S4 E48 | Moments that Matter with Melissa Thompson

In our fourth episode in this special series of interviews where we have challenging and personal conversations with professionals who have experienced moments of prejudice or discrimination, Carmen Hudson takes the mic to Melissa Thompson to discuss social stigma.

Announcer 0:02
You’re listening to Moments That Matter a special CXR podcast series where leaders and talent professionals share their own experiences with varying aspects of discrimination and inequality here on Moments That Matter, we are dedicated to creating connected conversations around specific moments. These are moments that matter.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 0:24
So I will start with just a little bit of an introduction to Melissa, just who you are, where you are, and what you currently do.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 0:33
Yes. Melissa Thompson, I am the SVP of talent acquisition at Nielsen Media. I’ve been in this role for a little less than a year. And it has been an interesting journey in the year that is 2020

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 0:47
2020 is more than an interesting year. So yeah, let’s just dive dive into that. My name is Carmen Hudson, by the way, and I am a former member of the colloquium, I have gone over to the dark side, however, becoming a vendor, but I still retained just a huge fandom for the colloquium. And so what I love to do since today, we’re really just kind of digging into a little bit around Black Lives Matter and our own sort of history and relationship to that and I think, Melissa, you’d be fine with me sharing that you are a black woman, and I’m a black woman. So let’s just dive into I think my first question is, really, when were you first aware as an HR professional, that race really presented some challenges for most of corporate America?

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 1:44
You know, I usually point to two things. One was when I was in graduate school, I was in a marketing class. And we were talking about The Cosby Show, which, you know, for those who may be younger, and don’t know The Cosby Show, it’s an African American family. The father is a doctor, the mother is a lawyer. There are either four or five children, but they’re, they’re in a fluid family, they’re very well to do. And as we were having this roundtable discussion about The Cosby Show, someone said, well, it’s not even realistic. Like, why do people even watch that? There aren’t families like that? And I was like, so my dad is a doctor…

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 2:27

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 2:28
My mom is an accounting professional. And there are four children. My older brother is in med school, here I am getting my MBA, and they were like, Wow, really? So the revelation for me that people thought that such a thing did not exist, was sort of one of those things like, wow, wow. And this would have been in the late 80s, when I realized it just aged myself, but whatever.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 2:55
We were doing such a great job, but I’m right there with you in watching The Cosby Show, not coming from a family like that. But still being aware that there are people like that, and that is the sort of realm to which I aspire to at the time. And so just thinking about just just really thinking about how we are introduced to the world, and how people view us is really interesting.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 3:23

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 3:24
So I would love to kind of dive into how you were introduced to the world in which you now you are, you know, at the very top of your profession.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 3:36

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 3:36
And how do you how does that play out being a black woman?

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 3:39
You know, what’s interesting, and you know, everyone always talks about the glass ceiling. And it’s funny, because when you hit it, you can feel it, you know that other people that were on the same level as you have suddenly just motored by you. And so I was in a role at a company that had three levels of director. And I was at the second level of director and I went to my boss and said, How do I get to that next level of director, and she said, the only way you can really get there is if you have an executive coach. So A number one, we should note that I had peers who had been promoted to that next level director or without having worked with an executive coach, two, she asked if I wanted to use her coach, which I politely declined. And I actually did say, you know what, in some ways, this is a real opportunity for me to get someone from the outside to come in and help me think about how I’m being seen and how I can get past this, this next level. And so I actually reached out to the head of the ELC, who I knew at the time and I asked him to give me some referrals to executive coaches. Who are African American women who had at some point worked in corporate America, and could help me think about how to get beyond this space. And honestly, Carmen, it was an amazing year, it was an amazing journey. It was painful. It was enlightening. But it did get me to that next director level. And probably one of the greatest moments in that year was my executive coach went and talked to all of the C-suite, all of the direct reports to the CEO. And the message that he brought back to me was Melissa, they want to see more of you, they know that you can be strategic, but they also know that your heads down tactical, and so they’re not able to get what they need from you, and you need to pull up. I mean, that’s sort of one of those things, that is such a revelation. And, to me, it was that moment that made me say, I have to take the reigns I have to be the way I can be seen differently is to actually work differently.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 6:04
And there’s a day when you recognize that and that is different from the day before. And this is completely different. And I will tell you that as black women, it takes some time, I think way more time than is required to even recognize that we need that help. And that once we get that help that we are viewed in a very different way.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 6:27
Right, right

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 6:28
And it’s taken me probably longer than it should.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 6:31
Yeah, about a year after that promotion. I was having having a conversation with that same executive coach. And I was saying, so outside of this organization, my peers are VPS and above. And I realized I don’t really want to chase a title. But it feels some kind of way to me that they’ve all reached that that next level and I have not. And she said, you know, Melissa, there’s going to be a point at which you have to decide, do you stay here and continue to bump along where you are? Or do you take the opportunity to exit in order to boomerang up to the next level, and I made the decision to exit and the next opportunity that came to me was a VP of TA at McGraw Hill. And it was an amazing learning opportunity. And the very next job after that is the job that I’m currently in.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 7:24
Amazing. That’s amazing. So I would love to know, as black woman walking into this role, it’s been a year more than a year. What have you experienced that you think probably no other person coming into this role would have experienced?

