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Jan. 26, 2021

Principle centered leadership for a better world with Howard Ross | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

Principle centered leadership for a better world with Howard Ross | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Howard Ross, Author of Reinventing Diversity, Everyday Bias, and Our Search for Belonging, talks about his background, how he started his own consulting firm, and his work on unconscious bias.

Some highlights:

  • The story of Howard Ross’ journey of reinventing himself
  • The influence of his Jewish heritage and the value of his parents in shaping his life and leadership
  • What inspired Howard Ross to write a book about unconscious bias
  • Howard Ross on the importance of being open to guidance from other leaders

Also mentioned in this episode:

Michael Amilcar, CEO of Cook Ross Inc.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, National Chair of the National Council of Negro Women

John Griffin, Former Head of Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission


The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ron Heifetz

Connect with Howard Ross:

Howard Ross Official Website

UDARTA Official Website

Howard Ross on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


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



Mahan Tavakoli:
Welcome everyone to Partnering Leadership. I’m really excited to speak with Howard Ross. He’s a top-thought leader on addressing unconscious bias. Howard had written books on Reinventing Diversity, Everyday Bias, and Our Search for Belonging. He’s also written articles for Harvard Business review, Washington Post, Washington Times, Fast Company Magazine, Forbes, Fortune. You named it, Howard has been there as a thought leader in the space.

So I’m going to be speaking with Howard later this year on his work on unconscious bias. Howard also has been an impactful leader of a business in the Greater Washington DC region. He started his own consulting firm and grew it to 50 plus consultants. So in this episode, I want to focus on Howard’s own personal journey and his leadership journey and lessons he learned along those lines. 

Now if you enjoy this conversation, don’t forget to rate and review this podcast on Apple Podcast. You can also access that through partneringleadership.com website. And feel free to send me a message, email, or there’s an icon for a microphone on the website, just leave me a voice message there.

Now, here’s my conversation with Howard Ross.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Howard Ross, my friend. Welcome to the Partnering Leadership podcast.

Howard Ross:
Thanks so much for having me Mahan. It's great to be with you.

Mahan Tavakoli:
I’m really excited, and as I mentioned to you, I definitely want to circle back with you because you have been a leading thinker with respect to bias. I love your book, Everyday Bias, Our Search for Belonging, and Reinventing Diversity. I have read all of them, and we will circle back and talk about those in future podcast episodes.

But you have also been a substantial and impactful leader in our region. So I want to get to know a little bit more about Howard, and your leadership journey. 

So Howard, whereabouts did you grow up, and how did that impact the kind of leader that you became?

Howard Ross: 
Well, thanks. I grew up here in the DC area. I grew up in Northeast Washington. I was born in George Washington hospital. Lived in Riggs park in Northeast DC and until about 1960, and that was the time, if you remember, people who are around here remember White Flight, when a lot of white folks moved out of the city and my parents got caught up in all that. We moved out to Silver Spring, and I've spent my life living in the region.

I went to the University of Maryland. I've worked all over the world. I've worked in 47 States and almost 50 other countries, but this has always been home. So I'm a tried and true Washingtonian, a member of this region and I believe in Washington blood.

Mahan Tavakoli:
That is fabulous. So you have been familiar, and you have had roots in this region. Now, how does someone that studied BA and History at University of Maryland, ended up working in a hospital?

Howard Ross:
That's interesting. I mean, I think people go about their careers in different ways. And there's some people who know very young what they want to do, and sort of set their sights on it. 

I had one of my kids wanted to be a doctor from the time he was little and he's now a heart surgeon. And some people have done that, and my past is different from that. I was a little bit more like a two year old running downhill, trying to stay on my feet and following my curiosity. 

So I started, when I was in college, I was very involved in the civil rights movement and the anti war movement, did a lot of work with the farm workers union. And that was really more of my prime area of study during college, even then my grades. It was like school was always getting in the way of my education, it felt like.

And so, the things that I was looking for, at some point was, what could I do that was meaningful to me? I took a semester off school at the beginning of my senior year because it just wasn't making any sense at that point. And the antiwar movement had taken a violent turn and I wasn't really into that. I was much more of a pacifist, much more of a peaceful resistor. So I got a job working with children, with very young children, and helped start a tutoring program for kids in the city where we would go down and we would work with kids in their homes. And I fell in love with working with children. So looking for something to do that was a little bit more meaningful to me than bagging in a grocery store. I got a job working as a teacher's aide  And a bus driver with a local school in the Kensington area and just fell in love with it.

