Diverse Voices: Profiles in Leadership, Part I

In early October, the PRSA Foundation and Museum of PR launched “Diverse Voices: Profiles in Leadership,” a book designed to help communications leaders and professionals better understand the challenges faced by minorities in the communications profession. The book features interviews with more than 40 corporate PR agency leaders and educators of diverse backgrounds. These individuals, many of whom have risen to the highest levels of the communications profession, share candid anecdotes detailing successes and challenges that they faced during their career, as well as tips and lessons for those entering the field. As a woman and the owner of my own agency, I connect with both the challenges and opportunities being a minority can bring, and the importance of creating a diverse and inclusive workplace has never been lost on me. In fact, it has been a core part of Prosek’s growth and competitive advantage since our founding.

D&I is a business imperative, not just in our industry, but overall, and the Diverse Voices book and initiative, as well as the work the Page Society has been doing to advance opportunity and inclusion, is incredibly important to ensuring we are able to attract and retain strong, diverse talent into the space. The book features stories from colleagues across numerous organizations including Aflac, Lenovo, General Motors, Wells Fargo and others with the underlying goal of sharing real insights and actionable takeaways that employers like me and other key decision makers can use in our efforts to create a truly diverse and inclusive communications industry.

With that said, I wanted to share two extremely compelling stories from Michael Sneed, executive vice president, Global Corporate Affairs, and chief communication officer at Johnson & Johnson, and Sheryl Battles, vice president, global diversity, inclusion and engagement at Pitney Bowes, who are among the top communicators in the field. These stories remind us that each one of us has so much dimension – and that our diverse backgrounds and experiences are not just an asset to the business but make being at work more dynamic, interesting and rewarding. I hope you find their stories as inspirational, memorable and valuable as I do.

The following is excerpted from the PRSA Foundation and Museum of PR’s book, “Diverse Voices: Profiles in Leadership.” Part I below, features Michael Sneed, Johnson & Johnson’s executive vice president, Global Corporate Affairs, and chief communication officer, and a member of Johnson & Johnson’s Executive Committee. Part II will run on November 13 and will feature Sheryl Battles, vice president, global diversity, inclusion and engagement, at Pitney Bowes.

Michael Sneed is Johnson & Johnson’s executive vice president, Global Corporate Affairs, and chief communication officer, and a member of Johnson & Johnson’s Executive Committee. In this role he leads the corporation’s global marketing, communication, design and philanthropy functions. Previous to this role, Mr. Sneed was a company group chairman for Johnson & Johnson and a member of the Medical Devices & Diagnostics Group Operating Committee with primary responsibility for the global vision care franchise. Mr. Sneed holds a Master of Business Administration in business administration from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and a Bachelor of Arts Degree, cum laude, from Macalester College.  

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I’ve always known I wanted to do health care, because health care’s in my family. We were fortunate. My family was solidly middle class. My role models at that time were my grandmother and grandfather. My uncle was a doctor. We knew a lot of dentists and other doctors. My grandmother was a nurse. She and her husband opened one of the first nursing centers focused on African-Americans. It was on the west side of Chicago.

So health care was very much front and center as a career for me.

I went to college as a pre-med student, because that’s what I knew. I decided to focus on dentistry and did that for about 1.5 years, but really, I felt myself drawn more toward the business side of health care.

I was in my final year of college, thinking about what to do next. One of my professors, who’s a great mentor of mine, suggested that I apply to business school. As I started that process my mom told me about an advertisement she had seen for a leadership scholar program in Black Enterprise magazine calling for students to apply for a scholarship in business school. It was sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, with an aim to bring more people of color into the organization. The program also included a guaranteed summer internship within the company.

I applied, was accepted, and went to Dartmouth College.

When I graduated, I wanted to stay in health care with a combination of business plus service to society. And Johnson & Johnson had all that. I had a terrific internship for two summers, and then went through the interview process to get a job with the company. And I got hired.

My career at Johnson & Johnson gave me the opportunity to serve in many capacities at various locations around the world.

After my first seven years at J&J, I moved to its over-the-counter pharmaceutical business and became the group product director for brands like Imodium, Children’s Tylenol and Tylenol.

That ultimately propelled me into a role overseas. At first I was responsible for J&J’s business in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. My focus was opening new markets in Asia, particularly Japan and China. J&J started its own company in China: Johnson & Johnson Shanghai Pharmaceuticals. There we launched products like Children’s Motrin and Children’s Tylenol, which are the top brands in China today.

Then I moved to Switzerland for three years and started up our nutritionals business in Europe. In Switzerland, we built a company from scratch. I literally hired every employee. We were building businesses in the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands, and I had to pull together teams of people from all these countries as well. I realized how important it was to make the effort to understand each of those individual cultures.