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 7:40
Yeah, so um, you, you everyone knows that the experiences of Memorial Day this year, the counter of George Floyd and Amy Cooper, were just a moment in time that made me think differently, not just about how I show up at work, but how I use my platform. And I was asked by the head of DNI, to partner with the sable RG, which is our black African American ERG here in the US. And what has been really heartwarming and positive for me is I’ve helped them shape their strategy for the next two years, by coming up with what we call the RAD strategy. What can they do to help with retention, talent acquisition and development. And we just came up with a three by three, what are the three things and then we’re driving those and it’s it’s sort of one of those things where I never really engaged deeply with the employee resource group thinking they don’t really need me, they’re good, they got that. But what I heard was, you have a voice, you have a strong point of view, if you can come in and help us lead, you can really give some shape and form to how we’re being seen in the org and the difference that we can make for the business.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 9:06
I love that I am actually consulting with a recruiting team that has engaged with their employee resource groups. And they are trying to figure out how to connect with the rest of the organization. So I may come back to you offline to talk to you more about that, because …

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 9:26
you know, I’m there for you.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 9:27
Okay, awesome. So I would love to hear a little bit about just your journey, how you got to where you got to, but also what were some of the bumps along the road and what would you give what advice would you give to anyone else who may want to take that same journey and what to look out for when it comes to racial equity?

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 9:50
Right, right. So first, I would say I was very fortunate in that my my father was not from the US, he was from Ghana in South America. a very different perspective about what it was to be an African American in the US. And so I think that I have this, I have this very different, I don’t know, it’s hugely different, but I have a different perspective of what I can do and what I’m capable of doing. My mom grew up in Baltimore, and she used to say, when I say ghetto, I mean ghetto. But she got her MBA, in the late 50s, when African American women weren’t getting their MBA. So I have these two parents that were real role models around what you do. And these were two people that didn’t except I made a C, oops. And so when I went into the work world, I had this mentality of how do I continuously think about my growth and how I get to the next level. And if people look at my LinkedIn profile, you’ll see there is a period at which every two or three years, I would just chuck deuces on to the next company, because I realized the, they’re not seeing my value, they’re not going to promote me. So let me go somewhere where my value is seen. But I don’t suggest that everyone do that jumping around, because it doesn’t always it’s, it’s something that you’re gonna have to explain, right, you have to have these really clear reasons about why you made these career moves. And for me, it’s sort of been one of those things where I have not allowed my being a woman, or my being an African American woman to hold me back. I am not shy about sharing my opinion, although I will tell you there have been times when people will try to put baby in a corner by saying, you know, you’re you’re loud, and you’re always voicing your opinion. And you know, the meeting will be quiet, and you’re throwing something in there. And I’m like is, is it that you don’t think I shouldn’t be sharing my opinion? And I’ll tell you, it actually happened in the past six months. And I went to a white male peer of mine who was in that same meeting. And he said, Melissa, you were absolutely right. What you said was right, the way you said it was right, that you should have called us on that point. So just pay no attention to that. And I was like, that’s the kind of ally that you need in order to be able to use your voice. Right.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 12:34
That’s it. That’s it. That’s absolutely it. So um, I, I am in the midst of just working with clients all the time, who now are much more aware of my race, I think then even before because we’re on zoom, versus being on the phone, right? So it’s, it’s interesting just to spot, I am sharing my deepest, you know, concerns about my organization with someone who is potentially different from me. And so helping people understand there are ways in which I’m different. And there are ways in which what I experience is the same as what you experience has been incredibly eye opening for me right, last few months, just just seeing the way that people respond to you.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 13:20
Yeah, so very early in my career, right out of grad school, I was working for a real estate developer in the DC area. And I was doing interviews for an executive administrator role. And I had already done phone screens with all of these people. And then I was having the top three candidates come in, do a face to face and if that went, well, I would send them upstairs to meet with the senior executive. So this lady comes in and she’s wearing Birkenstocks. Not done in the late. And she’s wearing sort of a very casual dress. And so I’m already I’ve got my left eyebrow up at her. And I pick her up from the front desk, and we’re walking back to my office. And she says to me, as soon as she sits down, you didn’t sound black on the phone.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 14:09

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 14:09
Didn’t I? And it was it was one of those things where she didn’t know what she said was incorrect, right? She just thought, you know, she was giving me some sort of a compliment. And she didn’t get to go upstairs. So I exited her. And I went upstairs and I talked to the executive and she said, Well, what happened with that last candidate? And I told her, and she said to me, so I want to know that person’s name because not only is she not getting this job, she’s not getting a job at this company. So there was in a surprising advocacy and support that came out of that really odd conversation.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 14:49
Love that love that as you think about advocating for African American women, African American men. What is what what would you advise like How should we ask for that kind of see, because I see it come across my desk in different ways. And there’s sometimes when I am happy to do it, and sometimes when I’m doing Wow,