So I went back and finished my college time by studying education as well as history. And so I ended up minoring in early childhood education, and then spent 12 years as a teacher in the school. And as when I was running the school, at some point, I tripled its size in the year, and found that nothing that knew about managing people worked anymore. So I went back and started to study organizational development, and the kind of work you do. Getting into organizations and teaching leaders and things like this, and started doing that with other schools originally. 

And then from there, people would call me. I will never forget the first call I got like. 

This was a guy who called me, and he said, he introduced himself, and he said, “My wife, who teaches at such and such school, was in this workshop that you gave for her school the other day. And she's just been raving about it. And I saw some of the materials. I was wondering, do you do this and businesses?” And he worked at Marriott. 

And I said, “I guess so.” I like to say that the best things in life I've ever done, I've been thoroughly unprepared for.

And so then I found myself leading a workshop in Marriott that led to another and another. And then at that point, Holy Cross hospital, which had been actually leasing us the space for the school I was running at the time, for private non-profit school program, came to me and they said that they had this new program that they were thinking of doing, and I thought I would be perfect to lead the program and it was a staff development program.

And so I was able to make the jump. And that was what took me to that next step, and ended up staying there for about two and a half, three years.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Wow, fabulous. So you were both in the school system. You learned what works, you studied management, and you started teaching management to others that eventually then led you to Holy Cross.

Howard Ross:
Yeah. And there was another component of it too, which is that my first marriage ended right around that same time. And I also was in that stage where I think a lot of people go through when they get divorced, which is you kind of reinvent yourself. And I started to pay attention to things like, learn about myself more. And I studied Zen Buddhism for a while. And I study transformation or human transformation, and how it is the people that studied stress management, and all of this was leading me to a much deeper understanding of human beings and how human beings function, how I was functioning.  And I think the more I worked on myself, the more I was able to contribute to people around me. And I just found like I had liked it.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And something that I’ve seen you do all over the years Howard is, what you mentioned, reinventing yourself, which is critical for all of us, most especially right now. 

So going back to the hospital experience that you had, I understand that a few years later, you had to reinvent yourself yet again.

Howard Ross:
Yeah. In the mid eighties, I think it was 1985, Maryland State changed the way they were doing hospital financing laws. In the old days, it used to be that hospitals could do anything they wanted with the patient, and they just billed it back to insurance agencies and the like. And they instituted what they called Designated Regulated Guidelines, DRG’s, which meant basically that there were limitations on what you could charge for certain. So if you came in for tonsillectomy, you could only charge 3000 or whatever the number was. And that really shut up all the hospital financing things because it's like they had to completely reinvent themselves. 

And one of the things that they did was they decided to let go of some ancillary programs that weren't clinical programs so that they could regroup. And one was the program that I was running, even though I'd gotten high performance ratings and all that. The program went away so they offered me a couple other jobs. But I had already sort of been bitten by the consulting bug, cause I had started to do some stuff on the side, and I was a single parent at the time. I was raising my son by myself, and I had a three months severance package. 

And so I figured, well, if I was ever going to do it as a single parent, this would be my time.  And nine months later, I got my first big project. 

And actually there's a funny story,  I was at that stage where it's like, I'd run out of money. My dad passed away just a couple of years before. And so I wasn't going to take any money from my mom. I mean, other than very little. And  I was kind of making ends meet, and a friend of mine who was running an organization in Alexandria called me and he said, “Come on down and take a walk with me. I have just some stuff I want to bounce off of you.”

And he told me, he said, he's running a great organization, he was helping people do fundraising, non-profit suit fundraising. And he said, “I need a COO,  and I think you'd be perfect for the job. Are you interested?” And he was going to pay me more than I had made at the hospital.

And I went back, and I spent the weekend just trying to decide what to do. I remember I probably slept one hour all weekend. And finally, on Monday, I called him and I said, “Man, I appreciate the offer so I’d love to work with you at some level but I just know this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I just knew in my heart, this was what I was supposed to be doing.” 10 days later, I got my first big project. And from there I just never looked back.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Howard, that takes a lot of courage as a single parent, without a job, you get a job offer, and you stick with your desire to pursue consulting.

Howard Ross:
When you're successful, they call it courage. At the time, my mother either thought I was crazy. My friend said, “Are you sure?” 

But because it worked out, it's now called courage. It's like, history is written by the victors.

Mahan Tavakoli:
It’s great that you were a victor, building a very successful consulting firm, good up to 50 people. How was it that you ended up owning a particular space with respect to diversity and inclusion, way before even the space was invoked with many instances?

