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The Not So Hidden Persuader

A look at the life of Rachelle Hood.

May 29, 2004
Related Topics: Diversity, Training & Development

Rachelle Hood never envisioned herself as an agent of change in corporate America.

    Her career goal was to be a successful pitch woman. But it turned out that the skills she developed pushing burgers and soup worked just as well promoting diversity, which she has been doing for the last decade at Denny’s.

    Born in Detroit on December 16, 1953, Hood grew up in an African-American neighborhood in a family that preached hard work and religious faith. Her father, who had served in the Marines, once held three jobs at the same time, one of them a night-shift position with the opportunity to sneak naps.

    In junior high, she remembers owning three skirts and a few blouses and riding the bus to school past Hitsville USA, the Motown recording studio, craning for a peek at Smokey Robinson or one of the other stars. She joined her parents in civil rights marches in the 1960s organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

    But neither Robinson nor King defined her career path. She took her cue from a book she read for an 11th-grade economics assignment calledThe Hidden Persuaders, by Vance Packard.

    The book was a stinging critique of how advertisers use sophisticated and subtle techniques to mold buying decisions and political thinking. Hood interpreted it as a helpful how-to manual and career guide.

    "I said, ‘Wow, there is a profession where you can manipulate minds,’ " says Hood, who is single and the mother of a grown daughter, a writer. "It had never dawned on me. It is a real profession, and I want to be a part of it. I totally misunderstood the book."

    Hood channeled her interest into school business clubs and won both a citywide and a statewide student advertising competition.

    She went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communications with majors in marketing and advertising from Michigan State University, graduating with a 3.9 grade point average that helped bring her nine job offers.

    She accepted an advertising position in Chicago and spent the next few years in ad agencies there handling V8 juice, McDonald’s, Campbell’s and Del Monte. When she landed the Tupperware account for one firm, she won a new car as a bonus.

    In 1984, Miami-based Burger King Corp. hired Hood as director of national advertising, managing a $100 million budget.

    One day in 1986, then-Burger King CEO Jeff Campbell called her with a new job offer. The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Chicago-based civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, had confronted Campbell with a choice: devote more resources to minorities or face a boycott. Campbell signed a covenant agreeing to make a series of changes and asked Hood to execute the plan.

    Hood initially said no thanks. But after spending a weekend fasting and praying, she accepted the position on the condition that she could return to her old job after two years. She never went back.

    "Up until I had this minority-affairs job, I was worried about things like getting 40,000 Jedi Knight glasses to stores," Hood says. "Now we were changing lives and communities."

    Borrowing from existing corporate diversity efforts and relying on consultants for help, she put together a diversity-training program for Burger King employees, recruited minority franchisees and suppliers and at one point got the company to help set up a minority-owned beef-supply company.

    From there, she went on in 1995 to her post as chief diversity officer at Denny’s, where she has tackled even thornier problems, transforming the firm’s image from racist organization to award-winning minority employer.

Rachelle Hood’s 10 pitfalls to avoid in diversity management

  1. Lack of leadership at the top. The CEO should clearly set tone and direction.

  2. Lack of accountability. Avoid diversity management by committee; make sure someone is responsible for change.

  3. Lack of empowerment. Diversity manager must have a position high enough to convey clout and influence.

  4. Training program rut. Training should be one component of a broader, company-wide program.

  5. Status quo issues. Get rid of systems and procedures that block change.

  6. The human resources trap. Don’t let diversity get pegged as a job just for human resources.

  7. Lack of measurement. Monitor and report results to the highest levels of the company.

  8. Lack of feedback. Tie diversity to company reward and recognition systems to celebrate success and punish failure.

  9. Lack of deliberate intervention. Market forces won’t make diversity happen.

  10. Quitting too early. Diversity is not a one-time event. It is a process requiring long-term investment in time, resources and energy.

Workforce Management, November 2004, p. 44 -- Subscribe Now!

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