Former Jamba Juice CEO James D. White: Empathy Is a Skill That Can Be Taught

Former Jamba Juice CEO James D. White: Empathy Is a Skill That Can Be Taught

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ADI IGNATIUS: Hi, I'm Adi Ignatius, editor-in-chief of Harvard Business Review, and this is HBR's The New World of Work. We are on a new season. Our first two episodes have been amazing.

Week one, we talked to Ryan Roslansky, the CEO of LinkedIn. Last week, we talked to Deb Liu, the CEO of Ancestry. We have another great guest this week, and I will introduce him in a second, but first, I want to read a word from our sponsor. Where some see barriers, Unisys sees breakthroughs.

Unisys pushes what's possible across digital workplace, app modernization, cloud, and beyond. Unisys, keep breaking through. So our guest this week is James White. He's the co-author, with his daughter, Krista, of the book, Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World.

James has also led a long and successful career in business. He served as CEO, chair, and president of Jamba Juice from 2008 to 2016, where he led an impressive effort to reinvent the brand, which we'll talk about today. And prior to that, he held executive positions at Safeway, at Gillette, at Nestle Purina, at Coca-Cola, and others. And he has more than 20 years' experience on a number of boards, including, currently, at the Honest Company, where he serves as chair. So James White, welcome to the show.

JAMES WHITE: Adi, thrilled to be with you. ADI IGNATIUS: All right, so let's-- I want to talk about some of the themes in your book first. And I think there's a useful definition for our audience. So again, you wrote this book-- you co-wrote this book with your daughter-- about anti-racist leadership. But I think for some of our viewers, the term, "anti-racist," "anti-racism"-- it's kind of commonplace.

I think some people may not quite understand what it means. Tell me what it means to you. JAMES WHITE: I think for us, it means a couple of things. It's really about being human. It's about creating opportunities for all. And one of the CEOs we interviewed for the book-- Todd Schnuck is a retailer in my hometown of St. Louis.

Their platform around this work is "unity is power, we stand against racism." And I think that kind of sums up the way we think about it. And it really requires action from a leadership perspective. So it's less about what you say and what the definitions are, but what you do every single day. And the example we share in the book-- Todd and his team focus on this work every single week. And this is Chief Diversity Officer, and Todd as CEO, and the Chief People Officer, and one operating executive on the team.

And something that I think is unique-- I sit on that board. And as a board member, I'm engaged with the team on a monthly basis. We've been doing it for two years, have no intention of stopping that process. So again, I think this really exemplifies how we thought about the work in the book. One of the other things, Adi, if you don't mind-- I always read the first paragraph of the book, which really does a great job of summarizing how we think about it in total.

ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah, no, please, please, please. JAMES WHITE: Yes, so this is the first paragraph of the book, and I'll share a bit of a back story. "This book is not apolitical. This book is explicitly anti-racist, pro-Black, pro-LGBTQIA+, and feminist. This book takes the stance of the Black lives matter, that LGBTQIA+ rights are human rights, that people of all abilities deserve respect and access, and that people of all genders have the right to sovereignty over their bodies and identities. This book acknowledges that capitalism is built on a foundation of systemic racism, and that to have a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive work environment, we must acknowledge the historic and present injustices faced by marginalized people."

A bit of the backstory on that paragraph-- my daughter, Krista, who worked with me on this book, comes to me, June 1, 2020, and says, Dad, I've got a different way to start our book. So if we're working through the process, she comes to me with this program, and it's unedited. From June of 2020, this was just following the murder of-- the tragic murder of George Floyd.

We review it with some of the members of our team, and one of the members of the team says, James, you're a mainstream businessperson. Do you care if you ever work again? So I'll just let that kind of soak in for the audience. And the answer, obviously, was, this is who we are. This is what we stand for.

This is really an important part of the conversation. And I think the magic of having Krista-- she really saw the importance of this, even before I did. And I'm grateful. ADI IGNATIUS: So that's really powerful. I mean, look-- I mean, Colin Kaepernick took a knee, and he never played football again.

