Jerilan Greene is the Global Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer of Yum! Brands, Inc., parent company of the iconic KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell brands that also recently acquired fast-casual concept The Habit Burger Grill. Jerilan leads the company’s global reputation-building and oversees global communications, crisis management, government affairs and the company’s ESG and sustainability strategies.

Jerilan served as the lead communications architect for the spinoff of Yum!’s China business into an independent company in 2016 and the multi-year strategy for global growth to transform Yum! into a capital-light, pure-play franchisor. Prior to Yum! Brands, Jerilan was Executive Vice President at global communications firm Edelman. She has also held leadership positions at Deloitte, Burson-Marsteller and Willis Towers Watson. A member of the Fast Company Impact Council and the Arthur W. Page Society, Jerilan was named on the list of 100 Most Influential African-Americans in Corporate America by Savoy Magazine in 2018.

In our interview, Lippe Taylor CEO Paul Dyer gets Jerilan’s perspective on the importance of deep listening across stakeholders, how Yum! Brands prioritizes equity, diversity & inclusion, and why mentorship, coaching and sponsorship is critical to cultivating world-class talent. 

Check out the edited interview below or listen to the entire conversation on the Lippe Taylor Damn Good Brands Podcast at this link. 

Here are some key takeaways from this conversation with Jerilan

It all begins with listening. 

As social unrest began to take hold in the spring, leaders at Yum! Brands knew that the first thing they had to do to determine the right actions was listen. They facilitated listening sessions across the entire company, connecting to diverse employees at all levels and branches to determine how they could better serve. Jerilan claims this forum was extremely effective, as change always starts with a conversation and exchange of ideas. Jerilan further claimed that despite the fact that Yum! was observing how other brands were reacting to the crises, it was important for their team to develop their own strategy and do their own listening to ensure they were addressing the specific needs of their customers & shareholders. 

Yum! Brands developed a robust plan to fight inequality by unlocking opportunities for their restaurant teams and the local communities they serve. For example, globally, they are investing $100 million over five years in education & skill development, equity & inclusion and entrepreneurship, to give people opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. The first step in driving conversations and actions at this scale and magnitude was listening to their local customers and internal stakeholders.

Integrate internal and external strategic teams for dynamic solutions. 

Great ideas can come from anywhere – and anyone. As chief communications officer, Jerilan sees her job as the curator of conversations. She says this requires bringing multiple stakeholders together to integrate ideas and perspectives horizontally. The real magic happens within collaborations between internal teams (HR, communications and operations) and external teams (PR and marketing agencies). When everyone comes to the table with diverse perspectives while sharing a cohesive brand view, it’s possible to think around corners to solve the brand’s greatest challenges as a dynamically integrated unit.

Earned creative is picking up where advertising left off.

In this age of ad blockers and DVR, advertising has been disrupted big time. Great ideas are going to require more integrated and cross-channel relevance to work and resonate with customers. Once again, this comes down to listening; listen to your customers and the broader culture, as they continue to evolve and change. Yum! Brands continues to take a creative, playful and unexpected approach with their marketing assets through earned creative ideas that are so bold and noteworthy they naturally garner significant media attention. Case in point: Kentucky Fried Chicken Crocs! A playful campaign that garnered nearly 3 billion impressions.

Paul Dyer : Jerilan, thank you for joining us!

Jerilan Greene: Thank you, Paul. I'm glad to be here.

PD: You have been quoted as saying that as a leader, you thrive in situations where the solution has to be found and no precedent exists. From that perspective, thinking about the time we're living in today, what has this been like for you and what is your process for discovering and effectively inventing your own best practices? 

JG: 2020 has really been a pivotal year for us in so many respects, especially as a large globally-diversified business. As you already mentioned, we now have 50,000 restaurants; we're in 150-plus markets. It just continues to grow. And we've got four brands KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and now The Habit Burger Grill. So, theres a lot of complexity, and I've invested a lot of my time along with my team in really helping our organization navigate what I'm calling the emerging social landscape” that continues to be shaped not only by COVID-19, but also by the other realizations that we're having as a society and around the world at this time. 

There are two strategies that have really worked well for me. And they're also working well for Yum! The first is around deep listening to our many stakeholders — listening with new ears. And two, cultivating what I call shared interests.” It was a massive shift for us from an operations perspective, but also a communications perspective. It was a clarifier for us because we wanted to be of service to our restaurant teams, our consumers, our franchisees and also our communities. 

