How Jay Morris Became A Service-Minded Leader
Like many empathetic leaders, Jay Morris started life as somewhat of an outsider.
“I was born and raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania to two wonderful parents. Unfortunately, my parents were children of alcoholic fathers. And I didn’t realize until later on, I began to reflect, being a young African American male in a Pennsylvania Dutch environment, I didn’t look like these people.”
Today, Morris serves as the Vice President of Education at Yale-New Haven Health System. But in his childhood, he was a self-described latchkey kid, a result of both the times and the relative dysfunction of his family life. Spending time as a five-year-old child on the streets of Allentown required Morris to adopt a certain level of “toughness” and “social savvy.”
“I didn’t have any older brothers protect me. I had to begin to talk, influence, engage people in a way,” Morris described in a recent interview. “Eventually, I enjoyed simply being around people. And I realized, a lesson from my grandfather, that everyone has a story. And if we take the time to learn about the story, we’ll find some engaging things about people.”
Morris attributes many of his earliest childhood lessons to his grandfather. Despite the man’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism and elementary-level education, Morris found his grandfather to be wise and well-read.
“I was very, very close to my grandfather. I would watch him engage with people. He taught me the importance of valuing all people and to look for the best in people. My grandfather read magazines and articles in journals. He put this desire in me for learning.”
That desire came, in part, from Morris’s goal to be able to hold a conversation with “anyone and everyone.” Developing that skill was critical in launching the first stages of Morris’s early career while working in geriatric care.
“That first job set the stage in my career,” Morris says. “I’d go into these people’s homes. I’ve seen the worst of what you could possibly even imagine. You know, we talk about the elderly: low income, Medicaid, no resources. Some families have abandoned them. I was able to forge relationships, hear their story. My value to them was that I was able to remove obstacles from their path and provide what resources we had. It built relationships.”
It was in this first job Morris discovered his passion and aptitude for building relationships and being of service to others. It’s what eventually caused him to gravitate toward organizational development, education, and developing new leaders.
“[After leaving geriatrics,] I was fortunate enough to land a job at Allstate. They had a leadership development program that was phenomenal. I still think it’s a well-kept secret in terms of development,” Morris explains. “I ended up managing a group of underwriters, about thirty. Again, I worked with the premise that if I can move obstacles and roadblocks for these underwriters, they’ll have an easier time doing their jobs.”
Morris took as many opportunities to learn and improve as he could.
“One of the things about Allstate, was they had a military focus. So, there was a discipline and rigor in that process of learning. They would end up putting you into a space where you had a job that was probably sometimes two levels higher than you were capable of handling. They knew you were going to make mistakes. But in that process, they helped you to learn. When I saw the benefits and value of that, I took advantage of it.”
Morris’s zest for continuous improvement extended beyond his professional life: at the same time, he was studying for his law degree and PhD. He has insisted on working in environments that truly value and invest in talent.
“I would say in almost every place I’ve worked, the culture of the organization was one of truly valuing and investing in talent. And I think when you do that, it pays off.”
To Morris, the benefits aren’t just personal or individual. They extend throughout the entire organization.
“My thing is, if you’re going to be in an organization, you shouldn’t be miserable. If you’re miserable, more than likely, you’re making everyone else around you miserable,” Morris says. “You need to find that place where your gifts and talents can fit. And for me, that’s what development is about—helping people to find that place.”
Facing an impending surge of employee turnover, it is more important than ever for people to feel supported and valued at work. “The organization has to value that,” according to Morris.
“Do you give talent succession and leadership development the same consideration as you give operations and finance?” he poses. “Is it part of the vision, the mission? You’ve got to be consistent. It’s got to be ingrained. It’s got to be a part of the culture. Do you sit down one-on-one on a regular basis? Are you able to give people feedback in a way that’s building and not tearing them down?”
It’s often a challenge for leaders to sustain the kind of energy and intensity required to be a coaching-style manager or a mentor. That has been especially true during the Covid-19 pandemic. But Morris advises leaders to view the challenge from a new perspective.
“Sometimes it’s in the hard times that the greatest growth takes place. But if you’re not able to see that, sometimes you stay stuck. As a coach or mentor, I think it’s valuable to reflect and review where you’ve identified real successes, and you will eventually see patterns. Those may be inherent strengths you previously overlooked. And it’s just a matter of nurturing that and learning to grow.”