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Podcast: Julian Francis, President & CEO of Beacon Building Products — Empathetic Leadership in Action

Julian Francis, President and CEO of Beacon Building Products

Julian Francis, President and CEO of Beacon Building Products

Today – a special edition of our sister podcast “Call In,” which explores Inclusive Leaderships – when to call in, and when to call out.

Our guest was Julian Francis, President and CEO of Beacon Building Products – the largest publicly traded distributor of roofing materials and complementary building products in the U.S. and Canada.

A key component of the way Julian advances business success is through empathetic leadership, connecting a human understanding of each employee to the realities of what it takes to succeed in a competitive business environment.

We also discuss the specific, tangible ways that Julian brings his leadership philosophy to life: Discover ways to generate actionable opportunities for members of underrepresented groups, how to help employees balance personal and work needs, and learn about their innovative campaign for putting people first.

You can find the Call In podcast, co-hosted with Dr. Alexandria White, at

Transcript: Julian Francis

Chris Riback: Julian, thanks for joining us. Dr. White and I are really looking forward to talking with you.

Julian Francis: Thank you, Chris. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Chris Riback: So it’s my point of view, and I think Dr. White’s point of view as well, that how one leads today has not a little bit to do with how one got here, and who one was at the start. So could we start with that? Tell us a bit about you. Where did you grow up? How did you arrive at your current role? Was it a straight line or like many of us, a path with twists and turns?

Julian Francis: Well, I grew up in the UK, the capital of Wales, Cardiff. So it was a very industrial area of the world. It’s coal and steel. And that’s where I grew up. I went to school in South Wales as well. That my universe. I immigrated to the US in my mid-twenties and initially couldn’t find a job, was unemployed for actually several years. And it was interesting because what I heard a lot from hiring managers was we don’t understand your background. We don’t understand where you come from. We don’t understand your qualifications. I had an undergraduate in mathematics. I had a PhD in engineering. I’d worked for a big six accounting firm. And I said, just give me a job, just try me. I’ll figure it out. But it was this structural barrier that I encountered and I didn’t realize it at the time. It’s only later in life as I look back on it. But what I did was I went back to school because I knew I was good at that, and I got an American qualification, I got an MBA and got hired straight away.

Chris Riback: I’ve heard those letters. Yes.

Julian Francis: Looking back on it, that structural barrier that’s in place that people are just going, well, we don’t get it. We don’t get you background.

Chris Riback: And was it the educational barrier or was it the geographic barrier? Was it the so socioeconomic class of Cardiff in particular? How would you define the barrier?

Julian Francis: I think it was a little bit of all, I think in the US less so the socioeconomic. I will tell you, I always felt that I could never have accomplished in the UK what I’ve accomplished in the US because of the socioeconomic, where I was from as opposed to anything else, never felt that in the US, but it was the hiring practices. The HR teams needed to check boxes in order to say, this is what we need and I fit none of them. And that was a real struggle for me early on. But as soon as they could put a label on me. Okay. Got you. MBA. Got it. I know exactly where we’re going to put you. We’re going to put you in a finance role.

Dr. Alexandria White: And then along the way, Julian, did you have any support, a mentor who said, Julian, maybe you need to go back to school. How can I help you?

Julian Francis: Very much so. Early on, in my first role, the company, after my MBA, when I did get a job. And one of the senior executives there took a liking to me and I have no idea why or where for, but he came up to me after I’d been at the company maybe 12 months and said, okay, I was in finance in one of the divisions and he said, you need to go to marketing in another division. And I was always a little curious as to, was I so bad at finance that he need me to go to marketing? But three months later just so happened that a role appeared in that area. And I got the job. And that type of supports, knowing that there was someone there for me, shortly after that, he continued to support me all the way through. I had another mentor at the same company who just put me in rooms that I probably shouldn’t have been at early in my career to give me that experience.

And that was always very powerful. And the folks that I mentor and support throughout my career, I’ve always told them that I can give you the opportunity, but I can’t make you successful.

Dr. Alexandria White: That’s right. That’s right.

Julian Francis: But I will give you the opportunity. I will put you in the room. I will help to put you where you need to be, but you need to succeed on your own. And I think that’s hard for some people, because, again, I go back to box checking. Often people think about careers and they say, well, I haven’t done this role. I need to check that box. And it drives me nuts because I’m like, no, checking the box isn’t what you’re doing. You’ve actually got to succeed in order to advance.

Dr. Alexandria White: That’s right.