I mean, it's tough out there. I guess, I would guess, there's some people who are listening to this who would think, all right, I am-- I'm supportive. And I want to be an ally, but talking about the past and sort of denigrating-- I'm not comfortable with that. I'm not comfortable with somebody telling me that I am the beneficiary of a situation-- of a situation that is inherently racist or something like that. What do you say to those people who are potentially allies, but uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric? JAMES WHITE: I just think-- I think we've got to start where-- you start where you are. And I think if we all take ourselves-- and again, the example I gave of Todd Schnuck-- that CEO took himself on a learning journey as he took his organization on a journey to learn.

You start where you are. You take small or large steps to move yourself to the future. But much like the platform of this program, The New World of Work, anti-racist leadership is going to be required moving forward.

I think we're going to have to understand it. And I think, in particular, you've got a couple of next generations in your workforces-- Millennials and Gen Zs-- that are going to hold us accountable to it. ADI IGNATIUS: So if you just joined us, I'm speaking with James White, the former CEO of Jamba Juice and author of the book, Antiracist Leadership.

Full disclosure-- that is a book published by HBR press. If you're watching this, if you have questions for James, please put them in the chat. Or even if you just want to tell us who you are or where you are, please, please interact with us. And one other quick plug-- if you like this content, we do have a New World of Work newsletter. Go to, and you can sign up for The New World of Work newsletter.

So OK. So we've talked about anti-racism. Tell us what-- what does an anti-racist organization look like, if it gets to that stage? JAMES WHITE: Yeah, I'd share it in a number of examples of leaders and companies that I think are really on the journey of doing this work. One of the examples we give in the book is, we talk about Target stores. Their CEO, Brian Cornell, has been out front, committed to the work, has made significant investments around Black entrepreneurs, and the work that they need to do there. And they're actually one of the better practitioners today.

And he's been forthright on the need that they have to increase the representation of Black leaders inside of Target. And they do the work. They take the action. They do the work. Another example is Bracken Darrell at Logitech. He's focused his organization on significantly improving the diversity of their supplier network and ecosystem, and they've been very aggressive in and around their work.

Those are two good examples. And my favorite example of an anti-racist report and Chief Diversity Officer is Lybra Clemons at Twilio. And they've done-- they've got an anti-racist report that they do each year on their company. And I think she does a beautiful job of laying that out. ADI IGNATIUS: So you're old enough to have lived through several cycles where, let's say, US corporations, at least, became focused on the need for diversity, the benefit of diversity, and companies did what they do. They created incentives to push executives to achieve better levels of diversity.

And then, some of these movements have lost steam. We're in a movement right now. What do you think? Is it different this time? JAMES WHITE: I think it's different in a couple of different ways, but I think there is still more work to be done. I think the language of this conversation that we're having, even the fact that I could publish a book titled, Anti-Racist Leadership, and find myself invited to sit on more boards, and be active and have discussions with CEOs and corporate leaders-- so I think the fact that we're talking about systemic and structural racism, and that's a discussion happening in boardrooms and inside companies-- I think that is different.

I think there is a movement to change the overall diversity of how companies are governed, from a board perspective. I believe that is different and will be a sustainable change, moving forward. And I think most importantly, the prior change has always been kind of housed in the human resources function. There are CEOs-- many of them-- that are really out front, leading this work. And this is work that I believe that has to be led from the C-suite.

It can't be delegated. Because this is really the work of culture. ADI IGNATIUS: All right. So give us some advice.

What does a responsible CEO do to push DEI, to push an anti-racist agenda? JAMES WHITE: I think the first thing they do is, they try to listen and learn, and they just take account of their organization where they are. And then, they chart a path that says, we want to look at every process or system that touches humans, and we want to make those people systems, from hiring to onboarding, to how people get promoted, to how we get compensated-- we just want to make them fair and available for all, so that we can leverage all the available talent in this very challenging marketplace. They focus on ensuring that their programs are sustainable. And the way you do that, in my opinion, is you make sure that you focus on the middle management of the organization, which is often referred to as the immovable middle or the frozen middle. This is the place where, if you're going to drive sustainable change and build an inclusive culture, where the heavy-lifting work has to happen inside the corporation.

