Justin Jones-Fosu of Work.Meaningful: “Competitive Advantage”

Competitive Advantage: Early last year, I was invited to speak for a large insurance companies leaders. Part of the pre-process was sitting in the senior meeting to discuss new findings and brainstorm on how to approach the conference. One of the things that stood out to me in their discussion was their consistent sharing that […]

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Competitive Advantage: Early last year, I was invited to speak for a large insurance companies leaders. Part of the pre-process was sitting in the senior meeting to discuss new findings and brainstorm on how to approach the conference. One of the things that stood out to me in their discussion was their consistent sharing that many of their potential partner clients asked about their diversity and inclusion efforts AND results. The sentiment from this meeting was that how they continue to drive forward those initiatives were impacting and will impact their business.

As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Jones-Fosu.

Justin Jones-Fosu is a proud poppa of two high-energy kids and is also the Founder and CEO of Work. Meaningful., a company focused on helping professionals and organizations bring meaning to what they do through workplace engagement and diversity & inclusion. He speaks 50+ a year for the Fortune 500 all the way to the highly “successful” Fourth Graders. He is the author of 2 books, with the most recent being The Inclusive Mindset: How to Cultivate Diversity in Your Everyday Life.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into the main part of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share a bit of your “backstory” with us?

Thanks, MOM! This may seem cheesy to say, but my mom was my first diversity and inclusion hero. She introduced me to (also known as made me go to) events that expanded my perspective and challenged my perceptions. We went to Oktoberfest, Hispanic Heritage Month events, Polish festivals, and countless other “cultural” events. We also brought difference into our home as we hosted exchange students from Japan, France, Germany, and Brazil (this student only lasted one day once she realized we were a Black family). I did not recognize it until many years later, but my mom planted seeds in me of what I call the Inclusive Mindset. I was learning to hear others’ stories, exercise empathy, and disagree respectfully.

While working in Corporate America for a large financial firm, I didn’t find my work meaningful. Somebody even put me on the dreaded Performance Improvement Plan (gasp). I remember talking to one of my mentors at the time, and she recommended that I join the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I took her advice, and little did I know this would be a future area of research and focus for me.

As I began to devour everything I could about diversity and inclusion, I soon discovered that most trainings came off like a Diversity Day episode on the Office. I was less than enthralled with the results. After years of research and talking to people about what pained them about diversity and inclusion training/consulting/speaking, I decided to help people with a non-shame-based approach and meet people where they are instead of where they should be. I wanted to help people grow and become better in a year than last year. This inspired me to create the 7 mini-episodes of Everyday Diversity and The Inclusive Mindset. I desired to provide people with a purposefully practical way forward where Diversity and Inclusion were less of a mandate and more of a mindset, where it was less of a big initiative and more a part of everyday lives!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

You have to promise not to judge me before I begin. I spoke for an unknown audience, and my speaking style is a mix of high-energy and practical research-based principles. I was sharing my research in a highly engaging way, and the next thing I know…rip. Yep, you guessed it; my pants ripped in the back. I would love to blame it on what used to be my fully-formed soccer legs, but I am unsure what caused my pants to rip.

I did not stop speaking and hoped that no one noticed. This incident was the least amount I ever moved in a presentation because after the rip I stood in that one spot the entire time. I stood there even to answer questions after I finished, and I waited there until everyone left the auditorium. When it was just myself and my client, I told them what happened, and we laughed (really loud out loud), and then I wrapped my suit jacket around my waist as I went to the car. I sense you judging me now.

I learned a few things. First, the show must always go on, and I am glad I continued despite the tear. Second, I realized that I needed to purchase better pants. Third, I learned never to take myself too seriously because I am one ripped pants away from mediocrity.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you tell us a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

My favorite “life lesson quote” is “if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough!” This quote has been relevant in a few ways. Professionally I remember one of my first corporate jobs with a rental car company. On my first day, I remember the branch manager bringing me into his office and asking me to shut the door. I was dumbfounded, wondering how I was getting fired on my first day of the job (a new world record…I know). Instead of getting fired, he told me that he wanted me to fail. Inside, I wondered why he was so mean, but he explained himself. He said he saw something special in me and wanted me to take calculated risks and try new things. He told me there weren’t many mistakes that we could not fix together. That inspired me to develop an incentive-based program that had never been created. It also taught me a valuable lesson about leadership and how to empower your people. Brian Peck will always be one of my favorite managers (right behind Michael Scott of the Office).

