Episode 47: The Underrated Power of Thinking Big

Learn how JeVon McCormick went from a troubled past to a triumphant career in business, plus hear how your thoughts have the power to shape your future on Keep Connected.

Episode 47 with JeVon McCormick

JeVon McCormick has a success story for the ages. The son of an orphaned sex worker and a drug dealer, JeVon grew up poor in the 1970s without reliable access to food, water, and electricity. Experiencing an identity crisis and lack of belonging as a mixed-race person, he also faced long periods of abandonment and several stints in juvenile prison. Today, JeVon is not only a mentor to high-risk youth, but the CEO of Scribe, a publisher whose company culture has been ranked #1 in the United States. Named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, Jevon is also the best-selling author of Modern Leader, in parts memoir and outside-the-box business strategy. JeVon and David sit down to discuss personal definitions of success, the connections between possibility and responsibility, as well as the corporate world’s changing tides in regard to the leadership “playbook.”

Watch a recording of Episode 47 of Keep Connected with JeVon McCormick

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Show Notes

In this episode, we talked to JeVon McCormick. He’s the author of Modern Leader, number three on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list. This is someone who was ranked as the top CEO in Austin, someone who grew up in a very different life from what he leads right now, and who understands how he got there. You are going to learn a lot in this episode. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

JeVon, welcome.

What’s going on?

I love talking the first time we met. I was blown away because one of the things how I personally define success is not where you are, but it’s where you started off, where you are right now, and the difference between the two. Often, some people say to me things like, “David, you are so successful.” I’m like, “No, I’m not.”

I grew up in a wealthy area. I went to a private school. I had tremendous amounts of privilege and opportunity, and I’m doing a lot of the things that a lot of those people ended up having a very easy path to. You did not. You are my definition of success of where you had started off in life with some credible DNA and perseverance. Where you are now is amazing. Let’s start off with a little bit about JeVon’s childhood and teenage years. Talk to us a little bit and we’ll go from there.

Let me hit on that for a second because what I also find interesting is when people start talking about success. I feel what’s happened in our society is we started allowing other people to define success for us. Some people may define success as, “I make $36,000 a year and I live in a tiny house out in the middle of nowhere.” If that’s your definition, beautiful.

We so often look at money and material things. What if I’m on the Forbes 400 but my definition of success was to be a phenomenal father and I have been an absent father? I have not been around. Am I successful or am I just wealthy? Where I get caught up in that sometimes is people will look at me and say, “He’s so successful.” By what measure? Unless you ask me what my definition of success is, I may not be a success.

I love what you are saying because the reality is someone could be their entire goal is to be a great parent and nothing else matters, and that’s beautiful. For them, that’s success and all power to them. Let’s hear your definition of success. Clearly, it’s not materialistic, but please.

We can get into the story and we’ll talk about success and how I define that. At ten years old, my dad was a Black pimp and drug dealer back in the 1970s. He put women on a street corner, they sold their bodies, and my dad took every dollar. My dad is Black and my mom is White. My mom was a prostitute. Going a little deeper with my mom, she also was raised in a 1950s institutional orphanage. When she turned seventeen years old, they gave her $20 and a small suitcase and said, “Good luck. There’s the world.” She had never even seen a streetlight. My dad also along the way managed to father 23 children, so I’m one of 23. That’s why I came into the world.

I was born in 1971. I don’t have to tell folks who were alive during that time period that being mixed race in the ’70s was not a good look. Black people didn’t like me because I was half White. White people didn’t like me because I was half Black. You run into this identity crisis. You are trying to be accepted, welcomed and belong, and all the while you are floundering. I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t want to be half White. There were times I didn’t want to be half Black. I was like, “Can I be one or the other,” but it wasn’t the case.

Growing up, a pregnant prostitute is no good to a pimp. My dad pretty much washed his hands of us. I would see him 3 to 4 times a month maybe if he came and picked me up if he followed through. My mom and I grew up poor. I call it US poor or American poor because there’s a big difference between growing up poor in this country and somewhere else.

