People + Strategy Journal

Spring 2021

The Chief of Inclusion

Nielsen’s CEO relied on Sandra Sims-Williams in her role as Chief Diversity Officer to help him operationalize diversity, equity and  inclusion. This new thinking led to forward progress in supply chain, talent, engagement and product development.

By Sandra Sims-Williams, Nielsen
The Chief of Inclusion

The Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) has become the latest addition to many leadership teams at large global companies, a trend that has been accelerated by events of 2020 that heightened awareness of systemic racism in society. While many companies say they have a diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy, ownership of that strategy isn’t always clear. Speak to most CHROs and many will say that it’s part of their job. While Nielsen’s HR team does have a role in advancing D&I at Nielsen, for David Kenny, our CEO, the responsibility is his—in 2019, he added the role of CDO to his title. His decision was highly unusual, and he received widespread attention for it. 


Given that HR leaders are being asked to drive more ambitious diversity efforts at their companies, we wanted to share details of what’s transpired at Nielsen since Kenny’s decision and what we have learned from this move.

Kenny first became Nielsen’s CEO in December 2018, after successful stints in leadership roles at IBM, The Weather Channel and Akamai Technologies. Just a few months later, in April 2019, Kenny also added CDO to his title to ensure that inclusion and equality at every level in the company remain top of mind in the boardroom and for all the executive leaders.

One of his first steps was to build a strong D&I team. I joined Nielsen to lead this team, and work alongside Kenny. We were colleagues at Publicis Groupe more than a decade ago, and I know that he is sincere and passionate about his goals. At first, I was concerned about Kenny’s decision to take the CDO title. Could he be both CEO and CDO? They are two big jobs, much less for one person. The more I thought about Kenny’s decision to be both CEO and CDO, the more sense it made if we wanted to achieve our goal: a positive, inclusive culture, in the middle of a pandemic and the racial reckoning. He is the right leader because he knows the importance of taking action while also protecting an evolving culture.

His next step was to understand how people were feeling, whether they felt valued and that their work mattered. Kenny embarked on a listening tour, meeting with hundreds of employees over the course of more than 20 meetings, so he could learn from all associates—from the field representatives setting up tracking meters in Nielsen panelist homes to business resource group (BRG) members and managers/leaders across all levels. Those listening sessions became the start of “Ask Me Anything” sessions throughout the company—making room for people to share stories of injustice or inequity, and for others to listen and act to change wherever and however they can.

I started at Nielsen in January 2020, as Senior Vice President for diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). I did a similar series of diversity dialogues throughout the organization with leaders, front-line workers, and associates from every level and team at Nielsen. And what I heard inspired my decision to have joined in this DE&I work at Nielsen. While there were many well-intended people who wanted to make inclusion a centerpiece of their work, we needed a leader of all our Nielsen leaders to make sure that DE&I really became an integral part of our work—how we do it, through all aspects of our products and processes. It was also critical to have the CEO hold his executive team accountable for creating a more inclusive culture, so they in turn would hold the leaders in their teams accountable. 

Kenny truly believes that culture and accountability are critical pillars of the CDO’s role, and that he needed to own those responsibilities in order to create a more inclusive Nielsen, in order to drive results. The responsibility also lies with Nielsen’s executive team and Kenny has laid out specific goals for each leader. 

As he has said, “There is no more powerful position than the CEO and, quite honestly, this isn’t going to change if the people with power don’t use that power to change it. We can set hard targets for ourselves and make those transparent to our board and measure them like we measure other outcomes like financial results.”

How did we divide up our responsibilities? I came into Nielsen at a time of change (our company was preparing to separate into two businesses), and Kenny needed a D&I leader who could build on the momentum he had created. He focused on more immediate actions: he diversified his executive team, drove the creation of a product that would improve diversity in media and used his influence to collaborate and engage partners to diversify the media industry. My goals were to build a robust D&I strategy that would take Nielsen into the next level of growth, identify actionable steps that would create a more inclusive culture around the world and help all diverse employees feel valued. Since the company separation is now complete, Kenny is doubling down on our bold new vision to become a true cross-media company, and I am our new CDO. 

Initially, Nielsen’s D&I strategy focused on retaining and promoting diverse talent, and other HR-driven initiatives like requiring diverse hiring slates and providing unconscious bias training. Externally, Nielsen’s community alliance and government relations also worked with various community organizations. Using our data, we publish Nielsen’s Diverse Intelligence Series—comprehensive reports that focus solely on diverse consumers’ unique media, consumption and purchasing habits. The series has become an industry resource to help brands better understand and reach ethnic customers. Nielsen was also looking to expand its capabilities to provide metrics for a fast-changing media landscape, and measure audiences in more detail beyond age, gender and the three ethnic groups: African-Americans, Asians and Latinos. When Kenny took on the CDO role, he acted to evolve the D&I strategy, making sure that it was built into every decision—from people to products. 