Personally, I went mountain biking for the first-time last summer. I was so excited to try something new and adventurous. I rented my bike, hit the trails with one of my friends, and blew past the beginner trails searching for the intermediate trails. That was a mistake. After patting myself on the back for handling the intermediate challenges, I came across a small bridge to conquer. I executed perfect form in my approach to the bridge, and then I promptly fell off of it into the water. I only fell 6 feet or so, but I was scared nonetheless. I was also happy I did not appear to have any significant injuries. I got up, flexed my muscles, and smiled for the camera (because my friend was recording it all along). I was able to keep riding (read that as I did not want to admit defeat), and when we approached the end of the trail, there was a guy there that we talked to earlier. He asked me how my first-time mountain biking went, and not taking myself too seriously, I told him it was great, but I fell off a bridge. He didn’t flinch or pause when he promptly said to me, “if you aren’t falling, you aren’t riding!” This statement resonated with me because it mirrored my life lesson quote. I now have periodic checks in my life to see if I have recently failed at something, and if not, I challenge myself to do something beyond my comfort level.

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?

Now you know I want to highlight my mother again, but I will choose someone else essential to me. Forest Harper, the President and CEO of INROADS, has been a fantastic help to me. This journey with Forest started when I was an undergraduate student at Morgan State University. Forest was an executive with Pfizer, and I was an INROADS intern. Forest began to help me navigate how to impact the corporate world with dignity and a heart for people. His mentorship has been full of advice over the years, out of the blue phone calls with wisdom and ideas, and somehow every book I write, he has been integral. Forest was one of the first people that imprinted on my brain that the human case for diversity and inclusion should be the driver for businesses more than the business case.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company stands out based on our mission to do good in meaningful ways. I salute every company that takes seriously the need to leave people and places in better conditions than they first encountered them, and that is what we attempt to do. We have Ghanaian employees (where my dad was born and raised), and I also have dual citizenship. In 2020 we decided to give a part of every contract toward educational initiatives on Africa’s continent, and we started with the school in my dad’s home village.

I took a group of speakers to Ghana in January 2020, and I was excited to make an impact, and then COVID happened. I was unsure I would be in business and wondered if I could donate the way we planned, but fortunately, we had one of our best business years. We sent funds to build 80 dual desks and we gave a New Years’ bonus to every teacher and staff member working at the school. That is a major highlight for us because having a positive social impact is a driver for us. We look forward to doing so much more with that school and many other educational initiatives on the continent.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

I have a few pretty cool projects in the works. With my new book, The Inclusive Mindset, we donate a portion of every sale to organizations that embody the Inclusive Mindset. The first two organizations that we are spotlighting and contributing to are Asian Americans Advancing Justice and The Challenged Athletes Foundation. Over time the organizations may change, but the giving will never stop.

Second, we are raising funds to build a school building at the same school we are currently supporting. I am excited about this project because while each of the items we are providing financial support for is important, having a safe and secure building is a huge benefit to students’ focus and learning. Both of these initiatives will help produce better and more resilient learners that will impact their spheres of influence!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As shared above, everything that we do has a component to help others, and our current focus is educational initiatives on the continent of Africa, starting in Ghana. We also are in talks to create a scholarship at the University of Ghana to provide needed funds for students who may not be able to cover the costs. I am super excited about this work and cannot wait to get back in January 2021 to meet with more people and figure out more ways to impact.

Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. This may be obvious to you, but it is not intuitive to many people. Can you articulate to our readers five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.).

First, I think it is essential to identify the bottom line. I believe in the triple bottom line theory, which stems from my days as a potential academic focused on researching social entrepreneurship. The triple bottom line focuses on three p’s: profit, people, and the planet (in no specific order). My answers will focus on two of the bottom lines of people and profit.

