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Episode 425: More Than Words: Communications Practices of Courageous Leaders with Carrie Fox

Episode Summary

In this episode, Carrie Fox introduces the extraordinary concept of courageous leadership and its impact on social change. Carrie also discusses the motivation behind founding Mission Partners, its triple-bottom-line approach, which prioritizes people, planet, and purpose alongside profit, explains the benefit corporation concept, and more.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. As you know, we are so excited to have you join the Becoming Your Best podcast show. You’re the reason that we do this. We love your energy and the feedback that you give; it’s a delight for us. We have an awesome guest here with us today. Let me tell you just a little bit about her. She is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and a certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways. Her signature “More Than Words” approach to courageous communication has been documented in the Amazon best-selling book of the same name. So, welcome, Carrie Fox!

Carrie Fox: Thanks so much, Steve, for having me. It’s nice to be here with you.

Steve Shallenberger: So excited to have you. I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Carrie because I think it will give some context to our visit today. Her work really focuses deeply on issues of community, from social justice to sustainability, children’s health, higher education, and workforce development. These are all really big-time impacts on helping unleash the best that people have within themselves and contributing to a healthy world. These are a big deal. She’s had a lot of initiatives that really make a difference. I love that her signature conversation series and podcast, Mission Forward, has featured Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, MacArthur Fellows, and some of the nation’s most sought-after philanthropy leaders. She’s the author of “More Than Words: Communication Practices of Courageous Leaders” and Adventures in Kindness: 52 Awesome Adventures for Kids to Build a Better World.” So, these are fun things. So, Carrie, let’s get into it. I’d love to have you tell our listeners about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you.

Carrie Fox: Well, that sounds great. Thank you so much for that introduction. So, Steve, I grew up in Northern New Jersey. My mom was an elementary school teacher, and my dad was a small business owner. They instilled in me, very early, the power of service and civic engagement. My mom had us volunteering every weekend, any chance we could; she had us doing something in service of our community. She recognized that every single person can make an impact in this world, regardless of who you are, where you live, and what resources you have; you can do something to make the life of someone else better. My dad taught me that nothing was out of my reach and that values and living your values matter. I grew up, I went to Loyola University in Maryland, I became engaged in student government there, and I learned the concept of corporate social responsibility, and I realized that I wanted to do something that mattered. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I always have. I wanted to think about, if I go into business, I want that work to matter. I don’t know if I want to go to a nonprofit, but I want to do something that’s going to have a meaningful impact. Then, I got a job that would set me up for that course. My first job was the Director of Communications for Cal Ripken, Jr., who was, at the time, still playing baseball for the Orioles. He was getting ready for his retirement. I helped him start his foundation, and I traveled many times with him to Washington, DC, and the White House. I also thought about how he could use his brand and his platform to support the lives of other people. That really inspired so much in me. So, after a few years, I left what was called Ripken Baseball. I joined a public affairs firm in DC, and then I opened up my own shop when I was 25. So, about 20 years ago now.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s really exciting. What a background! Tell us what Mission Partners is.

Carrie Fox: Mission Partners is a social impact communications firm. We operate in a kind of unique spot, Steve. We are a public relations firm, but we operate at this interesting intersection where we are doing public relations, policy, and philanthropy. We think about those three actions as the three greatest levers to impact long-term change in the world: you need to have the money, you need to have the policies to support you to make sure that change can happen on a really big level, and you need to be able to tell the stories that move people; the stories that touch people at their core are the stories that move people to action. So, that’s what we have: the true honor of doing every day in support of many nonprofits and foundations all around the US.

Steve Shallenberger: Carrie, what does it mean to have a triple-bottom-line approach to business?

Carrie Fox: For those of your listeners who aren’t familiar with this idea of a B Corporation or a Benefit Corporation, it’s still a pretty new concept. I like to think about it as it sits between a traditional for-profit and a nonprofit. Instead of being driven by one bottom line, which is profit, we’re driven by a triple bottom line: we are thinking about people, planet, and purpose. And then, of course, we’re thinking about profit. But really, we’re thinking about what we do with that profit. How do we steward that profit to be able to support the world around us? With that triple bottom line, we have the freedom and the opportunity to then think about how we best support our people in our workplace. How do we create a workplace that’s mentally healthy and that can support people in thriving? We get to think about what impact we want to have on the world, and we get to think about how we want to distribute our resources so that everyone in the company can be in a wealth-building position, not just the people at the top.

Steve Shallenberger: So, a lot of companies struggle with how to evolve age-old business practices to be better for the world. So, how would you guide an organization to start when the process feels a little bit maybe overwhelming?