KCM 47 | Thinking Big
Thinking Big: There’s a big difference between growing up poor in this country and elsewhere.

Growing up poor in the US is more privileged than in other third-world countries. We have some electricity.

There were times we didn’t have water. We didn’t have electricity. We had a roof over our heads, but we didn’t always have water, electricity or food. I always make the joke that my mom and I never had these four things at the same time, money, food, electricity or water. We were always missing 1 or 2 of those things.

I didn’t even bother putting the telephone on there. That was the ultimate luxury. There was no telephone. I grew up poor. I was in and out of juvenile prison three different times. I’m very specific when I say this, Juvenile prison. People have to stop saying juvie and juvenile detention. They are trying to make it less than what it is. It’s a prison for kids. The only difference is you are under eighteen. That is it but it is prison. I was sexually molested by one of my dad’s prostitutes at the ages of 6, 7 or 8 years old. She used to force me to perform oral sex for her. If I didn’t do it right, she would smack me in the face, punch me in the head, and tell me to do it right.

I was abandoned with three of my half brothers and sisters for three weeks in a house. No one knew we were there. That was February in Dayton, Ohio. I was supposed to be in school. No one came looking for us. No one knew we were there. I would go down to the store, steal food, and bring it back so my brothers and sisters could eat.

When I got reunited with my mother at the age of fifteen, she took me to school to register. I’m fifteen. I’m supposed to be a sophomore in high school, and they are registering me for these classes. The counselor says a word that I had never heard before. She goes, “You are supposed to be in geometry. I had never heard that word before, let alone know what it was.

I get into these classes, and six weeks later, I got all Ds and Fs. They figure out, “This kid is not too bright.” My mom takes me and has me tested. I’m testing on a 5th and 6th-grade level. Needless to say, my senior year rolls around. I don’t have enough credits. I don’t graduate. I end up having to get my GED during summer school. I never went to college and here I am.

Here you are. Just to make sure people realize who you are, and then we’ll go into success because this is not success. You’re the CEO of Scribe, a top publishing company, former president of a software business, ranked as the number one CEO in the US by a publication, top culture builder in an organization, and author of two books including the most recent book. Walk me through success. Give me your definition right here because I’m dying to hear it.

In between everything that I shared, when I was ten years old, my dad decided to take the pimp game down to Houston, Texas. On one occasion, my dad was driving me through an ultra-affluent neighborhood called River Oaks, $10 million, $15 million and $25 million homes. He didn’t say anything. I don’t know if he was driving through there for himself or if he was driving through there to show me, but no words were spoken. What it did is it showed me the possibility and I had never seen homes that big. I didn’t even know things like that existed. It showed me what was possible.

Herein lies part of the blessing that I have looked back upon and realized. If you are born into a two-parent home, you’re middle class or upper middle class, maybe both your parents went to college and maybe they both work or maybe one stays home, whatever the case may be, you start to develop what you are around. You see, “Here’s the routine. Go to school, get good grades, go to college, buy a home, three-bedroom, two and a half baths, make a little bit more money, buy a bigger house, and go on a two-week vacation.”

If you’re born into a two-parent home, middle class or upper middle class, whatever the case may be, you start to develop what you’re around and see the routine.

The beauty for me was I never saw the middle class. I was an American poor and knew what it was like to live in poverty and not have food. At ten years old, I got introduced to $10 million to $15 million homes that one family lived in. The beauty in that is I never knew what the middle class looked like. I went from, “I’m poor. I want to have one of those one day.” I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what I was going to do to get it, but that became the mission. I wanted one of those big homes.

Why do you think you had that mission? I wonder if your 22 other siblings would have seen those homes and they didn’t say, “I want that.”

Think of it this way. We can speak right now. I appreciate that question because I have been high on this. It bothered me. This is going on right now, this very minute moment. If you live in Chicago on the South Side or West Side, Chicago is so bad right now that it has been nicknamed Chiraq. If I’m a five-year-old kid up to the age of maybe 15 or 16 years old, and every day I’m seeing murders, shootings, incarceration, poverty, drug use, and this is what I’m seeing every day.