Julian Francis: And it’s not enough to check the box. If you’re not going to be good at that role, don’t do it. Don’t do it, because failure will impede your progress. You’ve got to find those roles. I’ll give you the opportunity, but you have to succeed on your own.

Dr. Alexandria White:   I’m glad that you mentioned that you paid it forward. So when you were paying it forward and you were mentoring people, was there a distinction between if you mentored a woman, a man, a woman of color? Can you tell us a little bit about that? Or you just had a one size fits all mentoring?

Julian Francis: No, I will highlight a person, I’ll name no names, but an African-American woman who was in the IT department at the first company I worked for just asked me out to lunch, and just sat down. I didn’t know her and sat down, really enjoyed her company, but I was running the marketing department of the company at the time. And I was just like, you shouldn’t be in IT, you should come work for me in the marketing group. And so I ended up finding a role and brought her over and she was phenomenal, just terrific. And I gave her a really difficult job of fixing a piece of the business that we were really struggling in. And she did a wonderful job.

When I left that company and moved on, she ended up following me to the next company as well. And again, gave her the opportunity, I think ultimately it wasn’t to be, she ended up leaving that company, but she had a real passion to be effectively a general manager, run her own company. And she ended up deciding that she was going to leave and try to find a company to buy. And she’s now a very successful entrepreneur.

Dr. Alexandria White: Wonderful.

Julian Francis: But it was very different giving her that type of role early on, pulling her out of the IT function and putting her in marketing. I don’t know that I would’ve done the same for… I don’t know. I think about it and I think that it’s horses for courses, to some degree, you find people that you think, how can I use this person to help the business, but also how do I uncover what their true talents are?

Dr. Alexandria White: You just said earlier on someone pulled you in and said, I think you need to do this. And you just replicated what you had learned and what had made you successful.

Julian Francis: Yes. I like to think so. I certainly like to think I had an impact on those people’s career. And I did it with people in, took an HR person and put them in sales, you just see these natural gifts I think people have, and it’s giving them the opportunity. And I think probably what I learned was that it’s the, again, it’s the labels and the boxes you put people in limiting them and saying, forget where the box is, forget the line, forget what you think they are, if they’re in HR, but they’ve got this outgoing personality and they’re constantly selling you, give them a chance at sales. If you’ve got a person in IT, who’s just a natural connector. Let’s have them in marketing and see how they can bring those things together. I think it’s talent, and how you deploy talent.

Chris Riback: So first of all, great credit to the woman whom you mentioned for reaching out to have lunch in the first place.

Julian Francis: Yes.

Chris Riback: Great lesson there, I would imagine for any of us. And you just said it again a moment ago, finding people in area A and moving them to a totally different area, like the woman whom you just mentioned. And I wonder about the amount of support and ways to support as those transitions occur. I assume that one doesn’t just put someone into a new role, unfamiliar role, and say, congratulations, you’ve now got the opportunity of a lifetime, great luck to you. I’ll see you in two years and see whether you succeeded or not.

Julian Francis: No, obviously there’s some counseling and coaching and support along the way. I would tell you that the, when you find great talent, I think, well, something, I think you need to emphasize over and over again, great talent wants to be challenged, they want to be given the opportunity to do something they can’t do. And I think one of the hardest things a leader can do is actually give someone you really care about and really want to see succeed a job that you have no idea how to do yourself, but that’s actually, because then it’s the counsel and the coaching you give is not solution provision. I’m not telling you how or what, because I actually don’t know, but let me help you think about a problem. Let me help you frame the issue. How do you think about solving? And so I think that a big part of leadership and coaching is not, this is how you do it. It’s this is how you think about doing it.

Chris Riback: Julian, let me ask you what potentially could be a challenging question for somebody and certainly a scenario that many people might have questions about. You are a White male. The woman whom you mentioned was a Black woman, I believe.

Julian Francis: Yes.

Chris Riback: The role of White men in supporting underrepresented groups. Were you conscious about that? Was that something that was actively part of your thinking? Talk to me, if you would, about the challenge of White men having the opportunities to mentor and work with underrepresented groups.

Julian Francis: Yes. Look, one, I feel a responsibility. I played sports growing up. I played with a lot of Asian, Indian, Caribbean Origin in Britain growing up, the sports I played. So it never really been an issue, certainly to say that there isn’t racism would be just nonsensical. So had I seen it? Yes, of course. It just never occurred to me. I do think that there is a responsibility and I’ll tell you over the last, maybe seven, eight years, I’m an immigrant and the rhetoric around immigration, but I don’t look like an immigrant.

