Feb 8, 2024 - Business

Axios Finish Line: Lead like La June Montgomery Tabron

Photo illustration of La June Montgomery Tabron surrounded by quotation marks and abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Courtesy of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

La June Montgomery Tabron is the 61-year-old president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — one of the oldest and largest private philanthropic foundations in the U.S. with an $8.7 billion endowment as of August 2022.

Why she matters: Montgomery Tabron leads a 220-person team whose mission is to help vulnerable children by funding and partnering with nonprofits in the U.S., Mexico and Haiti.

I spoke with Montgomery Tabron last week via Zoom from her home office outside of Scottsdale, Arizona, where she stays in colder seasons to escape Battle Creek, Michigan:

1. What have you changed the most about your leadership style since starting out? (Montgomery Tabron has been CEO for a decade, and with the foundation for nearly 37 years.)

  • "Being willing to speak more publicly around the issue [of structural racism] that we're dealing with, that we're facing, and to step into that power of influence."

2. Can you be specific?

  • "The structural racism that exists for young children and families and people of color in our nation, and why if we were to dismantle those structures, more people would thrive, and our nation would actually be a better nation."
  • "If we were to fully deploy all of our human capital in our nation, we create another $8 trillion of GDP by 2050," she added, citing a 2018 foundation report.

3. Our newsroom has reported on companies reluctant to talk about DEI publicly. If you were to rebrand DEI, what would you call it?

  • "When we've spoken about this work, we've spoken about racial equity —that your outcomes are not determined by the color of your skin. Your outcomes are determined by your pursuits and your desires and your drive."
  • At the moment, "any level of intentional representation" seems to be equated with "a lack of quality and a degradation of skill and talent," she added. "We need to definitely decouple that type of language."

4. How do you respond to critics who say there's too much discussion of race?

  • "I would ask them more questions. … 'How does that make you feel? Is there a threat in there somewhere?' And I would try to open up a conversation to find out what the negativity is coming from."

5. You talk a lot about your own childhood. (She was the ninth child of 10, whose parents left Mississippi for Michigan in 1954 as part of the Great Migration.) What have you observed about other leaders who do the same?

  • "Knowing my story and understanding the nuances of that story brings my humanity to bear in every interaction I have with another leader."
  • "I can enter that conversation with a level of humility, but also with the level of confidence because I've had to learn to accept my story as being a powerful story."
  • "It's hard to build a relationship with someone else if you're not confident and comfortable with your own story, your own identity."

6. What's something in your life that you learned to be proud of?

  • At her first job in public accounting, Montgomery Tabron was reluctant to say that her father worked the third shift at the Chrysler factory when her co-workers shared that their parents were professors and CPAs.
  • "I was caught up in the moment," she said.
  • Reaching for the "full story" — in her case, her father taking on a hard job to provide for his family and enable her to go to college — "is a part of the healing practice that I believe we all need to embark upon."

7. Are there ways of parenting that are no longer effective?

  • "There's a lot of work coming out now about trauma. … We know the effects of trauma and of parental traumatic situations that cascade to an infant or child, so that's what we ought to pay very close attention to."

🏈 1 fun thing: Did you have any superstitious rituals going into the last Detroit Lions game? (They lost to the 49ers the night before our interview.)

  • She and her husband wavered on being there in person. "Sometimes when we actually go to a game, they lose … but we stayed at home for San Francisco and they lost anyway."

More from this interview series: Brooks Brothers CEO Ken Ohashi ... Recent Walgreens CEO Roz Brewer ... Expedia CEO Peter Kern.

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