Think about how basic this is right here. Where does a kid learn growing up that they could one day be a forest ranger? Think about this, a forest ranger. The average starting salary for a forest ranger is about $40,000 a year. If I’m growing up in Chiraq, I don’t even know that a career out in nature with trees and fresh air exists. The problem that you have and to your point is how am I supposed to aspire to become something when I don’t even know what’s possible or available to me?

The big difference for me is I got to see those houses. Think of this, if you are a thirteen-year-old little girl and you are living in a low-income community public housing and you live with your grandmother who had four kids by three different men. Your mother lives in the same apartment. Your mother had five kids by four different men, what do you think is going to happen to the thirteen-year-old little girl?

The problem that you see with a lot of individuals in low-income communities is we don’t know what’s possible, and that becomes a major roadblock. People can say, “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” Think about it. I got to have boots to pull myself up by the bootstraps. I didn’t even have boots so it’s a BS comment when I hear stuff like that. How am I supposed to aspire to become something when I don’t even know what’s possible?

KCM 47 | Thinking Big
Thinking Big: The problem with many individuals in low-income communities is that we don’t know what’s possible, which becomes a major roadblock.

There’s something around the resilience that you had that you may not want to admit up to, but that was truly unique and special.

It has taken me years. I always had this belief that I did it. I’m not special. Other people can do it. Over the years, I have taken a little bit of ownership of maybe there is a little something different about me. I got to keep coming back to this point of it. I mentor high-risk youth. These youth are coming from the juvenile prison system to the halfway house back into society. I go in and I ask these boys, I said, “Tell me the difference between rich and wealthy.” They looked at me like, “What’s the difference?”

I said to them, “I can spend rich. You can’t spend wealth because wealth is generational.” They didn’t know the difference. We then went a level deeper. Watched this. I said, “Tell me who you all think is wealthy.” You hear Lil Wayne, Drake, and LeBron in there. I said, “Let’s go with Drake because everybody here knows who Drake is.”

I said, “On Drake’s best day, he’s worth $600 million.” I’m probably giving him a few extra $100 million when I say this. I said, “Nothing to sneeze at. That’s a lot of money. We are here in Austin. How many of you know who Michael Dell is? He’s here. Dell Computers is here.” Some of them knew. I said, “Let me explain this to you. Michael Dell is worth $53.6 billion. Drake is 0.6 in his wealth. When you are going to think, think big because it takes the same amount of effort to think small as it does to think big. The problem is no one has explained that to them.

They see Drake, entertainers, rappers and athletes. Let’s boil that down. I don’t want to step on anybody’s dream. Go get your dream. Do everything you have to do to get your dream. However, no one told us or no one told me about the power of entrepreneurship. No one said that I could be an executive. The percentages are so much greater and in your favor to be successful in business than it is as an athlete.

The percentages are so much greater and in your favor to be successful in business than it is as an athlete.

Patrick Mahomes, quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. He signed a ten-year $450 million contract. Everybody is like, “Oh my God.” Many people are blown away when they hear that. What I look at is there are 53 players on the team. His contract is for $450 million, so there are 52 other players that are also making $1 million or at least $500,000 a year for the league minimum. Who’s paying that payroll? That would be the owner. I want to focus on the owner and what money they are making. They are making money off the stadium concessions. When games aren’t even playing, they are still making money from concerts and everything else because they own the stadium. That’s what I want to focus on.

It’s important to educate especially in poorer urban environments about the power of business and entrepreneurship to lift so many people up. We are going to get back to success still because I understand the spark of it was seeing those homes. That sparked it, but that’s not your definition.

My definition for me, and I have all three, is I am healthy and happy. You’ll hear people say this, “I’m trying to find happiness. I can’t find happiness.” Do you know why? It’s because it is not hiding from you. Stop looking. “I can’t find it.” It’s not hiding. It’s not around the corner. You have to go create happiness. When I hear people say it, I’m like, “Listen to what you are saying, ‘I can’t find happiness.’” It’s because it’s not lost.

