The NBA has never been more popular with a cadre of superstars such as Lebron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry leading the way. The league has managed to grow its ratings and achieve global success while also maintaining a finger on the pulse of social issues. Pam El, its first female Chief Marketing Officer, is at the forefront of driving the process toward a zealous commitment to a diverse and inclusive NBA.
El on January 9 will be inducted into the Hall of Diversity during the Advancing Diversity Honors at CES. In a recent interview she talked about her role within the NBA, the importance of corporate leadership and her vision for the future of diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Philip McKenzie: How would you define diversity in your specific role at the NBA?
Pam El: My role in the NBA is Chief Marketing Officer, which gives me marketing responsibility globally for the NBA, WNBA, 2K League and the G League. So I am deeply focused on the messaging in the marketplace around our league, the players and the game in general. The NBA's primary definition of diversity covers ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation and physical abilities as well as including personal experience, culture and the myriad ways in which we think and problem solve. Diversity is not one thing; it's many things.
McKenzie: Conventional wisdom attempts to silo diversity and inclusion away from other parts of the business, yet you have a robust marketing agenda and set of responsibilities. How do you balance those perspectives?
El: Diversity and inclusion is essential to business success, so I don't think of it as a separate part of our business. It is all connected particularly because we believe it’s vital to the success of our game and the league. Studies have shown that diverse organizations produce better results and that's how we think about it. As an organization focused on diversity it allows us to have better business results.
McKenzie: Comparing the environment of the NBA to other organizations over the course of your career, what do you think has contributed to its healthy perspective regarding diversity measures?
El: In my 35-year career I have been in some organizations with very little physical diversity. For example, the advertising world is dominated by males and in particular white males. On the client side you would see those numbers get a bit better but there was still work to be done. As it relates to the NBA, our game is diverse, the players are diverse, so this all comes quite naturally to us as an organization. We are making important headway to increase diversity in our team and ownership ranks. The good news is that outside agencies have rated the NBA very highly on racial and gender diversity so we are seeing recognition for our work. In the league office 36% of professional positions are [held by] people of color and 40% of those are women. Our numbers are growing and we see a real opportunity to perform even better in the future.
McKenzie: How important is corporate leadership and mentorship to fostering an environment where diversity and inclusion can prosper?
El: Very. Our Global Inclusion Council was created by Oris Stuart, our Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. We have 10 senior leaders across the league and team offices that are providing strategic guidance and using data metrics to create benchmarks and review policy. This wouldn't be possible without leadership being on board.
McKenzie: You're very engaged with She Runs It. Can you share more about that experience?
El: The most recent She Runs It drew a nice assortment of women primarily in marketing and advertising, which is always good to see. My particular conversation was focused on how do you find your passion in that business and how do you manage to stay motivated and keep your career going when faced with industry roadblocks. This can be a challenge when you don't see yourself represented, which bleeds into significant retention issues. Mentorship becomes an essential component to any commitment to diversity. It is an obligation to act as a mentor more than it is a choice. (Watch a video of El's presentation at a recent She Runs It event here.)
McKenzie: We have spent quite some time understanding the internal dynamics of diversity. How do you address these issues when you're evaluating talent?
El: If you are going to identify diverse talent you have to go where diverse talent exists. You can't go back to the same pools you have traditionally used and expect a different result. I invest time in establishing connections to new potential sources of talent. I also want to make sure they are successful while here, which circles back to mentorship mentioned earlier while also adding training and education. We have a program called NBA Career Crossover, where former players are given an opportunity to spend time in the league office, in developmental programs, and in the front office of teams seeing firsthand how these jobs are performed. They are given the tools to compete professionally in the industry.
McKenzie: Looking into the future, do you have an optimistic view of the continued success of diversity and inclusion initiatives?
El: I am definitely optimistic because I have seen so much of this working. The proof is in the numbers we are seeing across our leadership as it pertains to people of color and women. We are building an incredible pipeline of talent and we are not satisfied. That commitment and energy combined with tangible support throughout the organization is directly responsible for standout success among the major North American sports. Our diversity is very much by design, driven by sound business practices, and we aren't showing any signs of slowing down. The future is always uncertain, but I am not only optimistic -- [I am] also inspired to take on this challenge. This is what our teams want, this is what our fans want and this is what the world wants.
The Advancing Diversity Honors event at CES is an opportunity for the advertising and media community to join hands in solidarity and support for diversity and inclusion. In addition to Pam El, inductees into the Diversity Hall of Honors will include Marc Pritchard, CBO, P&G; Diego Scotti, CMO, Verizon; Bob Liodice, CEO, ANA; Ricardo Marques, Vice President Marketing, Budweiser; Madonna Badger, CCO/Founder, Badger & Winters; Kat Gordon, Founder + CEO, The 3% Movement, and Alma Har’el, Director/Founder, Free The Bid.
For more information, underwriting opportunities and to purchase tickets or tables, visit AdvancingDiversity.org.
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