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Women-Led Group to Build Diverse Leadership Pipeline for Vallen

Known as VICKIE, a goal for Vallen Distributions new internal employee resource group is to recruit strong, diverse candidates from both inside and outside of the business who will reach leadership positions within the 3,000-employee company.

Known as VICKIE, a goal for Vallen Distribution’s new internal employee resource group is to recruit strong, diverse candidates from both inside and outside of the business who will reach leadership positions within the 3,000-employee company.

Inspired to replicate the benefits of the Industrial Supply Association’s successful Women Industrial Supply Executives (W.I.S.E.) network at Vallen, the industrial and MRO distributor in February started its own program, Voices Inspiring Change, Knowledge, Innovation and Empowerment (VICKIE). The group’s ultimate goal — established during a fall 2019 conversation between Vallen President Chuck Delph and his VP of National Accounts, Joyce Lansdale, who is a member of ISA’s board of directors and actively engaged in W.I.S.E. — is to contribute to the long-term success of Vallen by bringing more women into the company and encouraging their success within the organization.

“It’s great to go out and feed other people’s families, assuming that you fed your own,” Delph says. “To be strong, you have to demonstrate strength. That’s what I wanted us to be able to do, not only participate in W.I.S.E., but also be an organization that you can look to and say, there’s an example of a company making a very good effort to walk the talk.”

Lansdale quickly set to work, recruiting fellow founding VICKIE members Kim Garrett, VP Financial Shared Service Center, and Sonia Timmons, VP Financial Planning and Analysis. Collectively, the women have more than 60 years’ experience at Vallen. A few conversations, two conference calls and one full-day meeting with a steering committee later, the concept for VICKIE was built. The resource group is open to anyone at Vallen — male or female — and now has more than 100 members, including about 12% of the female population at the 3,000-employee company.

VICKIE is built around six pillars:

1) Nourish: Maintaining good health for our minds, bodies and spirits. This pillar will focus on work-life balance.

2) Celebrate: Sharing our successes to encourage and motivate others. This pillar will highlight internal and external successes through social media, podcasts, videos and other outlets.

3) Care: Engaging with our communities through volunteer efforts. This pillar will lead community services at the local level.

4) Innovate: Leveraging technology and talent to elevate Vallen as an industry leader. This pillar will create programming around Vallen technology to apply to everyday jobs.

5) Learn: Continuing education to broaden our knowledge and expertise. Every member of VICKIE is part of this pillar.

6) Giving Back: Giving back to Vallen by adding value by building networks and resources. This pillar will give back through leadership — first-time jobs, coaching, mentoring and celebrating peoples’ strengths.

All Vallen employees were invited to the first meeting, held February 24 over Webex.

A Boon to the Business

Both Lansdale and Delph say they expect broad benefits for Vallen from the program, starting with its ability to attract a new generation of talent into the distribution industry. “If we’re not purposeful and we don’t attract women, if we don’t attract diverse candidates, they’re going to go work in other industries,” says Lansdale.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports women are underrepresented in B2B sales overall and make up just 27% in the wholesale and manufacturing sector. Meanwhile, some studies suggest that company diversity can increase creativity, innovation and even improve stock prices, as shown by a jump in stock performance after businesses win diversity awards. “Having more women, having more diversity, makes an organization a more profitable organization,” Lansdale believes. “Distribution is not a highly profitable industry in itself. So, if we could increase our profitability by 100, 200 or 300 basis points, that is a very significant improvement.”

“We do have a lot of women that work at Vallen, but what we don’t have is a lot of women at the middle manager, senior manager level. We need more women to get that first entry level leadership job, first entry level management job. Then, the work that you do will determine what your career path is going to look like,” she adds.

In the next five to 10 years, Delph expects as much as 25% or more of the distribution industry to retire. He wants to see those people replaced with people who look more like the makeup of Vallen customers — where many heads of procurement or chiefs of operation are female. With that in mind, a KPI for VICKIE is how well it diversifies Vallen’s recruiting pipeline, he says. Supporting VICKIE is “not only being reflective of what we think is good for Vallen, it’s what we really believe we need to do to compete in the industry long term to attract the right suppliers, to be able to attract the right customers and to be reflective of the industry,” he says. “In my mind, this is as much a business decision as it is the right decision.”

For women interested in starting a program at their distribution company with a leader who may not be as enthusiastic as Delph, Lansdale recommends reinforcing the business benefit message with a senior-level leader. It also doesn’t require a large capital investment such as real estate, equipment or technology.

A Long Time Coming

Throughout her sales career in distribution, Lansdale has grown used to being the only woman in the room. But she wants VICKIE to change that, not only for women, but for all minorities. “When you are the only one, you probably feel a little bit uncomfortable. … When you have people who look like you and act like you, you begin to feel better about your position and you don’t feel as shy or timid,” she says.

It’s not that distribution has purposefully cultivated a male-dominated culture, Lansdale posits, but rather it stems from a long history of family-owned companies started by men and often passed down to sons without any cognitive intervention otherwise. Traditionally, people hire people who look and act like them. And people often want to work for people who look and act like them.

To Garrett, success for VICKIE will mean more women being put on projects or leading them, more women in sales and other leadership positions, as well as men entering more historically female roles, such as human resources. “It will be successful when we have more females in the top positions of our company,” she says. “It’s about leaving a legacy and building something better for the next generation coming in.

Increasing Visibility

In an introductory video kicking off the VICKIE program during February’s Webex, Timmons discusses the powerful benefits she’s received from Garrett and Lansdale’s mentorship over her years at Vallen and how it has played a positive part in her story as a Vallen employee. As their first assignment, VICKIE members were encouraged to take someone to lunch (note: this was before COVID-19 shutdowns) and practice telling their story, to brag about their professional accomplishments in a way that women don’t often do.

While there are some great female leaders at Vallen, Delph says the critical issue that is preventing the company from having more of them is the pipeline. “We need to recruit and develop more women and diverse candidates so they are in the pipeline for senior and executive leadership roles. Women are less likely to apply for an executive leadership role unless they feel they are near 100% qualified for it, while men will take a shot when meeting only about 60% of the criteria,” he adds. To combat that, Vallen is making an effort to actively look around the organization to fill open positions, encouraging women who may not have initially applied to “get into the conversation,” Delph says.

Next Steps

Each of VICKIE’s six pillars have co-chairs made up of members of the group’s steering committee who are charged with determining their team’s programming. For now, meetings are virtual, such as virtual happy hours or a recently started virtual step challenge. But in the future, they will also include face-to-face events.

The primary goal remains recruitment for leadership roles within Vallen, says Garrett, and “making sure that candidates coming into the organization recognize that we are intentional and we are purposeful around diversity.”

Over time, Garrett expects to get the word out beyond Vallen, through job fairs, college recruitment events, speaking at industry conferences. But for now, VICKIEs are active on social media. “Those pebbles that we cast into the water, those ripples that we create from a social media perspective, it’s our hope that they will also help us recruit diverse talent,” she says.

Adds Delph, “I’m really proud of the team. They blow me away with what they’ve done and the energy they’ve kept through it,” he says. “The fact that they’ve been able to do it in the COVID-19 crisis is a testimony to the fact that we’re leveraging their leadership skills to adapt and persevere.”

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