Duff-Bloom would find a lot of satisfaction in the dozen diversity/ inclusion programs she backed over the years . As a woman who would successively head company administration, personnel (later HR), and communications, and who would become president of marketingroles she ably assumed although far from her skills and experience in merchandising she felt upon retirement that the major contribution in her career had been as an advocate and champion of the level playing field. And it had always been a struggle, despite the backing she received from W. R. Howell. In conversations and future speeches, Duff-Bloom would stress:
"Of course we will never arrive at a point where everybody gets it, where everybody likes it, where everybody backs it. People are always going to erect barriers. But as long as we have a decent sample of people at all levels who do get it and who do support these programs, then our long- term success will be inevitable."
In practical terms, however, what would the programs really mean? A smokescreen obscuring the good old boys' club that still basically ruled the company? Yes, to some degree. A Howell tactic aligning Penney with politically correct numbers to make the company more attractive on Wall Street? Yes, that too. Neverthelessand in view of zero previous personnel experiencedid Duff-Bloom accomplish something remarkable by selling the equation of
SENSITIVITY + FAIRNESS = GOOD BUSINESS
Yes, absolutely . To an extreme, as it ironically turned out. Because, on a July day in 1999to the shock and consternation of those same good old boysa woman would be put in charge of the company with a mandate to change its culture.
But now, as she entered her office after the Howell Pebble Beach meeting in the spring of 1993, she thought again about his question regarding the Catalyst Award. As the lone woman on the management committee (Penney's most senior officers), Duff-Bloom was the chief promoter of good works within the company. And winning the Catalyst Award would signify distinction in the advancement of women in the business world and emphasize the overall importance of diversity to the fortunes of the company as no other recognition would.
No retailer had yet to be favored by Catalyst, the very adroit nonprofit research and advisory organization. So company prestige was a big factor. But more important to Duff-Bloom were the practical aspectswhat it would do for her career, of course, but especially that positive everyday effect within the company itself. Winning the award would send energy-producing shivers of pride down the spine of every good woman in the organization. Yet, this would require an inspired and well-orchestrated campaign to achieve high evaluations against a range of demanding criteria. Among the considerations were measurable results, accountability, and senior-level leadership.
Howell, therefore, was priority number one. His backing of the Catalyst pursuit would prevent executive obfuscation of measurable results. Same for accountability. No matter who you were, you'd be in trouble if women were reeling from glass ceiling concussions in your area. Most important of all was the fact that W. R. alone was JCPenney's senior-level leadership. This totally negated the fact that most of the boys hated the very idea of the Catalyst campaign, let alone the possibility of actually winning the damned award. With Howell's approval, the others could jump up and down like Rumpelstiltskin until the floor buckled and it couldn't matter less.
And Duff-Bloom knew she could count on Howell for this. She had figured out some time ago that there was a genuine if limited streak of fairness and sensitivity in this feared and dictatorial CEO. And she had also seen, again and again, that he responded quickly and decisively to empirical evidencesuch as JCPenney's increasingly diverse customer base and the fact that the company's fortunes were overwhelmingly tied to women shoppers. Therefore, more women and people of color in management had to simply be good business, and therefore, Duff-Bloom's team would receive all the resources and most of the cooperation necessary to achieve her goal.
The Duff-Bloom diversity/inclusion agenda had three other salient factors, all tied to the Catalyst Award. Internally, there was a range of programs with teeth, each aimed at raising the levels of opportunity for minorities and women, each aimed at raising confidence levels as well. Separately, there were both formal and informal efforts to source and develop promising women within the organization. The last thrust was a plan for external speech making.
The strategy behind the speaking was as ingenious as it was simple in concept. It was also unique in the company's history. First, of course, the topics were hot; and for any organization wishing to be seen as enlightened, it was certainly the good fight. So if a series of Penney speakers (working with compelling material) made favorable impressions at carefully selected conventions and meetings, the trade ink, house publicity, and word of mouth would not only reflect well upon JCPenney, they would actually force and reinforce progress within the company itself.
Howell's backing this campaign (and leading off with the Pebble Beach speech), then, was a lucky coup. But there was a vexing twist to his support, one that would frustrate Duff-Bloom to no end because she was helpless to do anything about it. Part of her plan was to also establish herself as a spokesperson for the diversity/inclusion issuesperhaps the spokespersonand yet she would be denied the two most exciting and prestigious recurring forums on the JCPenney calendar.
Sports were a company priority regarding gender equity, and, of course, they sponsored the two entertaining charity golf events. Both broadcast on ABC, again they were the "JCPenney Classic," a mixed team tournament that attracted headliner pros of both sexes, and "The Skins Game," high-stakes match play featuring a foursome of the year's most popular players on the LPGA tour.
And the hitch? Not uncommon among CEO types, Howell loved the limelight and the company of celebrities. So there was no way the chairman would ever relinquish the job of hosting the two TV events since both were awash with celebrities , and both afforded national television exposure.
W. R. would relish each delicious sound bite leading to the feast of handing out Waterford trophies and big checks to the winners. And yet it was Duff-Bloom, not Howell, who should have fronted these events. She was, after all, not only the highest ranking woman in the company, but would eventually become perhaps the nation's number one businesswoman-champion of diversity and inclusion. Damn!
Aside from that one flaw, the plan was perfect. She knew that once her reputation as a speaker with something to say was established, in due course other presenters in the Golden Crescent and just below would follow her and W. R.'s lead. As to her potential effectiveness at the podium, she was encouraged and excited. In the few "talks" she had given around the company and in general sessions of small retail- related meetings, Duff-Bloom had discovered that she was pretty good on her feet. She also knew that she needed a top- notch speech (like Howell's), she needed practice before her premiere engagement, and she needed a perfect initial venue .