Tom Willis in conversation with Gene Boes
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Gene Boes joined Northwest Center as CEO in June 2017, after serving on the Northwest Center Board of Directors for three years. Prior to joining Northwest Center, Boes was a Management Consulting Principal for the Seattle office of the North Highland Company, and Adjunct Professor at Seattle Pacific University and Seattle University. His career also includes nearly 14 years at Microsoft, two years with Deloitte Consulting, and nine years flying for the US Navy. Title: President & CEO Company: Northwest Center Full Bio: Gene Boes joined Northwest Center as CEO in 2017, after serving on the Northwest Center Board of Directors for three years.
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Hey everyone welcome back I spoke with Gene Bose today the CEO of the Northwest Center in Seattle. Our guests will challenge my thinking and just give me a whole new ways of looking at things and I think Gene will do that for you today. He talks about belonging and inclusion and abilities and disabilities and ways that I think are different and helpful and productive and challenging. He's a guy who spent years as a consultant with Deloitte and Microsoft he actually spent nine years flying for the U.S Navy.
You can feel the love and energy and hope and spirit that he brings to the work because he cares deeply about it his wife. He have two adult children one of them has disabilities and he talks about that and how it shaped his path in life. He shares tremendous stories one of them has to do with a deaf employee at an Amazon and how that employ was not only included but ended up improving the entire work environment for all the employees. His book recommendation at the end of our chat was unexpected at least it was by me but I think you'll find it interesting and useful so thanks for joining us today.
Hey Gene thanks for joining us on the podcast today it's great to see you good morning. Tom thanks for having me absolutely absolutely and it is morning you're in Washington the state of Washington about three hours earlier than me. So thanks for getting up early and starting your day starting your week with me and I wanted I want to jump right in because I know what you do matters to you a lot and you said something a few weeks ago to me that really I still can't um get out of my head in a good way um but it was you know what what if rather than seeing a person's disabilities. We focused on the abilities that they do have and so I'd love to just get your thoughts on what does that mean to you.
For me at the so Northwest Center our tagline is people of all abilities and if we serve people with disabilities but as an organization we really try to focus on that and for me more of the answer is uh as I look back through my life it's really woven into my whole life not just my time at Northwest Center so growing up in a big family uh in the midwest um the focus in our household was always about one respect and boundaries and and and to allow people to be themselves so it's it's new term that you hear a lot about about belonging um belonging is not about fitting in belonging is actually about being able to be yourself your true self and and engage in the world that way.
It's similar to that is that we all have our we all have our gifts you know we all have our shortcomings we all have our gifts as well and so why would we think about people with disabilities in any other way yes there's a dis part where there's some challenges that they have to work through certainly that someone like me that I don't have a disability that I have the blessing to not have to work through but quite frankly they have gifts and talents that that I don't have and perspective that I don't have so I think looking through the world through that lens so if you can look around you and look for Ability as opposed to disability or look for the bad you know the bad things and I think this goes not just for people with disabilities but if you look at for example in the workplace if you try to look around you and understand the gifts and the talents that your fellow workers have.
I think that makes you a better employee as well because you're going to know when to leverage those gifts and talents from someone else that may fill in a gap that you have hmm and why why is this so important to you Gene why is this um this mindset or this way of being and sort of your contribution to the world why are you why are you putting your your time and energy into this now long smiling because there's two things there's and there's some humor in the second one I'll share that's it's more self-revealing than anything um but but I'd start with uh my father had Ms he had a disability um I had a cousin with a disability I have a 28 year old daughter with a disability she's on the severe end of the autism spectrum so throughout my life I've been able to experience the world removed once from the disability but I see how the world disengages or does not allow people to engage you quite frankly.
If you go back to the my earlier comments it's like we we won't reach our potential until we allow everyone to engage and contribute so until I'm able to let everyone engage and share their abilities share their talents and their gifts I won't become the person that I can potentially become and so it's really important me to me from that perspective because I do think we're all better together you know that may not be a popular stance in today's world um as Polar as we see so many different topics across the country but honestly I do believe we're better together um the other part going back to a comment about being able to leverage your your fellow employees gifts that might fill in a gap that you might have you know I think of it that way I was raised Catholic and there's this very uh resounding team of guilt about not being enough or not being good enough and so that's how I fill up that Gap I don't worry about not being good enough because I've let other people into my life and I know they're going to fill in the gaps that I have so you you get to 100 by addition you have multiple people none of us are a hundred percent of anything that anyone needs but if we're willing to let others engage and join us we can really quickly get to 100 percent hmm the the the world you know the world disengages.