It’s not going to pop out of the sky and be like, “I caught happiness. Now I’m happy.”

“It showed up last night.”

“I was waiting. I knew if I stayed up to 3:00 AM watching reruns of I Love Lucy, I get happiness.”

Health, happiness and I’m financially well off. A lot of my definition did come by way of wanting to succeed in business and wanting to be financially successful. I am incredibly blessed now. I live in a gated community. My kids go to a private Christian school. We are able to go to Disney World. We have a private tour guide. In the US, I come from nothing.

I know what it’s like to pull a half-eaten cheeseburger out of the trash, and then take some of the fries to put in your pocket so that night when you are lying in bed, you can eat some of those cold fries because you know there’s no food at home. The gated community, I don’t say that out of arrogance. I have worked my butt off to be able to have those things for myself and my family. For me, I have hit my definition of success. I have a wonderful wife. I always share my mistakes. Here’s what’s key to this. I’m 50 years old and this is the first healthy relationship I have ever had.

There are a number of people that I know who had the first relationship and it didn’t work out. They had changed as a person and then are with a person, and it’s an amazing relationship. It is such a key criterion. Is that the case for you or would you not say that’s the case?

There is some truth to what you said there, but what happened to me is when I had made some good money and then I lost it all, and I was broke.

Was that in the mortgage days?

It was in 2007. I’m broke. All the money I made was gone. I always make the joke I was negative broke because I had to borrow money from my stepdad. What was key is I had a conversation out loud with myself in the mirror. It’s not just talking with myself in my head but out loud. I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, “You are just like your dad.” I didn’t respect women. I was a monster in relationships. I was so derogatory.

You have no mom. You have no model to look for.

I realized that and I said to myself, “How did this happen?” I was like, “My dad was a pimp. I saw how he treated women.” My mom, I never saw anyone respect my mom. Here was the key at that moment. Many people especially in this country right now want to fall back and say, “I didn’t have any examples. It wasn’t my fault.” I said, “No.” Here’s why. Now, what are you going to do? There’s no blame. That’s what I was born into, but it is up to me now to change and go where I want to go.

KCM 47 | Thinking Big
Thinking Big: It is up to us to change and go where we want to go.

Something about you which is incredible is there are some people that have a strong external locus of control and other people with a strong internal locus of control. You are an extremist in a good way when it comes to internal locus like, “I could control my health. I’m going to wake up at 3:45 AM to workout.” You are going to control your health. You are going to do everything that you possibly can to control and facilitate your happiness. You can’t control everything. We all know that. Man plans, God laughs, but you do everything you can to help to directly influence things.

I live by this, “Control what you can.” You are right. We can’t control everything and at the end of the day, none of us is in control, but control what you can. I can control getting up every day at 3:45 and going to the gym. I can control that when the alarm goes off. Here’s what hit me maybe back in my twenties, life is choices.

None of us are in control of everything, but it is up to us to choose how we will approach everything.

Every day, it starts with the first thing. When you wake up, you have a choice. Am I going to wake up positive or am I going to wake up negative? I don’t care if you are on death row. You have a choice when you wake up on how you are going to see the day. What I figured out is it is up to me to choose how I’m going to approach everything. Am I going to go all out? Am I going to go all in? Am I going to be negative and see the world from a negative perspective? Am I going to see the greatness of the world? Even now, I turn on the lights at home and I smile. There was a time period when I flip the switch and they didn’t turn on.

My first home that we lived in for the first ten years was a ranch. It was a small ranch house. For many years, every time I walked up the stairs, I felt happiness. I was like, “I have more bedrooms. I have more space,” and it gave me that happiness. Part of that was also that I feel like I created it. It wasn’t like my parents gave me the money. I created it.

When I graduated from college, my parents were like, “That’s it. You are off,” and I haven’t gotten any money from my parents since then. That was very important to my definition of happiness, to be able to do that. I love your three areas, health, and happiness. My one statement on success is finding joy in your day-to-day life while still setting yourself up for medium to long-term happiness. If you are always waiting to find happiness in the future, that’s not good.