From D&I to DE&I

While Nielsen had made progress in increasing diverse representation in numbers, associates frequently told us that they didn’t feel that they had equal access to opportunities to grow at the company. That’s when our D&I team became the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team. The goal: provide support and programs so that underrepresented groups have equity in terms of opportunities. It’s not enough to provide equal opportunity, because not everyone is at the same starting point. Starting with our own people, we introduced new opportunities to empower and enable diverse associates to grow. Nielsen’s Diverse Leadership Network program is an MBA-style curated development program for diverse mid-career associates, coupled with mentoring and high-profile assignments to help them grow their capabilities, raise their visibility and expand their network within the company. In a 2019 study, participants’ career movement was 2.5x higher during their Nielsen tenure than high-performing peers and had a 90 percent retention rate.

Externally, the company is also actively driving equity for diverse populations. Kenny filed an amicus brief in April 2019 with the U.S. Supreme Court to exclude the citizenship question on the 2020 Census, which would have potentially discouraged minority participation—resulting in underrepresentation when it comes to allocation of government funding and resources. The issue is also aligned with our values as an organization because an accurate count is critical to Nielsen’s business. The once-every-decade count forms the basis for population estimates, which are the foundation of Nielsen’s U.S. media ratings and program rankings. As CEO, Kenny rallied many industry organizations and media partners to add their voices, and the broader effort resulted in the exclusion of the citizenship question. 

Kenny also directed Nielsen resources to directly support Black-owned small businesses that have suffered from discrimination and have also been severely impacted by COVID-19. Associate volunteers created a small-business resource website and are providing pro bono consulting services to small businesses in need. Nielsen’s Supplier Diversity program also ensures that the company is focused on working with preferred women-owned and minority-owned businesses as vendors. In 2020, we hit $100 million in spend with diverse suppliers.

Driving Accountability 

Nielsen’s vision for a more inclusive workplace and its ability to impact the media industry and society more broadly is ambitious but it must begin in-house. “We have to be people first. If you get that right, success with financials, clients and products will follow,” Kenny said. Working closely with HR, he mandated a new level of accountability beyond diverse slates in hiring, including the following:
  • tied executive incentives to diversity contributions.
  • ensured executive leader representation for every BRG.
  • set the expectation that all people managers must be active in BRGs.
HR and DE&I also worked to track whether managers, so critical to employee engagement, are creating opportunities for diverse associates to grow at Nielsen. We are putting that discussion first in our board meetings and HR reviews. These conversations center on: How are you doing with your team? How diverse is it? Who got promoted and who got hired?

As Kenny and I conducted listening tours, we spoke to field and call center representatives. These teams are responsible for recruiting Nielsen panelists, making sure that the data collection equipment is running smoothly in panelists’ homes and addressing panelist questions or troubleshooting technology issues. In the past, as exempt employees, many of them did not join in BRG activities or participate in volunteer activities with their colleagues. In 2020, a new policy enabled field/call center participation, undoubtedly contributing to the uptick in BRG membership.

Are We There Yet?

While 2020 was a challenging year for everyone and for Nielsen, it also proved the impact of Kenny’s leadership and the company’s laser focus on DE&I. Of the last nine quarters, the company beat consensus on adjusted EBITDA forecasts seven of nine times and beat consensus on adjusted EPS forecasts six of nine times. In the 2019 Gallup employee engagement pulse survey, the mean score to the statement “I always trust my company to be fair to everyone” improved from 3.65 in the first half, to 3.75 in the second half of the year. In our 2020 Gallup engagement survey, the mean score for the statement “At work, I am treated with respect” increased meaningfully from 4.29 in 2019 to 4.41 in 2020—in a year where the majority of our people had to adjust to working from home and deal with social and economic challenges in many markets.

Kenny also moved quickly to diversify Nielsen’s leadership team. Currently, Kenny’s eight direct reports consist of four ethnic minorities and four women (when he first became CEO, there was one ethnic minority and three women). 

Like many companies, Nielsen put out a Commitment to Fight Racism after George Floyd’s death, and associates saw the words become reality. Though the focus was on fighting social injustice in the U.S., global leaders and associates also leaned in to examine how they could be allies and advocate for similar causes in their own communities. 

Despite the company split and the pandemic, associates have been actively connecting through our DE&I internal campaigns. For example, associates have posted to Google Currents about tips on mental health, managing children at home while working, fathers posting about doing more childcare/elder care. For PRIDE month, associates embraced the #whoilove campaign and posted about their families, spouses and pets—showing the diversity of the Nielsen family. 
 While Nielsen has made some progress, there’s still work to be done. Kenny continues to own DE&I goals the same way he owns our financial goals. What we say as leaders, do as a company and how we make people feel are most important. If people don’t feel that their ideas and thoughts are respected, we lose. When they feel valued, welcomed and can see career growth for themselves, that’s when we know we’re successful.   

Sandra Sims-Williams is now the Chief Diversity Officer at Nielsen. She can be reached through LinkedIn.