Leadership

Exec of the Future: Different Strokes

By / Sep 27, 2012 David Yellen
To continue to grow, we really have to reach out to anyone and everyone who can hold a tennis racket.

In his new role as chief diversity and inclusion officer at the United States Tennis Association, D.A. Abrams, CAE, is working to change the face of the game—and make the business case for D&I in associations.

Tennis isn’t only a game for David Anthony Abrams, CAE. Although Abrams, who goes by the nickname D.A., has been swinging a racket since he was a boy in Philadelphia, his goals today have more to do with business than his backhand.

As the new chief diversity and inclusion (D&I) officer for the White Plains, N.Y.-based United States Tennis Association (USTA), Abrams is serving up an array of initiatives aimed at debunking, once and for all, the stereotype that tennis is a “members-only” pastime for the white and wealthy.

“As the governing body of tennis in this country, we have a responsibility to share the wealth, if you will,” he says.

This drive into multicultural markets is an increasingly high priority for businesses. A 2010 study by consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles found that more than four in five of the top Fortune 500 companies employ a chief diversity officer, but it’s a rare find in associations.

“It’s one thing for [D&I] to be the right thing to do,” Abrams says. “But the focal point has to be that we’re doing this so we can stay ahead of the curve and gain market share.” By taking his cues from corporate America and making the case for diversity as a business driver, Abrams offers a pioneering vision of how associations can grow in the 21st century.

“The demographics of the country have changed and continue to change,” he says. “To continue to grow, we really have to reach out to anyone and everyone who can hold a tennis racket.”

Since he took the job of chief D&I officer in February, Abrams has been an evangelist for diversity, engaging four demographics USTA has identified as strategically important to
its growth: African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and LGBT communities.

“America will be predominantly multicultural by about 2040,” says USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith. “Our job is to grow tennis and make it look like America.”

Bakinga commitment to D&I into every level of the organization is the key to success, says Pat Harris, global chief diversity officer at McDonald’s Corporation and an acquaintance of Abrams’. “Diversity is everybody’s business,” she says. “I refuse to let anyone say ‘diversity and inclusion program,’ because it’s not a program. It’s how we do business every day.”

To this end, Abrams seeks out strategic partnerships with other organizations to help broaden the scope of USTA’s messaging.

“That’s just good business. We can partner with groups that already engage the different target audiences that we’re trying to reach and just bring tennis to them,” Abrams says. “It’s fishing where the fish already are.” More “fishing” takes place via USTA’s outreach programs to young players as well as middle- and lower-income players who use the country’s public courts.

“D.A. has spent a lot of time doing outreach to our 17 [regional] sections to ensure each of them is using best practices with regard to diversity and inclusion,” Smith says. “Growing tennis happens at the local level,” not within the offices of the association headquarters, he adds.

Some of this work includes partnering with the American Tennis Association, a primarily African-American group, on an ambitious project to grow the number of its local clubs from 50 to 200 over the next three years and link them to USTA’s network of community tennis associations.

Another new collaboration is with the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance. The group has between 40 and 50 clubs around the world that Abrams is eager to see become registered as community tennis associations with USTA.

A New Priority

Nearly a decade ago, USTA elevated multicultural participation to a top-tier priority. Abrams’ involvement in diversity at USTA—which currently boasts 785,000 members, including individual players and several thousand organizational members—stretches back to 1994, when he became coordinator for the Minority Participation Initiative.

“At that time, we’d only had one African-American male be elected to the board of directors, only one Asian-American male—and they weren’t on at the same time. Now, fast-forward to today,” he says. “We have three African-Americans on the board, one Latino Hispanic-American on the board, and we have had a couple members of the LGBT community on in the past.”

In the ensuing years, Abrams served in several executive and director-level roles within the parent organization and some of its sections before taking on his current position early this year. The variety of perspectives he gained gave him insight into the needs and goals across different levels of the association, he says.

One critical insight: The key to getting a D&I message heard and accepted within an organization is to find a balance between exerting influence and making the hard sell, as well as showing why D&I is needed to reach a business goal.

“You can’t tell people, ‘This is what you’re going to do.’ You have to convince them this is in the best interest of them and the organization,” Abrams says.

For example, he says, a conversation with one of USTA’s sections might revolve around a goal to increase overall tennis participation in its geographic area, add more tennis “play days” for kids, or grow the size of its adult league.

Measure of Success

Given the importance of diversity and inclusion to helping associations thrive, it might seem strange that Abrams is one of a mere handful of senior-level association D&I professionals.

The reason, Abrams says, is a fundamental difference between for-profit companies and nonprofits. “If you’re a public corporation, it’s really all about the revenue,” he says. Companies are accountable to investors who demand constant growth, which means finding a steady stream of new customers, “so you’re going to go to those markets.”

But associations don’t have to report to shareholders every quarter, and their success or failure isn’t measured by stock prices. Without an industry standard for measuring performance, many associations are slow to realize the material impact of diversity and inclusion. As Abrams says, “It’s not as easy to make that connection.”

Although USTA is a nonprofit organization, its hallmark event, the U.S. Open, and the revenue it generates give the organization a more corporate mindset, Abrams says. Major stakeholders can see the link between outreach to diverse markets and the association’s performance.

To reinforce that link, Abrams is assembling toolkits to distribute to local providers affiliated with USTA. These packages of marketing materials target each of the identity-specific markets the D&I office is focusing on.

“We’re working with our in-house marketing team and are about to engage an outside firm or firms that specialize in reaching those markets,” he says. He hopes to have the project completed by the fourth quarter, just in time to roll out for an “all-hands-on-deck” goal-setting and measurement initiative for senior staff that will launch in 2013.

Smith says USTA’s D&I out-reach is succeeding, according to annual surveys published by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association and its own internal research.

“What’s rewarding is that we’ll be able to see a tremendous change, not just within USTA, but in tennis overall. We’ll be able to grow the sport in a big way,” he says.

Martha C. White

Martha C. White is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate.com, Time, and NBCNews.com. More »

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