If you are looking at hedonistic life and this second joy, that’s not good. You need to have that joy day to day. The amount of time that you are able to do that, that to me is successful. Anyone could define joy however they want. Anyone could define medium to long-term happiness however they want. Health is a subset of happiness and wealth is a subset of happiness. I love all the work that you’ve been doing and helping so many people.

I heard this phrase and it is so true. Maybe it hits you more. I’m 50 so maybe it hit me differently. It said, “The healthy person has many desires. The sick person has one.” I was like, “That’s the truth.” It hit me because I am healthy. I’m able to have many desires, but if I have got stage three cancer and I got three young children, I got one desire. Get healthy so I can be here for my family. That spoke volumes to me. If I got my health, everything else is my choice to figure out, “What are we going to do?”

When you say health, I think of both physical health and also mental health. They are incredibly related. I remember hearing a therapist talking and he said, “Before I give prescriptions,” and I’m not saying people shouldn’t have prescriptions. I say, “Take up running. Go to the gym. Start exercising.” Natural chemicals that happen in one’s body when you are able to take care of yourself physically have tremendous value in all other aspects of life.

You look at our society right now and our country, we say mental health. When they hear that term, most people think of it from a negative perspective, “My mental health right now. I need a mental health day off.” It’s got a hint of a negative tone to it. What I find interesting is you take the word mental off the front and say health, everyone thinks of it as positive like being in shape. It’s mind-blowing to me because mental health is also positive. You can mentally put yourself in a negative mental health state by constantly worrying about things you can’t control, and being negatively influenced by continuously watching the news.

This one irritates me. You’ll hear people complain that they aren’t where they want to be in their career, but you’ll hear some of these same people tell you that they binge-watched Game of Thrones Friday through Sunday, never left the house, ordered DoorDash, and watched episodes 1 through 38. I sit there and I say to myself, “When was the last time you heard anyone say, ‘We binge-watched our 401(k) all weekend and now we are going to retire and our investment strategy.’” You don’t hear that.

You hear someone say, “What do you get at the end of Game of Thrones?” Not a thing. They wake up at 6:00 or 7:00 Sunday night and they are pissed. They don’t like their career. I don’t want to go to work, and they start blaming other things. My last piece on this is we have got 115 people within our company and everyone knows this. Do not dare ever say, “Thank God it’s Friday.” If you are trading two for five, you got to go. You are clearly not happy.

KCM 47 | Thinking Big
Thinking Big: Don’t ever say, “Thank God it’s Friday,” because if you’re trading two for five, you must go. You’re not happy.

You got to live for your day-to-day. Not just the weekends.

Thank God it’s Friday. That’s horrible. Thank God it’s Tuesday. Thank God you woke up this morning. It’s amazing how we as people and humans will look at different aspects of our lives and won’t take responsibility. We don’t realize there are choices. You will hear people say, “I want to lose 30 pounds. I have tried everything.” “No, you haven’t because if you had tried everything, you would already lose 30 pounds.”

The crap that people tell themselves. If you want to lose 30 pounds, that’s going to take about three and a half months of consistent eating habits, going to the gym and exercising. People say, “I don’t have time.” They are going to watch the sitcom that’s on tv. They are going to watch Netflix. Guess what? Even if you don’t go to the gym, take 30 minutes in your living room, do jumping jacks, pushups, sit up, or whatever, and there’s your exercise.

Is the issue in your mind more an issue of people who don’t know their goals and how to achieve those goals, or do they know how to but they lack the discipline to be able to go and take it? I know what answers both. If you have to say what’s the greater ill that you’ve seen in your experience, is it not knowing the how or not having the discipline to do the how?

I appreciate you saying it sometimes it’s both because there truly is a piece of this. Let’s focus first on low-income communities. If you know what a food desert is because there are no grocery stores within your community, how the hell are you going to know what organic food is and eating healthy when the only thing that’s in your community are liquor stores, pawn shops, check cash, convenient stores, dollar store, and fast food. Empty calories. You don’t even know what healthy eating habits are.

