Viacom's Marva Smalls on Leading With Diversity
Our In the Office With ... series gives Viacom executives the opportunity to reveal a little bit about who they are, how they lead, and what drives them in the day-to-day.
By Tara Weiss
Marva Smalls is something of a corporate politician for diversity. She spends her time crafting and implementing Viacom’s diversity policies, advocating for a culture of inclusion and belonging for all employees, and garnering support from internal and external leaders.
In particular, she helps to provide support for corporate and brand business initiatives. This includes meeting with external thought-leaders and influencers to cultivate crucial support for Viacom. Last winter she flew to Chicago with CEO Bob Bakish to meet with Jesse Jackson, whose Wall Street Project pushes corporations to provide equal opportunities for under-represented populations. She also works with Viacom’s legal team to help vet amicus briefs the company should support. (Viacom has participated in several, including those related to LGBT issues, college admissions, DACA [Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals], and whether the citizenship question should be included on the next census.)
As the Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Chief of Staff for the Nickelodeon Group and Executive Vice President of Global Inclusion Strategy for Viacom, Smalls’ mission is simple and ambitious: Ensure Viacom practices its values when it comes to diversity and inclusion and ensure that our responsibility to kids and families is reflected both on and off our platforms.
Before Smalls started at Nickelodeon in 1993, she served as the chief of staff to U.S. Representative Robin Tallon of South Carolina for 10 years. She has deep roots in the state, having grown up in Florence, S.C., where she still has a home. South Carolina was segregated during her childhood and Smalls’ family belonged to an activist church that brought in civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, C. Delores Tucker, and Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California, to speak to the congregation. They had a profound impact on Smalls.
“I remember Fannie Lou Hamer saying, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,’” says Smalls. “I have never, ever forgotten that phrase.”
Those experiences encouraged her to pursue professional roles where she could “help amplify the voices of those who are disenfranchised and have nobody speaking for them.” She looks for similar opportunities in her volunteer roles. The list of arts, education, and financial boards she sits on is longer than most people’s resumes. She stays active in politics, too. Smalls is a founding member of the Black Economic Alliance political action committee and has been a Democratic superdelegate.
When we chatted recently, Smalls was preparing for a business trip to Buenos Aires to supervise unconscious bias trainings, and then to London to deliver a speech. During our wide-ranging conversation, we talked about the business argument for prioritizing diversity, her frequent trips home to South Carolina, and morning rituals.
Tara Weiss: Based on your title, you seem to have two full-time jobs. How do you describe your roles?
Marva Smalls: Whiplash.
MS: I don’t say whiplash in a pejorative way. There are some days that skew to one side of the business more than others. But sometimes, like today, it’s both. I’m focused on things happening domestically and internationally. We’re launching a number of initiatives. For example, prosocial is a key part of this year’s Kids’ Choice Awards with a Viacom Generation Change call-out for kids. I’m preparing for a keynote speech in London, and I’m ensuring that the training materials are in Spanish and English at the ERG [employee resource group] launch in Argentina.
TW: This may seem obvious, but why should diversity and inclusion be a priority for a company?
MS: First, diversity without inclusion is tokenism. If a company takes a Noah’s Ark approach to diversity — “Give me two of them, two of them, and two of them” — that isn’t going to be effective. You have to take the time to ensure you’re creating an environment where people aren’t just sitting in a room, but are participating.
We’re a company that serves many diverse audiences. We need thought leadership, experiences, and people who reflect those audiences.
TW: How does having a diverse staff impact a company’s bottom line?
MS: I like to ask this question before I quote McKinsey statistics: If someone said, “I can give your business a 30-to-40 percent uptick out of the gate,” what person would say “no”? Companies that are gender-diverse and doing it well have 15 percent more share and growth potential. Those that are ethnically diverse, 35 percent. When you put the two together, you have an automatic impact on the bottom line.
You want people who understand, who can create, who can program, who have authentic experiences with different audiences. For example, if Asian Americans are the fastest-growing consumer population and consumers of digital and apps, don’t you want to know that there’s someone who understands that audience? It is a direct deposit to the bottom line. The business case for diversity is this: You can’t survive without it.
TW: How is Viacom doing on that front?
MS: It’s a work in progress. Bob Bakish has been very clear and intentional around his commitment to D&I. At a recent global inclusion advisory committee meeting he said we have to come out of the shadows and be transparent in our initiatives, our numbers, and our accountability in driving diversity.
Data can’t scare you. What gets measured gets done. If the data shows you aren’t skewing the right way, you have to own it and address it. It’s not about quotas; you need a target. We have targets for ratings. Why not have targets around the development of people to build teams that are diverse?
As part of our short-term goals, compensation for leadership is tied to how they deliver against the diversity and inclusion goals set by Bob and the senior team, and affirmed by the board.
A number of advertising agencies have said, “If you don’t send teams that are ethnically and gender-diverse to work on my account, don’t even reply to the RFP [request for proposal], because I need to know that the people with whom I’m entrusting my dollars to drive this product are reflective of the audiences I’m trying to reach.”
TW: How do you make sure leaders aren’t just checking a box on hiring certain groups of people?
MS: I can’t. And sometimes I’ll take it, because ticking a box is truly better than nothing. But that’s not our ultimate goal. Our goal is to arm leaders with the tools and resources to be very thoughtful in this space—for cultural leadership. That’s why we have unconscious bias training. It’s not to rewire people’s brains, but to learn the cues of your own biases so you won’t act on them.
I think we have best-in-class leaders at Viacom. I think part of what we have to do is get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sometimes the movement in this space can be uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar, depending on your background.
TW: How did you go from working in government to Viacom?
MS: I was home in South Carolina during the congressional recess and Geraldine Laybourne [Nickelodeon’s first president] contacted me with a job description. She heard about me from a mutual acquaintance. I told her no three times. I eventually came up to interview. I attended a staff meeting, and thought to myself, “I don’t fit. I don’t get Ren & Stimpy. I have blouses longer than their skirts. I am this buttoned-up Congressional staffer, and I’m not cool enough.”
From September until January, she told me, “I’m not going to interview anyone else. I will teach you about cable TV and entertainment. We need you to teach us about the greater world outside of media.”
I came for one year, and it’s been 26.
The secret to giving a great speech: I never use a teleprompter. I like making eye contact and getting the read from someone in the audience. I want to know if I’m pulling them in or if they're saying “move on” by their eyes. I don't let anybody hear the speech before I give it. I write the outline, the key phrases that I want. I internalize it enough to go extemporaneously if I have to. Writing is remembering. I practice cadence. I practice the style of delivering.
The last person you hired: A young man named Juan Hernandez. He’s a manager on the West Coast who is responsible for helping us create and manage a showrunner internship program called ViewFinder. It’s an initiative to create a diverse talent pipeline of directors. It's in partnership with the Directors Guild of America. We, along with a number of companies, have been called out that the number of ethnic- and gender-diverse directors could be better.
Morning routine: I set the coffee the night before. When the alarm goes off at 6:30, I typically will hit snooze until 6:50. Typically my morning routine is prayers first and then sitting still and quiet for a few moments, exercise, and news.