When she was a child, no one would have predicted that Nikki Johnson-Huston would one day be a successful attorney and business owner. Growing up in poverty in Detroit and San Diego, with a chaotic family situation due to her mother’s alcohol and drug dependency, she was frequently homeless and didn’t know where her next meal would come from. A good student, she ultimately won a scholarship to St. Joe’s University, expecting to set the world the world on fire. Instead the culture shock was too much and she failed out.
Long story short, she took a job as a live in nanny during the day and went to school at night—earning her undergraduate degree with the encouragement of mentors. She then went on to law school.
Corporate Leaders Can Play Pivotal Role
Powered by her experiences, Johnson-Huston has become a vocal and acclaimed advocate for ways to break the cycles of generational poverty and homelessness. As an Eisenhower Fellow, she traveled to India and New Zealand studying how policies and personal leadership can end generational poverty.
She emphatically believes that corporate leaders can play a pivotal role in both areas. She says, “As a tax lawyer, I see the business value of investing in people. This is not about charity but about investing in the people resources that will keep our country competitive.” She adds, “How much would it have cost this country for me to be homeless and stay in poverty vs. my being a productive, tax paying homeowner”?
Specifically, What Can Leaders Do?
As Johnson-Huston outlined the business case for corporate leaders’ involvement, I thought GPSEG members would be interested in her three specific steps for the most impact:
First, within our organizations—reach out to people who are different from you, even people with whom you are not comfortable, and ones who may not look like the “right fit.” Mentor them, foster leadership skills, forge relationships, and give second chances. What’s important is that influential people be willing to pass on their skills and experiences with skills and experience to those people who normally would not have this exposure. Johnson-Huston said she would not have succeeded without mentors building two-way trusting relationships, giving her time, giving both opportunities to succeed and fail…in other words, investing in her future.
Second, outside focus on important issues--for-profit organizations must get involved in the important issues of our time. Working in a for-profit organization provides skills and talents that when applied to the outside world, can solve important issues.
She recommends that organizations just step up--not argue about whether government does or doesn’t do enough or whether safety nets are adequate. As an example, Goldman Sachs brings high school students into their offices for the opportunity to learn business skills-- and to build an employee pipeline to remain competitive in the workplace.
Johnson-Huston believes that organizations must contribute more to having our workforce be more competitive. She says India is doing a better job of skills training for poor people in their slums, providing training in speaking, writing, and customer services. She compares Philadelphia, the poorest of the 10 major cities, with a 50% school dropout rate.
Without significant initiatives, how are local companies going to draw a skilled workforce, get customers to buy their products and have citizens paying taxes to maintain infrastructure?
Third, a more varied Leadership Model—Johnson-Huston believes the variety of her life experiences have added to her abilities as a leader—dealing with people on the street as well as board members gives her a wider grasp of challenging issues. She looks for different voices with different perspectives to solve problems. She urges CEOs to widen their interpersonal skills by aggressively dealing with societal issues that impact us as a country.
As the world shrinks, global competition increases, and companies change, she urges corporate leaders to look at the skills needed in the future and to respect all people’s abilities to become the right resources. Nothing short of a more encompassing, proactive emphasis on education will enable us to thrive in the next century.
In Leadership Insights, Suzanne F. Kaplan, President of Talent Balance and GPSEG colleague, interviews and writes about outstanding leaders to share their stories and experiences. Although we've all probably read some of the thousands of publications on leadership, it's the personal insights that Suzanne will be capturing for our benefit.
We welcome your comments and suggestions of other CEOs and leaders, including those not well known to GPSEG, whom you would like to see featured in future columns.