There is a component there, but in our country, the greater piece of our country is the middle class. If you can get on your phone, the average person spends almost three hours a day on social media. If you can do that crap for three hours a day, you can figure out what healthy eating habits are. You can figure out what to do. If you are one of those folks that fall in the middle class or lower to upper, no excuses. That there is responsibility, discipline, routine and consistency.

Many people don’t want to take responsibility. They blame. “I have got children. I work 50 hours a week.” People don’t want to hear this. They get mad at me. They think I’m an arrogant jerk when I say this. I got four kids. I have the honor to serve and support our company. I got children. I work 50 to 60 hours a week, but we all have the same 24. Where are you going to find that time to workout? Where are you going to find the time to make sure you have the eating habits? Here’s the key, because I always share my mistakes, I couldn’t hold a relationship.

At my height, I was 297 pounds. I didn’t blame anybody. Now, I’m 208 pounds. Here’s the key. I chose to go to the drive-through. I chose to eat the Doritos. I chose to keep eating a whole half of a sheet cake, and I didn’t blame anyone. That was me. No one forced me to pick up the fork and eat. Many people will sit there and make excuses. They are like, “I’m not giving excuses. I’m giving you the reasons.” Reason is a nice word for excuses. Take accountability. Take responsibility for your actions. It sucks in our country. It’s like those two words. No one wants to talk about that.

Take accountability and take responsibility for your actions.

I could certainly see why you and David Goggins get along so well. David Goggins’s famous book and all the other work that David has, Scribe is the publisher, of which JeVon is the CEO.

David Goggins had one of the bestselling memoirs of all time. Michelle Obama’s got him beat, not bad company right there.

Number two, that is not bad. Let’s talk about your book also, Modern Leader, give us the skinny on what it’s about. We didn’t even scratch the surface of the culture that you’ve built at Scribe, but tell us about Modern Leader.

Where the book came from, I have had the incredible blessing and gift to come from the background that I come from. I don’t see it as negative. I was speaking and someone said to me, “You had every reason to fail. People would have completely understood if you went to prison or ended up dead. No one would have blamed you.”

KCM 47 | Thinking Big
Modern Leader

I go, “That right there is the problem with the thinking that we put on ourselves.” I had every reason to succeed because if you can get through that crap, the rest of the stuff is pretty damn easy. No one else may have blamed me if I would have ended up in prison or dead. I would have blamed myself because it’s up to me to do it differently. It’s up to me to be successful, so I would have blamed myself, and that’s all that matters. I go, “No. You are looking at that wrong. I had every reason to succeed.”

It’s up to you to do things differently. It’s up to you to be successful.

What this came from is in the early-’90s, I was new in my career. At the time, I was the mail boy. I was a file clerk and I wanted more. I put my little resume together. This is back before you could just upload your resume like you went out and you were cold calling, and drop it off resumes. I couldn’t get a callback, appointment or invite. One day, a nice White guy picks up the phone and says, “How did you get a Black first name and an Irish last name?”

My last name is McCormick. My mom got it in the orphanage. I have my mom’s last name. She was raised in an orphanage. We have no clue where, why or how we got this last name. I couldn’t tell you. When he said that, I was like, “My last name is Irish.” I was so excited and that was a celebration for me. When I hung up, I was like, “They are seeing JeVon.” At that moment, I said, “My full name is JeVon Thomas McCormick. I’m going to go by JT McCormick,” because you won’t know who that guy is. The next week blew up, appointments, calendar invites, and callbacks. It was bittersweet. I cracked the playbook. I figured out how to get in.

I had to edit myself to “get in.” I can’t tell you how many interviews I showed up for, and people were like, “JT? You are not who we expected.” I’m like, “Who would you expect?” What’s key to that is all the way up to the George Floyd murder, I went by JT McCormick, and so I built my entire career on JT McCormick. Then the George Floyd murder happened, and then I saw some of the most disgusting virtue-signaling crap going on out there. You had people from Blackout Tuesday on social media.

