Nov. 30, 2021

111 Leading to strengthen communities by eliminating barriers to opportunity with Goodwill International President & CEO Steven Preston | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

111 Leading to strengthen communities by eliminating barriers to opportunity with Goodwill International President & CEO Steven Preston | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Steve Preston, President, and CEO of Goodwill Industries International. Steve Preston has extensive private sector experience and served as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary and as the US Small Business Administration administrator. Steve Preston shared what influenced him to serve in government and how he led the US Small Business Administration and Department of Housing and Urban development during times of national crisis. Steve Preston also talked about his mission of helping people access employment opportunities, leading him to become CEO of Goodwill Industries International. Steve Preston shares strategies for bridging the opportunity gap, enabling organizations to tap into new pools of employees.

Some highlights:

- Steve Preston talks about his parents' role in his deep sense of values and sensitivity to inequities in society.  

- How Steve Preston led the transformation of the Small Business Administration and Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

- Steve Preston on his personal mission and the opportunity to lead Goodwill Industries International. 

- The significant impact of giving people access to opportunities.

- Steve Preston on the role of employers in providing opportunities and building the workforce of the future.  

Also mentioned in this episode:

Gina Schaefer, the Co-Founder, and CEO of A Few Cool Hardware Stores (Listen to Gina’s episode on Partnering Leadership Podcast here)

Connect with Steve Preston:

Steven Preston on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

More information and resources are available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:


Mahan Tavakoli:

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Steven Preston. Steve is the president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International. Previously, he had served as secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban development. And as the administrator of the US Small Business Administration leading both of those federal agencies during times of national crisis. He also has extensive private business experience having led as the CEO of Oakleaf Global Holdings and Livingston International.

I really enjoyed the conversation with Steve because he has a true passion for making a difference. And now with Goodwill Industries International, making sure that we provide more access and opportunities for individuals and meet the employment gap that many organizations across the country are facing.

I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. There's a microphone icon on You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast on your favorite platform. That way you'll be sure to be notified of new releases on Tuesdays with magnificent Changemakers from the greater Washington DC DMV region. And on Thursdays with brilliant global thought leaders, primarily leadership book authors. 

Now, here is my conversation with Steve Preston


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Steve Preston. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you in his conversation with me.

Steven Preston: 

Thank you. I'm thrilled to be here. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Steve, you have had a magnificent background in business than in public service and now leading Goodwill. But before we get to that, I would love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person and leader you've become?

Steven Preston: 

I grew up in a working class town in Wisconsin. I had great parents. They came from very difficult circumstances though. And they work incredibly hard for us. We had five children, they worked very hard so that we could have a better life than they had. They always wanted what was best for us, and it was their expectation that they would do whatever they could to give us that good life.

My father grew up in a coal mining camp in Appalachia. He was the ninth of 11 kids. He lived in a little, kind of like a four room shack with a coal stove in the middle, no plumbing, no electricity, no heat. They were very poor, I describe it at times as no shoes poor. And he quit school in ninth grade and he went to work in the foundries and Dayton as a teenager.

My mother grew up in Germany in World War II. She was born in 1930, she was a little girl when the Nazis came to power. She grew up with air raids and running to bomb shelters very hungry after the war. She saw many terrible things. That was sort of our context growing up.

We knew that they had had very difficult lives. And even though our world was pretty tight financially, we always knew we had more than they had and that they were doing everything they could for us. You know they were also very hard workers. And I said, they're completely committed to the kids. They never complained about anything.

And as a result, I think I seldom look to people of power or success or wealth as being my models in life, unless they represent something more. Because I do think that those things are kind of counterfeit gods. And I look much more as a result to people who've overcome and who found a wholeness in their lives through purpose and meaning.

The other thing I would say about growing up the way I did specifically with my parents is in a time of increasing awareness about inequities in our society. I, so many times, have been reminded of the lessons of my parents. I grew up in Wisconsin in a sort of Midwestern, all white working class town.

And we moved to Florida when I was seven or eight years old into a racially mixed, extremely segregated area with many people who are vocal racists. And we had just never encountered anything like that before. And so as an eight year old, I saw my parents' reaction to that. They both had a bit of a temper and I can recall their anger when they confronted that. And I remember my father just being very agitated when he heard somebody saying the N word and telling us children that word is not about color. It is about hatred. And we need to understand that throughout his work and other life, he had really been in very integrated settings and he loved people just for who they were.