I think back to my grade school experience going to a public school just outside of Detroit Michigan area and there was that classroom you know that classroom that frankly now they're reflect on as an adult was the classroom that we avoided I didn't like to go to that end of the hallway um which as a little kid seemed like a mile away but it was probably 30 feet away you know from my classroom and it was that classroom where the kids with the disabilities were it was it was segmented it was separate from if we saw him you know once every six months that was a lot and you know I know that was the system sort of that I grew up in but I think back on even my mindset as a kid and sort of seeing those kids as the others you know um and and that's what I think your your point about seeing people's abilities really hit me to my core because it's shook sort of all the way back to my my childhood and I know we've come a long way in the last 30 or 40 years in in that regard um but it's still it still just bothers me you know I don't know how else to put it other than it bothers me that that we even um even had that you know not too long ago and so as you look at the world today and you look at how the the world is treating people with with disabilities what gives you a sense of optimism for the future so thinking uh well a lot of things do give me optimism I think as people experience what inclusion can look like.
I think that that gives me optimism so let me just stand uh employment arena for example so um for Northwest Center we we do Focus cradle through career and there's a you know there's there's examples I think I can give across that entire spectrum of life but let me stick into employment uh Place most of all I think with inclusion uh first it's important to to make make clear we look at inclusion all up so yes we're serving a disability Community um and I use the words we're serving a disability Community only to get people to understand that it's people with disabilities that we're focused on but quite frankly we're not serving the disability Community we're serving Society because the benefit is to society it's not to the people with disabilities you know they're not broken they're fully realized human beings what they need is opportunity so when you look in the employment arena for inclusion we're looking at inclusion as human beings because I think if you if you try anything short of that you're going to fall you're not going to succeed so for us if if we're not focused on inclusion as human beings we're not going to open as many doors as we need to uh to the disability Community for example but I think what scares people is the unknown so how do I become inclusive well first why is it important to me and then if I'm going to be inclusive wow that's going to be really hard uh and the truth is it's not really hard it's it's difficult it takes energy it takes intention but it's not this overwhelming uh investment that you have to make to become more inclusive so if I describe uh one of our commercial businesses so we have six different commercial businesses as part of our our our business portfolio at Northwest Center one of them is a commercial laundry and if you go into that commercial laundry you're going to see a Workforce of roughly 60 people uh 17 different languages 15 different National Origins different skin color different sexual orientation different intellectual ability it's this it's this Melting Pot but what you see is a unified Workforce and so what gives me optimism is when we can talk about inclusion but then we walk someone through a tour of what it really looks like in the workplace the way their faces light up and the way the dots connect and the way they realize wow this is possible this looks like what I want at my place of employment or as a leader of of an employer this is what I want my culture to look like that's really optimistic so I think we have a we do have a great message I think as people experience it that's what gives me optimism because uh to a person for example that would go through a tour they would walk away viscerally impacted by what they saw no matter what they heard before the tour seeing it it really makes a big difference so that that's what gives me optimism is that if we can engage people just to have the conversation then being able to have the conversation I think yields great results so that's that's what I'm most optimistic about is people you know that I think we're all willing to listen if we can get ourselves to stop and slow down and listen um that's what gives me hope is that people do listen this isn't a for example uh this isn't a a left side of the aisle or right side of the aisle conversation this is a human conversation that that everyone can step in and engaging and it starts with the fundamental belief that they they aren't broken you know the society benefits from their participation this isn't about doing a nice thing for folks with disabilities it's actually about how does the society benefit when we are more inclusive because they have so much to offer right right the trick is uh for me anyway I think about how are white as Humans Beings every decision we make is about what's in it for me uh and that's uh there isn't anything wrong with that that's how we're wired so part of it is zoning that is in the audience what's in it for them and I think there's an awful lot in the inclusion space for all of us there's value for us not just value for the people with disabilities so just getting getting people to think of it from a different perspective uh really helps them engage as you as you you know in this day and age inclusion even of itself is a can be a polarizing topic kind of interesting right um the whole idea of inclusion is to include other people's perspectives you don't have to agree with them but just to be able to include a different perspective I think is so difficult for our human Minds to process in this polarized day and age um so how would you um suggest that the fellow CEOs out there you've got over a thousand employees um all around Seattle area you know you've got an impressive background you worked for Microsoft I think for a while and Deloitte Consulting and few other consulting firms you were in the Navy for for nine years if I remember correctly um what given that impressive background what what advice would you give to leaders out there who are struggling with this whole idea of inclusion and what to even do with it in this day