longstanding commitments to diversity “by establishing a diversity framework and strategy with measurable benchmarks and goals.”

“We are thrilled to now have a Chief Diversity Officer in place who will hold us accountable as an organization and set us up for positive change within our company, among our communities, and across the industry,” Spectra CEO Dave Scott said in a statement. “William’s outstanding leadership in our DEI initiatives, coupled with his undeniable passion for social justice, makes him uniquely positioned to take on this expanded role.”  

Hughston was already at the forefront of Spectra’s diversity programs. He helped create the Philadelphia-based company’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Executive Council and its LGBTQ+ employee resource group known as Spectra Pride, among other efforts.

In an interview, Hughston spoke of the importance of taking deliberate, measurable steps toward creating and maintaining a workforce and executive team that reflects the diversity of the communities Spectra serves. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is it important for a company like Spectra to have a chief diversity officer?
One of the important factors of this role is really just to make sure we’re driving execution and accountability on our strategy and our roadmap. Because it is such an important facet of what we do at Spectra, we thought it would be important to have someone in this role who is responsible for making sure we deliver on what we have said is important to us as a company.

What is your view of what happened this year with the response to the death of George Floyd? There were deaths of black men at the hands of police before and have been since, but that one, and perhaps the Kenosha shooting, really seemed to have struck a nerve and spurred a lot of people and companies to action. 
At Spectra, we’ve always been concerned about people of color and some of the social inequalities that exist out there for people of color. What I think made the George Floyd situation stand out more clearly, I would say, was really about the time that it happened, the fact that the nation itself was on pause, because people were on furlough or experiencing life-changing ways in how we work in response to COVID. I think the George Floyd scenario, when it happened, because of where we were as a country, kind of stood out. Not that it was any more important than any of the other incidents that we’ve seen, but the timing just highlighted, for Spectra and for other companies, that now was the time to take action. I think that’s why you saw such a visceral response to what happened to Mr. Floyd. Spectra followed suit and really upped our commitment to making sure that equality in this space exists.

For companies looking to diversify their ranks, what are the tactics and strategies for making that happen? Is part of it a matter of numbers, reaching certain levels, or is there more to it? 
There’s more to it. It can’t be about numbers. Diversity from a numerical standpoint is just part of the formula for success. That’s why equity and inclusion is so important. If it’s solely about numbers and getting more representation from a numerical standpoint, if individuals joining your company don’t feel that there’s a level of equity and inclusion, then it will be a fruitless exercise. I think that’s what differentiates between a successful company and companies that just do this as an exercise. At Spectra, we’re equally committed to looking at our numbers and how individuals and populations are represented but also making sure they feel included, they are empowered and they have a voice in making decisions on the direction of the company.

What about backlash and resistance? Is that something that should be taken into account from any company’s standpoint?
I think there needs to be a level of awareness that it could happen, but it shouldn’t direct action toward positive outcomes. I think awareness is important, but it’s inevitable because some people are going to feel differently about what the company is trying to do. Those individuals have choices to make. They are either going to get on board and understand that this is the path forward — and by all metrics diversity and equity and inclusion makes a company more successful — they can choose to stay and be part of that change and evolution or not. And companies should be aware of that and plan for the likelihood that some individuals may choose to leave, but it should in no way deter companies from moving forward.

How can greater diversity be achieved without alienating certain people or a segment of people that might feel threatened by efforts to diversify? 
I think when you have an opportunity to have candid, open dialogue around why we need to diversify our talent pool, most people get it, most people understand it and can get behind it and I think it’s important that you really spend the time to explain why just from a cultural vantage and from a business vantage how it all works together. I’ve found when you do that, a majority of people will line up. Is there a small percentage or a small minority of those who may feel alienated potentially? Then the question becomes what can we do to make sure that those individuals feel like they have just as much of a pathway forward for promotion and career advancement as well. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a bad thing. It’s just another opportunity to bring more folks under the tent.

One thing really struck me earlier this year: the CEO of a major bank saying the company can’t find enough qualified minority candidates for executive positions and around the same time the CEO of another major bank acknowledging that there’s systemic bias in America and that the company would work to combat it. The first CEO later apologized, but that notion has come up in the past and it still does. Is it BS? 
How I would answer that in the Spectra situation is that we need to find new and creative ways to source for talent and to develop talent. We found ourselves in an industry where we saw that there was a void of qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds and that we need to be part of the solution as to how we can develop and expand the candidate pool.

When you say find new and creative ways to source and develop talent, any examples come to mind?
We have taken a look internally at refreshing and developing and building out our relationships with historically Black colleges and universities. We have a number of cities and geographies in which we do business. Fayetteville, N.C., would be a perfect example where we’re in close proximity to HBCUs (Fayetteville State University is in the city), so we’ve taken a hard look internally and gone back and said what can we do more to refresh our relationships there and create a more robust talent pool, pipeline, out of HBCUs. So we’re beta testing some programs in the areas where we have these close ties and close relationships.

What are some of your goals, in the short and long term, as you take on this position?
In the near term, we’ve been looking at expanding our employee resource groups to better serve our population. One of the things we did in July and August of this year, we stood up our second employee resource group (the first was Spectra Women’s Network, which celebrated its first anniversary last week) called Spectra Pride. It was centered around the development and advancement of individuals who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, and we provide programming, resources, mentorships for that particular demographic. In the near term we are looking to do more of that. On the horizon, we are thinking about doing one for veterans that we are looking to kick off in the spring. Along with standing up these employee resource groups, we’ve been looking at our internal training, what we provide internally around bias, what are we providing internally to help people have a broader perspective on diversity, equity and inclusion.

What’s your sense of where the venues industry stands in terms of representation and participation of people of color, women, LGBTQ+?
I think it’s a microcosm of our larger society. There’s clearly work we need to do. We’re in a period of time now where we can highlight that lack and put some programs and initiatives together until we close the gap. It’s a good time to be talking about these issues, but more importantly to come up with plans for how we can solve them. The venue industry, the venue management industry maybe being a little bit behind in and of itself is not a bad thing if we do the hard work, the important work of moving the needle forward.