Harrah's executive looks beyond external to see diversity in experience


Fred Keeton spends his days thinking about how to channel the diversity of the world's largest casino company to achieve business success.

As Harrah's Entertainment chief diversity officer, the 51-year-old executive has spent the past few years developing a model for promoting and using diversity beyond race and gender.

"People talk about diversity being good," he said. "It simply is. It's not good or bad unless you channel it and make it focus on something that actually creates good from it."

Keeton has spent countless hours working to develop a comprehensive theory that moves corporate diversity beyond just complying with a law into an idea of commerce: attracting the best and most divergent talent to help business profit.

His evolving theories bring together everyone in every corner of the company, from a master's of business administration-degree-holder in the executive offices to a high school dropout on the casino floor.

Keeton was born and raised in a small town of the segregated South in Mississippi. This self-described "country man" worked his way from risk management at Holiday Inns Inc. to working with high-ranking politicians during the expansion of riverboat gambling, to the executive offices at Caesars Palace.

Keeton has remained grounded by a work ethic instilled by his late parents. His father worked multiple jobs for the railroad to keep the family together; his mother cleaned "the rich white folks' houses."

Question: How do you define diversity for Harrah's business practices?

Answer: So often when we talk about diversity and inclusion, we think about just external identity issues like race and gender. What we really have to think when we think about diversity and inclusion is how people think. We need to ask ourselves, "How do you create a diverse group of folks in terms of how they view the world?" And then we need to ask, "How do you take that diverse group of folks and focus their diverse cognitive toolboxes toward a business outcome?"

You can have a whole room of really smart folks who have been conditioned to think about an issue in the same way and you'll get to a resolution very quickly. But it may not be the best answer because you're not looking at it in a number of different ways.

Question: So, the idea is to go beyond gathering a group of workers who look different?

Answer: We need to get beyond how people look externally and understand that where people are brought up, their experiences, education levels and occupational histories all go into how they view the world.

Let's say you're in a situation and you're just looking at external identity. What if the people you're considering all think the same but look different? What do you think you'll get as an outcome of their working on a project? You'll probably get similar stuff.

You have to have a balanced approach to thinking through and getting to the best possible outcome.

Question: Are you minimizing the importance of race and gender in corporate diversity discussions?

Answer: I wouldn't at all minimize the importance of those. For the first 13 years of my life I lived in Morton, Mississippi and we were totally segregated. I had to buy food at a restaurant through a hole in the back. When I went to the doctor's office, I sat on boxes in the back room. I had to get off the sidewalk if white folks were coming. So I'm not throwing the race issue out. I'm simply saying that's one element that is very important.

But we're all one phone call away from a different dimension becoming more important than one of those. I could be in an automobile accident and disability could become more important to me than skin color.

Question: Were you surprised that Barack Obama won the presidential election, given your background of growing up in the segregated South?

Answer: I never thought I would see an African-American president in my lifetime. Two months ago, I was still saying that. For black folks, even those who grew up in the North, that was still such a foreign prospect simply because of the nature of what had happened. This idea of me going through these back doors and drinking in separate water fountains, that stopped in 1971. That's not that far away.

Question: How did you start your career at Harrah's precursor, Holiday Inns Inc.?

Answer: I started in finance in the risk management division as assistant claims manager. I was managing property and casualty claims for all our hotel operations. Slip and falls, worker's compensation, issues like that. I evolved in that area for 10 years, becoming corporate director.

You really get to know everything about your company when you insure it. You're insuring the buildings, you're insuring the cash flows. And you're insuring the people.

Question: When Holiday Inns broke off its casino operations and formed Harrah's, what was the attraction for you staying with gaming?

Answer: Excitement, growth, a new industry. A new opportunity to position the casino industry in America. We had interest in all these different states where people wanted to generate tax revenue. They wanted the new jobs, and all those sort of things that are part and parcel for the industry. Being with a company in the mid-'90s that decided to ... create presence where it had not had a presence before. Because we were in Vicksburg, Miss., and Shreveport, La., and Joliet, Ill., I was right in the mix of our industry leaving its two points in the East (Atlantic City) and the West (Las Vegas) and coming into Middle America, which was quite the experience.

Question: How has the casino industry changed places like your home state of Mississippi?

Answer: People who had not worked, people who did not have any type of opportunity beyond working in a cotton field, or a soybean patch finally had the opportunity to go to work in jobs where they can literally, over time, develop a career much as I have. This industry provides a smattering of different professions under one roof. This thing has food and beverage, finance, general operations, marketing, human resources, entertainment, retail. It's an amazing business.

Contact reporter Arnold M. Knightly at aknightly@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893.

 

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