And that was just so deeply offensive to him. And another time I remember going to the doctor to get stitches in Florida, I had two older brothers, so getting stitches was not that unusual. We walked into the waiting room at the doctor's office. My mother went to the counter to register. And the receptionist asked my mother to go out the door and go into the other waiting room.

And we realized that we were in the waiting room for African-Americans. And we were asked to go into the waiting room for white people. And she was so angry that a group of people would be treated differently and have to wait longer because of their skin color. I could still almost hear her talking about it.

What I realized was growing up in Germany, the way she did, she'd seen friends in grade school, flee the country because she had a couple of Jewish girlfriends. And probably the most horrific story as an eight year old, she was marched out of her school one day for a special event. Well, that event was to watch the synagogue in town, be incinerated and burnt to the ground. And many years later when I started studying European history, I realized that it was Kristallnacht, which was a really enormous turning point in the oppression of Jews in Germany. And she retold that story through the eyes of an eight year old.

And so I think she had a very deeply ingrained sense of fairness and it carries through to me this day.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

What powerful experiences, Steve and powerful values that your father and your mother gave you. One of the things I talk about with respect to leadership is that leadership is example more than the words that people say. And your parents through their example showed what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, giving you those values from early on in your life, which is really inspiring to hear.

Now with those values and their belief in education. What was it that got you to study political science at Northwestern? I would imagine they would want you to study something practical.

Steven Preston: 

Who knows why we become who we are? I have to tell you this, you'll realize I was a strange kid. I can remember watching election returns when I was eight years old and how fascinated I was by the political process and the election process. And as I got into high school, I had the subscription to one of the periodicals that covered politics.

And so I was always interested in political science. So the irony was I didn't go into the political realm. I actually got an MBA and went into business. But many, many years later, it sort of all came back to that. And I was in my mid forties, by the time I actually went into my government service and it really did feel like it came full circle as a result.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You did study political science, got your MBA and had significant experience, investment banking and corporate finance. 

Now, why, besides your love for politics, did you give up business for the opportunity to serve in government?

Steven Preston: 

Well, that was a completely different decision set. I loved business. I loved the challenges. I loved the leadership process. I loved being part of a team and growing an operation. But I got to a point where I just felt this deep need to have a different kind of impact with my life.

Not that I don't think that business is a worthy calling. I think our world needs terrific business leaders and principled business leaders, and business is the largest employer. And I think it affects people's lives profoundly. But I wanted to, I felt a deep need for a more direct connection and it probably wasn't the most opportune time. I had five small children and things were going really, really well in the corporate world.

But I've noticed in life when I have a strong conviction about something everything else seems to pay off. And I hadn't been a political person. I got a call from somebody who was serving the administration who'd worked with me in business and said, “Would you ever think about doing this?”

So I had an opportunity to lead the Small Business Administration. And the Small Business Administration in addition to many of the things it does for small business makes loans to homeowners who've lost their home in a natural disaster, and don't have insurance to rebuild their homes or to repair it.

And I came in about 10 months after hurricane Katrina. And there were 160,000 people in the queue to get a loan who were not getting service because of an operational collapse effectively in the loan making process. And these were people who didn't have the means, couldn't get moved back to their communities, their communities couldn't get rebuilt to begin with.

And the interesting thing about that opportunity was I had people strongly advising me not to do it. I talked to a recruiter that I respected very highly. He said, you are perfectly perched in your career right now, do not ruin it. It was very public, there was terrible press all the time about the SBA at the time.

And I just said to myself I could stay on this track but where does that lead? Sure, I could get a bigger job. Sure, I can make more money. Sure, I could get more visibility or prestige or whatever. But I started to say if 30 or 40 years from now, I'm looking back on my life.

Even if I fail, won't I want to have been the person who said I'll serve. And so it was just one of those moments in life where you just say who am I and what am I going to do and why am I going to do it? And what do I stand for? So I sort of threw caution to the wind.

Moved my family. Took the role. I had 20 congressional hearings in first 15 months of the job, it was just an enormous operational challenge. And I had never made a better career decision in my life. I sort of felt like I was in that space because the need was so great.