and age uh I think that I'd start off with something that I'd said before you need to be intentional about it um it's it is it's work it's it's not easy if it was easy we'd already I'll be doing it right so I think make the commitment uh to inclusion in a way that you can understand you know what's in it for you as an individual what's in it for your company uh because you go back to the kind of the company Dynamic and the why of a company not the what of a company but the Y of a company understand why it's important for your company and for your employees and I think that's the the very first step but then recognize that um you're not going to make everyone happy in all this and what I mean by that is not everyone's going to embrace inclusion in the same way and some people will certainly still be get um dismissive of it or resistant to it uh to join in it so know that you're not going to make everyone happy but understand that everyone does come out ahead and and just recognize that the change curve you know people are going to jump on the change curve at different points so I think being committed to it and understanding why it's important to organization is the first step and I do truly believe there's a business case for it you know that's probably a whole other podcast there's a business case for doing it and why it's important but then um again settling and recognize it's going to be a hard journey it's a long journey that's not just a couple workshops or a PowerPoint and you're good to go it's it's a generational change that we're trying to drive so be ready for a journey and all this and then lastly I would say is be open um to Partners in this so if you open to Partners like in Northwest Center so don't try to go It Alone um again it's not to say you won't be successful if you go to loan but reach out to the community around you there are a lot of different organizations and people that know a lot about inclusion um people that are living in a world that's not engaging them that can help you think through the things that you're going to need to do to to make sure you get the most out of that inclusion Journey yeah there's and there is plenty of business case and that probably has a whole separate podcast you know but Harvard and McKinsey two pretty reputable sources have studied this and found the the Improvement in uh Innovation revenues around you know being more inclusive and being more diverse and not just racially but but in all areas and I think that's one of the interesting things that you're putting on the table for us is that you know being more inclusive of folks with with quote-unquote disabilities is actually not just a benefit for them it's a benefit for the organization and so you you gave the example of the the laundry but I'm curious what other what are examples can you give to our listeners to really drive home this point that the that Society is missing out so the if you you take uh I'm not going to be able to do this complete justice but one of our Partnerships um bigger Partnerships is with Amazon and we partner with them as a vendor because we provide vendor services to them and we also partner them uh with them from an employment services perspective and placing people of all abilities within Amazon and then just going to this uh really common theme today about Talent acquisition and finding employees uh this this the idea of attrition and absenteeism and how important those things are to to the challenges that we face but finding employees and keeping employees is really important but in one of the facilities where we placed uh people of all abilities we had a candidate that was deaf and the leadership at the facility their major concerns were while we don't believe this individual could be successful here safe safely because we have forklifts we have all kinds of Machinery going around and they can't hear you know they're not they're not going to be able to operate it safely in this environment so we don't want to consider that candidate so I use this example because they're looking at the disks not the ability and so we said well we understand the safety concerns those are valid concerns again this isn't easy it's uh if it was easy everybody'd be doing it but let's just take a minute think through this and see if there's an accommodation we might be able to come up with that will eliminate that safety issue for that individual and so we spent very little time because the employment services team at Northwest Center are pretty amazing people they said well we believe this individual that's that's deaf can operate safely if we put the circular mirrors up across the warehouse and that they'll be able to see anything that's coming you know that's that's something that they're very in tune to the world visually to make make up for the deficit of um being having hearing loss so we think this would be something worth trying because we think this individuals is extraordinarily gifted and it would be unfortunate if we didn't take advantage of of their talent in this space and so they they accommodated that thought process and so we put the circular mirrors up in the warehouse place that individual that individual is thriving in that environment so no safety issues whatsoever but the byproducts of that thought process and that accommodation for that one individual actually raised the safety record of the entire Warehouse because all of us see just because we don't we can hear doesn't mean we can't look in a mirror right so this accommodation wall intended to place one individual allowed the whole Workforce to be even even more safe so I think I use that as an illustration because yes it's hard you have to be intentional but everyone benefits from the thought process and the pieces that you put in place uh it's such an awesome awesome story um so if organizations out there want to be more inclusive specifically of of folks that that have all abilities as you said of folks with with disabilities of different kinds where would where should they start where should they think about starting this this journey so great question I think the first place they need to look is in their HR and talent acquisition teams because what it requires you to do is to to change the way you think about Talent acquisition so it's not just going and grabbing a resume on indeed.com and going through the machine language words finding the keywords and then getting an individual and doing a you know a phone interview