What does that do to help advance or move forward? Nothing. You and I both know that people were doing it so they didn’t get called out. We were then arguing over the syrup bottle. I’m like, “What does this do?” One piece caught me. At the time, there were only three Black Fortune 500 CEOs, and I was like, “I didn’t know that.” I went and looked up their names. Kenneth Frazier, Marvin Ellison, Roger Ferguson, and is a bonus. The wealthiest Black man in America was named Robert Smith. I looked at it and I smiled.

These are not Black names.

Four very ethnic-free names, if you will. To your point, I’m not a Fortune 500 CEO, but we have been named the number one company culture in America. We have been the number one place to work in Austin and number two in Texas. I have had the incredible blessing and got named the best CEO in Austin. I was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young. Who knew that would ever happen?

What I realized was, “I’m not a Fortune 500 CEO but I have done a couple of things. I’m going to reclaim my name. I’m going to go by JeVon.” I didn’t do it for me because my career was built as JT. I did it because I wanted every Martavious, Laquanda, Revante, Jesus, and Rosalia who have these “ethnic names” that I know get passed over at times because of their name to see. Maybe one day, when you entered the business world, you can work next to a JeVon and not a JT.

When you started telling people that you work with and your family like, “I’m back to JeVon,” were people like, “What?” Were they like, “Congrats?” What were the reactions?

When I explained why and I explained the story and everything, people were like, “That’s amazing.” It was very well received. I still get people who because they knew me as JT, will call me JT. I’m like, “I will answer anything just don’t call me broke.” It was well received. A lot of people were very supportive of it. It’s sad in many ways because I don’t overlook the fact that what made the transition a bit easier is the success I have had in business. I did it because here’s the key and this is all of us. It says, “Whatever we are not changing, we are choosing.”

I was choosing to still be part of the broken playbook by going by JT. If you want to bring change, then you have to change because if you don’t, you are choosing. I live by that. Whatever we are not changing, we are choosing. That’s not all of Modern Leader. Modern Leader for me was in business we have operated in this broken playbook. It’s a very exclusionary playbook that if you did not fit the parameters and didn’t know the rules of the playbook, you weren’t getting in. People are shocked when I shared this with them. The Fortune 500 here in the United States, the 500 biggest companies in America, we started tracking that in 1955. You did not get a Black CEO to show up on that list until 1987.

If you want to bring change, you have to change because if you don’t, you choose to live by that.

Who was it?

He was the CEO of TIAA-CREF. He was the first Black CEO o on the list. What’s mind-blowing since then is there have only been thirteen. We go back to the names, the playbook and the language, can you fit in? Do you know how to navigate Corporate American in the playbook? Think about this. A two-year-old who comes from the communities that I grew up in. By the age of two, that two-year-old has been exposed to 2,000 words. Take my children and how they have grown up by the age of two, they have been exposed to 30,000 words. You are born into a playbook. How am I supposed to get in when I don’t even know the rules of the game and the language to speak? Many people say, “If the playbook is so broken, why did we run it so long?”

I don’t think we read it. Other people read it that looked different than you.

That’s what I said. I am convinced that the people who created the playbook are also the same people who created the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” For years, it served a certain group of people who fit the playbook model, so why would you need to change that? Now you are starting to see the playbook is fractured. You got to shred it. You are starting to see what I call a lot of fake playbook leaders floundering because they didn’t write any pages for what’s going on right now.

KCM 47 | Thinking Big
Thinking Big: The people who created the playbook are also the same people who created the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But now we’re starting to see that the playbook is fractured. We have to shred it.

I read a little bit about Modern Leader and I want to read more. Where is it right now?

It totally caught us off guard. This is what we do for a living. The book came out. It sold out on Amazon on day one. It hit number three on Wall Street Journal bestseller list.

Are you getting people reaching out to you? What has happened from that?

