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#OpenUpTheWorkforce Executive Series With Dr. Johné Battle, SVP and Chief Diversity Officer at Dollar General

Published by Ellen Zhang on October 4, 2023
5 min read

Ellen Zhang

Ellen is the Chief Marketing Officer at Symba. Prior to Symba, Ellen worked in the cybersecurity industry, marketing data loss prevention (DLP) and cyber insurance solutions. She graduated from Boston College with a degree focused on Marketing and Information Systems.

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Presented by Symba, #OpenUpTheWorkforce interviews feature executives advancing inclusion, diversity, and equity for the future of work. In these short audio-only episodes, host Ahva Sadeghi speaks with top leaders about what it takes to develop and implement inclusive processes.

In this episode of #OpenUpTheWorkforce, Ahva speaks to Dr. Johné Battle, Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Dollar General. Dr. Battle shares how some of his early educational challenges and subsequent achievements shaped his philosophy on grit and growth mindset. He also talks about the DEI initiatives he is spearheading at Dollar General, and how we should be looking at DEI from a social mobility lens. Listen to the whole episode here.

A Family of Civil Rights Activists

Dr. Battle hails from southwest Atlanta, where he was raised by two exceptional parents. His father was a civil rights activist and march organizer for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his mother was a secretary for civil rights organization Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), whose first president was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both parents were among the first students who were part of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins, protesting racial inequality.

Aspiring to change the world as well, Dr. Battle’s BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal) is to inspire and transform the lives of 10 million people over the next 10 years through his work. Leveraging his life and work experiences, he is looking to play a role in the inclusion journey and transformation of both individuals and organizations. 

What Makes Super Achievers Stand Out from the Crowd

Dr. Battle's experience and background has led him to debunk the misconception that some individuals are naturally gifted while others are not. Growing up, he faced academic struggles. However, as a sophomore in college, Dr. Battle joined a fraternity of super achievers, and by closely emulating their habits, he went from a 2.68 GPA to his first 4.0. This changed his perspective on learning and he went on to get multiple degrees at Mercer University, Emory, and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he did his doctoral work.

His doctoral research distinguishes between underachievers, average achievers, overachievers, and super achievers. Overachievers often mistake activity for accomplishment, while super achievers possess an insatiable desire for excellence, marked by consistent processes, rituals, and routines. Their driving desire is to pursue goals larger than themselves, recognizing that such goals require collaboration and strong relationships. They find inspiration in making a difference each day and feel fulfilled by their efforts to create a positive impact. He also discusses the concept of grit and growth mindset. He defines grit as the ability to persistently pursue difficult goals with passion over an extended period–a mindset, which is characterized by the capacity to learn and improve.

He recalls his work with a group of 200 students at the Clayton County School District, the poorest district in Metro Atlanta from a socioeconomic standpoint. He shifted the way students were evaluated by removing grades and emphasizing learning journeys and attitudes. He also introduced role models and examples of successful individuals from similar backgrounds to inspire the learners.

At the end of three years, all 200 students not only graduated, but also gained acceptance into four-year colleges or universities. Dr. Battle attributes this success to creating a safe learning environment where students were encouraged to make mistakes and demonstrate their learning in various ways.

Celebrating Diversity and Creating Safe Spaces in the Workplace

Dr. Battle highlights the timeliness of the DEI debate in light of the affirmative action decision by the US Supreme Court. He stresses the importance of moving away from traditional diversity and inclusion approaches, which typically involve mandatory, uninspiring training sessions. Instead, he advocates for creating an inclusive culture that inspires a shared vision and becomes a movement within organizations. He suggests a shift in the approach, using the acronym IDEA, starting with inclusion since diversity is already a default characteristic of individuals and society. Inclusion serves as the anchor that allows organizations to leverage the diversity they already possess. No law or court decision can outlaw treating people right, he asserts.

Joining and Leading DEI at Dollar General

Dr. Battle cites Dollar General’s commitment to inclusion as the main reason he joined the company. He explains the concept of inclusive innovation and the model he put in place where each leader first takes an individual inclusive leader assessment and meets with a coach to understand where they are in their own personal journey of inclusion. From there, the team comes together to examine an aggregate report and determines where they stand collectively. This approach applies to all levels of leadership, from the board to frontline managers. The next step is setting measurable goals and behaviors; Dr. Battle emphasizes, “what gets measured is what matters, and what gets measured is what gets done.” 

He mentions that these inclusive leader learning journeys are continuous. DEI is not about taking one course and then you’re done. “It continues to evolve as leaders continue to evolve,” and this continuous learning approach is integrated into various aspects of leadership development, including onboarding, ensuring that DEI efforts are not isolated but ingrained in Dollar General's culture.

On Structural vs. Behavioral Inclusion

Dr. Battle underscores the importance of understanding inclusion through two key dimensions: behavioral and structural. Behavioral inclusion pertains to fostering inclusive mindsets and being intentional about developing growth mindsets to build inclusive behaviors. Structural inclusion focuses on the processes, algorithms, and procedures within an organization that impact how individuals navigate and succeed within it.

He identifies barriers in both dimensions. Behavioral barriers often manifest when organizations have never had individuals from certain backgrounds or demographics in leadership roles. Structural barriers are rooted in organizational privilege and dominant cultures, creating disparities between those who know how to navigate and succeed within the organization (the privileged) and those who struggle to do so (the underprivileged).

Dr. Battle emphasizes the need to address these barriers by calling them out and being intentional about inclusion. He advocates for DEI by design rather than DEI by default, meaning that organizations should proactively and purposefully embed diversity, equity, and inclusion into their systems, behaviors, and structures. This approach can create a more equitable and inclusive environment for all individuals within the organization.

What Do You Believe Are the Next Steps Leaders Need to Take in Order to Truly Open up the Workforce?

To open up the workforce, Dr. Battle suggests a different perspective–shifting the focus away from traditional metrics based solely on gender and ethnicity and looking at DEI through a social mobility lens. Social mobility involves examining how individuals move through an organization and can be a stronger predictor of career progression and economic impact for underprivileged individuals.

He uses Dollar General as an example of an organization that intentionally fosters social mobility. For instance, Dollar General places stores in communities, often where other retailers are not present. By doing so, the company provides access to fresh produce in areas that have been underserved for decades. This also creates job opportunities for individuals within those communities.

To further promote social mobility, Dollar General offers advanced education classes for full-time employees and their households, free of charge. This educational support allows employees to obtain high school diplomas and associate degrees, opening up new opportunities for personal and career growth. There are no restrictions on the field of study, allowing employees to pursue their passions and career goals.

These initiatives demonstrate Dollar General's commitment to not only hiring from disenfranchised communities but also providing comprehensive support for education, career advancement, and personal development, thereby promoting social mobility and opening up opportunities for its workforce.

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