or a comments from interview I think really think about uh one how are you going to go find the ability that you want to find for that role but then challenge your traditional recruiting uh venues in your recruiting channels because you're you're missing out on talent that doesn't believe they actually have an opportunity with your organization so just quickly in general what I've seen people with disabilities uh don't fully believe that they're employable in some cases so they have this great ability that they don't have this belief that there's an employer out there willing to take a chance on them and employ them so think about your recruiting pipelines and how you tap into the market in a better way that draws in candidates for you but then the second piece of this is is always focus on ability and need and what I mean by that is the reason we're successful is that we think about an employer's need first of all and what ability is required to deliver on that need and then we match the candidate that has that ability so we can make accommodations for the disability but before we do that we want to make sure they have the ability to deliver on the roll so I think from that perspective what's the same about that is you wouldn't consider other candidates that didn't have ability or the right abilities for the role similarly don't don't accept less ability from a person with a disability because they won't be successful in the role so um that may seem strange but on one way I'm telling you change the way you look at recruiting but there's some parts of the way that you do recruiting and talent acquisition that need to remain the same that aren't always obvious to employers
what I know because you you told a group of us and our CEO forum that we that we do monthly um that one of the basic steps is just to to treat them like humans um which again is so simple but what do you what do you mean by that so um well without even describing Which business it was we you know a manager came to us from an employer where we placed people of all abilities and they came to us and they said we're having some performance issues and and we just don't know how to how to deal with it you know how do we approach this person and talk to them about performance issues and I'm smiling because you know sometimes the answer is really simple it's treat them like a human being like don't worry that they have a disability you don't have to you don't have to walk on eggshells or you know dance around a problem face it head on so you know a lot of it's the expect the same things from everyone whether they have a disability or not I think it's your from your employees expect the same performance uh because again it's about ability and then if there's a challenge then I think you space it head on the way that you would in in addressing it with any other human being so some of the things like that are really are are really easy but they're not necessarily intuitive right so you go back to this idea of I'm afraid of the unknown so what was interesting is the you know in that scenario when that employer came to us with that concern and we explained here's how we'll do it we had a job coach with them that helped coach the the manager at that employer to get through that performance conversation but again it went it goes just like it normally would with uh with a typically typically able human being so it's you know it's fun it's fun to go through those scenarios uh for us at Northwest Center we've been around since 1965 and been focused on inclusion since our Inception and I can tell you we're not there we're on our own Journey so we're we all do we don't have it all figured out ourselves so that's part of the fun of for me of going to work going out into the front lines and visiting with our staff and with our managers because we run into those scenarios all the time it's like well how do I deal with this and if you step back again if you bring it back to that just the human level uh you can simplify things a great deal by doing that and and you guys are leading the way I mean you're you're actually doing it if I remember correctly about 40 of your Workforce is has a quote-unquote disability of some sort is that right that's correct so 40 have a declared disability you know I believe it's higher than that because even at a place like Northwest Center people aren't necessarily comfortable uh declaring or or revealing that they might have a disability but yes it's uh so in 40 just for some context uh for people that are that are watching and listening 19 of the population has a disability so we're running our businesses twice the inclusion ratio of society itself and we're winning because of inclusion not in spite of it but because of it and I think that's uh that's a really telling message so for you know even for you employers that are out there worried about Talent acquisition if you can think about again the disability Community 19 of the population if you figure out a way to tap in to that Community that's going to put you that much farther ahead of your competition
that's um that's amazing I don't think I've heard that stat before so as you look forward to the future what what are your dreams you know in 10 20 years from now what will we see
so for me the again I kind of Drew some circles earlier you know I want the world to be different for my daughter I want it to be more inclusive I want her to be included and embraced by the by all of the community she's got a a great community that does that does do that now that does embrace her but I want Society to treat uh people that way um across the across the country across the globe actually it's the and it's not just for my daughter who has special needs so my grandson for my son uh for his partner for for the people around us I think that we are better so if even looking across Northwest Center I'm extraordinarily proud of the of the people at Northwest Center there's the ones that I work for uh and I look at their lives they're they they have stress in their lives they have all the challenges they think that everyone else does but they have I want to believe a certain amount of joy in their life because they know what they're part of and so in five to ten years what I'd like to see is a society uh to be uh realistic I don't believe that it's going to be a fully inclusive society that Embraces everyone but if in five to ten years Society could at least be at a pause and thinking about again what's in it for me why is inclusion so important to all of us I think that that would be a great place for us to be