Dr. Alexandria White: Yes.

Julian Francis: So I’m a white, highly educated male, but I identify more closely today with immigrant status than I ever have before. And I could tell you a couple of horror stories about actually going through legal immigration in the US, that make your hair stand on end in some cases. But I think that’s made me more acutely aware of my responsibility to underrepresented communities. I also think that I’ve grown in my understanding of the impact of diversity and inclusion and the role of those in the performance of a company, and the performance of a team. I think people talk a lot about wanting to more diverse workforce because it’s about talent. If you don’t hire from these pools of people, you’re missing out on talent, I think that’s an obvious one. It’s right. But it’s an obvious one. I think there’s three other areas where I feel particularly focused on, not just from a talent standpoint. One is diverse teams get better outcomes.

Dr. Alexandria White: That’s right.

Julian Francis: Diverse teams get better outcomes, not because they are better people overall, but because the questions they ask are different. And the mere fact of having to answer a different question gets a better outcome, because you’ve got to think about the problem differently. And so diversity and inclusion, if you don’t include people and let them ask the question, that should be a goal in and of itself, not just about talent, but diversity gets better outcomes because you ask diverse questions. And the mere fact that you’ve got to think about that creates better outcomes. And I think that is a misunderstood point about diversity, people talk about, it’s all about talent. It’s not just about talent. It is about talent. It’s the fact that you have to answer a different question. I think that is profound to me in terms of business leadership and the impact on the performance of a company.

Julian Francis: The second piece is I operate 450 locations around the country, these are industrial warehouse locations. We don’t set them up on the north shore of Chicago, or in New Haven, Connecticut, these are in generally underrepresented communities. We’ve got great jobs in underrepresented communities. And so our pool of talent needs to draw on that. So there’s this community aspect that I actually feel a responsibility to. When I go into these neighborhoods where we operate, they’re often underrepresented communities, and that we’re bringing great jobs into these communities. And I’d like to say internally, as much as anything else, there’s a job for everyone and a career for everyone at Beacon. I don’t care if you’re a high school dropout all the way up to a PhD, you can build a career at Beacon. We’ve got every job you can imagine, roof loading, driving a trial, all of those elements, stacking in warehouses, but you can build a great career and we pay good wages.

So that community component of diversity, equity and inclusion is really important to me because we actually operate inside those communities. And lastly, one of our core values is do the right thing. Look, it’s the right thing. You can’t walk away from it. It’s the right thing.

Dr. Alexandria White: Yes. And speaking of right thing, you are not only talking the talk, but you are walking the walk. I had the opportunity to actually listen to people who work for you. Reboot Accel were able to do focus groups and these focus groups were candid, Julian, they were very candid. And they talk a lot about Beacon, the community, how things work in the different facilities. And so I want you to talk a little bit more about how the role of diversity, equity and inclusion plays at Beacon. And you have to tell the listeners about the campaign of “Beacon has your back.” Tell me a little bit more about DEI and this wonderful, wonderful campaign that “Beacon has your back.”

Julian Francis: Thanks for asking about that. It’s a couple of things. One is, we did ask Reboot Accel  to come in and consult for us. And you, Dr. White, did conduct these interviews, and they were tough.

Dr. Alexandria White: Yes.

Julian Francis: It was tough to listen to. I’ve done some, a little bit of a listening tour and had asked people to connect with us and tell me their stories. And some of them were really distressing to me, hearing about how people had been treated in the workplace. I think the challenge was the thing that came out most strongly was the fact that one of the most difficult communities to deal with was actually the customers. And that was very difficult for the people at the local level to deal with when a customer actually comes in and is disrespectful or treats people poorly, particularly when they’re from an underrepresented group, and how those people at the branch felt supported.

A lot of people said, my colleague’s great, but it’s really tough to work because of how the customer comes in and presents themselves. And as I sat back and I talked to the leadership team about what we could do, I think what we realized in the stories we heard was that it gets a lot easier as you rise up in the company. So actually stop and say, hold on a second, you can’t treat our employees that way, and actually have a conversation with a customer in that way. So what we thought about was how do we put ourselves in that place, in the room? Obviously we can’t physically be there, but we wanted to make sure that everyone felt that we were standing there with them and we would take action, and know that if they took action on bad behavior, we would be in the room with them.

Dr. Alexandria White: Wonderful.