Howard Ross:
I'm Jewish. My family comes from Eastern Europe, and we had enormous loss in our family in the Holocaust, which I won’t take the time to get into right now. In fact, I didn't realize till later in my life, how deeply that influenced me in terms of what I ended up doing for a living.

And so I always was involved in social justice work from the time I was a teenager. I think I went to my first civil rights event when I was 16 years old or something. And so that was always going on in my life. It was always something I was passionate about and involved in. Then this other thing took over, which was sort of the OD things started to develop, which I started to do the consulting in.

And then what happened is in the mid 1980’s, the two things came together because I got contacted by some of my friends who I knew from the civil rights stage, that we're doing this new work called Diversity, an organization, and here they are, paying us for this stuff they use this word to your guests set us for. And to be honest, when I started doing it, it never for a minute occurred to me that I was signing up for anything less than a life of poverty. 

It was like I was going to do this work because I just felt like it was the right thing to do, but I  knew that I was sacrificing, in my mind I was sacrificing, the ability to make a good living or whatever else. But it was worth it because, like I said, because of my family background, it was just the right thing to do.

In fact, my older sister became one of our nation's leading immigration lawyers before she retired. My younger sister was a Marian Wright Edelman’s fundraiser for many years before she went and did various different support for social justice organizations all around the world. So it became kind of our family business and I just happened to be blessed, to be able to find a way to make a living at doing what was important to me.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Howard, that’s a beautiful part of your experience and your passion. I would like to find out a little bit more about that drive that your family experience with Holocaust has given you to make a difference in this world.  

Howard Ross:
Sure. Well, I think, first of all, like I said, my family was hit very hard. My grandfather came from a village called Toporov in Western Ukraine, which was at the time I think the largest intact Jewish community in the world, outside of the state of Israel. Which didn't exist at the time. 

And on August 2nd in 1942, the Nazis came in and killed all but 100 of the Jews who hid out of 5,000 Jews within that community. My grandfather had come, had immigrated long before that, but he lost his whole family back home, and that was just one part of our family. There were others all around Europe. 

And I grew up, I was born in January, 1951, so I grew up in a shadow of that, and I would hear stories. It wasn't much talked about, but it wasn't hidden either. I mean, it was omnipresent, but we were protected a little bit as kids, but there were a lot of whispers, and these stories and that the pain was there.

And then the other side of it was my grandfather, he was one of the founding members of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP. We grew up hearing stories about him. I'm sure some were apocryphal, but nonetheless were about how he was the only grocer in that area who would give credit to the black families. 

My mother would tell us stories. I remember a story my father told me about when he was in the military going with a friend of his, who was an African-American guy, who he had developed a friendship with. And they went to try to stay in a hotel and they wouldn't allow a black guy to stay, so they both slept in the car together. 

So, the theme in my family was, this is wrong and people can get harmed by this and you're supposed to do something about it. There was very much that theme, that we have a responsibility and it's not disconnected to Judaism. There's this principle called Tikkun Olam, which you may have heard about, it means to heal the world, that every person, a righteous person is supposed to leave the world a better place.

Wow. I'm getting really emotional talking about this. That the work that we're supposed to leave the world a better place than it was. And so that's the ethos that I grew up. My parents sort of skipped a generation, like a lot of people, they were depression kids, so they were more focused on taking care of their family, making sure that kids had the opportunities that they didn't have.

My mom was a brilliant woman who couldn't go to college because her brothers had to go. And so she ended up becoming a grade 17 statistician at NIH without ever having spent the day in college. My father worked, running a Pepboys store, and later becoming a general manager of pep boys. And his father died right in the middle of depression.

His family lost their candy business. And so he and his brother and mother had to live in one room in the back of a family, the family house where they weren't particularly welcomed.   He didn't have anything growing up. I got a lot of motivation from seeing what happened to my family.

And my dad was also a role model for me as a leader because I used to go down with him and spend Saturdays at his store. I go to the back and change tires with the guy. And my dad was a wonderful guy, and he was a big heart. And I don't think in my entire life, I ever saw somebody ask my dad for money when he didn't give them money. I didn't see him ever walk past a panhandle on the street where he didn't find something in his pocket to give them. There was just this profound sense of appreciation he had where everything he had in life because he hadn't had much growing up.

I think when I saw him with his people, was when I developed a sense of what leaders are supposed to be. They're supposed to be the kind of people who like people they work with. Now, they're supposed to be the kind of people who care about the people they work with, and who treat the people they work with respect. 

