EMERGE Everywhere

Jennifer Tescher: Seeing the Silver Linings

In the final episode of the year, Financial Health Network President and CEO Jennifer Tescher takes a moment to look back on the engaging conversations she had with her guests and the three silver linings that emerged from this challenging year: a growing energy around stakeholder capitalism, racial equity, and empathy. This momentum offers a sense of hope for healing and transformation in the coming year. EMERGE Everywhere will be back in January 2021 with new episodes. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


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Episode Transcript

Jennifer Tescher:

Welcome to EMERGE Everywhere. I’m Jennifer Tescher, journalists turned financial health champion. As founder and CEO of the Financial Health Network, I’ve spent my career breaking down silos by engaging with innovators across industries, and now, I’m sharing those conversations with you. Meet the forward-thinking leaders challenging the status quo and unleashing creative new ways of improving financial health by seeing their customers, employees, and communities in 3D.

Hey listeners! We’re going to do things a little differently today. Instead of hosting a guest this week, I wanted to share my reflections on the themes we’ve explored on this podcast in 2020.

I didn’t intend to launch a new podcast in the midst of a pandemic. But it turned out to be the ideal environment for a show about breaking down silos and seeing people in 3D.

The COVID-19 crisis of 2020 has actually been a series of overlapping and interconnected crises – a health crisis, an economic crisis, a racial justice crisis. Each of these emergencies played a role in instigating the others, and solving any one of them requires solving all of them. Taming the virus requires reduced business activity. The nation’s economic health depends on its physical health. Racial justice won’t become a reality unless we reduce economic and health inequities. Having 3D vision means seeing these intersections and solving them in ways that address people’s multifaceted lives.

I am a financial health champion, and my organization works to ensure everyone can be resilient and thrive. It might seem like financial health is about people’s financial lives, but that would be an example of narrow, silo’d thinking. To really improve financial health, we need to focus on the totality of people’s lives – their jobs, their health, their education, their housing, their transportation, the neighborhoods they live in, the quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink, their support networks, their family life.

In planning for the launch of this podcast, we sought out guests that represented the breadth of that ecosystem. A workplace culture and equity champion. A mayor. A banking regulator. A public health expert. Some of them I knew well; others I was meeting for the first time. As I reflect on the crazy year that was 2020, I have been thinking about how my podcast conversations help illuminate the silver linings that have emerged and that provide hope for 2021 and beyond.

Before I can talk about silver linings, though, I have to acknowledge the tragedies. More than 1 and a half million people around the world have died as a result of Covid this year, nearly 300,000 of them in the United States, and we continue to break daily records for new sickness and death. People have lost loved ones, they have lost livelihoods, and many are at risk of losing a safe place to lay their heads at night. They are hungry and lonely. Those suffering are more likely to be Black and brown, people who were already suffering from inequities centuries in the making, and who continue to suffer violence and death at the hands of law enforcement.

Managing through this staggering level of dislocation and uncertainty has been a true test of leadership – for business executives, for policymakers, for innovators. Most of us are hard-wired to categorize and simplify in order to make sense of the world around us. The stress of a crisis further narrows our field of vision, and we end up designing narrow solutions to complex, interconnected problems. The leaders I have been privileged to interview during these first few months of EMERGE Everywhere are flourishing during these challenging times precisely because of their ability to embrace complexity, demonstrate empathy, and act boldly. They see in 3D. And despite how bleak it has been, my guests have emerged as vital influencers forging a new brand of leadership to match the complex, interconnected challenges of our time.

Listen to Michael Bush, the CEO of Great Places to Work and one of my first guests, talk about the responsibility of employers to consider the full breadth of their workers’ interconnected challenges:

“You can’t look at us right now with COVID-19 going on and not know that a person’s worried about their physical health in a way they haven’t been before. That a person’s mental health has deteriorated. So we’ve done the survey, it’s continuing to deteriorate. And then when you’ve got physical health getting wobbly and mental health getting wobbly, guess what? Money matters more. Not from a Maslow point of view, it’s just real. It’s tangible. And so when things are wobbly, give me something to hold on to. Money does that. And then you throw in financial uncertainty about the future, which is what people are certainly dealing with now, you’ve got a crazy situation. And you can’t say you care about them if you aren’t talking with them and helping them with all of those things.”

Michael and the rest of my guests have identified what I see as three silver linings of this challenging year: Growing energy around stakeholder capitalism, racial equity and empathy.