The same thing applied when all of the social unrest became very apparent in May and June. We turned to each other and started asking questions we hadn't asked before. We kind of gave some space for the unspeakable things that we were seeing. And our brand leaders facilitated listening sessions all across the company. It was remarkable to see how people were listening with new ears. And from where I sit, I encouraged our executives to connect with diverse talent at all levels and vice versa. It's easy to watch what other companies are doing and think that you can copy it, but it's generally not always a good idea to copy altogether. Our HR and diversity and inclusion leaders really kept a pulse on what was emerging and gave tools to help people navigate. What we heard was making us ask ourselves What can we do?”

What can a company like Yum! do in a situation like this? We know that people are first in our business. I worked with our leadership and our CEO to articulate what we called our call for unity, inside our organization and outside our organization. As I mentioned, we are a very complex organization. We have our CEO David Gibbs, but we also have 2000 other franchise CEOs that are running our brands around the world. So, there's an exercise around just dialogue and alignment that we're always looking to get better and better at, to figure out what we need to do. 

And those moments that we encountered this year were really kind of the Man in the Mirror” moments where we reiterated our values. So back in June, we came out and said we were going to stand against racism, intolerance and inequality. And that the lives of black people do, in fact, matter. And it was a moment of bringing clarity to what we stood for. That people were first, particularly the frontline, and our local communities where we operate. And right at this moment, we're working with our franchisees through new ways to put some action plans in place, to really address the reality of what our frontline workers and communities are going through at this time.

PD: That's very powerful. You guys have also made a significant commitment in your local community. You're a global organization with 50,000 stores, people in 150 countries, and yet you've pledged $5 million to advance equity and opportunity right at home in Louisville. Can you tell us a little bit more about that initiative and also how you think about your CEO in Louisville and then 2,000 other CEOs? How do you balance thinking about investing in your local community while driving this global movement?

JG: I think it's very important at this time to think locally and globally in some powerful ways. And for context, back in June, we announced a $100M commitment over five years. So, we know it's a long-term commitment. It's a start. And our mission, our pledge is to unlock opportunity by fighting inequality, for our frontline restaurant teams and also for our communities. As I mentioned, we've been people first, but this whole year has really clarified for us that the restaurant general manager, and the team they manage in the restaurant are the people we want to make a difference for, as well as our local communities. We're going to be investing this money inside and outside our brands in three areas: equity and inclusion, education and entrepreneurship. These are areas that we feel lead to strong, resilient communities where we operate.

We want to be part of making that happen wherever we are. One of the things I'm really proud and pleased about is that we started this planning more than a year before we announced it. So COVID-19, and all of the social unrest sharpened our thinking and our resolve around our commitment, but we started it last year. And because we did that, it put us in a good position to be very clear on what we stand for, and how we can lean into that even more. When we started this process more than a year ago, our CEO David Gibbs challenged us to think about how we could make a sustainable difference for restaurant teams.

And his specific questions were, how can we make it so that when people come to work at our brands, they're getting a leg up in life? They stay with us for however long they stay with us, but they actually walk away with transferable skills that help them navigate the digital economy, or navigate the economies that are emerging where they are. How can we do things in a way that it unlocks access to a career or an educational opportunity that they might not have had otherwise?

We acknowledge this year as we're dealing with COVID-19 and watching many of the people working in our restaurants around the world deal with inequality in some significant ways. They're people of color. And so, whatever we do in terms of our social purpose, we want to make sure that we're impacting their lives positively. We started on that journey here in Louisville, but we've actually got it started in a lot of different places around the world.

PD: That's great. And it's great that you already had this in the works. Although one doesn't imagine that a hundred million dollar commitment would come around in short order. Obviously, a lot of planning has gone into it. Was it something that communications played a galvanizing or an accelerant role in? Or, was it something that was either driven out of a different office and then the communications team was asked to communicate?

JG: The role of communications that I think was central to this, not just the function, but the discipline of communications across our entire leadership team. So specifically, for my role and my team's role, I see what we've contributed to this process. As a clarifier, we contributed as an activator, a truth teller, really trying to reflect what's going on in the outside community and what can we do about it. I think in situations like this that are fast emerging, communications becomes strategy. It becomes leadership because everything's happening at the same time. You have to figure out what you're going to do meaningfully — almost from a long-term perspective. And you also have to figure out what you're going to say about it. And those two things really have to match. And so, the way I think about it is, in its highest contribution, change always starts with a conversation and exchange of ideas.

And that's the process that we've facilitated to get to this idea of unlocking opportunity to fight inequality as our social purpose, and driving conversations at scale. And I think that will ultimately be an anchor for how we think about making social impact over time. It's now central to our Recipe For Good. Our Recipe For Good is our citizenship and sustainability strategy. And it's what we do to drive socially responsible actions across food, planet, and people. But one of the decisions that we made last year that I was alluding to earlier is we decided to elevate our Recipe For Good, alongside our Recipe For Growth, which is our corporate growth strategy. And so those two things are now integrated, and people are at the center of both of them, and we're going to continue to find ways to make a difference in our communities, in terms of how we grow and also in terms of how we give back. 