And in those days it was pretty segregated, still, he has stories in Alexandria. And so the guys in the store selling were white and the guys who changed the tires in the back, and did the automotive work were largely black, and that's where I would hang out. And I distinctly remember, one time, somebody coming in and saying something about using the N word to describe one of the guys in the back. And my father, just very commonly saying to the guy, “We don't use that word here.” It's just as if he was saying it's raining outside today, it was just like, boom, we don't use that word here.

And so, very clearly my values came from both of my parents, and ended up shaping my leadership. But what I tried to do as a leader and have tried to do as a leader my whole life.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
That has made you the beautiful, impactful leader that you have been Howard. Thank you very much for sharing that because that has a lot to do with where you ended up, being able to lead this successful organization, and growing it. 

Now, one of the things that happens with purpose driven leaders is sometimes, their purpose is they are there, but they aren’t able to establish a successful organization. Lot of times, successful organizations are searching for purpose. You were able to have a consulting firm that combines purpose and growth and success. How are you able to combine the business side with the purpose of it?

Howard Ross: 
To some degree, I think, I failed my way to success like a lot of other people do. I mean, we started out, I had a great partner, a woman named Dottie Cook who I formed Cook-Ross with at the beginning. And we were only together for two years because she ended up getting married and moving to Texas.

And at the time back in 1991, it was much more difficult than it is now to have a remote business. And she was starting a new family and new life. But Dottie was really helpful because Dottie was 10 years older than me, she had a little bit more experience. My tendency was to almost be embarrassed that people were paying me money to do this work because I felt so grateful to be able to be doing it. But companies started to grow, and then, when Dottie left, I kept moving it forward. And the company kind of started to grow into the nineties and we started to get known. I particularly started to get known. And at that time  the company grew, we had about maybe 15 people in the company. 

And in 1991, I did Leadership Greater Washington, that made a big difference because I just started the company two years ago, and I was really fortunate. A guy named John Chappie, who was over at the Bureau of national affairs, who's a client of mine, encouraged me to try out. I never figured I'd get in. I was like class number five but I got in and now I was all of a sudden hanging out with people who really knew what they were doing. 

And I think this is the beauty of Leadership Greater Washington. We don't just learn from the program, we learn from each other so much. I met people who were working in telecommunications, and people who are working in the government, and people who are working in community organizations, and started to see the way they led and the way they talked about leadership, and the business was growing.

But there was still a fundamental flaw, and that was, I thought I had to do everything. And so we got to the place we're in like 19, right around the time that you and I met in 98, when you were in the class of 98. When the company had grown and we did, I think we had done close to $2 million that year. And I had probably sold 1.7 of it and delivered 800,000 of it. 

I was working a hundred hours a week. I was the marketing person. I was the CEO. I was the main delivery person. I was doing everything. Actually something happened that I didn't expect, which is that somebody invited me to come to do a spiritual retreat. And somebody who I really cared about, and they had this experience, this eight day retreat. And I knew that that was a part of my life that was sort of undeveloped. I mean, I had grown up in a very religious Jewish home, and I had a very strong Jewish identity culturally. 

But over the years, particularly when I've gotten into civil rights work, I had sort of become more of an agnostic. Just because it was like, if God's all powerful, and all good and there's this much suffering in the world, how does that sort out? And so I had the opportunity to do this retreat, and I had my first experience of really feeling connected. And one of the things that happened when I came back was I just realized how much I was hooked by how much my identity was hooked by how the business was doing. 

Like if Cook-Ross was doing good, I was feeling good. I was a good person. And if we had a hard month, I was a bad person. It was just, and I realized how unhealthy that was. And so I started to create a healthy separation. I think in Buddhist, would call it unattachment to the company. Not like I didn't care, but that it didn't define me as much. 

And as I started doing that, I started to realize how the model, this model of me being the mother bird dropping worms in people's mouth wasn't a healthy model. So the first thing that happened was I sat back and said, I'm going to change the structure of the company and really destructed the company.

So we went back to put the consultants all and consulting status. And went back to operating out of the house with just my wife, Leslie, who I had met. And after we married, she moved into the company we started.

We met, she was a client of mine. That was how we met. And so we were perfectly happy. And I was also at the same time reinventing the work itself because this change that I went through also gave me greater compassion for the people who I was working with, and understanding just because people have different views to me, it didn't mean they were bad people, and that fundamentally changed the work. So that was when I started to look into the unconscious bias work and stuff like that. 