When I came back to the U.S., I ran our global nutritionals business. Then I moved back to our consumer group to run the North American business. That was a big opportunity with lots of complexity. We had turnarounds and high growth, and everything in between, and lots of supply chain challenges, but it was great. I loved that. And I did that for five years.

In 2006, I helped lead the acquisition of the Pfizer consumer health business. It was the largest acquisition J&J had made until that point: $16.6 billion. Once we integrated Pfizer, I moved from consumer to our medical device business as a way to broaden my experience.

I moved to Jacksonville, Florida, to run the global vision care business for J&J. We really got involved in the community. Our company was a supporter of Habitat for Humanity. It was a big initiative we had down there.

Then, in 2012, completely out of the blue, after spending all my career on the operating side of J&J, our CEO gave me a call. He wanted to talk to me about a role at corporate called Global Corporate Affairs, which also included communications. At the enterprise level I was able to get a view of the total corporation and work on driving our reputation. J&J had grown up with individual business units communicating on behalf of their individual brands and businesses, but at that point we didn’t have an enterprise communication strategy or plan. But it was clear that the world was changing, and people were using their own platforms to talk about anything they wanted: companies, products, ideas. We soon figured out that they had the opportunity to talk about J&J, too, and not always in the best light.

And so we’ve learned that you have to be part of the conversation. And we’ve since been developing our own
channels to start our own conversations. Our global corporate affairs team is over 400 people around the world. It’s big, yes, but it’s more about the impact they make. We’re organized in a way where most of our communications people are embedded in our businesses. We also have communicators focused on supply chain, finance, R&D and diversity and inclusion. And it all comes from one cohesive overarching plan.

Along the way, there’ve been many people who have helped me. You need people who are going to be honest with you and tell you all your flaws. It’s important to understand that you are going to fail, you’re going to make mistakes. The key is to not make the same mistake twice. I’ve had a lot of people who were quick to let me know of the mistakes I made. And I was smart enough to know how not to make them again.

The person who brought me into J&J, an executive committee member at the time, was Wayne Nelson. He had come up through our McNeil consumer company, and he was very big on making sure that he got more people of color into the organization. He was the one who had developed the J&J Leadership Scholar Program that gave me my Dartmouth education and my internship.

When I was working in Switzerland and traveling across Europe, my biggest difference wasn’t my race, but the fact that I was American. That was what people were fascinated by. That was the curiosity — being an American. In the U.S., I’ve always been aware of being African-American relative to the rest of the population. Whereas outside of the U.S., other countries have a much different view of race than we do. Europeans don’t think about themselves as Europeans first; they’re British, they’re French. There were historical relationships between the Netherlands and Germany, or France and Germany. It was such an interesting dichotomy. You’re asking a lot of people who aren’t natural comrades, so to speak, to work together on behalf of a business. This is a very American mindset. It pays to read the history!

I think being African-American I was more attuned to the cultural differences than most. It helped me navigate the cultural landscape, whether in Asia or Europe. My radar around those things is more finely tuned because of the world I live in here in the U.S.

I was just at an event a couple of weeks ago to support medical students of color. This is a sweet spot for us. It’s been something we’ve been doing for a number of years. It has been led by a number of our African-American medical doctors here at J&J. It’s just part of the culture that we have.

It’s very important that we retain women and people of color. We have recently piloted a mentor program with our Executive Committee members. Many of these mentees have been promoted or received broader responsibilities, and all have remained with J&J.

I mentor many employees around the world. I talk to them on the phone every quarter. We check in just to see how things are going or if there’s any advice I can provide them. They help me, too, in terms of understanding what’s happening in the organization. It’s certainly one of my roles that I see as important, and I really enjoy it.
Particularly for people who aren’t Caucasian, there are just a lot of unwritten rules, there are assumptions that people make, there’s unconscious bias, which we talk a lot about at J&J.

I think being racially diverse in this field is an advantage. If you are a woman, if you’re a person of color, you immediately get noticed and you stand out. So you have to be comfortable with that.

I think you have to embrace that awareness at times and take advantage of it. In the world of marketing, that would be called generating awareness. But then, once you have that awareness, you need to understand what you want your brand to be.

Early in my career, I made sure I didn’t get stereotyped and pigeonholed into things that are just about diversity. I had to establish credibility on everybody else’s terms.

J&J was supportive of diversity initially because they believed it was the right thing to do. Today, J&J understands that diversity is still the right thing to do and that it is a business imperative.

At my company I’m held accountable for bringing in diverse candidates, and we review those numbers twice a year. And we make sure that we have diverse slates. Culturally, we are not a top-down organization, so it’s very unusual for us to demand anything. At the same time, I’ve told the group, look, I’m not going to demand it, but if I don’t see things headed in the right direction, I will certainly start asking hard questions to make sure things get moved along.