And the final point is, this is not an event. I gave the example of Todd Schnuck, who is invested and involved, on a weekly basis, on this work. And at least in my business experience, anything that matters, you measure it, and it's baked into the strategy, and you work it on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.

ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah, I love that. This is not an event. This is an ongoing part of the business. So usually, I go to questions that come in at the end, but there's some coming in right now, and I'd like to raise a couple.

So this is from Stan in San Francisco, who says, what is one thing that sets back leaders who are still learning to be anti-racist? JAMES WHITE: I think the one potential area where people get sidetracked is, if they have misstatements or just the discomfort of knowing that you're in a learning mode-- we're all learning. This is going to be an ever evolving topic. This is not anything that any of us learned in business school. This is about people and human beings and taking action to create an environment where we all can thrive. The best leaders know that it's just a daily part of the work process, where you're going-- we're all going to be in a mode of learning. ADI IGNATIUS: I'd love to talk to you about your background, if you're comfortable doing so.

As a starter, to what extent did you face the kind of discrimination, racism that you're writing about in the book? JAMES WHITE: Yeah, I think there's a couple of points that I'd make. My background-- working-class background-- St. Louis, Missouri is where I grew up. I was the first member of my family to graduate from college.

And a couple-- one of the stories that I'd never shared before 2020-- my first job out of college was with the Minute Maid division of Coca-Cola. I had a selling territory that would have been largely in Southwest and Southeast Missouri. My first week of work, because the territory went into Arkansas, there was a portion of the territory that needed to be carved out, because the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan set in a part of my territory. So think about 22-, 23-year-old-- first job, no one in my family's been in business. And that's kind of where you're-- you're excited you're working for one of the best companies in America, and that's one of the things that you face. And if I step back a few decades later and look at my entire territory, there are towns, called "sundown towns," where it's unhealthy to be Black or Brown, kind of, after dark.

And I remember a situation going into a supermarket, and the manager said, James, we heard you were in town, and we just suggest that you're not here after dark. And if I look at my selling territory, it would have largely been sundown towns. The removal of the one part of my territory is an extreme example, but probably, most of that territory would have been sundown towns. And this is where empathy is required. If you're sitting in the audience, and you're wondering how you'd navigate this situation at the start of your career-- and you know, I've had a really successful career, but for that to be my starting point in this journey, there were many, many places for derailment in that process.

The other example that I'd share-- I talk about never being promoted based on potential. And I've had many promotions and lots of fantastic opportunities and a really blessed career. But I'd share, the first time I was promoted to vice president, it was a situation where I'd been passed over a few years prior, and started to rise-- I was at Nestle Purina. I started to rise in the organization, and ultimately, was promoted to Vice President of Commercial Operations.

But by the time I was promoted, I was running 70% of that operation at the time. So that was an easy promotion. And one of the concepts that we talk about in the book is, people that are coming from underrepresented backgrounds-- in my case, Black-- you have to prove it again, and prove it again, and prove it again. And really, the message is for leaders to just take that necessity out of how they build their corporate cultures, how they think about succession and talent, but just to be aware of it. ADI IGNATIUS: So the book is kind of a blueprint for how organizations can be better in these aspects.

But I want to come back to your personal situation. That's tough. I mean, you know, how do you-- I guess, how do you-- what's your advice for people to build that resilience when horrible things happen to you because of the color of your skin-- in your case, as you're beginning a career? That's tough. I mean, how do you-- what's your advice for people? How do you-- how do they keep going? How do they be resilient? JAMES WHITE: Yeah. I think the main thing is you've got to have a True North.

I happened to have just fantastic parents that had me grounded in working hard. I'd say, really, the best lesson that I learned on the journey is really investing in my own education and development and being a lifelong learner, in addition to having the grit and kind of the focus and determination to be undeterred by various challenges. ADI IGNATIUS: And at the end of the day, do you consider yourself a classic American success story? Or would you use a different term? JAMES WHITE: I think I would be an uncommon-- I'm an unlikely public company CEO, if you think about my background and the journey. I'm an unlikely public company board chair.

