It’s a long way from Morton, Miss. (population 3,482) to Las Vegas, and for Fred Keeton it’s been quite a journey. Born in 1957, when Jim Crow still reigned in the South, he was born at home even though his parents lived a mile from a hospital—which was then whites-only. When he reached his teens, he saw his small town make steps toward integration, though it wasn’t always pretty. For example, the local theater owner closed his business rather than allow blacks and whites to sit beside each other.
“I came from a background that reinforces the need to let people do their very best work, be their best selves—that’s ingrained in me in many ways,” he says. A great deal of his philosophy comes from his parents: “Can’t never could,” his mother would say. His father often remarked, “Nothing comes to a sleeper but a dream.” In other words, there’s a world of success out there, but you’ve got to get it.
As vice president of finance for external affairs and chief diversity officer for Caesars Entertainment, Keeton is making sure the company is evolving to survive in a changing world by stressing diversity, in all its forms. This means more than just hiring people from a variety of backgrounds.
“We’re becoming diverse by design,” he says. “That means occupational, functional and cognitive diversity. You need to mix people in who view things differently. Many companies say diversity is good. It isn’t good, it just is. It’s our ability to manage it that brings value.” From this perspective, diversity means hiring people with different human experiences, skill sets and ways of thinking—and then putting them to work in ways that challenge conventional thinking. It could even mean asking a finance maven to look at a marketing problem.
Keeton says Caesars’ “cultural dexterity” has helped it win casino licenses in Cleveland and Cincinnati recently, and he believes that diversity of all kinds will be essential in Las Vegas in the near future. “Once we had no competition; things were easy. Now, we’ve got to creatively think about things differently to keep this city on top. We can get back there, but we’re going to have to go against the grain, think about things in a markedly different way. That’s what diversity is all about.” Like his parents, Keeton is most gratified by seeing other people exceed their own expectations. “Once people are challenged like that, their life changes. And businesses who can harness that do well.”
For Keeton, a wealth of diverse backgrounds and approaches doesn’t just feel good—it makes good business sense. As Las Vegas works to maintain its appeal in the face of growing competition, that’s not a bad message to be preaching.