• Rosalind Brewer built a career as a trailblazing executive of Sam’s Club, Starbucks, and Walgreen’s. 
  • She promotes diversity and inclusion practices and works hard to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and can receive the same opportunities.

So What?

Brewer wants to see everyone achieve their BHAG (keep reading) and enjoy successes no matter their skin color, gender, or other life situation.

Being a black female CEO is inspiring because it’s so rare. Walgreen’s CEO Rosalind Brewer knows she has tapped into a winning strategy that focuses on diversity through a lens of achievement. Here is an overview of Brewer’s leadership philosophy, and how she inspires others to step up and speak out as they strive for success.

Don’t Be Afraid to Be a Trailblazer

Brewer has been CEO of Sam’s Club, COO of Starbucks, and now CEO of Walgreens. She is currently one of only two black female CEOs in the Fortune 500. She makes it clear when she speaks to future leaders that she did not get there by being quiet and watching others around her take action.

“You don’t have to be the one in charge to recognize when conversations are happening that you have an opportunity to teach and learn,” she said in an interview with Marie Claire. “You don’t have to be confrontational or aggressive. Most people seek to understand, and I think it’s about taking every opportunity you can get to educate and change the conversation.”

While it must be intimidating at times to be the only female of color in the room, Brewer does not let it stop her from giving what she has to offer, and making sure her good ideas are valued.

Learn From the Good and the Bad

Brewer started out as a chemist with Kimberly-Clark, working her way up to sector vice-president over 22 years. She then worked in the C-Suite of Walmart before her first CEO position at Sam’s Club.

During her time in leadership, Brewer has presided over an explosion in diversity and inclusion, with many ups and downs. She was the target of backlash when she confronted a Sam’s supplier for not including women or people of color, and also when a Starbucks manager called the police on two black men who sat innocently in a Starbucks location waiting for a business partner.

Brewer emerged from both of these incidents with greater understanding and wisdom, and has been able to fight harder for diversity and inclusion through these experiences. Furthermore, without her positive and negative experiences as a woman of color, she would never have been able to handle the Starbucks incident as well as she was able to do.

Let Your Achievements Speak for Themselves

One unintended consequence of today’s diversity, equity, and inclusion practices can be that people might think a woman of color got a C-Suite position just to satisfy a quota. In the case of Brewer, her achievements are easy for anyone to see.

As CEO of Sam’s Club, Brewer grew the e-commerce side of the business and doubled the number of organic choices offered. At Starbucks, she shrank the company’s carbon footprint by pioneering reusable cups.

Now at Walgreen’s, Brewer is working on adding in-store health clinics where people can get needed healthcare, including prescriptions, when they can’t see their regular doctor. All these achievements are above and beyond her considerable diversity efforts and show that she didn’t rise to the top because of her skin color or gender.

Do the Right Thing

Many corporate pushes for greater diversity and inclusion have led to an inevitable backlash, and Brewer’s are no exception. When she openly told a Sam’s supplier that it was a problem that they were all white and male, people accused her of being anti-white. Similarly, her efforts to put more equitable policies in place at Starbucks were also the target of criticism.

People criticized her for closing all the stores to conduct Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training and changing Starbucks’ policy to allow non-paying customers to sit in stores. Fortune 500 companies typically do neither of these things, but Brewer knew they were the next right moves for these companies, and she was able to weather the controversy.

Own Your Mistakes

There’s just no way to operate in business without making some mistakes, and Brewer is too real to pretend otherwise. She advises acknowledging the error as soon as you realize it, and to have a plan to correct the mistake, then communicate that plan clearly to stakeholders.

If you do the work before the mistake happens — Brewer often spends time in stores when she first becomes CEO to gain a deep understanding of what’s really going on at the ground level — you will already be on the way to having the information you need when mistakes happen. And you will also have cultivated relationships that will make it easier to make things right.

Have a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)

Brewer is a firm believer in dreaming big, then doing the hard work necessary to meet that BHAG. Once you make a detailed plan, which she calls a roadmap, she recommends tapping into your passion to show others why the goal is important to you.

Keeping with the road trip metaphor, she says milestones will help you know whether you’re making progress toward reaching the goal and recommends monitoring progress without micromanaging. When she first started as a chemist all those years ago, being CEO of a Fortune 500 company must have seemed like a BHAG, but she met that goal with perseverance, hard work, and determination.

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