Industry Leaders
McCain Foods
Global Leader in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Sandra Cushnie

Now more than ever before in history, companies are realizing not only the importance of a diverse workforce but diversity in management as well — that those values have to be reflected from the top down. 

Co-Host of The Interview Luke James spoke to Sandra Cushnie, Global Leader in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at McCain Foods about how the pathway to a more just world begins with not only acknowledging these topics but making them a core part of a business’s mission and structure.

Sandra’s Journey

Luke: What brought you to your current role?

I got my undergraduate degree in sociology, women’s studies, and race relations. My Master’s degree was in advocacy and consulting. And when I graduated from university, I looked at what at the time was called the “diversity space” and frankly, didn’t see a lot of promise or future there. So I looked at my marketable skills and noticed that corporate communications is a place that uses writers. So that’s where I went, and, as it turns out, one of the things I’m good at is explaining difficult concepts. That’s where I discovered change management, and I was happily doing this work until May of 2020 when George Floyd was murdered. 

That’s when I had an existential crisis. I thought, “We’ve had decades of research on the importance of DEI in business, and yet we haven’t seen real change. We haven’t seen significant shifts in who leads organizations from the top. This isn’t about an intellectual transition; this is about behavioral changes. And I’m uniquely suited to behavioral changes.” So I put up my hand, meekly at first, and told my bosses about my background and my passion. Luckily in the decades I wasn’t working in the DEI space, I never lost my interest or my connections, so I could move smoothly into that role. It all came full circle.

Luke: What are some of the main initiatives that you’re working on when it comes to DEI?

I was fortunate to inherit a DEI program McCain started in 2016. Granted, it had more of a gender focus than anything else, but at least there was already a language within the organization to discuss one aspect of diversity and difference. And so moving into the role I wanted to be very intentional in expanding that. We began by setting up a DEI promise: “We are committed to becoming an employer of choice for diverse employees; where leaders, structures and interactions enable individuals to thrive while being their authentic selves. Now, and for generations to come.” The pillars are about leaders (people in leadership roles or with leadership responsibilities); structures (policies, programs, procedures and practices); and interactions (how we behave with one another). The outcomes of our work will be a McCain that is representative of the communities and consumers we serve, free of barriers to success for all people, and where people feel a strong sense of belonging.

Luke: How do you engage the various leaders at McCain — whose primary focus is on their work — on DEI topics?
I find leaders are more receptive when they feel they’ve been heard. No one does well being lectured at. But if you’ve developed a level of respect and comfort with them, that gives you a much easier opening.

That’s where working as a change leader gave me an advantage. I wasn’t the subject matter expert on any of those things, but I had to develop good listening and probing skills. And so I applied them to learning about each leader’s business and what their priorities and interests and concerns are. Then, while doing that, I try to weave DEI into things they already care about. I find leaders are more receptive when they feel they’ve been heard. No one does well being lectured at. But if you’ve developed a level of respect and comfort with them, that gives you a much easier opening.

Luke: When it comes to making progress in DEI, what are some of the main challenges the sector faces and what’s your approach to overcoming them?

I think there’s a certain degree of fear. On the employment engagement surveys we send out, we get lots of lovely comments. But sometimes we also get comments from people threatened by the work we’re doing. And most of them amount to, “I don’t want to be excluded. I don’t want to have fewer opportunities because of my identity.” And the thing is, we actually all agree on that! Nobody should have fewer opportunities because of their identity! When we create a more fair world, it’s a more fair world for everyone. It isn’t a zero-sum game. We have never had more women leaders at McCain…and we’ve also never had more men leaders at McCain! Wait a second, how did that happen? We grew the pie. Why? Because we needed new talent and new skill sets. “Plus one” for one group doesn’t mean “minus one” for another. And I think that continues to be the biggest barrier to making progress, that narrow thinking. Some people benefit from the status quo, but there are many more who benefit from a more equitable, more just world. 

Luke: McCain Foods has a huge international workforce. How do you navigate engaging them on DEI topics across sometimes vastly different societies?

With humility, care, curiosity, and intentionality. I don’t barge in with my Canadian/North American mindset and try to enforce it in other jurisdictions. For example, on the employee survey, we generally include questions about LGBTQIA identity. But when it comes to countries where being LGBTQIA is illegal or dangerous, we don’t include that question. We’re not going to put people at risk. So in terms of how do you navigate across different countries and cultures? Stop talking, start listening, do your research.

Quick-fire Question

Luke: What is your top tip for developing a culture of being open to learning and growth in an organization?

You have to make it safe for people to learn. You have to establish rules and live by those rules even when people ask difficult, challenging questions. Allow people to be curious and ask questions, and make sure there aren’t repercussions when they do. 

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Luke James
Luke works hand-in-hand with leaders and changemakers in our professional services markets. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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