Diverse executive teams enhance the depth of conversation, widen perspectives, and increase creativity. A diverse executive team goes a long way toward making sure all employees feel safe and emboldens them to dream more expansively about their trajectory within the organization. Diversity isn’t just about representation, it’s about agency and impact.
As a part of my series about “Black Men and Women of The C-Suite”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michele Hall, the President & CEO of enCourage Kids Foundation, a leading US non-profit focused on humanizing healthcare for children and their families by resourcing impact-driven pediatric programs and supporting the Child Life Community. Her passion and warm personality, combined with her leadership expertise, has made her a sought-after speaker and board member. For more than two decades she has cultivated relationships with Child Life Staff and all levels of hospital administration, and developed an integral understanding of their needs which has served to help position enCourage Kids to be on the forefront of state-of-the-art programming in pediatric healthcare. To see the incredible work of enCourage Kids visit their website at encourage-kids.org.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was a kid growing up in Flint, Michigan, I wanted to be a lawyer. I had my heart set on attending New York University and then moving on to a top law school. My family, however, wasn’t supportive of the idea. I was living with my aunt at the time, and NYU was simply financially out of my reach. As a freshman at Michigan State University, I initially majored in political science and then changed my major to advertising when studying Hobbes and Locke became unbearable. I did finally make it to New York, after falling in love with a boy from Jersey City and moving to the east coast after we were married. My first jobs at a direct marketing agency and a public relations firm were exciting, however I wasn’t passionate about the work. My son was a little over a year old when I decided to start volunteering at a children’s charity. I loved being a volunteer and feeling like such an integral part of fulfilling the mission of helping sick kids. I was volunteering for the foundation for about four years when the division of the company I was working for was sold to a competitor. My choices were to move to the company’s headquarters in Dallas or take the severance package and move on. I didn’t want to uproot my husband and young son, and I really loved the energy of New York City, so I decided to stay. During that downtime I began to volunteer at the enCourage Kids Foundation’s office more frequently, while I plotted my next career move. When one of the full time staff went on maternity leave, I was asked to step in for her temporarily; that was 23 years ago. That is called serendipity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Very early on in my career, I went to visit a little boy who had AIDS. He was six years old, and he lived in Brooklyn. I had never been to Brooklyn and when I exited the train station, I was a little taken aback by the condition of the neighborhood. Once I’d located the building where this kid lived, I walked up to the second floor and the mom let me in to the apartment. They lived in an old building, that I am sure has either been torn down or gentrified by now. The kitchen ceiling had a leak in it and a bucket was in the middle of the floor catching the water. I sat down on the couch and started talking to the mom and trying to make her feel comfortable with this stranger in her home. The little boy was adorable even with the scars from recent lesions on his face. I’d brought him a little gift from the office as an ice breaker. He walked over to me and stood beside me while I talked, then kinda leaned on me and without thinking I just picked him up and sat him in my lap while I kept chatting with mom. He wanted to take a trip to Disney World and we were going to try and make that happen for him. When it was time for me to leave, I hugged the mom and then hugged the little boy tightly swinging him back and forth in my arms playfully. The mother followed me downstairs and I noticed she was a little teary eyed. I was used to this, exhausted parents of sick kids are always grateful when you do nice things for them, but this time was different. “I can’t believe that you picked him up and let him sit in your lap. Most people are afraid to touch him,” she said. I was speechless. I wasn’t naive nor easily shaken, but the thought that anyone would shun a little kid because he had an illness enraged me. I haven’t thought about that sweet child in a long time, probably because I wanna believe that he is alive and well. But I knew in that moment that I had made the right choice to follow the unplanned path to the work that I do today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t remember making any mistakes. They thought I was a rock star and wouldn’t let me leave.
Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?
Diverse executive teams enhance the depth of conversation, widen perspectives, and increase creativity.
A diverse executive team goes a long way toward making sure all employees feel safe and emboldens them to dream more expansively about their trajectory within the organization. Diversity isn’t just about representation, it’s about agency and impact.
It can be very difficult to speak up when you know that there are parts of your lived experience that no one in your organization’s executive leadership can identify with (regardless of how well meaning they are). It is easier for employees to leverage their unique identities in service of their organization when they can be reasonably assured that someone in leadership can fill in the gaps if anything gets lost in translation.
More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?
We are living in an exciting time. Every day we are learning more about the experiences of women, ethnic minorities, poor people, the LGBTQ community, and folks living with disabilities — because we are asking. None of the issues that have bubbled to the surface of our collective attention are secrets in the communities they impact. They are truths that people have endured in silence, because challenging a culture before it’s ready to change is often incredibly isolating, and sometimes even dangerous. It can be easy to interpret the cacophony of tense, but important conversations our society has been having around diversity, as a marker of chaos and unrest. A more charitable interpretation is that all of the buzz around IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and access) encourages us to trust each other with the most precious thing we have — our truth. This can be a wonderful, beautiful thing if members of these groups are given the agency to influence their institutions, and ultimately the greater culture for the better.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?