  1. Overall Performance: Increased diversity and inclusion help the company in many areas. In a 2018 McKinsey article, it states, “While not causal, we observe a real relationship between diversity and performance that has persisted over time and across geographies. There are clear and compelling hypotheses for why this relationship persists, including improved access to talent, enhanced decision making and depth of consumer insight, and strengthened employee engagement and license to operate.” When you have better talent, better decisions, and better engagement, it leads to better profits and ultimately better people.
  2. Competitive Advantage: Early last year, I was invited to speak for a large insurance companies leaders. Part of the pre-process was sitting in the senior meeting to discuss new findings and brainstorm on how to approach the conference. One of the things that stood out to me in their discussion was their consistent sharing that many of their potential partner clients asked about their diversity and inclusion efforts AND results. The sentiment from this meeting was that how they continue to drive forward those initiatives were impacting and will impact their business.
  3. Employee Engagement: One question I often ask leaders to ask their team members is, “do you feel you can bring your best and full self to work, and if not, how can I help you do this?” This is a powerful question, and it relates to making employees feel that their work is valued. Some months ago, I had a conversation with a colleague who was an executive at a large hospital system. She shared how she constantly felt belittled, not given equal time to express her ideas in meetings, and not as supported as she could be. This treatment caused her to do her work well but disengage from doing the extra things. Unfortunately, this is true for so many as they look at work as a simple paycheck and yearn for the places where they can be their whole selves. People who feel like they are supported can lead to greater creativity.
  4. Innovation: When there is more diversity, and it is utilized well, it has the potential for more creative ideas and solutions. In a 2013 study shared by Hewlett in Harvard Business Review, they discovered that leaders who chose to give an equal amount of airtime to a myriad of voices were nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights and innovation. Employees in a “speak up” organizational culture are 3.5 times as likely to maximize their full innovation potential.
  5. Humans: This last one is the most important because I advocate that we move away from the Business case for Diversity and Inclusion and allow The Humanity case to be where we start the conversation. When the business case is the primary driver, people are seen as commodities, and underrepresented or marginalized people don’t want to be included just because it can help organizations make better decisions, have more of a competitive advantage, and ultimately increase profitability. They would instead want to be included because they are qualified. After all, it is the right and decent thing to do. The humanity case focuses on recruiting, retaining, leveraging, and amplifying marginalized and underrepresented groups not because it is more profitable but because organizational leaders value these groups and how they make their organizations better beyond dollars and cents. Employees don’t feel valued and respected if they feel organizations have to justify hiring them and leveraging their talents with financial projections.

There is a gym in Barcelona, Spain, that, when going bankrupt in 2012, had some of its employees take over ownership to serve community needs better. They are a different type of gym. They have around 500 paid members and 900 or so members who do not pay because they cannot afford to. The pool is closed on Fridays for Muslim women, and they have a particular changing room and swim class for trans people. They didn’t make these changes because it would necessarily make them more profitable. They made them because they felt it was the human thing to do. I and many other businesses can learn a lot from this business. I was so inspired by this story that we decided to make all sizes of our shirts the same price through our “Diversity is dope” clothing line. We lose profit on the bigger sizes as we are charged more, but we felt it was the right thing to do.

Diversity and inclusion by themselves do not magically bring about increased profitability. One saying I have, “just having diversity does not lead to higher profits; it’s all about what you do with it!” It is essential to impact more than just profits.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive?

Move from an open-door policy to an out-the-door policy. Many business leaders genuinely share with their teams that if they have any concerns or need anything, they can come to them (even virtually), and I believe this approach isn’t the best one. We need more leaders who will go to their teams and ask how they can better serve them, ask what the company can do better around diversity and inclusion, and sometimes just ask people how they are doing (mainly when a national tragedy or injustice occurs). I use a formula called 1mw/c, which stands for 1 meaningful connection per week. Leaders more than ever need more meaningful connections and empathy, which doesn’t mean that they have all the answers or an answer at all, but simply that they are present and there for those they lead.

What advice would you give to other business leaders about how to manage a large team?

Managing large teams can be extremely hard, and it is crucial to empower people to help you lead. I remember the advice I received from my manager when leading a team of 50 for a Fortune 50 company. He told me I would not be able to oversee all 50 effectively but instead would need to empower and lead through 4–5 of my team leads. I had to change how I thought of leading and instead focused on leading the 4–5 to effectively lead their respective teams. This moment is where I discovered the value of modeling the behaviors I wanted my team leads to exhibit to the larger group. I still was not the “perfect leader,” but I was a better one.

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

I would love to have breakfast with Carol Dweck, the fantastic mind and author behind Mindset. Her approach to life and business focused on the growth mindset was foundational for me in seeing Diversity and Inclusion as something that can be approached with a “yet.” I may not know something yet, but I am excited to learn and grow. Not knowing isn’t a knock on my intelligence. She is AMAZING and I have not met her “yet!”

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The best way to follow my work is through my website, as I update videos and insights regularly. I would also love to connect with people on LinkedIn as I believe in a two-way street of learning from each other. They can connect with me there using Justin Jones-Fosu. They can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram using the handle: @iworkmeaningful

Thank you for these excellent insights. We wish you continued success in your great work.

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