And I went down to New Orleans and I met people who needed those loans and I listened to their stories and I saw those neighborhoods and you realized that when that is placed in front of you that every day you've got to be on your game. And so it was a wonderful opportunity for me just to take years of business experience, operational experience, finance, experience, leadership experience, and do everything I could to pull together a team, invest myself fully in a different path forward for those people.

And the other thing I didn't mention is the SBA at the time had the lowest employee morale of the 31 large agencies in the federal government. So I knew that the employee base was also just terribly dejected. And so with a great team and great support, we turn that loan process around very quickly.

Within six weeks rolling out a new process, we doubled production. Within a few months, we had cleared out the entire backlog. By the end of the year, we had $6 billion into people's hands and the SBA received the most improved award for best places to work in the next government survey.

So it was just one of those things where I looked back and said everybody said, I shouldn't do this, but I don't know that I've ever been more gratified to have done something that involved risk. 

And I'll never forget reading a survey once of octogenarians where the question was asked, what do you regret in life? And I remember two of the things on that list. One was, I wish I had taken more risks and the other one was, I wish I'd invested more in relationships. And my wife told me once, I think we've got the risk thing covered because I've had a couple of jumping off points, where I've made sort of atypical decisions because of what my heart was telling me. And they've always worked out well.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Now just the day you were unanimously confirmed by the US Senate. That's when CBS evening criticized the way the agency was operating. So there is a lot that was happening at SBA and it didn't stop even today that you were confirmed. But it is incredible what you were able to do as a leader of the US Small Business Administration, both in terms of the service to the businesses that needed you, but also in terms of the engagements and the satisfaction of the employees working there. How were you able to transform the US Small Business Administration from what was an extreme low point to moving it up, both in terms of service and in terms of the satisfaction of the federal workforce there?

Steven Preston: 

So I think when a lot of people come into these roles, it's very easy to step into a very elevated position because they're high visibility. People are calling you by your title all the time. People will refer to you in the third person where they're sitting next to you, which is kind of really crazy. 

And when I came into the agency, I was advised I wanted to do a video. I wanted people to see who I was. I wanted them to hear my voice and I wanted them to know that I was there to be with them. So I did a few things. Number one, my team said, “Quick, happy talk. Just give them a three minute video and just upbeat and happy.” And I said, “We got the lowest morale in the government. This ain't happy.” And so I said, I spoke to them from the heart and I said “I've read the employee surveys. I really want to be your partner in moving this forward. And I'm going to commit to you.”

My first day on the job, I had a big reception down in the main room at the SBA. And I served coffee. I was behind the coffee and I said if anybody wants coffee, they've got to come to me cause I'm going to meet everybody in this room. And then the other thing we did was when I got sworn in I reached out to the white house and I said you know, I'm not going to ask them any favors, but I would like the President to come to the SBA and clear me in. And they said, “Well, that might be a little bit too much, but why don't we send the Vice President?”

Well, that had never happened before. No, the vice-president has never been in that building before. And the buzz was incredible and we didn't have enough room for everybody. And people were getting raffles for everything else. And I talked to his people and I said, I need you. I need the vice president in his speech to talk about the importance of this agency because people are dejected and we need a different path forward. And then as we began to do the hard work of fixing the problem. It was all done with employees in the room asking them their best ideas, figuring and listening hard to where the issues were and validating those ideas.

You know, I always say 90% of the best ideas are in the building. People know, and who knows? The people who are picking up the phone, talking to your customers, the people that are processing the paperwork, they're the ones that see where everything is broken. And they're the ones that touched the people who are in difficulty.

So we opened up communication mechanisms to hear from people throughout the organization. And we actively engage them in the process of redesigning the path forward and then going forward, we update them every step of the way. I was always in front of employees saying “Here's what we've created. Here's what we heard. Here's where we're going. Here's the results and we're doing it because you've been part of the process and you've given us your best.” And it was terrific. And I just love those people. 

And the other thing I didn't do is I didn't put political appointees over everything. I pulled from the career ranks. And there are many projects where I had career employees over political employees, which made a lot of political people unhappy. But I said I want people who are really good at these issues and they know where to go and how to lead these initiatives. And we're all on the same team. And so, it introduced engagement, a different kind of ethos at the agency. We just had a lot of fun doing it.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So you led that transformation, but there is something that you seek out challenges because then you became 14th secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2008.