First, recognize the challenge. There are still organizations that do not see a lack of diversity as an issue. Second, communicate around the challenge often and in a constructive manner. Do you have an outreach problem? Or a pipeline issue? Perhaps a culture crisis? The change has to start from within and positive, candid, and constructive conversation must lead the way. Third, develop an action plan to determine how the change can be executed. Executing your plan is the most difficult part and where many entities get stuck. Success and progress require reaching out and having potentially uncomfortable conversations to achieve your ultimate goal.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Over the course of my career, leadership has had an ever changing definition for me. Leaders are charged with having a vision, convincing others their vision is actionable and inspiring others to follow them. A good leader is able to hold fast to their vision while simultaneously considering the needs of everyone in the organization.
One of the most exciting elements of my time as a leader has been getting to know and mentor the oft maligned millennials that have come to work or volunteer at my organization. I often find myself fraternizing with contemporaries who bemoan their younger employees as though they were scaled, winged goblins who only knew how to text on the job and ask for title changes. I won’t say learning to work with millennials has been without frustration, but I will say that in order to do it well, you’ve got to lead with empathy. Most importantly, you have to look with a dose of humility at the vast chasm between what early adulthood was like for my generation and what it was like for theirs.
Millennials have a very deep and justifiable fear of averageness. It is perhaps a fear my generation struggles to identify with because we grew up so differently. I grew up in a then thriving midwestern town and attended a public school system that offered working class kids a world class education. I attended a state university for a reasonable price, and was able to purchase a home for a reasonable price. I’m the CEO of a national organization with a B.A.
Very few of the millennials I employ can say that. Many of them saw their parents abused by the marketplace during the recession. Their families endured exorbitant taxes or tuition to make them viable candidates for expensive degrees. As soon as they graduate they are thrust into a never-ending social capital competitions that dwarf anything my generation can comprehend. You’ve got to package your life as exceptional on Instagram or the app literally doesn’t bother to show your posts to your friends. Want a date? You’ve got to package yourself as exceptional to possibly be chosen from an unlimited list of menu items on Tinder.
Combine all of these factors together and you get a generation that has been marinating in the narrative that the greatest sin in life is to be average. Average people are not entitled to outlive their student debt, or buy a home, find love or cultivate a healthy self image.
In the context of all of the deeply stressful psychological assaults this generation experiences, I have to retool the conversation I have about why I can’t wave a magic wand and give them a manager or director’s position after fourteen months on the job. I have to consider the very real social and economic pressures on my young employees, to see a tangible return on all of the ways our society has forced them to overextend themselves. I’ve learned that when I sit with them in their perspectives I am almost always able to help create a trajectory that is healthy and realistic for both the employee and organization — but it has taken a lot of listening, suspension of judgment, and humility.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Know your worth. My son (one of those scary millennials) recently told me about a friend who negotiated a higher salary with his first employer because he knew that where his salary started would be crucial to future personal revenue. I was impressed by that. That young man knew his worth and asked to be compensated appropriately.
Value your time. I have had a tendency to allow my time to be co-opted by others and when you truly think of time as currency, you just don’t allow that to happen.
Take chances. I wish I’d had the confidence to assert myself more in the early years of my career. I knew that I had the capacity to do more and I should have voiced that.
Ask your job to invest in you. Conferences, workshops, networking events. Your employer’s greatest hope is year over year improvement in your performance. Make them a collaborator in that development and you’ll be surprised how invested they are.
Manage impostor syndrome. Michelle Obama addresses this subject in her book Becoming. Life rarely gives us perfect days On the days where everything you do goes right — own it.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
People can be so rude. I would love to inspire a movement of politeness. It’s free, and it’s simple. Resurrect the words please and thank you. Hold the elevator door for someone. Escalate random acts of kindness. I was at a Starbucks drive-thru recently and when I got to the window, the barista told me that the person ahead of me had paid for my order. She asked if I wanted to do the same for the person behind me. After glancing discreetly in my rear view mirror to make sure that I wasn’t buying coffee for seven people, I agreed. I now randomly pay for people’s coffee when I can. It’s the best feeling. It could become a social media movement! We can use the hashtag #loveyourneighbor.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” My mother was the first person to tell me that. She was probably trying to get me to finish my homework. I have a tendency to run through scenarios in my head. I believe that mental preparation is vital to success. Practice what you will say in a board meeting or conference call. Keep your bio updated. Have your business cards at the ready at all times. Being prepared means that you are a chess player in life — not a checkers player. Stay ready.
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, especially if we tag them. :-)
There are a few people I would love to . However, I would probably choose Jay-Z. I know that he has always been a stealthy philanthropist, however now I feel there are more eyes on his efforts to support young people through his foundation’s scholarship program. I admire how he is using his platform to address social justice issues. He wasn’t born privileged — at all. I would be interested in his core philosophy around giving back and how he sees himself as a role model for the generation following him.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!