The movement toward stakeholder capitalism pre-dated the pandemic. In 2019, nearly 200 members of The Business Roundtable signed a statement declaring that the purpose of a corporation is about caring for its customers, employees, suppliers and the communities in which it operates, in addition to its shareholders. When the pandemic hit the following year, corporate leaders had the opportunity to walk the talk. As some of my guests pointed out, not everyone rose to the occasion, but many did. Employers offered paid sick leave, child care stipends, hazard pay for front-line workers, and the opportunity to work from home. While some of these additional benefits have since been pulled back, the pandemic and the economic fallout that resulted has shone a spotlight on the importance of worker financial health and seeing employees in 3D, momentum I expect will continue into 2021 and beyond.

The killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other Black people provided similar momentum to the fight for racial justice. Nearly every podcast conversation I hosted touched on this topic. Melvin Carter, the first Black mayor of St. Paul, talked about being stopped by the police more than once, even after being elected, and how his decades-long fight for racial justice took on even greater meaning when George Floyd was killed in the city next door. Bill Bynum, the founder and CEO of HOPE in the Mississippi Delta, talked about his efforts to turn corporate statements of support for racial equity into commitments of capital to support Black businesses. Yanela Frias and Jamie Kalamarides, business leaders at Prudential, reflected on what it meant to them when their company issued a formal apology to the Black community for its role in systemic racism. Dr. Richard Besser, the CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a public health expert, railed against the injustice of health outcomes defined by what people look like and where they live.

What has stuck with me most is not what my guests are doing, but how they are doing it – with tremendous empathy. Simply put, they care about people – the people they serve, the people they work with, the people in this world struggling to get by every day – and they make it their business to listen, to understand, and to help.

Here is Mayor Carter on the role listening plays in his leadership approach:

“The truth is nobody’s suffering from a shortage of hearing from me these days, but in order for me to be most informed in what I say, I need to hear from you, right? I need to hear from our community members. But the same principle applies, in order for you to be most informed in what you tell me, you have to hear from your neighbors. You have to hear from somebody who lives in a different part of town or is a different age or a different culture, a different gender for you.

So our goal isn’t to sort of center me at the center. We have events all the time where people go, “I thought you were going to give a speech.” And I go, “No, I’m not, isn’t it great.” We’re all going to have a conversation with one another and we’re all going to learn from each other, we’re all going to build a truth kind of together that we’re going to own together and we’re going to walk this road together.”

Here’s Dan Schulman on listening as an act of empathy:

“I think you can’t really understand somebody else, maybe even yourself, if you don’t have a large degree of empathy, of putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. Another thing my dad always told me was we’re born with two ears and one mouth, and we should use them proportionately. And that was really his way of saying that you never know it all. You can always learn more. And the way to learn is through listening and putting yourself in somebody’s shoes.”

One of the ways we demonstrate empathy is by telling stories that create points of connection. Being stuck at home with everything virtual has forced us to find new ways to connect and build bridges. I believe that empathic leadership is often engendered by personal experience, and my guests all shared personal stories to help explain what influenced them and their leadership approach:Bill Bynum on his reverse migration as a child from New York to a small mill town in North Carolina called Bynum, likely named after the people who owned his ancestors.Dan Schulman on his mother taking him to civil rights marches in his stroller. Jelena McWilliams on her family losing everything during the war in the former Yugoslavia. Lisa Marsh Ryerson on following in her feminist mother-in-law’s footsteps to become a college president and live a life of service. Eliciting these stories from my guests and learning from them brings me great joy and has helped sustain me during these tough times.

If you have been inspired by the leaders featured on my podcast this year, I invite you to make a new year’s resolution to do some silo busting of your own. It may feel scary to think about pushing yourself out of a silo in the midst of a crisis. But maybe it’s the perfect time. Maybe we have no choice. In Chinese, the word crisis is actually two words put together – the word “danger”, and the word for “opportunity.” Right now we have the opportunity to learn from the past and rebuild our systems to be more functional, more humane, more equitable, more integrated. I believe it is not just our opportunity – it is our responsibility.

I am generally a glass half full person. And so, as we hurtle toward the end of the year, I can’t help but feel a sense of hope that we are moving into an era of healing and transformation. The leaders I have spoken to – and those who I’ve invited to join me for the first few episodes of the new year – are all focused on the future and are committed to action. I’m so excited for what’s ahead on EMERGE Everywhere. We will again be hearing from leaders across sectors about seeing people in 3D and breaking down silos. I hope you will join me and invite your friends and colleagues to listen.

Also, if you have enjoyed these conversations, please consider leaving a review on iTunes. Your feedback helps us make the most engaging podcast for you. You can also find me at @JenTescher on Twitter.

Happy holidays to you.