But what I hope we are able to catalyze with some of the thinking around the book is that this uncommon story becomes a more common story as we have more leaders and organizations that are focused on building for all environments. Just to hearken back to Schnuck's example, the "unity is power, we stand against racism"-- in my mind's eye, that should be an easy statement for any of us to make. And I think the benefits, as we think about the future of work in these next generations-- I submit it's going to be a requirement. ADI IGNATIUS: So here's an audience question. This is from Alexandra in Boston.

What was it like to collaborate on this book with your daughter? What did it mean to you to write this with her? JAMES WHITE: It's the most special work that I've done, really, across my career. I had a chance to really learn through her eyes. My daughter, Krista, was really just doggedly determined for us to call things what they are, to really try to deliver an ultimate work product that would catalyze the kind of discussions that we've been having and make a bit of a difference in the world. And just the intergenerational lessons that we learned across the project were just fantastic. And we're actually learning more as we take this book out into the world.

ADI IGNATIUS: And what's been the response to the book? How has it changed your life, I'd say, both positively and negatively? JAMES WHITE: It's been really all positive. We've been invited in front of incredible audiences of CEOs and corporations. Lots of folks in my networks have invited either one or both of us in. The funniest thing is, we've got, really, many folks that are now inviting Krista without Dad to many of the conversations, and that's been really exciting to watch. But it's been, really, all positive, and we think we're catalyzing a discussion that will represent meaningful change. ADI IGNATIUS: So I do want to talk about your years at Jamba Juice.

You led a-- I don't know-- what you call a reinvention or a refresh or something like that, that touches on some of these topics. Talk a little bit about what the company looked like when you arrived and what you set out to do. JAMES WHITE: Yeah, when I joined Jamba, the backdrop would be, we're in the midst of the 2008-2009 Great Recession. So I take over as CEO of a smoothie shop in the fall, winter of 2008.

And I knew a couple of things needed to be true for the company to even survive that period of time. One, we needed to put people first and leverage the culture to really unlock the full potential of the organization. And two, we needed to have a very clear-eyed, clear-headed strategy to lay out a blueprint or a roadmap for the company into the future. But the foundation was around people and culture, and really unlocking the full potential of the organization. We were able to successfully map a strategy that made the brand more relevant, allowed us to grow the company.

And ultimately, over my tenure, the market cap of the company increased about 500% over that period of time. So we were successful in, really, re-imagining the organization and transforming the culture, and ultimately, created a lot of value for all the stakeholders. ADI IGNATIUS: So it's interesting to me when a new CEO comes in from the outside, the sequencing of the initiatives, and I'd love to know, what did you do first? What did it seem like was the essential thing to lock down before you could do anything else? JAMES WHITE: Well, the first thing, for me, was to listen to the key stakeholders in the organization. So the early days and weeks, I wanted to gather as much knowledge as I could from all the stakeholders, from suppliers to the employee base, to franchisees.

Obviously, there was plenty of input from the board, and Jamba was a public company, so we also heard from the investor-stakeholder community and used that to really inform how we reshape the strategy. ADI IGNATIUS: So a lot of questions are coming in, and I want to get to some more. This is from [? Chiara, ?] from San Leandro, California. Question is, when hiring a Chief Diversity Officer, what are some characteristics to look for? JAMES WHITE: I think-- fantastic question. I think before even thinking about hiring a Chief Diversity Officer, the first thing to think about is the remit or the brief for the role, or the role set in the organization.

I've seen Chief Diversity Officers that are unsuccessful, that don't have an appropriate remit or brief for the job. They don't have the right sets of accountabilities in the organization. So here's the best of what I've seen. And we talk about this gentleman, a dear friend, who actually passed a little bit earlier this year, Erby Foster-- was the Chief Diversity Officer and the initial Chief Diversity Officer at the Clorox company. Erby's background was as a business person, CPA, so he brought that lens to this work. And one of the things we highlight in the book is, during his tenure there, they really leveraged their employee resource groups as a source of innovation and impact to the business.

