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Sandy Cross: “Audit your language; Language creates culture”

Audit your language. Language creates culture. It gives off subtle but powerful cues about who’s invited. Who isn’t. Who belongs. Who doesn’t. We conducted a comprehensive language audit at the PGA of America and it brought to the fore a host of words and phrases that are inadvertently off-putting to those that we aspire to […]

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Audit your language. Language creates culture. It gives off subtle but powerful cues about who’s invited. Who isn’t. Who belongs. Who doesn’t. We conducted a comprehensive language audit at the PGA of America and it brought to the fore a host of words and phrases that are inadvertently off-putting to those that we aspire to attract in our business and in our sport. Something as simple as “coat and tie” on an event invitation can send subtle cues to women that the event is a male-centric one and women are an afterthought and not authentically invited.


I had the pleasure to interview Sandy Cross.
Sandy was named the first-ever Chief People Officer in the PGA of America’s history on January 10th, 2019.

Cross earned her Certified Diversity Professional (CDP) credential from the Institute of Diversity Certification in 2016. She holds a Master’s in Sport Administration from Kent State University and a Bachelor’s in Legal Studies from the University of Buffalo, where she played NCAA Division I volleyball. Cross began her career with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, followed by the United States Water Fitness Association. She is a native of Buffalo, New York, and serves on the Advisory Boards of CaddieNow, Women’s Golf Journal and several golf industry task forces.


Thank you for joining us Sandy. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

In 2012, while leading Business Development for the PGA of America, I was asked to take on a new role as Director of Women’s & New Marketing Initiatives and focus on developing and deploying the Connecting With Her strategic initiative within the golf industry. At the time, there were projected to be 38 million women in America who desired to play golf but had never been invited to do so or were too intimidated to try. We wanted to capitalize on that interest and invite as many women to experience the joys of the game as possible. Through education and training of our PGA Professionals, tailored marketing and communications, experiential events and programs, and alliance relationships, we began capturing women’s hearts and minds. That work, which involved closely studying gender differences, opened my eyes further to the dozens of dimensions of diversity beyond gender and I loved the opportunity I saw for our business and the sport of golf overall. Two years later, after our leadership had positioned inclusion and diversity as a foundational principle in our long-term strategic plan, I expressed my great interest to them in developing the inclusion and diversity practice for the PGA of America. I was thrilled when I was given the green light to do so. Nearly five years later, after laying a solid foundation in inclusion and diversity, our new CEO Seth Waugh gave me the opportunity to step into the newly created role of Chief People Officer. I am continuing to lead our inclusion and diversity strategy but have taken on the responsibility for our people across all levels of the enterprise. Fostering a values-based, best-in-class environment for innovation, creativity and collaboration among our people is critical to our growth and development into a peak performance organization.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I certainly made many mistakes but a really funny one from 24 years ago is not coming to mind.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many special individuals who have helped me along the way. One in particular was Paul Lamey, Senior Director of Licensing at the PGA of America. Paul was my first boss at the PGA and laid the foundation for my success within the organization and the golf industry. From day one he took a personal interest in showing me the ropes. Paul was an ace bobsled pilot in the 1968 and 1972 Winter Olympics, as well as six world championship events. He was also in the Navy and worked at the Pentagon. His professionalism, care and attention to detail were second to none and he instilled in me how critical those ingredients are to success. Paul took me under his wing from the start, always had me at the table, showed me the ropes in and around the golf course, and advocated for me whether I was in the room or not.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Going to the gym or going for a run are my “go to” stress relievers. There is nothing else like them for me. I always feel better after a workout or a run. My mind is more free. Everything seems more clear. Playing with our yellow Labrador Retriever is a great stress reliever as well.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Yes, it does seem obvious, but it’s also clear that it needs to be consistently repeated because our country still has such a very long way to go in addressing the systemic racial inequities that exist. Businesses can play a huge role in bringing true equity, inclusion and belonging to our country. It is critical to have individuals from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds at every table, particularly executive tables. They bring a perspective, a background and a lived experience that others simply cannot bring. They reflect an important and valuable demographic of consumers that we all aspire to attract. They can help others look through a lens that they could not otherwise look through, or may not even think to look through, on their own.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Audit your language. Language creates culture. It gives off subtle but powerful cues about who’s invited. Who isn’t. Who belongs. Who doesn’t. We conducted a comprehensive language audit at the PGA of America and it brought to the fore a host of words and phrases that are inadvertently off-putting to those that we aspire to attract in our business and in our sport. Something as simple as “coat and tie” on an event invitation can send subtle cues to women that the event is a male-centric one and women are an afterthought and not authentically invited.

