Corner Office Q&A: Joyce Russell

Joyce Russell started her career at Adecco in 1987 as a branch manager, and over the next 30 years, held a number of leadership positions, including president of Adecco USA from 2004 to 2018. In 2019, she was appointed to her current role as president of the Adecco Group US Foundation.

At its core, staffing is about people. And while Joyce Russell certainly knows how to grow a business, her superpower is finding the best people, fertilizing them, and watching them grow. As the daughter of a tomato farmer, she knows a thing or two about how to reap a fruitful harvest.

In fact, her delightful book, Put a Cherry on Top: Generosity in Life & Leadership, starts with her childhood in Florida, where her roots in “fertilizing” began. The rest is all about helping people and going the extra mile, whether it’s showing a client you’re the only one for the job, or the importance of rewarding a rock star team member for excellent performance.

But with Joyce, the cherry on top is the extra effort and attention to detail that make everything just a little bit better.  A cherry on top expresses love and appreciation for others. Joyce has been known as “the quintessential people person in the people industry,” and she shows recognition by listening and then supporting the people and causes she cares about.

Monster had a conversation with Russell over Zoom recently, to ask about the secrets of her success, and the work she’s doing with the Adecco Group US Foundation.

What qualities do you think helped you rise from branch manager to president of a global organization like Adecco?

I never planned to be the president of a $2.3 billion business when I joined Adecco. I just had a plan to do the very best at the job I was in, and then to put a cherry on top. And, to perform better than anybody would have expected.

How did you first get your start at Adecco?

I had just moved to Charlotte, North Carolina and joined a small staffing company called Adia. In 1996, Adia merged with Ecco and became Adecco. At that time, there were two regional banks in Charlotte. One called NCNB which is now Bank of America, and the other was First Union, now Wells Fargo.

I feel like I joined the right company at just the right time, and I was able to capitalize on the growth of the Charlotte market. My philosophy was, in order to own the market, I had to own the best places to work, and the banks were among the best places to work in Charlotte.

What’s your magic formula for growing great teams?

It starts with taking your time to hire the best people and making sure they are a good fit for the position and the culture of the company.  Second, make the investments of time and resources to train and develop new colleagues, and work side by side every day role-modeling the behavior you expect.  Third, reward and recognize performance.  And then of course, have a ton of fun along the way!

Were there any mentors who had a big impact on you as you grew at Adecco?

I got really lucky. A retired Army brigadier general named Ray Roe came to run our company. The COO job came up, and I didn’t think I’d get it because all of the other candidates were men.  I interviewed for the job, and to my surprise, he picked me to be the Chief Operating Officer.  It was one of the pivotal times in my career.

Ray had an amazing way of teaching some of the lessons he learned from his years in the military. He explained that our regional vice presidents are like battalion commanders in the Army. He said “You will not win the war alone, Joyce. Your battalion commanders, your regional vice presidents in the field decide whether you take the hill or not. They have the direct relationships with the people in the field. So, your goal is to make sure they’re the right leaders and that they can influence their teams to take the hill for you.”

How did you differentiate yourself and Adecco as you kept growing the business?

I firmly believe what I talk about in chapter four of the book: service never goes out of style. If you are always focused on the customer’s success versus your own, then your business will grow.

We were focused on making the best possible matches for the client, and in helping clients solve their most pressing problems.  I believe in over-delivering in terms of quality and service, and always going above and beyond what is expected.

So, how do you go above and beyond?

I think the main thing, and that’s where the title of my book “Put a Cherry on Top” comes from, is to create a service mentality. In our industry, there are three things: the quality of the product, the service that’s delivered, and the value that you see in those two components.

Here’s an example from the field: We have a customer in Memphis, and the work is always on the third shift. Most of the associates are mothers doing data entry in the middle of the night. We know those moms have put their kids to bed and have left their home and family to go to work. We decided to surprise our associates at 3:00 am with donuts from Krispy Kreme. Most services aren’t doing that. They aren’t going out in the middle of the night to make sure their workers know how much they are appreciated.

That’s just one example, but we’re constantly thinking about how the employees or associates might be impacted by making a little extra effort and putting the cherry on top. Right now, we’re doing that with the foundation and putting the cherry on top with reskilling.

What inspired you to shift gears and lead the foundation?