Steven Preston: 

I know, I know. Go figure. It's funny. I interviewed with the President for that job which is sort of a disquieting process. He was great, but we were sitting down in the oval office talking, he was interviewing me. He said “Why do you want this job? And I said, “Well, sir, people said I was crazy when I accepted the SBA job. He said, “You were.” And then I said “You know, this is why we're here. This is why we come to serve. I mean, what more could you ask than to be in a major crisis that affects hundreds of thousands or even millions of people when, like you've been blessed with certain gifts or certain training or certain experiences that are directly applicable to this situation. It doesn't get any better than that.”

 And when I came to HUD, I was not a traditional HUD secretary. I did not have a background in poverty, housing or housing policy, but the issue of the day was mortgages and defaults and people getting kicked out of their homes and the financial markets falling apart. Well, I'd been an investment banker. I was a CFO. I knew how financial markets worked. I knew the banking system And I knew operations. 

So the other thing that was happening was because the subprime loans had gone away. Everybody was coming to HUD for FHA loans. So our volume went up, 8, 9, 10 times. It doesn't get any better than to be able to use your gifts in a place that matters. And I just feel so blessed that I got to do that. 

And I also, once again, I just served with terrific people who I just tried to sponsor them. People would come in and say, “We got an idea.” I'll never forget it was either hurricane Ike or Gustaf. People in the Gulf, specifically Southern Texas, had tens of thousands had lost their homes and they were in hotels and FEMA came to us and said, “We don't know what to do with people.” And a couple of my people, both career people, came and said, “We think we can figure out how to house these people in apartments.” I was terrified. I just said how in the world are you going to do that? They laid out the scheme of that, are you sure? Can we really do this? I'm going to sponsor you. We're going to get this done. And it was successful. And it was because we opened up the opportunity for people to come forward with these great ideas.

These people were career civil servants. And for them to be able to have an idea that moved the needle that significantly in a crisis or in another situation was just thrilling for them. And I wanted to sponsor them and I hoped that I wanted them to succeed, obviously.

But when I say, you know what, we just got to go for this. We just got to do it. And that happened time and again. That happened time and again, because we opened up paths for people to come forward with their great ideas and do something with them. And I got to take the credit for it, unfortunately, but I shouldn't say it that way. There were just great people. Great people.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You have that purpose-strive, Steve, that repeatedly shows throughout your career. You seek out those challenges to make a difference. And then uncap the potential of the people that know best that are the people that want to contribute. But sometimes leadership doesn't provide them the opportunities and channel their energies to contribute.

So that's while you all did a great job there going back to the private sector, but it sounds like you have this itching for even greater purpose. You did great things in the private sector. In 2019, you ended up accepting to become president and CEO of Goodwill. Why now, after having worked in the private sector, having contributed to the governments, and a couple of different agencies, were you willing to come back and now lead a nonprofit organization?

Steven Preston: 

I mentioned earlier that I had made the decision to go into government cause I went through a period where I just felt like I wanted to have a different kind of impact. And after the government, I went to the private sector, I ran a couple of companies and I really had that strong sense again. But my sense of what I wanted to do was much more specific.

I actually went through a period of discernment, wrote a personal mission statement and that personal mission statement was to lead and grow a company whose mission it was to help difficult to employ people flourish and grow and find economic livelihood, transforming their lives and helping to improve communities.

So I crafted that state. And my idea was I was going to work with people to maybe get a group of people together and buy a company or go to a private equity firm. And our mandate would in part be to hire people with challenges and give them a place where they could flourish and they could grow professionally and get the support they needed.

I had begun to look at that possibility. And I got this call from Goodwill and I didn't even know what Goodwill did. And Goodwill is the largest provider of job support services and workforce development in the country. We all know Goodwill for the stores because that's sort of our direct experience.

But in addition to those 3,300 stores, there are 800 locations where we do different types of jobs support. And so I just felt providential when I got the phone call. I think so much of this goes back to where I came from and the experiences I've had in life. I know so many people in my family would have had very different lives if they'd had access to education. And I know for me growing up where I did, honestly, I got a postcard from Northwestern university. I didn't even know what it was. My guidance counselor didn't know what it was. I was a hundred miles from the school. I went to visit and it was like, this is really different than anything I've ever experienced.