Audit your imagery. Like language, imagery also creates culture. Individuals need to see others that look like themselves in your imagery if they are going to engage with your product or consider joining your team. Donald Miller says it best in his book “Building a Story Brand.” Your customer should be the hero of your story, not your brand. Businesses that invite their customer into a heroic story grow. To that end, we collaborated with our partners at Jopwell to create The Jopwell x PGA Collection. This album of free-to-download authentic representative stock photos features diverse individuals playing golf and working in golf. We designed it to increase the number of visual representations of Black, Latinx and Native Americans in golf and in select career paths in golf. Through this authentic collection of photos, we hope to provide the visual inspiration that is so critical to the golf industry’s efforts to attract Black, Latinx and Native Americans to the sport and to some of the many career opportunities the business of golf presents.

Audit your supply chain. We’re known by the company we keep. Take a look at your supply chain and who you are doing business with. We’ve found that the inclusion of small, local, and diverse-owned businesses helps drive creativity and innovation in pursuit of our mission at the PGA. Through PGA JobMatch, we’ve developed a number of strategic alliances with organizations like the National Lesbian & Gay Chamber of Commerce and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council to source prospective vendors for inclusion in our Tier 1 and Tier 2 bid opportunities for the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup. When vendors have a positive experience in the business of golf and benefit from golf’s economy, they are more likely to participate in the sport.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Executives are setting strategic direction and making strategic decisions that will materially impact the trajectory of the business for years, for decades or forever.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

Some might think it’s cushy at the top or that it’s easier at the top. It’s not. More responsibility brings more responsibility. It’s a steady state of pressure, high-volume and high-intensity.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I don’t want to make assumptions about what my male counterparts may or may not experience. I often think we actually experience a number of similar challenges but women may be more open about sharing theirs and there’s a lot more written about women executives’ challenges than men’s. I believe we have more in common than not, especially male executives of color who are faced with significant challenges, particularly being able to be their authentic selves versus what others might expect them to be.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I’m not sure I had preconceived notions about the job because it was a new role within our organization and I didn’t have anything to observe or assess prior to taking the role. However, the sheer volume of work has been striking to me. I’ve always been a high volume and high capacity professional. While I thought I was performing at full capacity previously, the executive role has taken things to a whole different level for me especially in the midst of the pandemic and the racial justice crisis. Both of these directly impact my area of responsibility as Chief People Officer overseeing Human Resources and Inclusion & Diversity.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Some key traits include a growth mindset, grit, coachable, self-aware, and strong communicator. I would never want to tell anyone they should avoid aspiring to be an executive. People grow, evolve and discover things they are capable of that they may have never envisioned for themselves.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

It’s so important to really get to know and connect with your team members on a personal level. What do they value? What makes them tick? What matters most to them relative to their role in the organization? How do they derive meaning and purpose? I’m a big fan of Clifton’s StrengthsFinder and Sally Hogshead’s Fascination Advantage methodology. Those are both great tools to overlay onto the personal insights you glean directly from each of your team members.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. The power and importance of deep work. I just discovered Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. It was a “Where have you been all my life?” moment.
  2. Have the courage to cut back and simplify. Eliminate the nonessential. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown inspired me. It’s not about getting more things done but how to get the right things done — the relentless pursuit of less but better.
  3. That one of the most powerful words is “no.” Have the courage to say “no” when others say “yes.”
  4. Giving clear feedback to others is a very powerful way to unleash their potential.
  5. Beware of perfectionism. It can be extraordinarily damaging.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The movement I have long aspired for in the golf industry is “the power of the invitation.” If everyone who’s “inside” the industry and already playing golf invited one other person in from a background that is very different from their own and helped ensure that they have a positive experience, not only would the sport grow exponentially but we could literally transform lives. Golf is a transformative sport both personally and professionally. It truly is something you can play for a lifetime regardless of ability. The physical, social, emotional, and professional benefits are many.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

While it’s not a quote it is an approach that I learned by watching my father for decades and that is living one’s life with an ‘others first’ mindset. The approach has always served me well in every regard. When you put the other person first — keeping their needs, their situation and their perspective top of mind — it results in a much healthier and more productive relationship.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Sheryl Sandberg. I’ve admired and followed Sheryl for 10 years. She’s an incredibly accomplished business executive and author who continues to reinvent herself and is clearly committed to making others’ lives and the world a better place.

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