Most Admired Leaders 2021: Michelle Cirocco, Televerde

Originally published in Phoenix Business Journal, May 13, 2021

Michelle Cirocco
Title: Chief social responsibility officer
Company: Televerde
What it does: Operates call centers for corporate clients employing incarcerated women as sales and marketing representatives.

How many years have you worked in Phoenix and how many years total in your industry? I’m close to being a native Phoenician. I moved to Phoenix in middle school and have been here ever since. I’ve worked in the sales and marketing industry for 22 years; however, my first job was selling rodeo tickets over the phone for the Maricopa Mounted Sheriff’s Posse. I guess I’ve been in justice-related sales and marketing my entire life.

What are the two most important traits of a good leader? A good leader empowers their team. Empowerment can be seen in many different traits; the two that I believe are most important are:

  • How they engage their team. Having a clear vision and the ability to communicate it effectively and with a high degree of integrity so the team trusts the leader, follows their lead and supports the vision.
  • How they treat others. Respect and gratitude. Respect is like air. If you have it, you don’t think about it, but the minute it’s taken away it’s the only thing you can think about. Gratitude is almost the opposite. When you don’t experience it, you may never think about it, but when you experience it, and you feel appreciated, it can change everything. A good leader always treats everyone with respect and shares their appreciation and gratitude for the contribution of others.

How have the events of the past year amid the pandemic affected your leadership style? I’ve always been an “office” person. I like getting dressed up. Interacting with my colleagues in person is motivating, and I appreciate the separation between work and home. Just before the start of the pandemic, I took on a new role and switched to working from home, almost at once. I quickly realized I needed to involve more people in my work to be able to accomplish what I needed to get done. I started reaching out to my network, to share what I was working on, ask for feedback, and ideas on how to improve. I found people with great ideas, great resources and a willingness and desire to get involved. I believe this is what has enabled me to build such a great team of staff, advisers and volunteers. My team is the reason why we’ve accomplished so much in such a short period of time. Thanks to my new role and the new world we live in, I’ve become much more collaborative, inclusive and resourceful.

What accomplishment has meant the most to you in your career? Three years ago, we hosted TEDxPerryville and that event is the single best day of my professional career, hands down. Planning, organizing, executing and witnessing the impact of that event is something I will be forever grateful for.

My TED journey started in 2015 when I attended the TEDWomen event in Monterey, California and was so inspired by it I knew I needed to host a TEDx event inside the Arizona’s women’s prison. In 2018 with the support of 30-plus volunteers, including 20 incarcerated women, that dream became a reality. The purpose of TEDxPerryville was to challenge preconceived notions and unconscious bias about who and what exists inside of prison walls. On the day of the event, 150 civilians went to prison, most for the first time, and witnessed 13 people – six business leaders and seven inmates – use their voice to deliver an idea worth sharing with the world.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve received, and who was it from? “Business is personal.” People are often told that business is not personal. Televerde’s former CEO Jim Hooker, my long-time boss, mentor and coach taught me that business is, in fact, personal. It’s all about the relationships we develop with other people. When I was a junior sales rep, Jim would often ask me about my customers and prospects. He was always curious about the deal, but he also wanted to know where they went to school, what’s their favorite sports team, are they a cat person or a dog person, how old are their kids? The list goes on and on. At first, I thought it was a ridiculous waste of time; I just wanted to close the deal. What I learned over time is that Jim was teaching me to invest time in getting to know people, to understand who they are as a person and what mattered to them. Now I know that to develop meaningful and lasting relationship with people, you must invest the time in getting to know them.

What business lesson did you have to learn the hard way? The importance of investing in people. My career and my success are the result of someone who believed in second chances and provided me with the opportunity, the resources and the support that empowered me to become more than my worst mistake.

What is the most important business lesson you have learned from the impact of Covid-19? I’ve learned so much over the course of the past year. I’m sure we all have. The lesson that sticks out the most is the power and ability people have and how they can use that to overcome adversity and work together in ways they never imagined in order accomplish big things.

Just before the start of the pandemic, our CEO asked me to start Televerde Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission to enable currently and formerly incarcerated women to join and succeed in the global workforce. Over the course of the past year, I built a team that has been able to accomplish more than I ever imagined possible. Together, we designed and launched a robust workforce development program that incorporates personal wellness, workplace readiness, employment strategies, financial literacy, lifelong learning and mentoring. We’ve been able to deliver this content virtually to currently and formerly incarcerated women all over the country. It’s amazing to watch this team in action and see the impact that we’ve been able to make while adjusting to life in a pandemic.

The Phoenix economy is said to be ready to boom when the pandemic has passed. What’s the one thing that could threaten that growth? Prior to Covid, Arizona’s unemployment rate was less than 5% for almost three years and businesses were struggling to find the talent needed to fill critical jobs. Business has continued to grow and companies like Microsoft, Nike and Lucid Motors are moving to the Valley, which is great for our economy. However, once the pandemic has passed and everyone is back to work the talent shortage will threaten our growth unless we invest in reskilling, upskilling, and employing untapped sources of talent, including the homeless, veterans and people with criminal records.

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