But the fundamental idea that I'd leave the audience with, as the answer to the question, is this really is about business and transforming culture. It's about engagement and kind of fully leveraging all the talent. So I think folks that are going to be most successful are going to have the right authority and kind of mindset to really drive this work as an important part of the business.

And at the end of the day, this is work that must be measured. ADI IGNATIUS: You used the term, "empathy," early in our conversation. And I feel like, in some ways, empathy is the most needed skill for successful leadership these days. When I interviewed Satya Nadella of Microsoft on this show a while back, I asked him about the key to innovation, and he said, empathy, and then made the case for why it was-- the answer surprised me. But he made the case on why, sort of, an empathetic perspective toward even the outside environment and consumers could help, sort of, in the innovation process. So I'm leading to a question from someone who's watching.

This is Maya from San Francisco. So I don't know what you think about this. Can compassion in empathy be taught? JAMES WHITE: Also, Maya's question is an interesting question, and it's actually a question that my daughter, Krista, actually raised in this process. And we went on to ask this question of the two dozen executives that we interviewed. So I think the answer is, absolutely, yes.

And I think there are places that companies can make investments to create opportunities for us all to build capabilities around empathy. I just-- we share one story, in the book, of an executive that worked for me at Nestle Purina. And we wanted this gentleman to be more gender-aware, so we sent him to a women's event. And he would have been one of, maybe, 10 men at an event of 500 women.

And we had no idea what would come of this. But the long and the short of the story-- after one full day, being the only one of 10 men in a room of 500 women, he was so stressed out from just that one day's event, he couldn't make it to dinner that evening. So I think there are planning and kind of thoughtful ways to build empathy.

Both at Nestle Purina and when I was at Gillette, we would take executives to the Black MBA and the Hispanic MBA conferences at that time. So if you just think of yourself as a white executive being the only one at a 10,000-person Black MBA conference, when you walk into the elevator, into every room, and every meal, it's only for two or three days. But those kinds of activities give us the chance to build and create more empathy and learning and understanding.

I think we all have opportunities to do more of that. ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah. And I would just say, it's not easy. It's a hard process. So if we make progress on DEI, if we make progress on an anti-racist agenda, and being realistic, what does the workplace of the future look like? JAMES WHITE: I think the workforce the workplace of the future will be-- one, it will create equal opportunities, no matter our abilities or gender or race, where we can all access the tools and resources of the organization and all have a chance to have our voices heard in a meaningful way for the betterment of the organization.

Again, it's where I started. It's about being human. It's about creating opportunities for all. And I think the best leaders are starting to understand this, and I'm watching many of them really drive their organizations in that way. Because they know they have a competitive advantage. ADI IGNATIUS: So James, I want to thank you.

We have had a great and engaged audience. And as always, you're amazing and a great friend of HBR, so thank you very much for being on the show. JAMES WHITE: Thank you. Grateful. ADI IGNATIUS: All right, fantastic.

So that was James White, former CEO of Jamba Juice, author-- co-author of the book, Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World. So my guest next week will be Henry Timms. He's the president and CEO of Lincoln Center in New York City, and the creator of Giving Tuesday, which happened yesterday.

Giving Tuesday, if you don't know, is a global philanthropic movement that is now engaging people all over the world. It's generated more than $7 billion in good causes in the US alone. So Henry was the creator of that and, as I say, is the CEO of Lincoln Center.

He's also the co-author, with Jeremy Heimans, of the book, New Power: How Anyone Could Persuade, Mobilize, and Succeed in Our Chaotic Connected Age. So join us live next Wednesday, December 7 at 12:00 noon, Eastern time. Again, if you like this content, sign up for our newsletter,, and sign up for the New World of Work

newsletter. And if you really like this content, be sure to listen to our podcast, IdeaCast, our podcast called, The Ideacast, HBR Ideacast, where we talk to thought leaders on topics like this every week. So thank you for joining us. I'm Adi Ignatius. This is The New World of Work. [MUSIC PLAYING]

2022-12-03 12:16

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