BAT’s Diana Johnson: A champion for diversity and inclusion


Diana’s career has been a journey of driving diversity and inclusion with passion.

Born in Brazil to a Brazilian mother and an English father, Diana Johnson knows first-hand the importance of diversity and inclusion in a society, let alone in an organisation.

British American Tobacco’s (BAT) area HR director for sub-Saharan Africa shares that although she was born in Rio de Janeiro, she did her secondary schooling in the UK and then moved back to Brazil to do her university studies. “I think there is something that happens to a person when you are exposed to a diverse people and culture. My parents and their families visually, culturally and in so many other ways couldn’t have been more different, but at the same time, they just bonded and loved each other so much. So before the external world, I had those two people to look up to at home.” Diana, who speaks four languages including Sign Language, says her early exposure and her desire for the world to be inclusive is what ultimately drives her. “I was also exposed to having a half-brother from my mom’s side that was born with a hearing impairment and we were extremely close when growing up. This again taught me to make an effort to communicate with him by learning a different language. I was so happy that sometimes we would speak to each other and others wouldn’t understand. So we used that as a secret weapon and instead of him being embarrassed, we cultivated a culture where his disability made him special.” Their unique bond fostered a culture where his disability was celebrated rather than stigmatised. This perspective drives Diana’s approach to her role at BAT, where she strives to cultivate an inclusive corporate culture.

Inclusion and equality

Navigating the complex landscape of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Diana believes that achieving meaningful change requires practical efforts beyond legislative measures. She acknowledges the profound impact of South Africa’s history, particularly apartheid, on the present social fabric and emphasises the importance of understanding these dynamics for effective change. She recalls how she spent her first month in office trying to understand the B-BBEE context in South Africa, but took it a step further and tried to research the history that informed the action. “As much as the legislation is there, people need to realise that apartheid was so recent – unlike other historical events. It wasn’t something that happened 100 years ago and as such it is still in people’s blood and mind, which is where we need to acknowledge the power that it takes in people’s decisions, lives, mindsets.”

She notes that this was important for her to know so she can factor in what this means for social cohesion and what it would take to fully integrate the corporate culture of the organisation. “Maybe people from outside won’t understand, but once you live here and you see it with your own eyes, it is real.” In her view, Diana says BAT has a role to play in facilitating social cohesion in society, not just in the organisation itself. She underscores the significance of addressing factors like gender, race, sexuality, and disabilities in recruitment and promotion policies. “Paper and reality are two different things. I try to drive that we need to take into account many factors like what people still go through in terms of decisions being made.” It’s not always easy, she adds, as there were many years of wrongdoings. “It is hard to fight with a society that is still healing. But I’m happy that from a country organisation point of view, we are continuously trying.” As much as she isn’t a fan of the quota system, she is quick to add that she also believes that what you don’t measure, you don’t achieve, and so the system is necessary to a certain extent.

Africa, the hub of talent

Speaking about the differences between the various countries she has worked in, Diana says one can never say Africa is lagging behind or not as advanced as other continents. “On so many levels one can say it’s a mix. I also don’t think it’s because of the HR function or the professionals, but rather about infrastructure. When you think about South Africa and African countries, we have the raw material, which is the talent, but the infrastructure unfortunately is not there. So the lack of infrastructure spills over to the level of schooling or the level of technology and/or digital solutions that can accelerate the talents are impacting the overall scope.”

Speaking from a company point of view, Diana says the country has amazing talent. “So we are a truly net export of talents. To give an indication, I currently have 40 African talents from BAT exported to other countries for various positions, while I only have 10 or 11 who are in the country from other countries. So we export more talents that we bring, which is great but we also need to be honest about the infrastructure issue.” How then does she manage the on-demand pipeline? Well, she says, they have an added advantage that BAT has headquarters in South Africa but operates in 30 markets in Africa and has the entire supply chain in the region. “We have everything – literally from seed to smoke. So the type of talent that we can nurture is quite differentiated because they know the end-to-end of the business. “If you look at our business unit, we have everything from the factory to direct distribution. The type of knowledge that we can nurture our talents with is very powerful and enables us to shine into other global business units and pull attention that African talent is unique, and very valuable to other units.”

A chance landing

Diana describes her landing in HR as totally by chance as she was mistakenly placed in a human resources internship at a tech company instead of the finance internship she had applied for. “I had just completed my undergraduate degree and was trying to gather some work experience at the big firms. By the time I realised there was a mistake, the finance internship was full. I would say destiny played its part here, because here I am, 25 years later, still loving the HR field.”

Diana holds a postgraduate degree in HR from the Universidade Federal do in Rio de Janeiro as well as a master’s degree in human resources from Instituto COPPEAD de Administración (COPPEAD - UFRJ). Before joining BAT in Brazil, Diana held important roles at FTSE 100 listed companies such as IBM and Coca-Cola. She is also a former member of the ISOBL – International Society of Business Leaders. “After I completed my master’s, BAT came knocking and head-hunted me from my previous employer. I started as an organisational development manager back in 2007 and worked my way up to a senior manager for an HR operations position still in Rio. It was around 2019 when I got the invitation to fulfil my desire to expand my career internationally by taking a position in Nairobi, Kenya as the HR director for East Africa Markets.”

Now, two years settled in her position in Cape Town, wife and mother Diana says she is still enjoying her stay here and on weekends looks forward to exploring the wonderful outdoors. “This is a beautiful place and we are still enjoying it. As for what the future holds? Let’s see what BAT has in store for me,” she concludes with a chuckle.


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