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NRF 2023: How Target Makes its Culture of Inclusion Tangible

Sometimes the results of emphasizing diversity and inclusion are big, bold and easy to see; sometimes they’re subtle. An NRF 2023 panel discussion with Target CEO Brian Cornell and four of the company’s top executives showed how the retailer is making inclusion tangible at both ends of this spectrum.

On the highly visible end, the panel was all female (Cornell excepted) and featured two Black women, and that’s a reflection of Target’s internal structure: “One-third of Target’s Board of Directors is women, half of our leadership team are women and over half of our stores are led by females,” said Cornell. That’s likely a result of the retailer having had a diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) strategy for the past 17 years: “This represents the phases and stages you go through when you’re building something from the ground up,” said Kiera Fernandez, SVP and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.

On the subtle side, Christina Hennington, EVP and Chief Growth Officer, discussed how Target has emphasized inclusion in its $30 billion+ private label business. In designing clothing, for example, “we tested lots of colors and chose those that are more preferred by people with darker skin tones,” said Hennington. “We embed culture in the execution of our strategy, and that really becomes tangible to our team and our guests.”

“We design our guest experience around a deep emotional connection with them, not a transactional or linear one,” said Cara Sylvester, EVP and Chief Guest Experience Officer. She related a story about a Black mother of two young daughters who bought a holiday ornament — a ballerina that had dark skin tones — and the impact that had on her children. “That’s one of countless guest stories, and these moments don’t just happen by chance,” said Sylvester.

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The panelists stressed that its corporate culture is not imposed from the top. “We include the voice of our 400,000+ team members,” said Fernandez. “We went through the exercise of understanding them and the communities that we operate in. What’s our rally call? It’s that we care, grow and win together. That captures the voice of the team and helped us manage through one of the most challenging experiences any of us have had to face,” the COVID pandemic.

Indeed, Target has been one of the retail success stories during the past several years of volatility: the retailer added approximately $30 billion in topline sales during this period, according to Hennington, along with launching a range of private label brands in areas including pet needs, stationery and crafts and “delicious sweets.”

The retailer also works to make its commitment to its associates tangible. “I attended a leadership immersion event with our Hispanic and Latino officers and got the chance to speak with local store leaders about the Target culture’s impact on both their personal and professional lives,” said Alexis Sheppert, Group VP of Stores for Virginia and North Carolina. She related the story of a store leader in Los Angeles’ South Gate neighborhood who had started as an hourly employee there. “Through our Dream to Be program, she became the first in her family to graduate college and the first to own a home, and had this amazing opportunity to lead the store in her community,” said Fernandez.

Sometimes, a culture of inclusion isn’t something that can be planned for. Sheppert told the story of the Target store that became a temporary shelter during the devastating winter storm in Buffalo, N.Y., last month. “The store director reacted very quickly to do what was best for the team and his guests by letting them find shelter in the building,” as well as providing food, bedding, and toys and activities for the children, she noted. “They brought that sense of family and joy into a moment that could have been really stressful, and that’s a great example of how impactful the Target culture can be.”

Cornell acknowledged that while a corporate culture “doesn’t fit into a spreadsheet or business model, so much of the growth we had was based on our company culture. You have to have a great strategy and capabilities, but culture is the common through-line.”

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