Circle K Helps Black Talent Thrive

The retailer and CALIBR partner on a development program for Black mid-level leaders.
Linda Lisanti

LAVAL, Quebec — Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (ACT), parent company of Circle K, is committed to fostering a culture that enables its team members of all backgrounds to bring their authentic selves to work and grow in their careers. Realizing the need for greater representation within its leadership ranks, the convenience store retailer established a development program for Black talent. 

Now entering its third year, the program is dedicated to accelerating Black managers through a collaboration with CALIBR, a strategic talent development partner devoted to giving Black mid-level executives the tools they need to take the next step in their career. The program combines guest speakers, group discussions, coaching, a team project and more. 

To date, two “cohorts” have gone through the program, each comprised of 12 Circle K team members. A third cohort will begin the program this spring. ACT is also in the process of starting a similar leadership development program for its Hispanic team members in partnership with the Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility. 

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Sue Vandersall
Sue Vandersall

To learn more, Convenience Store News recently caught up with Sue Vandersall, vice president of executive succession planning and global talent development for Laval, Quebec-based ACT. 

CSN: What was the impetus behind this program?

Vandersall: About three and a half years ago, Altria invited us to participate with them. We decided to work together to create this program and [had] hopes that other people in the industry would join into the program, which they have. We did it because we had a lot of Black colleagues in our stores and at the next level of the organization, but we seemed to have this stopping point where our representation was just not as good. This program that CALIBR designed is to help remove that barrier for mid-level Black leaders. 

CSN: How are team members selected for the program? 

Vandersall: We accept nominations, so people are nominated into the program by their leaders and generally, they are nominated based on their growth potential. But we look at a variety of different things; not just potential. We want our group to be well-rounded, so we want them to come from our operations areas, we want them to come from our functional departments, and we also look at things like could they relocate for another opportunity. We’ve been able to accept most of the people who get nominated into the program. 

CSN: What does the program entail? 

Vandersall: It's a really unique program, and I wouldn't say it's your standard leadership development program. It requires the participants to be fully open and willing to have tough, honest conversations. We were just talking to somebody who participated in it, and they said they don't always have the opportunity to talk with other Black colleagues who are like them. So, talking openly about things they could do differently, things that get in their way, is a big part of the program, as well as encouraging them to own their own development. 

We know that sometimes people believe they can't stand out in a crowd or they can't raise their hand. Having this experience, which puts them in positions where they have to be almost courageous, builds leaders who come out of the program a little more confident, a little more secure in talking about what they want to talk about, a little more understanding that they are strong people who have great characteristics and sometimes you have to sell yourself.

It usually takes six to eight months for them to complete the program and that includes creating a project and presenting that project as a team to our executive leadership team. For the past two cohorts, the project has focused on how we can become a more inclusive organization. 

[Read more: Inclusive Leaders Bring Workplace Development Full Circle]

Another part of this program that is really important is that we have two executive sponsors, which gives [the participants] exposure to some senior leaders in our business. And I think they feel more sponsored because these senior leaders are there advocating for them.

CSN: What are the business benefits for Circle K from this program? What has the company achieved through it?

Vandersall: Some of the things they put into their projects, and one example is mentorship and sponsorship, has really helped the organization understand the need for that. So, our executive leadership team has agreed to be mentors for people coming out of the program. That’s great. That's huge. That's something that wouldn't have happened without this group. 

I think the benefits to the organization are really, if you were to simplify it, awareness and hearing some honest things from a group of people that maybe would never have come together before. It’s been just eye-opening. We had somebody tell a story of their career and what they had to go through to get to where they were and how that made them feel. And telling that story to our executive committee really helped them see things from a different perspective. And that's just one example, but I think looking at how we do things from the lens of this group has been really interesting for the company and valuable. 

CSN: What do you hope the participants take away from the experience?

Vandersall: That's my favorite question right there. I hope they take away from it that each person in our company brings a unique lens in helping us grow and do things differently and better. And I hope they come out more confident and really appreciate that being a great leader, it's not about the color of your skin; it's about the empathy you have, it's about who you are to our organization and allowing your uniqueness and what's brought you to this point in your career to just blossom. 

Being inclusive means that we don't want people to come out of this program and feel like they have to do things different or a certain way. All these great leaders we have in our organization, every single person brings a unique perspective and a unique point of view, and we want them to have the confidence to bring theirs the same way everybody else does. 

CSN: How does this program fit into the larger picture of what you're trying to achieve?

Vandersall: We have a lot of things we're trying to achieve, and this is just one of the puzzle pieces and in order for us to be inclusive, we always have to remember that there's lots of puzzle pieces out there. And so, we started with women's leadership, and then we moved to CALIBR, and now Hispanic. So, I think we're just building a more inclusive environment one small piece at a time. I think we have to always look at ourself in the mirror and say what's next? 


Convenience Inclusion Initiative

Convenience Store News — with underwriting support from Altria Group Distribution Co., The Coca-Cola Co. and The Hershey Co. — has established an industrywide initiative to facilitate engagement among all stakeholders in the convenience channel around diversity, equity and inclusion. This platform is designed to be a catalyst for discussion, innovation, engagement and action. 

The Business Case for Diversity & Inclusion program is part of The Convenience Inclusion Initiative, a multifaceted effort by Convenience Store News to champion a modern-day convenience store industry where current and emerging leaders foster an inclusive work culture that celebrates differences, allows team members to bring their whole selves to work, and enables companies to benefit from diversity of thought and background. 

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About the Author

Linda Lisanti

Linda Lisanti

Linda Lisanti is Editor-in-Chief of Convenience Store News. She joined the brand in 2005. Linda is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable editors in the c-store industry. She leads CSNews’ editorial team and oversees content development across all of CSNews’ print and online properties. She has covered virtually every major product category and major retail company.

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