Carrie Fox: That’s a great question. There are two words that I think are so important, Steve, and I think you will appreciate this: “What if.” So many times, we think we need to do things because we’re supposed to do those things; we’re supposed to run our company in a certain way; we’re supposed to hit certain milestones. “If it worked for that company, it’s going to work for me.” Think about, though, instead, what you’re trying to advance in the world. If you exist to help people be their best, you do this very well. How much of your time is spent on doing just that? How can you experiment and evolve over time to increase that impact? Nothing about impact is immediate. It’s a long game, we like to say. But for someone who’s thinking, “How do I evolve these age-old practices?” start first by asking, “What if?” What if I just changed a little something? And then, what if I changed a little bit more? Before you realize it, you’ll look back and realize that you’ve climbed quite a few mountains to get to where you are.

Steve Shallenberger: Do you mind sharing with our listeners today, as you think about your work with Mission Partners, an example, if you’re able to, of how you help a company do that? How do you help them be successful? Whether it’s a social impact organization or a B Corporation. How can they be successful doing that? And what are some strategies you recommend to them?

Carrie Fox: I’m so glad you asked this. I’m going to give you an example of an organization that came to us wanting to have a purpose but not knowing what that purpose was because this can be pretty common for organizations. It was a mortgage company that came to us and said, “We are growing by leaps and bounds. We have a team all over the country. We are very profitable. But we don’t really know what our purpose is other than being the best at what we do. We are really strong at being a mortgage company, but we want this work to matter at a different level.” We took them through a process of determining what they wanted their legacy to be, what they wanted their long-term impact to be long after all of them had left the company, and what they would leave behind. That allowed them to think about where they were investing their resources, what would happen if they actually pooled those resources, and what kind of greater impact they’d have. At the end of the day, they cared about housing, they cared about affordable housing, and they cared about safe housing. They ended up actually launching a foundation that, over the last few years, has been able to make a meaningful impact in the communities where they operate. So, it went from knowing that they were delivering a business and service really well to delivering a business and service really well that will also have a long-term and lasting impact on their community.

Steve Shallenberger: Carrie, as you look back over your career, what are some of the most satisfying experiences that you’ve had?

Carrie Fox: I’ll tell you right away, one that always comes to mind. I had the great opportunity, Steve, to launch a campaign called Success Beyond 18. It was launched several years ago in response to some issues that were happening in the foster care system and child welfare in the US. So, at the time, about 40,000 young people every year were aging out of care on their 18th birthday. For many people, on their 18th birthday, their time in foster care simply comes to an end. If you can think back to your 18th birthday, you probably weren’t ready to be totally out on your own. No family, no bank account, no job, no place to live — that was the common experience for young people aging out of care. So, we launched a campaign that was designed to change federal and state policy to support a young person and their ability to stay in foster care in loving and supportive families for a few more years through the age of 25. That Success Beyond 18 campaign resulted in more than 25 states changing the law and several thousand young people having a better shot at long-term success in life. I’m really proud of what that did because of the great impact it had on people.

Steve Shallenberger: It’s not a piece of cake to do that. You had to have this inspiring idea from your background and experience that this was something important to do. From a leadership point of view, taking ideas that we all have, as we all know, if you can have an idea, especially something that’s passionate and meaningful to you and you feel like makes a difference, that’s transformational. But then you have to make it a reality. So, how did you take that idea, which is so cool, and make it a reality? What was the process like? That’s a lot of effort — that many states. How did you do it?

Carrie Fox: There was an incredible team that came together. I started first with a nonprofit that, at the time, was called the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. The leader at the time of that organization had one line that ended up serving as the basis for all of the campaign. He said, “This is an issue we can literally wrap our arms around.” There are a lot of issues that feel intractable. But if you think about 40,000 young people, you could change the trajectory of every single one of their lives with a state-by-state approach. It wasn’t us that went state by state to all of the offices of elected officials; we actually engaged young people who were in foster care, who were willing and wanted to tell their own personal stories about what it was like in care and the benefit of what it would be like to be able to stay in care a bit longer. Steve, at the end of the day, it was their stories that changed the trajectory of the field. There’s still a lot to do in this field, I will tell you that. There is still a lot of important work to do. But it came down to people who had really powerful stories and were willing to use their voices for change. That, I think, is also a really important piece of this, Steve: so many of us underestimate the value of our own voice. I think this campaign was a great example that our voices have much more power than I think many times we realize.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s an inspiring way to leverage that whole thing and make a difference. Of course, I wrote a book; we talked about this, and you know about “Becoming Your Best: The 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders.” You wrote a book on the practices of courageous leaders, and not surprisingly, there’s a lot of commonality between these books and their principles. We didn’t discover them; we’re just able to describe them. But the impact is absolutely predictable every time: it ends up having a positive impact, helping us be more successful. Tell us about the practices in your book and how you came about developing them.