And so we're very happy working at a house. It was much more peaceful. I didn't have to work quite as much , I had plenty of requests because I had already established my brand. So I had plenty of requests. I didn't have to be scrounging for business or anything. And then, as I was doing this work differently, people started coming to me. So you do this interesting stuff. I'd love to work with you. And so, pretty soon we had three people in the house and then four and then five and then six and seven.

And then all of a sudden we got to get an office. I don't want these people to come into the house every day and we're off and running. And one of the people who joined us at that time was Michael Amilcar who, of course was in Leadership greater Washington, two years ago, and who ended up being with us for many years, and eventually becoming our third partner. And eventually we sold the company to Michael in 2018 and she played an enormously helpful role because she came in and somebody really understands structure. And she really likes putting things in structure. And that was something I wasn't very good at. I was great at generating business in the light. 

And then sometimes things happen. Timing is everything in life. And so I wrote my first book in 2011, and it became successful. But it's mostly written for people in the diversity space, but it definitely helps it increase the notoriety. And like we said, people started to look at us for the unconscious bias work we were doing. And then the second book came out “Everyday bias”, in 2014. One month after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. 

And it was just, I mean, the pub date is books published to dates are set way year in advance or more just by coincidence. It happened there, but everybody in the country starts talking about unconscious bias, and my book comes out. So it became a Washington post best seller. And at that point, the company just exploded and we've just had exponential growth.

And I'm not going to say it was easy. One of the things that I struggled with as a leader was how much influence I needed to have over things. How much control I needed to have over things. And it was a huge process of learning that if the company was going to grow, I had to learn to let go. And that wasn't always easy. I'm not going to pretend, it was. I think that there were times when people got annoyed with me because I felt like things needed to be done in a particular way, and they may have disagreed. And there were times when I felt uneasy because I would let go of something and it wasn't done in a way that I felt good about too, so it was sort of finding that place. 

But in the long run, it ended up creating the opportunity for us to build a company that was not attached to me as a leader. And at some point, we made the determination that we had to go one of two directions with the company. Then again, I'm pulling Leadership Greater Washington again, cause I put together a board of advisors and there were a couple of people. I, Peabody cousins, and Gary Curtis, particularly who were longtime friends, and who I knew had run companies that were roughly the same size.

And I asked them if they would be on board of advisers, for me, and they were gracious enough to do that. And Myra, one day says to us, in one of these advisory board meetings, she said, “Look, either you're going to run the company until you're done, in which case you have too much overhead, you should cut back the overhead, put money in the bank and create your retirement. Or” ,she said, “if you're going to build a company for a sustainable future, then you've got to take another thing and you've got to build a structure that's more independent from you. So go to your farm.-” We'd bought a little farm, which is where I am now and, “-and go to your farm and spend the weekend and try to decide what you want to do.”

And so we did that, came back and said, we're going to build this thing. And that was at the point that we started to look at how we create structures and systems. We started to consciously bring in people who had big name brands themselves. And we started to look at how we distribute decision-making, and eventually we were able to build a brand strong enough so that we could leave without it, without it hurting the company. And I'm really grateful to do that. I'm grateful to Michael for that as well.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And you’ve been open to guidance from a lot of other leaders, as you reinvented yourself to this process Howard.

Howard Ross:
Absolutely. And in fact, the irony was, that here we were out there because I was still doing organizational development work. I've always, some of the work I've done has always been just doing regular OD work, not necessarily diversity-related. And, so here I was advising CEOs of major companies in a lot of cases. But you still have to have outside coaching sometimes for yourself. The work that I was doing on myself in terms of my own spiritual path and understanding myself and learning, I became a meditation teacher and I've been meditating now for more than 20 years.

And all of that workout, the mindfulness work that I've learned has helped me. The experiences I've had, just being able to work side by side with people who are as different as I am. All of it got thrown into the mix, into the mixing bowl and ended up being this.

So like I said, it's not a clear path. Sometimes people ask me and it's like, it's not like I was one of these people who I decided to get my masters. And then I got my PhD, and then I got a job at a business. It just didn't happen that way with me. And I think sometimes I'm a little lucky, I'm a bit a.d.d.

So I'm one of these people, if you put me in one spot, I'll sort of start to wander off for this, this, and this direction. And I just happen to be lucky enough to be able to make a career of it.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Very few success experiences of people Howard, are a straight path. In most instances, when people look at it, it’s a combination of luck, and hardwork, and being open to guidance from other people. So you were able to build these organizations, sell the business, and you're continuing still as a thought leader in a space.