I’d been leading the Adecco Staffing business for 14 years. The company has foundations in Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain.  They were very interested in establishing a foundation in the United States, and they asked me to lead that effort. In January 2019, we launched the Adecco Group US Foundation, and I am very proud of the work we are doing.

What did you decide were the three things you wanted to focus on?

We created three pillars, and you won’t believe what we picked. Remember, this was two and a half years ago. The first one is upskilling and reskilling. The second one is women’s leadership, and workplace equality and inclusion. And the third is giving back in our local communities – charitable giving.

In terms of reskilling and upskilling, we want to provide an opportunity for workers to learn new skills and to be ready for the future of work.

We looked at where businesses are going and what skills would be lacking, and we created a free academy called Aspire. Courses include medical billing and coding, administrative careers, call center, welding, and supervisor training, all for free! We’ve identified over 20 technical skills that are going to be needed to be relevant in the workforce.

Are you also creating courses for other skills?

Yes. We are now thinking about the soft skills, or what I prefer to call human skills: communication, problem solving, conflict resolution, growth mindset, and stress management. We want to expand the academy for the human skills. I believe that’s going to take people faster to their next career than even the technical skills.

Many companies are trying to find ways to help women and other caregivers rebound after COVID-19. This sounds like one way to achieve that.

In the last year, nearly three million women have dropped out of the workforce to take care of their children, help with homeschooling, or to take care of aging parents. As someone who’s been caring for aging parents this last year, I understand that it’s not easy. I feel like we’re really going to have to give women more when they return to the workplace to get them caught up from what they missed in the last 18 months.

My brain is already spinning about how we can accelerate that, or how we can offer opportunities that aren’t in the typical timeframe. For example, if someone says, “I can only work after 9:00pm because I need to get my children to bed and then work”, how can we put courses online with instructors at night so they can do this work to accommodate them? I’m trying to be innovative and creative around that.

Do you think the world will embrace remote work in a bigger way after COVID-19? 

I think it’s going to be a hybrid model. I don’t think it will be 100% remote. If you think about banking, I do some of my banking online, but sometimes I need to go into a branch. So, I think there’s going to be a hybrid model of how that looks, depending on the business. Some businesses can be completely digital, and some might be a higher-touch model.

When it comes to empowering women at work, you’ve said that you prefer the sponsorship model over mentorship. Can you explain what that means?

I like both, and they’re both important. But there is a huge difference between sponsorship and mentorship. Mentorship is more about spending time with someone and giving them career guidance and advice. Sponsorship is when you “put your name on someone” and your credibility behind them. You are essentially vouching for that person with your reputation.

Your book, “Put a Cherry on Top: Generosity in Life & Leadership” came out last year and it’s got so many great stories about yourself personally, but also about the secrets of your success. Why did you write the book now?

For over 30 years, I had all these little vignettes and stories that I had filed away, but I never had time running the business to write a book. Sarah Davis and I worked together for most of my career, and we had often talked about writing a book, but we had never actually gotten around to it.  In 2019, we were finally able to put some of the stories to paper, and the book was published in March 2020, right before the world shut down with the COVID-19 pandemic.

You shared some of your industry secrets in this book. Why did you decide to share so much?

I wanted to tell the story in an honest and authentic way, and part of that is sharing what actually happened. I didn’t change the narrative. Rather, it is my hope that others can learn from my experiences, and I wanted to share everything.

There’s a sense from reading your book that staffing is about more than just building a billion-dollar businesses to you. You talk a lot about purpose.

Every time we made a match, we were helping the customer be more successful. It wasn’t just about increasing revenue. It’s about how you can you help your customer achieve their goals AND connect someone to a great job.  I was always excited about the impact we made by connecting great talent to great companies.

Do you feel a renewed sense of purpose now, being part of the industry that’s rebuilding the world’s workforce?

I do. I think we’ll make a big mark after COVID-19. Getting America back to work, getting the world back to work. Our industry is always first to come back. People bring contingent or flexible labor back first because they’re not sure what the market will bear. We’re going to be on the front line of helping America rebound. And that feels good.

I love my job. I hope that shines through.  At this point in my life, I am enjoying my role as Chairman of the American Staffing Association. And most of all, I am passionate about the work we are doing and the difference we are making in the foundation – it’s the cherry on top of my career!

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