Carrie Fox: I’m happy to do that. First, I will show you what’s on my desk that I absolutely love is my copy of your book. So, thank you for turning me on to this great resource. I’m really enjoying it, and I plan to share it with a lot of people. But you are right; there’s so much in common between your approach and mine. In More Than Words, I’ve got four practices, and I have built them over these 20 years of watching highly effective, compassionate, courageous leaders and what they have in common. The four things that I found they have in common are that they are willing to dare, specifically, dare to ask. They’re willing to question assumptions. They’re willing to challenge the norms; just because something’s always been a way doesn’t mean it has to be that way. So, I really love and admire that about courageous leaders are willing to ask and dare to ask, specifically. The second piece: they’re willing to dig in. Superficial commitments do not create lasting change. To make your work matter, what I have found is the most courageous leaders are willing to dig into the work; they’re willing to learn alongside their team. They’re willing to say, “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out together.” I love that the most courageous leaders will say, “I don’t have the answers, but I’m willing to dig in and figure it out and do it together as part of a team.” So, that’s number two: digging in. Third is widening your lens. It’s easy, Steve, to get stuck in this head-down mentality. What I have learned is that courageous leaders both look inward, truly inward at themselves, but they also look outward. They seek to learn beyond their existing network, beyond their existing LinkedIn network, and beyond who they know, the like-minded network they might operate in; they really are willing to challenge and go outside of that network to learn and find solutions that might apply to their work.

Carrie Fox: The last one, maybe it’s the most common sense, but the most important, is follow through. Courageous leaders won’t say something and then walk away from it; they will do what they say they’re going to do over and over again. Those are the four principles. What I have found is that those are principles you can learn, apply, and hone. It’s a practice. Becoming your best or becoming a courageous leader is really a practice; you must do it day in and day out.

Steve Shallenberger: Lovely thought. Just a little question on that, expanding on one of those. It has a significant impact, and that is maintaining strong relationships and expanding your network. How have you found, Carrie, the best ways to not only maintain strong relationships and nurture those and keep those alive but also expand your network? What are some of the tricks of the trade?

Carrie Fox: Well, here’s my favorite trick of the trade, Steve. When I meet someone I really admire—expect that I might do this to you—I say, “I love learning from you and having you in my network. Who do I not know that I should? And would you be willing to introduce me?”

Steve Shallenberger: Wow, that’s a good one.

Carrie Fox: You’re constantly expanding your network, and you’re using those you admire to help you meet folks that you don’t know today.

Steve Shallenberger: How do you nurture that? Once somebody recommends somebody, how do you approach them? What does that look like?

Carrie Fox: Pure sense of curiosity. It gives me a chance. If you admire them, Steve, then there’s something in them that I can learn from, too. I try to learn something from everyone. I try to learn something new every day. I was just listening to one of your episodes, actually, about happiness and how you find happiness. To me, how I find happiness in being curious and learning something new every day.

Steve Shallenberger: In addition to running a social impact communications firm, you host a podcast. You’re an old hand at these. You’re probably just laughing under your breath here and saying, “Oh, man, look at this guy go.”

Carrie Fox: Hey, you’ve got like 480 episodes, Steve. You’re doing a lot of things right over there.

Steve Shallenberger: That is a few, isn’t it? But you’re also writing a weekly newsletter, and you’ve written kids’ books and business books. So, I have two questions. The first question is, how do you maintain a positive, happy balance in your life? Because I can tell just from visiting with you that you’re a positive, happy person. So, let’s deal with that one first, and then I’ve got one follow-up question.

Carrie Fox: Life can be so hard, and it’s easy to get lost in the hard. It’s also really fun to find joy in it. I’m the mom of two wonderful daughters, a fifth-grader and an eighth-grader, who both experienced elementary school through COVID, and came through that with some difficulties but came through it. I just keep thinking, Steve, my goodness, this life is short, and if we’re not going to find joy in it, learn from each other, and leave it better than we found it, then what’s the point of it all? I guess that’s just my outlook: there’s always something to be inspired by, and there’s always someone to be inspired by and to keep us moving forward. If I think about the work, it’s so interesting. “Adventures in Kindness” was the first book I wrote, and I wrote it with my daughter when she was 10. I say that I have a kindness book for kids, and I have a kindness book for adults, which is the “More Than Words” book. Isn’t that what we all need? We all need to build a practice where we are a little softer around the edges, where we’re a little more willing to give people grace and support. Maybe, if anything, if I think about what I’m doing in this life, I’m just trying to be a mirror back to all of the incredible people that I see in front of me.