PD: And elevating it to a corporate imperative really sends a message. That's inspiring to hear. A lot of these recent events within our industry have changed the agency dynamic for a lot of the companies and a lot of clients. And it's every week now we're seeing new headlines about clients changing agencies. So, I'm curious from your perspective, what is the role that you think agencies should be playing as strategic counselors and partners? What is the best value that agencies could be bringing to you today?

JG: I think it's along the lines of what you just mentioned. Definitely a strategic counselor and partner. Great ideas can come from anywhere. And we certainly expect that our PR communications and advertising agencies help us think around corners, and also help us identify opportunities that we hadn't thought of. That's how we think about strategic partners. The agencies that help us the most, have their pulse on what's going on in culture and in emerging spaces where dialogue is happening among our consumers, policy influencers or other stakeholders. And, so when I think about equity and inclusion specifically, which is definitely gaining traction, thankfully, agencies really need to walk the talk in terms of bringing diverse account teams to our greatest challenges, because we believe we'll get the greatest results through that kind of collaboration, and by partnering with our people leaders as well as our marketing leaders. So, this idea of unlocking opportunity to fight inequality is not a communications initiative, for example. It's a brand-building, trust-building enterprise initiative. 

So, for us, we treat it very cross-functionally. To the extent that our agencies can also think cross-functionally and bring different types of disciplines, diverse account teams to help solve our greatest challenges, that really helps us. We have an internal consumer and marketing insights firm called Collider, run by founder Ken Muench. There's a lot of collaboration that goes on between Ken's team, the communications team, the marketing team, the HR teams and also our agencies. Integration is really key for us around coming up with the best ideas.

PD: One of the big themes in the industry today is this idea of earned creative and culture jacking, and its starting to be a little bit hard to tell whether it's PR comms, or marketing or advertising, as it's all blending together. You mentioned the importance of agencies having their finger on the pulse of culture to help insert their brands into conversations — is that the job of marketing or is it PR? Secondly, does the answer to that even matter?

JG: I don't think the answer to that matters. I think it's everything. It's brand building and brand building can come from your HR team in terms of how they deliver against the employee experience. It can come from marketing, it can come from communications, operations. We still think of it in a very cross-functional way. There's so much convergence these days that it almost doesn't matter where the good ideas come from. And what's more relevant is that you have a big idea whether it's social purpose or something else, and that you find a way to execute that in a cross channel way, that breaks through the clutter. We also know brands that have a strong sense of purpose are positioned to speak to their audience with greater relevance.

When I consider the communications team and the perspective that communicators bring to that horizontal, enterprise view of the brand, it really does position organizations to be clear on what will break through in terms of earned creative. That multi-stakeholder view makes sure that the way that the earned creative plays out is relevant to the targeted stakeholders you're trying to reach, but also that you can get more traction on it over time in the news cycle.

PD: Yum! Brands also has benefited from some very iconic advertising campaigns over the years. Obviously, everybody's familiar with Colonel Sanders, the Taco Bell chihuahua, etc., many others. As advertising is being radically disrupted, what is your perspective on the iconic brand assets, like Colonel Sanders and the Taco Bell chihuahua, that came out of these advertising efforts and the future for them and in the context of communications? Will Colonel Sanders and the Taco Bell chihuahua still be with us?

JG: Well, in general, I wouldn't say advertising is dead. I think it is being disrupted. I think it is evolving and that the big ideas are just going to require more integrated and cross channel relevance to work really well. Relative to our IP, I think we're going to continue to listen to our customers and the broader culture. Chihuahua was distinctive in its time and it's not in use now. As you've seen with the Colonel, we continue to evolve with the culture which continues to change, so more to come.

PD: Speaking of continuing to change and evolving with the culture, can we talk about Kentucky Fried Chicken Crocs? How on earth did this amazing idea come together and what has the response been like?

JG: We have an insanely creative team at KFC, not just in the US, but globally. The teams are always thinking through how to be relevant with a younger generation and we're serious about our food because that's always got to be great, but we're also really playful and unexpected where we can be.