Julian Francis: And so we thought about this concept of “Beacon has your back” and really saying that we want to convey to you that we stand with you at a field level. If you see something, say something, if you hear something, you will not be punished, you will not be treated badly, even if it’s a customer, even if it’s a great customer. And we had stories as we got into this, we’d had stories about actually having some really tough conversations with customers about how they treat our people. And so I think it’s a really powerful statement, but we had to find ways to convey to our local branches and our local teams that even though we weren’t physically there, we were standing behind them.

Dr. Alexandria White: Yes. And so for the listeners who would like to know what “Beacon has you B.A.C.K.” stands for, it is an acronym. And B stands for become an ally, A stands for address the situation, C stands for call for support. And K is to keep yourself safe. In our show notes, we will have a graphic, we will have a graphic to show you the intentionality of Beacon in their efforts to make sure that their workers feel included in their workspace.

Chris Riback: An excellent example of the tangible ways, when people talk about DEI, when they talk about empathetic leadership, there’s a lot of theory. And that to of me stands as a tactical example, this has to be tangible and activated within the business process and the standard operating procedures. I assume you would advocate that Julian. Julian, as you know, this podcast is called Call In. And our goal is to help leaders navigate today’s cancel culture. Why don’t we start with the most loaded question, Julian. What’s your view of cancel culture? How do you define it? Perhaps most significantly, how can a leader know when to call in and when to call out? How would you describe and how do you think about that balance?

Julian Francis: So, I can’t say that I’ve actually experienced it, I think fortunately. The way I think about it is I think to some degree it’s always been out there. People who say abhorrent things have always been called out, and in some cases lost their job. I was watching an ESPN 30 for 30 on Jimmy, the Greek way back when who said some abhorrent things and lost his job, that is…

Chris Riback: And got kicked off.

Julian Francis:  …cancel culture, but actually it was probably appropriate. What I struggle with is we need room to grow, and where I struggle with some of the tactics of the cancel side of things today, is that I don’t know that it gives people room to grow. What I said 20 years ago, look, I probably have changed my position. I’ve probably changed my thoughts. I’ve probably grown. And holding me accountable to that, now pointing out that I said it, but give me the opportunity to grow and learn. I think we all want that opportunity. So I think that the ability to recognize the difference between strongly held beliefs that might be abhorrent, or might be counter to how I believe or anyone else believes we should behave, that’s one thing, but actually not allowing people to grow and change and learn and develop is something that I find very difficult.

Now the flip side to that is I actually have some sympathy. The number of ways to simplify hate speech today is extraordinary. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like it. The ability to hold a fringe point of view and amplify that fringe point of view seems to be just manifest everywhere. And I think it’s increasingly difficult. So I think we do have a bit of a reactionary response to that ability to get this out there and not actually be shouted down. So, I do have some sympathy with it. I think it’s always been around. I believe that we ought to have the right to free speech. You can say what you say, but even the Supreme Court accepts there’s not an absolute. Again, you can’t scream fire in a crowded cinema. There are some things that we’ve always tried to debate. I don’t think we debate things anymore. I think we shout at each other. And I think that, that’s where we lose so much nuance.

I think about this a lot, center of gravity. And I don’t know that our center of gravity has moved a lot, but that doesn’t mean the fringes don’t get wider and wider and wider. The center of gravity stays the same, but the extremes can grow a long way apart. And I think what we’ve seen over the last five, 10 years is these extremes polarize, my guess is our center of gravity probably hasn’t shifted very much.

Dr. Alexandria White: Yes. I always say we are more like than we are different. And then it goes back to one of Beacon’s core values that you said, is just to do the right thing. And doing the right thing is being curious, listening, and even understanding people that you might disagree with. And so, yes, to everything that you said, that we are just, we’re talking past each other. Let’s talk with the each other now.

Julian Francis: Let me share one example. I sent out an email about vaccinations about a year ago, pleading with people I’ve been vaccinated. I said, I’ve done the research. And I got a call from a lady who said, look, I don’t believe in this. And I don’t see why you are interested in what I do. And I’m like on the phone with her one on one, she’s actually, because I actually care. You work for me, you work for our company. I actually care what happens to you.

Dr. Alexandria White: Wow.

Julian Francis: And we were actually able to have that dialogue. She was vehemently opposed to vaccines and vaccine mandates. And I was saying, look, we’ll comply with the law if there is a vaccine mandate, and I am vaccinated. But that ability to actually come together and for me to share that I care about her and for her to share her concerns about mandates, it was a perfectly happy conversation, and I think she got to understand that I do actually care. And I got to understand a little bit more about the people in my organization who were opposed to vaccines.

