This month, Willie Deese, a member of the PSEG Board of Directors, spoke with PSEG employees for a candid discussion about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace and society. Deese previously served as executive vice president of Merck & Co. and president of Merck Manufacturing Division. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
Below are excerpts from the Q&A portion of his presentation which have been edited for brevity.
Q: Some people believe that equity is unfair. Why do you believe it is important?
Deese: Equity always seems unfair when it is not happening to you. But consider if it’s fair if the shortest person can’t see over the fence or can’t get into the ballpark? Maybe that person who is shorter is actually the most talented, but just doesn’t ever get the opportunity to demonstrate it. Equity means giving everyone a chance to succeed. It doesn’t mean that you’re disadvantaging anyone else. It’s all in how we look at it.
Q: What roles have advocacy and mentorship played in your career?
Deese: When I was 24 years old, I was tapped on my shoulder and identified as one of the future leaders in the company. I had numerous senior executives who were committed to my success – not because I was Black, but because they saw something in me that they wanted to cultivate so that I could be the best I could be and contribute to the success of the company. They gave me encouragement, imparted wisdom, and gave me advice, coaching and counsel. From that day forward, I realized the power of mentorship, advocacy and sponsorship. Often, these people didn’t look like me – because there weren’t that many senior executives yet who looked like me – but they understood that the future was better served by getting the best from me and others like me.
Q: Do you see DEI as a moral imperative or a business imperative?
Deese: Both – they’re intrinsically connected. It would be ideal if you could change the hearts and minds of everyone. But that’s idealistic, and not likely to happen. But I believe that, over time, we will move in that direction because, if we don’t – make no mistake about it – we will fall behind [as a business]. I think business imperatives are going to pull us in that direction, enlightened employees are going to push us in that direction, and, over time, we’ll get there.
Q: The follow-up to that question is, how soon will we get there?
Deese: Ideally, yesterday. What I would encourage us to do is get there as fast as we can. At PSEG, when we say, ‘That’s our objective,’ then we’re committed to it – and we’ll get there. I believe we’re beginning to get a sense of urgency, in part, because the pandemic taught us that people will make choices about where they work and why they work there. Companies have to make sure they are creating the best culture, the best environment where everyone can succeed, and where everyone can help the company succeed.
Q: Some people believe that DEI efforts will favor some at the expense of others. What is your perspective?
Deese: The U.S. Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act were passed 55 and 56 years ago, respectively. For all of the fears and all of the concerns, how have they negatively impacted anyone? Sometimes our fears are greater than reality. Going forward, I’d like others to put themselves in the place of underrepresented groups. How would you want to be treated?