Today we spoke with entrepreneur and writer JeVon McCormick about self-leadership, overcoming bias and prejudice and building a better society.
McCormick came from a troubled background – his dad was a pimp and his mother a sex worker, and he grew up a mixed-race kid who felt he didn’t fit in. His only role models were drug dealers, rappers, and athletes, and as McCormick notes “I sucked at all three”.
However, he does not regret his upbringing because it taught him to face adversity head-on and make the decisions necessary to avoid prison. He moved from scrubbing toilets to becoming president of a software company and finally a publisher, without having a college degree, by deciding that he had to be the best at everything he attempted.
Determination was key. “No just meant ‘not right now,’” he explains.
One thing he’s sure of is that paying lip service to diversity, equity, and inclusion won’t do. What matters is what happens when companies let diverse hires in the door. McCormick found that by dropping his typically black first name in favour of his initials, J.T., his opportunities took off. He also notes that, of the very few black Fortune 500 CEOs, all of them had non-ethnic names. He eventually decided to revert to Jevon, in an effort to change the way black candidates are perceived.
As a Christian, acceptance and “loving thy neighbor” is core to his belief system, as well as how he views leadership. In his company, diversity meetings are held on a weekly basis so that all employees have a chance to listen to different voices and understand what their key issues are. The intention of these meetings is to “listen, learn and seek to understand.”
He’s also sure that the fashionable new trends featured in Harvard Business Review and Forbes aren’t the real secret to great leadership. McCormick sees it as much simpler than that.
McCormick views his role as leader is to support the staff who execute strategy on a daily basis. He believes in demonstrating what’s possible through leading by example. He combines showing with telling – giving employees both the good example and the narrative that explains why it works.
He believes that although education is key, there’s a stage which must be in place before you can function at school. You need the tools and resources in order to be ready to learn and capable of hearing the message.
While he was a software CEO, McCormick worked with kids being transitioned back into society from juvenile detention. He would show them around the company, so that they could see for themselves what might be possible. One of the kids from that program now earns $150K a year, having strived hard to succeed, following his example.
McCormick has initiated a program providing backpacks containing all the necessary school supplies to elementary schools which have a high proportion of children from underprivileged backgrounds. The idea is to give these kids a head-start by at least providing them with the basic tools they need to succeed.
When McCormick published his memoir, it proved very popular at schools; students found it inspiring. This success kickstarted his collaborative publishing company, Scribe Media, and he still publishes books for free for writers who can’t contribute towards the cost of publication. Scribe will only turn writers away when they don’t have sufficient content for a book.
Scribe Media is 69% female-run, which McCormick says is an intentional choice. He holds female colleagues in high esteem; his four highest-paid employees and 2/3 of the executive team are all female. In an effort to be even more inclusive, they are building gender-neutral private restrooms, rather than segregating male and female facilities.
McCormick says he’s banished these three words from his vocabulary. None of these passive feelings or phenomena cause things to happen. “Believe” is better, because it requires the believer to execute an active plan to address a belief that something can be achieved.
Despite his problematic background, McCormick is against the culture of victimhood that can develop when you think the world is against you. On the other hand, he does believe that language is vitally important, and that words can cause real hurt, so it is important to keep talking about inclusivity and how to achieve it, including employing non-biased language.
Shame and negative feelings can be banished by being shared with the right people. Maintaining a positive mindset requires developing the ability to monitor one’s own mental state, catching those spirals of negativity before they take over. Keeping others positive is another vital skill of a good leader, especially when things aren’t going well.
Maintaining a spiritual belief, where it promotes acceptance, can be a positive thing at work. People should not feel afraid to talk about their beliefs or ask questions about others’ beliefs, so long as they observe the credo of “listen, learn and seek to understand”.
“Society may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility,” McCormick concludes. We have a collective responsibility (not obligation) to model the kind of change we want to make, and it will require consistency and hard work. This can be challenging in a culture of immediate gratification and instant satisfaction, but it is the only way to make meaningful change.