And when I went to that school, they brought me in, they made it possible for me financially and the red sea parted in my life. I had a fundamentally different path forward because I was given access to a place that was very different from where I came from and afforded me opportunities to development and pathways that I just didn't know existed. 

And too many people in our country are outside of what I call the circle of access. Right there on the outside looking in at other people, who've had opportunity, who've had different pathways. And because of historical challenges, because of where they come from, because of whatever life has dealt them, they may be on a very different path in changing that equation. And giving people the access to the right kind of support, just reaps enormous benefits. And it not only benefits them, it benefits their family. It benefits our communities. It benefits our entire country. 

I guess this conviction I've had for the needs of adults who need a different way in life was just affirmed many times over working at HUD and working at the SBA because I had access to so many people who had difficulty and saw their circumstances and adjust. 

So when I got on Goodwill website and started looking at people and their stories, I just thought of people I knew, and I thought of people in my family, and I thought of people that I'd met when I was at the SBA or at HUD. It just felt like it was a part of me.

It's an incredible network. Goodwill has 120,000 employees. And many of those people are part of our mission where they get skills, training and support to start out in growing their careers. Over a million come to our workforce centers every year. Those are not in the stores that are dedicated centers. And those people get support, finding a job. They get training in areas like digital or manufacturing training. And then we get 20 million people online. And the stories of the people we serve are just remarkable stories of success and changing lives. And It's just thrilling to be a part of it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Goodwill does great work. And you've talked a little bit about the scope of the organization. Before going more into that and how Goodwill has also reinvented itself. I'm curious, before even Goodwill, it seems like you had a very specific target in mind in the mission statement that you had written with respect to those opportunities that you had seen both growing up. But was there anything that you saw in your life at that moment that made a big part of what you wanted your mission to be then finding out about Goodwill and seeing that Goodwill serves exactly that mission?

Steven Preston: 

When I was a single guy in New York city I spent every Saturday working with kids. And for a period of time, I was spending a lot of time in the Washington Heights neighborhood working within the Dominican community, both in Washington Heights and in the south Bronx.

And it was just a sobering bird's eye view of what children are faced and how they develop because of what they face. And during that time, I actually took a young man in to live with me who'd been kicked out of his house. He didn't have a father and didn't have anywhere to go. And I just said come and live with me.

Interestingly, I was engaged at the time. So I had a chaperone seven, 18 year old chaperone and in the process of his living with me, it just gave me a much deeper understanding of how his wiring had been formed and why and what it meant for him to negotiate life every day, as a teenager in the inner city.

Well, fast forward, many years. I was spending much of my volunteer and philanthropic energies working with adults in Chicago through various training development programs or other programs that help people in great difficulty. And I felt like I could see what his life would have been, had he not gotten the support he needed to get out. And I could see why people had made the decisions they made and why they had made the mistakes they made based on where they'd come from and the circumstances that they lived in.

And It just deeply ingrained in me the deep conviction that every person is an opportunity. Every person has a pathway that can be great, but so many people don't have access and I just felt very compelled to be part of the solution for people to get back on the right track. I think it's so important when I say that, to understand that when people go through that process, it's them doing the work ,them investing in themselves, then making the tough decisions to move forward and make the sacrifices.

But it's so critical to give people access to the tools and support they need to be able to make that investment so they can equip themselves for a different kind of future.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It really is Steve. And I wonder what it takes to do that back in the mid 1990s in the greater Washington DC region, as AOL was growing there. The Potomac conference pulled together a lot of senior leaders from the region sponsored by America online. Talking about the opportunity gap. And there are people in parts of the community that need jobs.

There are parts of the community that need employees, and they were talking about busing people from one place to another and training them and giving them those opportunities. 

However, fast forward, 20 plus years, the gaps are bigger than they were back then. So what does it take and what will it take for this to truly be giving people on ramps to the opportunities rather than a conversation that a decent my business life has been an ongoing conversation?

Steven Preston: 

There are many things I think that we need to do. One of which is to help young people acquire marketable skills when they enter the job market. I think too many people don't have them at an early age. But when you think about what we do. And we work with people of all age groups. We work a lot with people who are in their late twenties, thirties, even forties and fifties. 