Howard Ross:
Yeah, I am. One thing just popped into my head that was really important. I had to do interviews with their board members. And so I met with one of their board members. I don't even remember his last name. His first name was Josh, but he was a guy who was, at the time, in his early sixties. And he had a very successful tech business. An early tech business, hundreds of millions of dollars.

And we were at lunch one day. So he sort of started to talk like a mentor towards me. And at some point says, “I want to give you some advice, something I've learned over the course of my life.” He said, “if you really want to be successful in your business, there are three things that you need to do.”

“First of all, you need to be smarter than everybody else. Always be learning, never stop learning. The second thing, is you gotta work harder than anybody else.” 

And he said, “The third thing is you need to be nicer than everybody else. And that I'm not talking about bullshitting.” That was exactly what he said to me.

He said, “I'm not talking about bullshitting.” 

He said, “I'm talking about genuinely caring about people. Genuinely put yourself.” 

And so I got in my head, I'm never going to work with people who I don't love. And what that meant for me is not just, I got to find people I love to work with. But what it meant was if I hire somebody, I have to learn to love them. I’ve got to really start to really care for them. And those three things have stayed with me this whole time. 

So when we sold the company, I knew that I wasn't finished working. But what I also knew is that whatever time I had left to do it, I wanted to spend the time on the work itself and not have to spend time worrying about the business and all that kind of stuff. And I had just written a book on belonging, and I was ready to shift my focus, and now the work that I do is really on creating workplace belonging. And more recently, doing a lot of work on anti-racism, training leaders, anti-racist, and also doing some more deeper personal transformational work for leaders. So we were doing this, we started this other project called Vortex, where my wife's brother, and he goes to all these big conferences, like Davos, and Ted's, and all of these big conferences, and he identified that there was this group of leaders out there who are really successful, but they're really ungrounded. And that if we could do some deep transformational work, so we took the work that I've done, doing my meditation work, the inner journey program that I've been leading on a pro bono basis and kind of converted that into a leadership program.

And we did four of those programs. One in Morocco, one in Thailand, one in Mexico and one in Costa Rica. So we just wanted to do some other things, and we continued to do that over time. And then I'm really excited because I've gotten over the last two years, much more back involved in Leadership Greater Washington. Now that I'm not running around the world so much, and we've been really, really blessed to be able to be the facilitator for the last two years programs, and to work with Doug, and Debbie, and Chase, and Jay, and Danny, and the team.

And they're such fabulous professionals. They're doing such an incredible job and, you're also doing a great job as chair, really proud of you for the job you're doing as chair.

Mahan Tavakoli:
We are all thrilled that you are involved with Leadership Greater Washington, and the entire community, Howard. 

So you’ve obviously, very impactful leader all throughout your career. You’ve reinvented yourself many times, and this is another one of those reinventions that you’re going through. Fabulous and good for you.

When you think about people that have impacted your journey along the way, does anyone specific come to mind that has a significant impact. You already mentioned a couple, does anyone else come to mind?

Howard Ross: 
My dad. I think that he definitely influenced me. When I was teaching, when I came to the school to teach, there was a woman running the school. Her name was Nancy Neal. And she was, if you think Kate Hepburn, you can kind of think about her. That was sort of who she was like. And Nancy, she really saw something in me. We developed a wonderful relationship, almost became another surrogate parent for me. But she also had a real understanding of human beings. I think working for very young children, you get insight into human behavior because everything's right out there on the surface. They haven't learned to cover it up yet, like we have as adults. And I remember Nancy used to say, she'd say, “If you show children a picture of a rabbit, they'll get an idea of what a rabbit is. If you show them a rabbit, they'll get a better idea. But if you really want kids to know what a rabbit is, put one in their lap.” That's what she used to say. 

And so I learned about getting people fully engaged in things, and what it was really like to do that. And so she was an enormous influence on me. Another one was a guy named Robert Allen, who was an organizational consultant who I met, because when I was working at Holy Cross hospital in Silver Spring. We hired Bob because he had designed this employee based wellness program and he created it to keep America’s beautiful program. He did a lot of organizational culture change programs in the very early days of organizational culture change, mind you, this is the 1980s. 

And Bob became a mentor. I eventually went and worked with him when I left the hospital. I did some work with him until he passed away a few years later. And so he was enormously influential on me, and taught me not just about the work itself, but also taught me about how you frame it as a business. How you value what you do, and how you can monetize yourself, and what you have to offer. And that was enormously valuable. 