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 15:12
Here’s the thing right now we’re getting asked all the time, yes. And so we have to take advantage of the opportunity, and lead our white allies in a way that helps them to know what to say and what to do. So whether it is sharing with them an article on white ally ship, whether it is whether it is you know, sending them to YouTube to watch uncomfortable conversations with a black man, where he breaks it down so that it might forever be broke. Or it is just really having a conversation with them, helping them to see some of the microaggressions that happen every single day. And that the way we feel is this micro aggression is the hundred one this week, I get microaggressions in my personal life, and my professional life, it happens all the time. So sometimes you might come at me, and I’d be like, okay, that is the last straw. And I don’t want you to take it that personally, but you have to see through my eyes, what is actually happening. And what I found is as I’ve started having those kinds of conversations, they’re just a ha moments for our allies. They’re like, okay, I never realized

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 16:25
Never, never quite got I just in thinking this week, I’m having a conversation with someone. And the fact that, that I might experience something different from the way that they are, they have experienced it just it never crossed their mind. And so reminding people and helping people see and helping people understand and bringing more people into the fold to be able to help others no matter their race.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 16:55
Exactly you got it.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 16:55
This is what is important to me that I see now that it is now become our problem. And not just my problem, my problem.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 17:04
So Carmen, there’s this one last thing that I want to talk through with you, which is we’re getting ready to do a forum at my organization about black hair. The history of black hair, what has happened to African American women, as we have now had to be on camera all day, every day. Yes. And sort of this conversation around how different we feel about our hair, then other races might.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 17:33
Mm hmm.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 17:34

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 17:35
This is so completely close to me, because I have I have every kind of hair that you can imagine in corporate America. Yeah. And I still don’t I don’t quite I haven’t settled into one thing. And I I think it is something that we think about way more than anyone else thinks about until we show up in a way that we’re not expected to show up yet. And that’s when the thinking starts to happen. Until then it doesn’t happen until then no one has an opinion until they do have an opinion. And you go oh my gosh, she’s wearing an afro. And I have worn everything from the big bushy Afro to what I have now, which is the tight Afro to write. I’ve done relaxers, I have done extensions. I’ve done all of those things, in the name of fun and just being myself and some of it in the name of I wonder if this will get me to work faster. I wonder if this will. Okay, okay.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 18:37
Oh, what is the ease of use thing? What is the thing that will allow me to get up and just colmb and go? What What is that style? How do I get there?

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 18:47
Right? That is it. And, and, and some of it is in the name of just, you know, this is what I prefer, this is what I like, this is what it is now whatever. So I’m helping walking your what it sounds like your entire staff through this. Yeah, that is going to be an interesting, interesting play.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 19:08
We’re thinking about starting with a conversation around black hair 101. And then moving into a conversation around, you know, Madam CJ Walker and why she created the things that she created. And how, if you go back to the beginning, in Africa, different hairstyles actually related to different tribes. And so making it Okay, in 2020, for an African American woman to show up with braids with natural hair with what? That’s where we have to get to and we have to have the conversation out loud so that we can talk about how we get past this barrier.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 19:52
I will I will, I will ask you to come back to me and just write me a little note. Just let me know how it goes and what those discussions sound like that sounds like a a lot of fun and also a discussion that we haven’t had in corporate America ever.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 20:07
Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. So

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 20:10
I will curtail off our conversation, I just want to make sure that people know what’s important to you. What’s important to you in the midst of COVID? What’s important to you in the midst of civil unrest? What’s important to you, out of this election? What’s happening in your world?

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 20:29
So first, I would say everybody complete the census and vote, those are my two messages do do those two things. Next. I love being in a place where I can show up and be my whole self at work. There have been and you’re nodding dramatically because we both know there have been times when you have to leave part of yourself at home, so that you could be your professional corporate self at work in 2020, when we’re having all these great conversations, to be able to show up and be who I am 100% who I am authentically who I am. I just I so value that.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 21:13
It is such a place that we have been marching toward. So I applaud you. I am here in your corner anytime you need me. And I want to hear what’s happening behind the scenes to share a little bit I would love to hear that and I appreciate your being here CareerXroads. appreciate you being here. And thank you for sharing with us this afternoon.

Melissa Thompson, Nielsen 21:35
You bet, fun conversation.

Carmen Hudson, Recruiting Toolbox 21:38
Fun conversation we could go on and on. Really cool.

Announcer 21:42
You’re listening to Moments That Matter a special CXR podcast series where leaders and talent professionals share their own experiences with varying aspects of discrimination and inequality here on Moments That Matter, we are dedicated to creating connected conversations around specific moments. These are moments that matter.