It is very difficult for people to get access to the support that they need to move to a different place in life. But the irony is we have 11 unfilled jobs, a million unfilled jobs right now, and many more people who are unemployed, underemployed, and employed can't pay their bills. Everybody's projecting that gap to widen. Because the jobs that are being created require higher skills, the existing jobs, the skill requirements are going up.

We need to get people to support that they need to get the skills they need so they can compete in the job market tomorrow. And if I am a mom sitting at home with a couple of kids, I can't go to class if I don't have childcare. I may not be able to go to class if I can't get transportation. I may have other impediments in my life.

Now those sound like those are big impediments, the value to everybody, of helping that person get through those impediments and get those basic skills to be able to get a good well-paying job to support her family is enormous. It far exceeds any costs that it would take to help that person. But it's diffucult to find the services. It's difficult to get the totality of support. 

And we need employers to really play ball. We need them to think differently about the people they hire. Too many people get knocked out early in the process because they've had a difficult background or because they haven't been in the job market for a while.

And I tell employers your next great hire may be somebody you never expected. Think harder, open up your aperture a little bit more. Think about the positive. Think about what it would be like for you to bring different people into your employee base and develop a richer community with people with different experiences.

How great would that be? And I'll tell you most surveys show you know, when you talk, let's just use one population, people who've been incarcerated. Surveys show that HR professionals would say there is no difference in performance. And many companies would say performance is better because they are people who are thankful to have a job, they're committed to their employers and they hunger for a different path forward.

So it's a lot, but we have to help people bridge the gap. Be able to compete for those jobs and bridging the gap is not an online class. It is helping them move through their lives to get to that other point. And when they get to that other point, we need employers to open up the doors and say, “Yes, you are qualified. I do want you to be part of my team and I do want to be part of your future.” And that's what it takes.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

A couple of points with respect to what you said, Steve. I just had a conversation with Gina Schaefer and she co-owns and now they're employee owned ACE hardware stores. And her best employees, four dozen plus years have been returning citizens. So she has great examples of that. 

But one of the organizations that I work with, the CEO, was saying things similar to what you're saying. And I had to point out to him that the young lady that sits typically at the building's entrance reception along with a security guard has a college degree because they require college degrees for all roles, including the young lady sitting at the front desk. So meaning the conversation is there. And the CEO was very much advocating for a lot of these things, but wasn't aware that in their own organization they required standard college degrees unless there was an exception requested.

Steven Preston: 

It's crazy. We've attributed the values to a college degree that are far beyond what a college degree provides. And the other thing is we have cut out millions of people that should be eligible for jobs. Many of whom are people of color, people with lower income and people from difficult backgrounds.

And many studies have shown that people without college degrees can acquire those same skills through various career pathways. And last year, at the business round table of a very large business organization, all the largest businesses of the country, 80 some members of the RT came forward and said we are going to rewrite our job descriptions. We are going to get out there and we're going to look at this differently because we need to be able to open up opportunities to more people that are qualified. 

And I will tell you a number of years ago, I was running a company. And I needed a new head of HR and it was you know, it was a good size company and I was hiring and I was working with an executive recruiter and they were putting all these people in front of me and they said, “Look, I want you to interview one person, but you don't have to talk to her because she never finished college.”

I said well, send her over. I'll talk to her. And I hired her. She competed against all these people that had been at other companies and had fancy degrees. She didn't have a college degree and she was street smart. She had worked. She always was seeking to understand better, always seeking to improve herself. Always seeking to show up in the right way. We had a frontline employee base where people who picked up phones and entered data and had very kind of entry-level jobs and those were the people she needed to represent as an HR professional. So she had a much better comprehension of the workforce and a lot of other people would have had. And she's one of the best HR professionals I've ever worked with. And I was thankful that they didn't take her off the list because she was such a talent.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Now, Steve, as the president and CEO of Goodwill industries, what are you and what is Goodwill doing to help bridge those divides and give access to the opportunities?

Steven Preston: 

Well, that's what we're all about. That is our mission. Our mission is to help people reach their full potential through learning and the power of work. So we do it through a number of ways. We do it primarily by supporting people who come through the door and say, “I need a job, or I need a better job and I need help to get there.”