Steve Shallenberger: I love that attitude. Certainly, one of the most wonderful thoughts around that we can ponder, reflect, and believe in is that our best is yet to be. You’ve done a lot of really amazing things. How do you cultivate that spirit for you, the belief that the best is yet to be? Do you feel that way?

Carrie Fox: I do feel that way. It’s hard to say the best is behind us; what’s the fun in that? Of course, the best is yet to be. Every day, we’ve got a chance to do something new, to try something new, to meet someone new. There’s so much ahead of us. There’s a little quote frame downstairs, right in the hallway of our house, that says, “This day will fly by unless you stop and pause and actually appreciate it.” How often that happens: I’ll look at the calendar, and I’ll realize, “Oh my gosh, this day went by, and I didn’t even pause to realize this day will never happen again.” So, it’s nice just to ground ourselves as much as we can because life is short, and it goes fast.

Steve Shallenberger: It does. It’s a great feeling to have that belief. I know that you’re doing that. It’s part of your nature, I’ll bet, to say, “Okay, I’ve been blessed with so many great experiences.” And you’re thinking, “Okay, I know, there are still some really great ways I can keep building upon that experience to have a greater impact.” You’re not stressed out over it. It’s just a feeling.

Carrie Fox: I just don’t want to show you my stress, Steve.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, whether you’re a parent, a coach, or whatever, we look at our children—I’m a grandparent—and think, “How can I do better?” Some people, as they grow older, think, “Well, I’ve pretty well done it.” But we can never underestimate the influence that we have. Like Carrie was just saying, to the very last day, we’re blessed to live. Maybe some of that very best isn’t about a book we wrote or anything else, but it’s how we lived right to the end and that we keep trying, and that inspires others to keep trying.

Carrie Fox: Absolutely. I believe really firmly in the butterfly effect, Steve. The actions we take will impact the actions of others. So, we might as well make those actions good ones because they might have an impact on the person who takes them and does something with them.

Steve Shallenberger: Carrie, if you were sitting back and having the opportunity to visit with your children about their future, or about just some people in general, and you were thinking about your life lessons and wanted to leave them with some of the best messages that you could, what are some of the most important life lessons you’ve had that you think would help them?

Carrie Fox: It goes back to the first life lessons that were instilled in me: know what you stand for and know what you don’t stand for; both are important to know. Find something that you love, something that makes you happy, and run after it, even if others say it’s not going to be possible. So many people, Steve, told me I could never build a business supporting nonprofits. They said, “You will fail in your first year.” And I said, “Let me prove it. Let me prove that I can do something here.” So, if you believe firmly in it, don’t have somebody else stop you from advancing that dream. Maybe the last piece is that you are capable of so much more than you realize. I think we are all capable of more than we realize.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. Well, we’re at the end of our interview, and I loved it. It’s been so fun. You are amazing.

Carrie Fox: Well, thank you. Thank you for everything you do and for what you have inspired in millions of people.

Steve Shallenberger: Any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners today?

Carrie Fox: Just on that point, people are capable of more than they realize. I write this weekly article, and the piece that I’m holding on to this week is in an article that I released just earlier today. When we are talking, it is at the start of March Madness. It is the start of basketball season. There is a viral video that has been going around for quite some time now from the head women’s basketball coach at Duke, a woman named Kara Lawson, who has this incredible four-minute video. She talks about how if you’re waiting for life to get easier, it won’t. Life doesn’t get easier; you learn to handle hard better. I love that. I just love it. So, this idea that we are capable of so much more, that your best is yet to come, and that you are—every day as you grow stronger—capable of more than you realize.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s an awesome thought. I don’t want to put you on the spot, bo you remember the coach’s name?

Carrie Fox: Kara Lawson.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s it. She’s amazing, isn’t she?

Carrie Fox: She’s amazing.

Steve Shallenberger: She’s a fireball. It’s fun to watch her. How can people find out about what you’re doing?

Carrie Fox: Head over to MissionForward.us, that’s where you can find the podcast, book, and all of our other resources. You can also find me on LinkedIn: Carrie Fox PR.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, it’s been a delight to have you on the show today. Thank you, and congratulations for all the good work you’re doing.

Carrie Fox: Thanks so much, Steve.

Steve Shallenberger: To our listeners, I hope that you picked out some things that are inspiring for you today; I have. I love having the chance, the privilege, and the honor of being able to host this show and be together with you. I have a sense, and I can feel it from Carrie that she feels the same way. It’s a real trust because we know that you’re going out and applying these skills to make the world a better place. So, thank you so much for joining us. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off and wishing you a great day.

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, Entrepreneur, and Community Leader

Carrie Fox

Founder and CEO at Mission Partners

Founder and CEO at Mission Partners, Podcaster, Author

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