More recently, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, who's the current National Chair of the National Council of Negro Women, who I met 15-16 years ago. And Dr. Cole has played an enormous role. And Julian also. Knowing Julian and having her in my life played an enormous role. She's so smart and so courageous in terms of her willingness to speak out. And then there are just countless numbers of clients at high levels and lower levels of organizations, who I've learned from watching, and being with. Guy named Alan Builder, who ran this company, King Supermarkets in New Jersey. Guy named Henry Nasella, who I'm still dear friends with, who was the president of Staples, took Staples from being this tiny  business into a major business and then later, went to Star Market in Boston. I worked with them there as well. 

The list is long. My office walls are covered with pictures of heroes and sheroes, who've influenced me in my life. Not to mention, other great teachers, whether it was Martin Drucker, or spending some time with Edward Stemming, or people like that. Ron Heifetz, Saul Alinsky. 

So all of these people who I had a chance to learn from. So we're all the product of all of the various influences that we've had. And it all comes down to being willing to listen, and what hype it's called adaptive leadership. To be able to not have our foot nailed to the ground. And I think the hardest time for that is when we're successful, interestingly enough. I think it's really easy when you're struggling to be open to coaching through leadership. The hardest time to learn is when you're successful, and that something is working. 

When I started writing about Belonging in 2000, when my book came out, and I searched for a long time in 2018, I had people say to me, “Why didn't you write another book about bias, dude, it's like bias is golden for you.”

And I said, because everybody's talking about bias now. I'm not needed there anymore. It's like, there's something else that's now caught my interest. And so I followed my curiosity there, and I think I'll always do that for as long as I'm around. I trust my instincts, and I trust that if I find something interesting then somebody else probably does too.And I think that the best way to go about it, and I say this to my kids, is to never work for a living. Just finding things you love to do and figure out a way to get paid for it.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
What fabulous advice, Howard. Most especially, you are a real sponge, taking in insights, and learnings from all kinds of teachers all around you. And as you said, the more success that we have in life, the less that sponge seems to have room for a lot of people. And more hesitant we become to learn from others.

You keep reinventing yourself, and learning from others, and I think that’s fabulous.

So when people come to you Howard, in addition to your books, which are absolutely outstanding and we’re going to schedule a conversation just on your books. When people seek leadership advice from you, are there any resources that you typically find yourself referring them to? Whether books, podcasts, courses, anything that you find yourself telling people, if you want to become a better leader, here are a couple of things to consider on your journey.

Howard Ross:
Yeah. Well the first thing I say to people is that, any really powerful leadership journey always starts from the inside out. I think that you really need to do self discovery work, and people do that in lots of ways. Sometimes people do that therapeutically. Sometimes people do it through transformational programs like landmark education or something like that. I think all those programs are valuable. Some people learn more through book reading, or by going to a university environment. I mean, I think whatever resonates with you, different people learn different ways. We know that, we know that multi-modality is intelligence and learning and things like that.

And so I usually say to people, start by finding something that's intriguing to you that really speaks to you. And because ultimately, what I've learned over the years, and I'm sure you've worked with so many leaders that I'm sure you've learned the same thing, is that there is no right leadership style. I've seen leaders who are incredible. We might even call them almost dictatorial who like, command and control on there. And people love them because they're very clear about it, and people understand what the roles are, they're not pretending to be something not, and they still have compassion for human beings. They just know how to do one thing and it’s done. 

I've seen leaders who are the exact opposite or amazing consensus leaders, who can bring people around and really listen to them. You know, a guy named John Griffin who used to be the head of Washington, suburban sanitary commission.

Good example of that. And John later went on to be chief of staff for Martin O'Malley as governor. And he was a guy who was a brilliant consensus leader, and really empowered people around him. And so I think that the main thing is for people to jettison the idea that  all these management comes out, this is the way you manage. And it's a little bit like the square peg in a round hole for most people because the truth is that we have to find the style that fits for us. 

And that's what I really say to people is to test a lot of different things. Read Heifetz. Read Drucker. Read Warren Bennis. Read some of the great leaders of course. But also, recognize that you're actually leading in a time that they may not have led it when they were those books. And so the fact that it worked then, and we certainly see that with Diversity Inclusion is concern, because at the time when Peter Drucker wrote all of his brilliant books on leadership, most of the people being led were mostly people leading were white men. And most of the people being led were white men. And so it doesn't mean a Drucker's work is not, it's not still valuable, but it's not the same work when it's applied to a very diverse group of people, and how much time we have to spend learning how to manage that. Diversity is a component that he really didn't take into account in his writing. Most of it. 

