Ask your team. Challenge your team. Model for your team. You just might be very surprised what they are doing outside your office walls that you can leverage.
Aspart of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Michael Simpson, Chairman and CEO, PAIRIN.
Michael is a son of educators, and corporate intrapreneur turned 3x entrepreneur. His passion for helping people reach their potential was fueled by his own rise from poverty to international recognition as a market strategist. Michael co-founded PAIRIN after over a decade as a certified coach and spent seven years living in Russia coaching many at-risk young adults to successful careers. As the CEO of PAIRIN, he works to bridge the opportunity gap for future generations by personalizing career exploration, job matching and professional development.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
From a young age, I grew up in a multi-racial family that struggled with a lot of abuse, multiple divorces, daily financial strain and bankruptcies. I had to drop out of community college to work four jobs to support myself and help out my family.
Because of my non-traditional path, I faced many challenges and lessons that have helped me grow and relate to those who are disadvantaged and facing similar hardships. Thanks to the support from mentors and role models that I met along the way, and a passion for developing my own skills, I was able to build a life for myself, rather than it being defined for me. I now have the opportunity to help others find success in the career path best suited to them. I started PAIRIN so others wouldn’t have to go through the decade of trial and error and career uncertainty I experienced in my twenties.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
From fiction, “Wind, Sand and Stars” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry inspired my lifelong quest to help people realize their potential. At the conclusion of the book, he ponders the future of a little boy on a train that was born into poverty and says, “This is a musician’s face. This is the child Mozart. This is a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends are not different from this. Protected, sheltered, cultivated, what could not this child become?
When by mutation a new rose is born in a garden, all the gardeners rejoice. They isolate the rose, tend it, foster it. But there is no gardener for men. This little Mozart will be shaped like the rest by the common stamping machine. This little Mozart will love shoddy music in the stench of night dives. This little Mozart is condemned.” Shortly thereafter, I left Russia after seven years of coaching young adults to be successful in business and returned to the U.S. I soon started PAIRIN to help the gardeners make Mozarts.
Professionally, I love anything by Brené Brown, especially “Daring to Lead”, where I found the best definition for what I believe is a leader: “A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and has the courage to develop that potential.”
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Humility affects everything about learning, relationships, leadership — whatever is meaningful in this short time we have on this planet. You can be successful in the world’s eyes without it, but what’s the point if you end your days without truly knowing yourself or being known?
I found that quote after I had been shocked into humility more than once like a cold bucket of water on my head. I believe change is a choice, about as much as I believe our circumstances are often a choice. If you choose the wrong friends, your circumstances will never change. If others define your values, you’ll live their life and not create your own future. If you don’t choose growth over comfort, life will have you in a continual state of discomfort. Children often have no choices, but as an adult, outside of discrimination, you must first realize you are likely part of many of the problems you face. Then, you must learn to think for yourself and choose to act without care for the opinions of those you would not go to for advice when in serious need.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is defined as someone who helps others reach their potential. At PAIRIN, I take my leadership role very seriously. I work hard to make sure my employees feel heard and that their opinions are taken into consideration with every decision the executive team makes. Being a leader, or just anybody, that models that kind of behavior is even one of our company’s core values — valuing the whole person. Our team lives by this every day, as we strive to appreciate the diverse range of perspectives, skills, interests and lifestyles that each person brings to this team, and also the pressures and burdens they carry from time to time. Another part of this value is accepting people where they are, but caring about them too much to let them stay there. This is core to all leadership. When you help someone become a better version of themselves, in a lasting way, you’ve given a gift that rewards not just one person, but every person they interact with. It also creates loyalty in people that cannot be gained by any other means.
To keep our team connected, we use SBIR (Situation, Behavior, Impact and Result) feedback for discussing both positive interactions and growth opportunities. This honest, candid feedback keeps our full team connected, even through difficulties, and provides a framework for consistently improving our skills and relationships to be the best we can be.
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?