uh I can I can see it Jan and I'm with you so um not sure how exactly we can help but um I'm I'm on the bus with you so um
well I guess I guess um if if you want to wrap up with a couple things one just your thoughts for you know this is the cult reads everything podcasts and we haven't really jumped in a ton of into that world but just maybe talk a little bit about you know how do you think about creating a high performing team in a high performing culture within Northwest Center so for me one of the the first um myths I guess that I tried to dispel when I came into the role uh I came from the the business world the for-profit world into the non-profit world into this role and I was warned by my peers in the for-profit world though we go into the non-profit world it's very different world it's uh this world of comes from a place of scarcity you know place of poverty you're not going to have all the resources you need um it's it's uh for those of you that are sports people it's the JV it's not the varsity and you know for me I thought well as I thought more about it I thought well that that feels to me um more like a choice on my part than an acceptance that I have to accept that that's the way it is because I don't believe that so coming to Northwest Center I'll argue what we do our mission um without reading a mission statement I'll tell you what our North is North is a world where a hundred percent of kids have Equitable access to education and where the employment rate for people with disabilities is the same as the employment rate for the general population now for me personally that's way more important than any corporate goal that I can think of for any company that I've worked for so you know you know creating wealth for shareholders you know creating products you know achieving Market um dominance I think pales in comparison to what Northwest Center is about and the world that we're trying to create so I'd argue it's more important not less important and so if it's more important why would you accept less and so there's this commitment to execution Excellence across the organization so this culture shift that started four and a half years ago is well underway and we're at a place where I go out because I work for the thousand people in Northwest Center and I ask them what do you need here is the high bar we're setting and here are the things we're trying to achieve that North is a significant journey ahead of us what do you need and they're getting better and better at being able to answer that question what do I need to do the things that you're asking or that we're asking of ourselves so that idea of execution Excellence is really important you know there isn't for-profit and non-profit in my mind there's either excellent or not and and so that's really what we try to drive through our organization so when you think of culture that's the culture we've created and I think to a person they can recognize what they're part of which is also very important they're they're there for the why not the what um and I think with uh the last thing I'd say with that in our culture uh is this idea of we deal with with professionalism and with respect with courtesy and and just to a great degree with kindness uh because I think you can do that so it's I've seen it done multiple ways but I'd argue you can be just as effective uh and and create that that excellence in terms of outcome while still being kind it doesn't require you to to be something other than kind and I think if I say it that way people know what I mean but that's the culture we're really trying to create uh being kind or being courteous doesn't mean having a lower standard of quality and I I see that coming to life in a big way at Northwest Center yeah kind is kind is actually is a good way to help people be accountable frankly you know we we tend to be especially here in the Midwest we tend to be nice which means we don't really talk about the the tough stuff but being kind you can actually go at the quote unquote tough subjects but do in a way that's all about getting results all about serving your community all about serving your customers you know whatever it is that you're you're doing
so let's wrap with um because the time's flying by as always um maybe share your your book recommendation for us okay so I'll I'm gonna confess right up I haven't read the book yet it's sitting in the kitchen on the counter my wife is uh is reading it now and then I'm gonna pick it up after her it's a book by brene Brown and it's uh I think it's called being brave I might have that wrong but uh the reason I bring that up is that um I think we all need to understand what being brave uh really really means and and and how to how to bring that about in ourselves I think we all have the capacity to be brave but I think it looks different than maybe uh predict particularly traditional white males and and the the world I grew up in I think it looks very different than than what I was taught when I was younger so I would I would encourage that I think the um the other thing I'll confess is that I watched a
presentation by brene Brown this past weekend with my wife it's not the first one that I've watched uh I did see her Ted Talk early on about um about being vulnerable I was pretty impressed but I have to tell you that in the middle of this presentation um Renee Brown referenced her God moment and it involved the man in the arena so if you want to quote go read the man in the arena because that's been hanging on my wall since I was in high school so she caught me at that once I saw a man in the arena that was there so it's a long-winded reason why but uh pick up the book uh by brene Brown and read that and I think it'll it'll serve you really well all right so let me get this straight Gina a white male who was a naval flight officer is recommending to read a brene brown book am I getting that right you got it right yep I love it I love it well thank you Gene for joining us today and more importantly thank you for the the work you do to see people of all abilities and to include them in the world so the the world can benefit from them so thank you for you and for your team's work well thank you for having me Tom I appreciate it I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you today and for the mentorship and the friendship uh greatly appreciated thank you [Music]