So that's where I think Ron Heifetz is somebody who I really gained respect for at Harvard, and his model of adaptive leadership because what Heifetz really talks about is exactly that, is that leaders need to always be listening, and adapting, and always taking in their current circumstances and using our past, but also not being limited by our past. And that's the kind of thinking that I've gravitated toward, is the most important.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
That is fabulous and the leaders you are working with are fortunate to have those insights. Now, for our listener to find out more about you and your work Howard, where would you recommend for them to start.

Howard Ross:
People, you can reach me at either howardjross.com, or udrta.com. That's the little company that Leslie and I started. And that UDARTA is the Hindi word for generosity and compassion. And so because most of the work we do now is pro bono, or partial pro bono work in the community. I'd say about 60% of the work we're doing now is pro bono work, so we thought that was an appropriate name for the company.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And it is appropriate for you Howard because you have been full of generosity and compassion. For the 20 plus years, I’ve had the honor of knowing you, I appreciate you joining me on this conversation for partneringleadership.com. And look forward to another conversation where we can talk about Reinventing Diversity, Our Search for Belonging, and Everyday Bias too.

Howard Ross:
Mahan. Thank you so much. I love you brother. And I really appreciate the time with you.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
Thank you Howard.

Howard RossProfile Photo

Howard Ross

Author of Reinventing Diversity, Everyday Bias, and Our Search for Belonging

Howard Ross is a lifelong social justice advocate and is considered one of the world’s seminal thought leaders on identifying and addressing unconscious bias. He is the author of ReInventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance, (published by Rowman and Littlefield in conjunction with SHRM in 2011), and the Washington Post best seller, Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives, (published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2014). His latest book, Our Search for Belonging: How Our Need to Connect is Tearing Us Apart, released by Berrett-Koehler in May of 2018, won the 2019 Nautilus Book Award Gold Medal for Social Change and Social Justice.

Howard has specialized in the synthesis of neuro-cognitive and social science research and direct application re: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Accessibility work. His client work has focused on the areas of corporate culture change, leadership development, and managing diversity. Ross has successfully implemented large-scale organizational culture change efforts in the area of managing diversity and cultural integration in academic institutions, professional services corporations, Fortune 500 companies, and retail, health care, media, and governmental institutions in 47 of the United States and over 40 countries worldwide. In addition, Howard has delivered programs at Harvard University Medical School, Stanford University Medical School, Johns Hopkins University, the Wharton School of Business, Duke University and Washington University Medical School and over 20 other colleges and Universities. Howard served as the 2007-2008 Johnnetta B. Cole Professor of Diversity Professor of Diversity at Bennett College for Women, the first time a white man had ever served in such a position at an HBCU.

Howard’s writings have been published by the Harvard Business Review, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Fast Company Magazine, Diversity Women Magazine, Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine and dozens of other publications. He appears monthly on National Public Radio. Howard has served on numerous not-for-profits boards, including the Diversity Advisory Board of the Human Rights Campaign, the board of directors of the Dignity and Respect Campaign, and the board of the directors for the National Women’s Mentoring Network. Howard has been the recipient of many awards, including the 2009 Operation Understanding Award for Community Service; the 2012 Winds of Change Award from the Forum on Workplace Diversity and Inclusion; the 2013 Diversity Peer Award from Diversity Women Magazine; the 2014 Catalyst Award from Uptown Professional Magazine; the 2014 Catalyst for Change Award from Wake Forest University; the 2015 Trendsetter in HR by SHRM Magazine; and the 2016 Leadership in Diversity Award by the World Human Resources Development Conference in Mumbai, India. He was also named an Honorary Medicine Man by the Eastern Cherokee Reservation in N.C. and given Medicine Holder designation by the Pawnee Nation.

Howard is also a former Rock ‘n Roll Musician and has taught meditation and mindfulness for more than 20 years, including his role as co-founder and Lead Facilitator for the Inner Journey Seminars.

Howard founded Cook Ross Inc., one of the nation’s leading Diversity and Inclusion consultancies. He sold the company in July 2018 and founded Udarta Consulting, LLC.

Howard keynotes and speaks regularly at Conferences for SHRM, SHRM Diversity, the Forum for Workplace Inclusion, National Association of Corporate Directors , ATD, the World Diversity Forum, and dozens of others.

He can be reached at howard@udarta.com.