So in some cases, people are job ready and we will provide them support, writing their resume and understanding what their skills would qualify them for and giving them comprehension to the local job market and giving them interview skills and say, let's make sure you're targeting the right thing that you're ready to go and they’re strong, and that you can succeed.

In other cases, we provide much more comprehensive services. So for example, we have a program for returning citizens that is a six to 12 month program. where, we do everything from a very detailed assessment of their lives, to what they need in terms of training and personal support. Then we make sure they get it, provide them with a career coach all along the way, the training, everything they need. And then when they're ready for that job, we work with them to find the job and land the job that they aspire to get. And many times during that process, they may work in our stores to earn a living or they may work somewhere else to bridge them. But it's a very comprehensive long-term program. And then sort of all points in between.

We have a digital skills program, manufacturing skills programs. But I'll never forget there's a woman who came through our digital skills program and we did a video on her and she starts out the program saying “You know, where I grew up. People didn't talk about career paths. And a year ago I was homeless and I had two daughters and I was just telling them it was temporary. It was kind of like a vacation, not knowing what I was going to do or where I was going to go.” And then she said, “I came to Goodwill.” And she entered our digital skills program. She said she joined the 4:00 AM club. We had a little video of her doing her homework, like early in the morning with the lights off, in the dark.

And then it took, would cut, took her through the pathway. And then at the end she lands a really good job and she gets a house and she said, “My kids were saying, ‘Mom, we got a house. We got a job.’” And she said, “I've come this far. I'm heading for the stars.” Now she starts up by saying a year ago I was homeless and I didn't know where I was going to go. And today she's saying I'm heading for the stars. So it wasn't just about what happened financially and for her family, which is terrific. Her whole understanding of what life was about and what the possibilities are, was fundamentally changed. It was one person and it was because she said where I grew up nobody talked about this stuff. I didn't have access to it. I didn't have role models. I didn't know where to go, but I came to Goodwill. That's what got me started.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And it does take a system. And as you said, a support structure around that individual to give them the opportunity to access and be able to elevate themselves. Now, that's a lot of great things that Goodwill is doing, with respect to what business leaders should be thinking about. In addition to you mentioning, taking down some of the traditional barriers that have been used, including the need for college degrees to get the simplest jobs in the organization. What else can business leaders do to make sure that we continue bridging these divides in action rather than just in words?

Steven Preston: 

I think it's very important for employers to provide training and development opportunities for their existing employees and especially those on the front line and sort of at that entry level. The world is changing quickly. Jobs everywhere are changing quickly, and employers really need to bear the burden of lifting the skill level of their employee base so that they can meet the demands. I think it's important for employers. You know, if they've got the capacity, not every small business can do this, but if they've got the capacity to provide educational dollars for their people and help them reach their aspirations, I think businesses need to be vocal advocates and hold each other accountable.

We do have a number of national companies that have been terrific thought leaders in providing people with educational opportunities, support. And I really do think it's changing things. The other thing though, is I do think business leaders have to be part of the policy partnership to say, this is where our economy is going, and this is where our world is going.

And these are the opportunities for our labor force. And there is a fundamental gap. There's a fundamental gap between where we're going and the way that people are being skilled. And we need to have programs and capabilities to help people move into those. 

We're talking about the individuals and their families, because that's where our hearts are and what drives us. But this is about having a competitive labor force. This is about being able to compete in a global economy, and it is also about having a society that doesn't continue to pull apart. I mean, the reason we pulled apart so much is because we have haves and have nots to a degree that we've never had before.

And people don't see hope and opportunity, and we need an educational system. We need the kinds of government support that give people the opportunity to invest in themselves for a different future. And I think corporations, they've got access, they've got power and they know what they need and where the world is going. And they can be very effective forces for good on the macro level. And we need them to do that.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's where I would love to get some of your thoughts, Steve, with respect to where the world is going. There's a lot of talk about the future of work and a lot of talk about the fact that many of the opportunities and roles that are available are requiring higher and higher levels of not necessarily education, but the skills that require intense study.

So when you think about a certain level of coding, it requires people with a certain skill set. So the fact that there are lots of coding jobs available doesn't necessarily mean people can be re-skilled to fit those roles. So where do you see the future of work going? And again, how can we bridge divides for all in our community rather than a subset of the group?