Chris Riback: Well, that sense of empathy or…what I just heard you trying to communicate is not, this is my view and you must follow my view. It is, I’m trying to put myself in your shoes and look at a life situation from others point of view. And that’s how I view this type of thing.

You, of course, ultimately may have ended up agreeing to disagree, but that was your point of view, which leads me to my last question for you, which is this empathetic leadership. And to what extent leaders have had to evolve to a role of empathy? What have you seen around the need to evolve to empathetic leadership? And is it something that can be learned? Can leaders evolve to that point, or you either got it or you don’t, and if you don’t have it, well, this might not be the time and age for you.

Julian Francis: No, I think it can be learned. I think that as certainly in a senior executive role at a company, talent becomes the defining characteristic of your organization, ultimately what you do and how you do it. I joke that I don’t do work anymore. I get other people to do work and that can be a challenge obviously, but trying to connect with people and do actually show that you care. Well, again, one of our core values, the one we put first was we put people first. We do actually care about our people. We want to make sure that they can grow, have great careers. We care about your health and safe. We do all of those things, but I think there’s, if you talk about empathetic leadership, the way I would define it is, is about trying to understand, put yourself in other people’s shoes and then get the best out of it.

Not challenge them, not, oh, I get it. It’s a really tough situation. That’s okay. It’s not sympathy. It might be empathy, but it’s not sympathy. I had a couple of situations in my career. I actually, early on I learnt, had a woman going, worked for me, going through a really difficult divorce. And she was struggling with the workload. And I actually ended up calling our employee assistance hotline myself, and saying, how do I deal with this?

Chris Riback: Wow.

Julian Francis: And their advice was you have to tell that the job’s the job. And that was a tough message, because I’m like, I want to be supportive. She actually came back to me about a year later and said I’m so glad you did that, because it helped me focus. I knew I had to compartmentalize this. I had to get this behind me and I had to move forward. I sure as heck didn’t think that I was being empathetic at the time, and you’re going through this struggle. But in fact, it was probably the right thing for her to do, was you got to find a way to focus on work. So I think people want two things. They want to be challenged. And I actually think they want to know you as a person.

From a leadership standpoint, I think those are the two dimensions that we need to find ways to connect with our employees and challenge them. And that’s what empathetic leadership is for me. It’s that ability to, I get you. I hear you. I recognize your talents. I know how I can deploy you to the best use for the company, but I’m going to push you hard in order to achieve what we need to achieve. And that’s going to allow you to grow, build a great career, advance, take care of your family. Do the work you need to in your community, will build that space for you. But I think that’s what empathetic leadership is to me, it’s more about connecting with people at a personal level and then challenging them to grow.

Dr. Alexandria White: I completely agree. I think I’ve worked the hardest for my supervisors, who I knew they cared about me. I didn’t mind staying later. I didn’t mind taking on an extra assignment because I knew that she actually cared about me. And so right now to the listeners, to the business leaders, it is so important to have empathetic leadership, especially during this day and time.

We have talked about mentoring, diversity, equity, inclusion and empathy and cancel culture. What would you like the listeners to take away with, I want to leave this space for you to give anything that you’d like to, or say anything that you’d like to give out to the audience.

Julian Francis: Yes, thanks Dr. White. One of the things that I’m really proud of, I joined Beacon about two and a half years ago now. And Beacon had come together through a number of acquisitions of a lot of local companies and built up over the past 15, 20 years. I sensed a, when I came here, actually there was a strong binding culture, but it hadn’t been articulated. And we worked to put down what our core values were, and

Julian Francis: We have five core values that are critical to us and we think are foundational. Put people first, always be safe, do the right thing, own your day, and never stop building.

And I do think that articulating values is really, actually more important than I’d imagined, because I do sit down in difficult times and in difficult situations and think about, what is the right thing? Am I putting our people first? And I think having that values driven basis for the business actually is incredibly powerful. I think that that is maybe underappreciated. I think every company actually does put their values together. I think that sometimes it’s, people ignore it. I think that’s actually a really powerful basis on which to build a business.

Chris Riback: Julian, thank you. Thank you for this conversation. And I imagine it’s fair that I don’t want to speak for the people who work with you, but they probably say thank you for showing empathetic leadership every day. Thank you for your thoughts.

Dr. Alexandria White: Thank you.

Julian Francis: Thanks, I appreciate the time.