It turned into people wanting me to speak on modern leadership, but then they are also intrigued with the background because my background is woven throughout the book, my views of the business world, leadership, and how we serve and support people. I always had a healthy amount of people calling us for engagement. There were people calling that we’re having to ask, “How did you hear about us? How did you hear about JeVon?” I’m shocked at some of the people who have called. That’s exciting.

Talk about creating opportunities for yourself. I always ask a series of rapid-fire questions, but I’m not going to ask them all. I’m going to ask one last question at the end, which is what I always end with, which is you’ve already had so much of an impact in 50 years. You are not even halfway done because with your health, you are going to be well over 100. What do you want to be known for in this life over the next 50 years? I love to unpack that and conclude with that.

I want to be one of the greatest humans, men, husbands, fathers, leaders or CEOs that I can possibly be. I’m in a position in life where I’m working in those arenas and doing my part. What hit me when I turned 50 though, especially with the name change and where we are in society and everything that’s going on from diversity and all these different angles, is God has blessed me with an incredible backstory or roadmap.

I am the complete opposite of the playbook. I didn’t go to college. I didn’t come from a two-parent home. My parents weren’t even married. Everything about me is the opposite of the playbook. What I have realized is I now have this deep responsibility, not obligation, because I choose to teach, coach and mentor others into, “Here’s what’s possible.” It’s not just people from where I come from but also people who come from upper and middle-class families who ran the playbook because they don’t even know folks like me exist.

I tell people this all the time, Corporate America is not 100% racism that’s going on. People are like, “What? How can you say that?” I go, “Don’t get me wrong. There’s a whole lot of racism going through Corporate America and the business world.” However, one cannot say that what I’m about to share with you is racist.

If my name is Blake Wesley and I come from a two-parent home, upper middle class, and I get to go to all the great schools and our family’s summers in Maine during the summer. I’m part of a fraternity at a school. Now I have got my boy Steve and Jeff. Blake Wesley graduates college. I get my MBA and I work my way up and now I’m the CEO of a big company.

Now I’m tasked with surrounding myself with my executive team. Immediately, I’m going to say, “My boy Steve is the CFO over at XYZ. Let me call him up.” “Steve, I got promoted to CEO. What’s up? I need a CFO. Do you want to get on the team?” Steve is like, “Yeah.” Steve is like, “Do you remember Jeff? He’s the EVP of operations over at XYZ. Call Jeff.” Here’s what happened. There was no race involved there. I am calling the people that I’m most comfortable with, that I grew up with, and that I’m going to surround myself with because we all know each other and come from the same backgrounds.

No one is calling JeVon who’s the son of a pimp who had 23 kids with a GED that was in juvenile prison. That’s not racism. That’s called these are the people I’m most comfortable with. As humans, we tend to surround ourselves with the people who are most like us. What’s got to happen is people had this privilege. This is key. We have weaponized the word privilege in this country. Privilege is only a negative if you don’t use it to elevate others.

I have a deep privilege given where I come from, what I now know, what I understand, and what I have navigated. That is a massive privilege. I will argue with most people, my privilege is greater than the person who comes from a two-parent, upper-class, middle home. What I know about this country from the bottom to the top, they don’t know. Privilege is not a negative. It’s only a negative if you don’t use your privilege to elevate others. I have a deep responsibility to help elevate others.

You have elevated so many people in your time. I am excited about the 3rd and 4th books and the movie. I’m excited to see where you take the world over the next 50-plus years. Thank you so much for being on the show. I feel connected to you and so many in our audience do as well. Thank you.

I appreciate it. This is great. Thank you.

This was an episode that should have a part two because we barely scratched the surface of all the things that JeVon has and could teach us, and that I wanted to talk to him about. One of those things was his definition of success. Focusing on health, happiness, and wealth. The fact is that success is not about other people’s measurements but how you set your standard for success. You create your happiness. You make your choices. You can think big. You could think small, so think big. If you enjoy this episode, then please subscribe so you could keep hearing other episodes as well. Remember, let’s keep connected because life is better together.

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Last modified on October 20, 2022