Our team thought that Crocs was a playful brand and through that partnership, we were able to give customers a way to celebrate their love of fried chicken while also stepping out in legendary style and comfort of Crocs . And we definitely need comfortable shoes the more we stay at home these days. But the response has been overwhelming. They sold out in less than a half an hour and garnered nearly 3 billion impressions throughout the campaign. So, it's done really well, and the team again, just does a great job of watching culture and trying to find ways to be part of it while bringing the love of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

PD: A lot of CCOs right now are being asked to come up with new diversity, equity and inclusion practices for their organizations. Many of them will openly admit there's a lot of work to do, but are not sure even where to start in some cases, or how outspoken they want to be on these topics. What advice would you give to other chief communications officers, in a similar seat, when it comes to the journey towards better diversity, equity and inclusion?

JG: I think it goes back to the deep listening and the shared interests that I mentioned before. Equity and inclusion when done well is a transformative strategy, wherever it happens in business, in communities, in government. Wherever it happens, it should be treated with the same rigor a business would address any challenge. So, think about the brands that aren't here anymore, because they put their heads in the sand when consumer or technology trends were changing around them. The same kind of obsolescence can happen when brands ignore social issues. And so, I look at equity and inclusion as navigating the new social landscape that's emerging. And it's very important for chief communications officers to understand what that is relative to their business. It's not going to be the same everywhere, but I would say that first things first — seek out and listen to different perspectives and get a sense of where people are. Start there.

And that's what we did at Yum! where we had diversity and inclusion policies. We had programs that were already underway. Some of which we really hadn't publicized yet, but when the landscape started changing around us, we really just needed to talk to each other again and ask, how are we viewing all of this? Getting those perspectives is important. I think looking at what others are doing in your industry is also a good practice if you're unsure where to start. How do your programs measure up? How does your culture measure up? And then find the early adopters inside your company. Hopefully one is your CEO, but try to understand where people in your organization at the senior level or below who can be galvanized. There was a point in our diversity and inclusion journey where we had a lot of energy from our employee resource groups.

Change can happen anywhere a conversation starts. So, as a chief communications officer, be a curator of those conversations that can help move your organization to another level from where you are today. The other thing is experiment. Just try some things. You may not be able to figure it out all at once. We actually made our announcement to invest a hundred million dollars in unlocking opportunity because we know that's core to how we think about our business. We build brands, we build businesses, we build talent. Do we have all of the details figured out on how we're going to do that over five years? No, but we feel anchored in the intention. We're anchored in the investment that we're making. We're anchored in the personal passion that people have to come and add to how we will actually do that.

It's a journey. But, experiment; know your risk. And always work with your CEO to create a vision around it. What does success look like? What steps can be taken. That's just a little bit of what I would share in terms of people thinking about diversity and inclusion and how you approach it. It just means taking action. If you have one woman or one person of color in your inner circle or in the company C-suite, or the board of directors, there's a high likelihood that you're not making enough progress, and that you're missing some critical insight and talent. The key is to own it, commit to action, change it and then its really important to move beyond managing the optics of diversity, which is a trap. And move to drive opportunities that will advance your business outcomes. Look at it as an opportunity.

PD: The optics of diversity being a trap is something that I think will resonate with a lot of people. And I think I'm going to advise that you now own being a “conversation curator for change” on your LinkedIn page. That's great.

JG: That’s fun!

PD: When you think about mentorship, what does it mean to you and how do you approach it?

JG: I have had mentorship throughout my career and there can always be more. I'm really passionate about helping anyone reach or transform their potential, whether they're women, men, black, white, brown, Asian, LGBT. I'm just passionate about helping people transform their potential and understand their strengths. And I've had some mentorship in my career. I think about it in terms of three things that are important to help cultivate talent: mentorship, coaching and sponsorship.

When I think about mentorship, that's lessons learned. Advice from experience, that's someone that can help you fill in the gaps, a resource to speed up your learning about your experiences in your growth. It's very different from coaching, which is supporting people in making a change in their thought patterns or their behaviors, that are in the way of their growth. I like to help people see a vision for themselves beyond where they are and to help people generate the self-awareness thats needed to actualize that vision. And then theres sponsorship, which is helping someone thrive in an organization, removing barriers, where you can, advocating for them, pointing the way very specifically, helping them realize opportunity.  

I think if were going to cultivate the best talent, no matter who they are, we have to have all three of those operating in an organization. And as an individual managing your career, its important to understand what youre benefiting from or what you need to see more of, whether its mentorship, sponsorship or coaching, and be open to which one of those will actually help you contribute as much as youd like to contribute in your organization or in the world.

PD: That's a great framework for mentorship, coaching and sponsorship. I love the idea of thinking about whether you are both offering and receiving all three of those things. I think that's a great place to wrap up. Jerilan, thank you so much for sharing your insights. 

JG: Well, thank you so much, Paul. It's been great being with you today.