Prison experience helps me lead my company through uncertainty of COVID-19

Traditional advice for CEOs no longer works. Business leaders need to look at the long game and prepare for action years down the road, just as I did while incarcerated.

Prison experience helps me lead my company through uncertainty of COVID-19

In this time of upheaval, when the nation is dealing simultaneously with a COVID-19 crisis and a racial justice awakening, business leaders are trying to find the most effective ways to guide their organizations. The advice out there prescribes CEOs to “be strong, project understanding and command the situation.” But this strategy doesn’t always meet our reality.

What prepared me most was my years of incarceration.

I had an unconventional journey to CEO of YouthBuild USA, the nonprofit support center for 300 youth development programs across the globe. But my experience provided me with the mindset required to lead the institution.

I served 16 years in state prison for killing my girlfriend’s rapist when I was 20 years old. I used my time in Sing Sing Correctional Facility to accept responsibility for my actions, start to make amends and build an authentic life. I knew that I had to turn my horrible decision, with all the anger and anguish attached, into constructive action. I earned my undergraduate degree in behavioral science and my graduate degree in ministry. I was the first incarcerated person to take the LSAT, and was accepted into law school. I co-created two privately funded college programs in prison and taught as an adjunct professor.

John Valverde

I was able to survive my incarceration because I trained myself to think long-term. I was sentenced to 30 years and had to serve a minimum of 10 to be eligible for parole, with the conditional release years served set at 20. I created and maintained a mindset focused on those milestones — 10 years, then 20 — which gave me windows of opportunity to fill my time. I saw fellow incarcerated people put so much hope in their appeals or some miracle that would get them out early. Each time it didn’t come through, it broke their hearts and their minds. They turned to destructive behaviors to cope or experienced mental illness. So I decided to put all my energy into cultivating an authentic life while working within the restrictions imposed by my circumstances.

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Now as CEO, I am using that same mindset during the COVID-19 pandemic to help ensure that our organization comes out the other side stronger. I’m setting realistic expectations for our team that do not rely upon outside forces. Work life will not return to normal until a vaccine is readily available, which looks like 2021 at the earliest.

As governors across the country start to loosen restrictions on businesses and activities, I remind my staff not to rely upon these ever-changing estimates. Life will not immediately return to the way it was before, and the sooner we all realize that, the faster we can resolve ourselves to success. I am currently mapping out what YouthBuild USA will look like a year from now to help my team settle into their work and, most importantly, give them the space to better themselves in the interim. That 12-month outlook — not one-month, or two-months — acknowledges our reality by ignoring moving goal-posts.

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That long-term mindset also applies to the goals of the protests following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others. The gatherings in cities across the globe demanding the end of police brutality and racism, and affirming that Black lives matter, are moving but real change will take time and immense effort. We must not get tired. As a collective, we need to set our sights on long-term solutions to problems that have been festering for centuries. Institutional racism will not be undone after two weeks of protests; we need to commit to a lifetime of fighting for justice.

During my time inside, I also learned that our emotions are real, and we can’t ignore them. We all live in cells of our own making, trapped by fears, anxieties, substance abuse, addiction or unhealthy relationships — all issues that are exacerbated by quarantine and social upheaval.

As a business leader, there is great value in being vulnerable, especially now. Throughout this crisis, I’ve been sharing my fears and anxieties with my team while trying to remain a calming force. A CEO does not need to be stoic and stone-faced to instill strength. By sharing my feelings, I am giving employees permission to share their own fully lived experience. I believe command and control-style leadership is dead. CEOs who don’t say “I’m sorry” or “thank you” or who don’t share anything personal about themselves will struggle to cultivate a stronger and more connected workforce during this time of separation and beyond.

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It’s also important to recognize our privilege in a time like this. The pandemic has only made more obvious the injustice and inequity too many face. The disproportionate impact on communities and people of color, along with the vulnerable populations that our YouthBuild programs support, cannot be overstated. Inequity is increasing and our young people, who are already disadvantaged, have a longer road ahead.

Right now it feels like we’re all doing time while watching the world burn. But we must turn this moment into time well spent by focusing on what’s at stake: health, equity and justice. As I often say to our students and graduates, if you want things to get better, you have to get better. If you want things to change, you have to change. As CEO, I will do my best to model this mantra as we navigate the months to come.

John Valverde is the CEO of YouthBuild USA.


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