Steven Preston: 

So when you look at the future of work trends, all the indications are that lower, skilled jobs are going away and higher, skilled jobs are being created. So the good news is we're not saying net jobs are going away. Jobs are being created. To your point they are heavily in technology. In many cases, many of them are in health care and also many of them are in sort of the social and cognitive skills that would support product development in a changing world.

But I'd say a few things. Number one, if you look at the decade after the great recession, two thirds of the new jobs created required medium or higher level digital skills. That's not coding, that's basic digital skills. So even if people are moving up into those better jobs from existing jobs, the base jobs just need digital skills and some fundamentals. That's the price of entry. We need to get people at that baseline. What we have found is that when people get a base level of proficiency or a certain level of proficiency, they're more likely to move into coding once they're comfortable with it, or they're more likely to move into something more technical.

Once they get the confidence that they can understand those skills and acquire them and move into those places. So I wouldn't say that we just have to focus on those higher skills because the core skills are what are cutting people out of a lot of opportunities. Once again, I think a robust community college network, if it's done well, can be really powerful to help people move into those basic skills.

I think workforce development providers like us, if we can get the funding and support to do it, can provide great support. And people will come to us that won't go to a college because we're Goodwill. We're a little bit like a warm blanket. They trust us. It doesn't feel too schooly, they'll come to us for support, but it's those access points. It's those access points where we can get people to come in. 

We can get them in a class and we can get the support they need, that requires funding. It does. And we're talking a lot about funding in the government right now. But when you look at labor as our most strategic asset, and I think the opportunity gap as one of our most critical risks in our country, this is a place where we need to invest in this country. And the dividends are enormous financially and in terms of transformed lives, but we need to be able to provide funding for and support for people who need that support in their communities for relevant jobs in their communities 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Couldn't agree with you more, Steve, that opportunity gap can be bridged. However, I have a conversation with Azeema's Har ,who has done a lot of research and talks about the exponential technologies and their impact on our society. If we don't bridge the gap, the divides are going to become bigger and have significant negative consequences on our entire society.

So it is important for all of us as leaders in the community, business leaders to bridge those gaps. It's a right thing to do for the people in the society and our communities, but it's also the right thing to do for the organizations themselves in the long term. 

Now I would also love to know, you have led in the private sector, in government now a nonprofit very capably. Are there any leadership resources or practices you find yourself typically recommending for leaders as they want to improve their own leadership?

Steven Preston: 

Oh, my goodness. I am not a big reader of business books, but I love Peter Drucker. I love Jim Collins. I love anything that talks about change management, because there's so much depth in there. I know, and I've worked with Dale Connor. But what I would say to you is when you're looking at being an organizational leader and I've learned as much or more from my mistakes. And I continue to make mistakes as I have from my successes. And I think one of the important things about having these discussions is that everybody kind of looks nice and packaged when you talk about your past. But, there's been a lot of stubbed toes and broken glass along the way. 

I think if I were recommending to anybody to think about what it means to be authentic as a leader for the people that you lead and understand what it takes for them to bring forward their best every day, in terms of ideas, creativity, productivity. Giving them the support they need. Giving them the structures they need. Potentially giving them the capital they need. Holding them to a level of accountability and rigor and then sponsoring them through that change.

And for me, that's been one of the most important lessons I have learned is you don't do anything yourself. You do everything through your people. And if you can't inspire them and provide them a vision. And in many cases, it's helping them provide you with a vision and lead them along the way you're missing a significant opportunity for growth and for impact.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

What beautiful sentiments, Steve, on the authenticity, it takes to truly unleash the potential of the people in your team and in the organization. And I am so excited that with all of your background and experience, you've continually married it with purpose. And at this point have married it with a purpose that I truly believe is something we, as a community and society need to tackle.

This opportunity gap is something that has a negative impact on so many people in our communities. And it's going to get worse unless we think about it from a policy perspective, we think about it as business leaders and have nonprofit leaders like you having the right conversations and providing the opportunities and the wraparound services it takes to help elevate people.

So I truly appreciate your leadership and a conversation for the partnering leadership podcast. Thank you so much to Steve Preston. 

Steven Preston: 

Thank you for having me.