Joel Quadracci on Quad’s diversity efforts: ‘You have to hold yourself accountable. If not me, who?’

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Joel Quadracci knows his company has something to prove.

Sussex-based Quad/Graphics Inc., like many companies across the region, has publicly declared a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. While those efforts have been under way for years, George Floyd’s murder last summer – compounded with a pandemic that disproportionately affected people of color – prompted a period of self-reflection for Quad’s leadership.

After engaging outside DEI experts, Quadracci, the company’s president, chairman and chief executive officer, came to realize Quad needed to take a more holistic approach to recruiting and retaining diverse employees.

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“Everybody thinks they’re doing things and it’s kind of incrementalism,” he said. “But if the whole basis isn’t holistically thought about, incrementalism will never gain a solution.”

Now, more than a year since local and national protests put the spotlight on longstanding racial inequities, Quadracci said the company needs to show it is making actual progress on its internal DEI goals.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “We can say whatever we want, but we have to judge ourselves based on what kind of traction we get as our recruiting efforts are doubled down.”

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From a hiring perspective, increasing its DEI efforts is a necessity for Quad. The company is currently hiring for upwards of 1,000 jobs in a tight labor market; it can’t afford to exclude any segment of the workforce from its recruitment efforts, Quadracci said.

“You can’t consider it as ‘there’s our DEI strategy,’” he said. “No, it’s our people strategy. We have to look like the communities we’re in, because our customers look like the communities we’re in.”

For years, transportation challenges have frustrated suburban Milwaukee employers’ efforts to recruit workers from Milwaukee’s Black, Hispanic and Hmong communities.

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Joel Quadracci
Joel Quadracci

When Joel’s father, Harry Quadracci, selected rural Waukesha County for the company’s headquarters in the early 1980s, being “out in the middle of nowhere,” where land was cheap and plentiful, made sense for the growing printing business, Quadracci said. But over the years, solutions aimed at connecting Milwaukee residents to jobs at Quad’s Sussex and Hartford plants have been elusive. Even when bus lines have consistently run from Milwaukee to Sussex, inefficient routes and last-mile gaps remained, Quadracci said.

The longstanding public transportation challenges reflect how the region prioritizes north-south connections, rather than east to west, he said.

“Foxconn says they’re going to put in a big plant and suddenly you’ve got bus lines going down there, but you’ve got a whole lot of businesses out here (in Waukesha County) who have been griping for a long time that there’s transportation issues,” he said. “But Milwaukee thinks north-south more than it does east-west, so that’s been a real uphill battle.”

Quad has partnered for years with Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization Running Rebels on transportation and career training initiatives, but it’s not a wholesale solution to the problem. Quadracci said he’s now focused on developing more partnerships. His current idea is to develop a car loan program with the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee that would serve Quad employees who show promise at the company and need to get from the city to Sussex. Once an employee is paired with a car, they would be encouraged to recruit other people from their neighborhood to work at the plant.

Quadracci envisions it as both a transportation and talent strategy: Quality employees will attract other quality employees, and they can all carpool to work.

It’s one thing to draw people of color in the door, but creating a welcoming environment to retain those employees – particularly in a community like Sussex, where 94% of residents are white – adds another layer of challenge.

“In some of these communities, you have to actually remember that when I get pulled over because I’m speeding, I’m like ‘oh, I must’ve been speeding,’” he said. “When a person in the Black community gets pulled over, they’re thinking a whole lot of other things because of history and how they’re treated. And so we recognize that sometimes we even have to talk to the community (where their plants are located and say) ‘Look we’re bringing people into our plants. You can’t just pull them over because they’re of a different color.’ We’ve had to have that conversation.”

Quad needs to continue to improve internally, too, Quadracci said.

“I’ve been frustrated over time at our lack of success at attracting and retaining people from the Black community in Milwaukee,” he said. “When you do self-assessment and say, ‘Why is that?’ Well, first of all, the commute’s really hard, coming out to these plants. But secondly, you walk into these (plants), it’s a million square feet, and everyone’s white. It’s not inviting. It’s scary.”

Quad leaders say the company has doubled down on efforts to make their plants more welcoming over the past year. It’s sought feedback from nearly all employees and rolled out curriculum to help leaders assess and improve their intercultural competence, said Jennie Kent, executive vice president of administration for Quad.

The company has worked to frame its conversations about diversity and inclusion intentionally, Quadracci said, noting that they can quickly put white people on the defensive.

“In this topic, there’s a lot a lot of defensiveness that goes on when you’re trying to tell your population we aren’t doing as good a job with people from all sorts of different walks of life,” Quadracci said. “There’s an immediate defensiveness, like ‘What, are you calling me racist?’ And, quite frankly, … everyone has inherent biases, and I don’t view my job as necessarily to fix everybody’s biases. But I do require that part of the job is for people to use (intercultural) aptitude, to exercise that muscle.”

Focusing on coworker allyship has been helpful, Quadracci said, as it encourages employees to be proactive in their support of their coworkers. Meanwhile, Quad has also invested in its diverse business resource groups, with Quadracci taking an active role in communicating with them, leader said.

Quad is also investing outside its organization to increase diversity in the workforce. Earlier this year, the company and the Quadracci family’s Windhover Foundation committed $1 million over three years to bring Minneapolis-based marketing nonprofit organization The BrandLab to Milwaukee. The organization connects high school and college students who identify as Black, indigenous, people of color or who come from low-income families, with local ad agencies for internships.

The BrandLab’s entrance to the Milwaukee market is expected to give a boost to a multi-year effort to diversify the region’s largely white creative sector.

While Quad faces workforce challenges in the short-term, supporting efforts like The BrandLab is a long-term strategy to build a talent pipeline.

In a shrinking industry like commercial printing, Quad leaders acknowledged it would be easy to let the immediate demands of the business dilute their efforts to increase its worker diversity and build an inclusive culture – both of which required long-term commitments. But Quadracci said he welcomes the community holding Quad accountable to follow through on them.

“It’s been a bit discouraging now where you see companies making statements early on and you can kind of already see the backing off,” he said. “… As I’ve been very vocal in our company, there’s no way Joel is backing off. Being involved in this, I will be leading this charge now on into the future.

“That’s what’s required to truly shift an organization. You have to have the top stay in it, and not on and off. You have to hold yourself accountable. If not me, who?”

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