The high stakes meetings aren’t difficult for me, I’m more concerned about how I come across in individual meetings. To be honest, sometimes I’m not good at the emotional preparation for such meetings in stressful times that allows me to be fully present. One thing I’ve learned is to separate coaching meetings, where I am helping someone with a situation or path forward, versus management meetings where we are discussing tasks, results and responsibilities. If I don’t separate those meetings, it is difficult for me to flip the switch to get into “coach mode”. When I am coaching, I listen more, completely let go of my agenda and act solely as a supporter and invited challenger. Managing is very different. It has to be a conscious decision. I color code the meeting type in my calendar so I can take a moment and prepare my mind, shut my mouth and open my ears. I often say a little prayer before those meetings that I may express that person’s value in a genuine way that they can receive deeply, model the behaviors that they need from me in the moment — not what I think — and they will feel completely heard and helped.
The most important key to relieving my stress is being real and honest with everyone. It’s not helpful to share everything at all times, but if something is happening in my life that is having a noticeable impact on my attitude and behavior, I choose to share and be as vulnerable as I can, as early as possible. For example, my mother passed away a couple of months ago. I wrote down in a (too long) company-wide Slack post how I was feeling, the effect it had on me, how I thought it might impact my work and asked for advance forgiveness and grace from my team. It’s not what CEOs normally do. I know that, but it is what family does. At that moment, I needed family. I hope that example will give my team the freedom to do the same. Sometimes the best gift you can give another person is trusting them with your vulnerabilities and allowing them to help, or just empathize.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
2020 was the perfect storm, with many of the greatest stressful events in the past 100 years all crammed into a few months period. This year, we’ve had (and are having) a global pandemic, massive unemployment, recession, impeachment proceedings of a president, and social unrest all happening at the same time. These are all issues that strike at the core of a person’s security, safety, identity and hope — or the lack thereof. That makes a person emotionally raw. The first-ever globally shared experience in the age of technological communication happened in March when the global pandemic struck the U.S. We had the opportunity, for the only time in history, to feel with each other. It brought us together for a short while, but it seems some work needed to be done to carry us forward as a people. I do hope we will be able to one day look back at this pandemic and realize we can all connect on a common level. I’d hate it if we all missed that opportunity.
Seeking connection and what is shared on a human level is critical to our future. As a society, we’ve gotten very good at judging people we don’t know and creating a culture where we are not forced to truly know anyone. If most people’s response to being generalized and unfairly judged is doing the same to others, how do you break the cycle? The only antidote to that sickness that I’ve ever found, which became a deep-seated belief after living seven years abroad, is relationships. There is a great book called “The Vanishing Neighbor” that addresses some steps along the path to where we stand today. Before all of our needs for goods and services could be met with a tap on a phone or click on a computer, we were forced to interact with other human beings — even people of different perspectives, beliefs, religions and, yes, even different political viewpoints.
And, we were not only forced to interact with these people once, but we were quite certain that we would be in need of that person in the future. Therefore, we either had to segregate our homes and the businesses we engaged with, which people did even after that was outlawed, or we had to integrate our minds. Those legal and social changes moved us forward, even though they never attained the desired end goal. I fear at this moment that we may be taking a step backwards unless we can see some great examples of hope somewhere. I have friends of numerous races that have each expressed to me that they sense a new coldness with strangers of different ethnicity on the street that is seemingly more pronounced and prevalent than any other period of their lifetime. That is not the kind of change the majority of us desires.
Change management is something we work on every day with our clients. Change takes time and comes in stages of awareness, acceptance and action, then it repeats with the next awareness shortly after you had any small victory of growth. It also requires grace in equal measure to truth. One without the other is abuse of some sort. I don’t have all the answers, maybe none, but what I do know is that I’ve never seen a single child, animal or adult ever shamed into any kind of good behavior that lasts. Sadly, I fear we are seeing a lot of temporary, external behavioral change driven by fear, not good examples, or internal motivation from real relationships or desire. If the people with the power to help those seeking an equal consideration become afraid of the people they wish to help, don’t speak, and slink away and hide in silence for concern of not getting it 100% right the first try because it could destroy them, resentment will build where bridges should have been erected.
If there’s ever been a time to be a good neighbor, it’s now. Figuring that out collectively begins with figuring that out individually. It’s worth the effort for all of us.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I created PAIRIN with the mission to unify the workforce and education to make everyone’s journey more relevant and equitable. Part of enabling equity in the workforce industry is doing what we can to ensure that every person is considered for their abilities, rather than their histories.
One story in particular that comes to mind is working with a customer, Swisslog, to help them become more diverse and stop firing 8% of their workforce every year for behavioral issues. They partnered with PAIRIN to implement skills-based hiring and employee development. By focusing on hiring candidates based on essential skills that matched the job requirements, the company matched the demographics of the areas where they were hiring, often exceeding the minority percentages. They also didn’t fire a single person for four years for behavioral issues, saving them over $5M.
Another example is our partnership with the Community College of Aurora and several workforce development organizations in Colorado. Together, we developed a platform for the college’s getIT program that matches participants’ skills to entry-level tech careers, identifies their areas of skills development and maps possible career paths after their initial position in tech. Our PAIRIN Pro coaching platform is used by all the organizations to identify strengths and areas of needed skill development. The program supports individuals who need support to kick start their career. Equity in the workforce starts with making changes in our education system, giving students more opportunities to find a career that fits their skill set, despite following a nontraditional path to education.
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?
If the cult of personality (the CEO) has been the key to recruiting, which is often the case, there will be very little diversity of thought in executive leadership, which rolls downhill. Diversity of thought comes in many packages, and color, gender or background is not a guarantee. But your odds of seeing the whole picture, developing the kind of creativity that can transform not just your vision, but improve every daily choice, are a lot better if that is increased. If you want to attract great minds that bring with them a variety of perspectives to maximize your opportunities, you better have some variety in your leadership. And if you wish to appeal to multifaceted audiences with your products and services, well, ‘nuff said.
Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society.” Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Avoid lazy hiring and throw away the filters. To create an inclusive, representative and equitable society, we must begin with a shift in hiring practices among organizations, removing employment barriers that keep qualified candidates from a career that is right for them. Too often, companies practice lazy hiring, which is when they create irrelevant filters to sort through the many applicants for the position and find one that fits the “mold” on paper. Typically, this means someone with a traditional, four-year degree from an esteemed university and an extensive career background. That person is not necessarily the best person for the job.
- Hire based on people’s abilities, not their histories. In particular, it is the essential (or “soft”) skills that will make the biggest impact on an organization’s hiring success, rather than technical skills that can easily be taught. By committing to hiring based on a person’s individual fit in a company, rather than by their current knowledge of hard skills, both the organization and the employee will find a higher success rate in the job role and hiring process. In doing so, an organization will find the best people to fit specific roles within an organization, and more individuals will have the opportunity to excel in a career, even without a traditional, business-focused background.
- Work at work-based learning — it’s worth it. If you create ways to get to know people from non-traditional backgrounds and guide their careers, you’ll find amazingly loyal people and create greater awareness and openness in your staff. PAIRIN is guiding the creation of a brand new city-wide work-based learning program from high school through adults that allows any workforce program to engage.
- Support your local workforce programs. Get engaged. Help guide and mentor the people in these programs. You just might find some great candidates for your business, and your team will feel great about their company and your values. We volunteer several times a year helping with interview prep for programs in Denver. It’s life-changing for our team and incredibly motivating.
- Ask your team. Challenge your team. Model for your team. You just might be very surprised what they are doing outside the office walls that you can leverage.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am optimistic about the future of work and of our workforce system. This pandemic has given companies an opportunity to reevaluate their hiring practices, particularly as it relates to remote work. As jobs continue to evolve in the age of digital transformation and working remotely is more easily accessible, new skills and job roles will be needed to support these changes. These roles will provide an opportunity for organizations to increase their diversity and inclusion initiatives and implement procedures to hire employees based on their abilities, rather than their histories.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
The only person that comes to mind at this moment is my mother. Unfortunately, she passed away just a couple of months ago. One last breakfast would be nice. She liked pancakes.
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