Take on a Challenge, Then Put a Cherry On Top

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Incoming ASA board of directors chair Joyce Russell, of the Adecco Group US Foundation, has the perfect combination of experience and tenacity to lead the association through challenging times.

The first thing you notice when you speak with Joyce Russell is that she is wholly focused on the conversation she’s having with you. “I vote with my time,” she explains. “I think about that in every client interaction—if I’m meeting with you, I’ve already looked you up, I know who you are—I know where your company’s trying to go, and I want to figure out how we can add value.”

Russell has to maintain that focus because she has a lot to focus on. She is president of the Adecco Group US Foundation, which was launched in January 2019. And in October—during the annual membership meeting held in conjunction with Staffing World®, the virtual ASA annual convention and expo—she was elected chair of the ASA board of directors.

Beginning a term as the association’s chair in 2020 requires a leader to face unusual challenges. Fortunately, Russell thrives on challenge.

Meeting Challenges Head-On

As she explains in her book Put a Cherry on Top: Generosity in Life and Leadership, which was published earlier this year, Russell has always been the type to face a challenge eagerly. One chapter of the book is titled “Go to the Fire.” In it, Russell observes that confrontation scares people because they need to be liked and respected, and “when we confront someone, it can feel like we’re putting all of that at risk. But the fact of the matter is that confrontation means you care.”

Russell cares deeply, and she has found that her passion gives her the courage to take on intimidating responsibilities. “Any time there’s a problem, I hit it straight on.” Her courage has brought her to some impressive places. She just celebrated 33 years with the Adecco Group (although it had a different name when she first started with the company) and was president of Adecco Staffing US from 2004 to 2018, leading the largest business unit of Adecco Group North America. She has been a panelist and participant at the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Fortune Most Powerful Women summits. Russell also is a member of the Committee of 200 and Women Corporate Directors; a founding member of Paradigm for Parity; and serves on the board for Dress for Success Worldwide.

Through it all, she has embraced the goal of “putting a cherry on top,” which Russell defines as “creating a thrilling, unexpected, and memorable experience.”

This industry is about people, and I love that connection to people.”

Making a Career of Staffing

Staffing wasn’t Russell’s idea—it was her mother’s. As a way to make money in the few months she had after graduating from Baylor University and before a planned move from her Florida home to Texas, Russell’s mother suggested they stop by a staffing firm office. The branch manager said the company could sign Russell on and then transfer her to Houston when she moved there.

She has been working in the industry ever since, and believes in it deeply. “It’s a perfect match for my skill set,” she explains. “This industry is all about people, and I love that connection to people. It’s fun, it’s fast-paced—I’ve loved what I’ve been doing, I feel like it matters each and every day, and I’m having a ton of fun along the way.”

One of Russell’s personal beliefs is a principle that guides so many staffing professionals. She says, “Talent is the most important, invigorating, and tenuous part of every company’s DNA.” The individuals who work for a company are what make it special and differentiate it. “Our talent defines everything about us: our culture, our energy, our competitive advantage—and, ultimately, our position in the marketplace.”

Leading With a Purpose

“I ran the second-largest business unit in the world for Adecco for over 14 years, and then I had the tremendous opportunity to lead the Adecco Group US Foundation.” The foundation’s mission is to make the future work for everyone by addressing the skills gap, creating greater economic opportunity for American workers, and championing work equality and equity.

“We believe that work doesn’t work for everyone right now,” Russell explains. “We strongly believe in work equality and equity—we were already focused on that work, especially around women in the workforce. And we believe in giving back in our local communities.” Among the foundation’s main charitable partners are Dress for Success and National Urban League.

It’s expensive to have a foundation, Russell notes, but it pays off by underscoring the company’s values. “Our colleagues love that we have a foundation and that we’re giving back. It helps us recruit people around our purpose and our mission.”

Russell wants to encourage ASA members to attract exceptional internal talent and says the key to that is corporate culture. “Culture matters. You need to protect your culture…culture creates engagement, which drives results.” It’s important, she notes, because many younger workers don’t expect to spend a long time at any one job, “and you want the culture to drive them to stay. You want them to be able to pivot in your company.”

Russell’s goal for promising candidates is that they join Adecco’s corporate staff and then move, as appropriate, to other areas within the company. “I want to give them experiences and growth opportunities within our group culture so that they never have to leave…so that, like me, they’ve created a lifetime of learning in the group.”

Navigating New Challenges

A lifetime of learning within the staffing industry has proven to Russell that not much has changed at the fundamental level.

In three decades, Russell says, staffing firms’ goals have stayed essentially the same, even though the tools they use have developed. “Technology has played a huge part in the change in our industry. We use technology now to make a better candidate experience.”

Another change she’s noticed has to do with the industry’s growth. Clients that used to need one or two temporary employees per week now have sizable long-term contracts—and the way that staffing is purchased has evolved as well. When she started out, Russell says, “You never sold to a chief procurement officer. It just wasn’t thought about.”

The discussion of reskilling and upskilling is also new. “But I think the staffing industry is always changing, and that’s what excites me. We can innovate; we can elevate—and that’s why I still love it so much,” says Russell.

Russell also appreciates the opportunities she’s had because of her work with Adecco. “I’ve loved making a difference in so many people’s lives: the people I’ve met, the relationships I’ve built, and especially the experiences I’ve had—such as speaking at the World Economic Forum or running the torch at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.”

The harder you work, the luckier you get—and in business I got really lucky. I joined a great company in a great industry, and I’ve worked with an amazing team.”

That’s why she and writing partner Sarah Davis (vice president of the Adecco Group US Foundation) wrote the book, Russell says—“because we’re so grateful for the experiences and we wanted to share all of those nuggets that helped us grow from $300 million to $26 billion. I tried to put it all in the book.”
“The harder you work, the luckier you get—and in business I got really lucky. I joined a great company in a great industry, and I’ve worked with an amazing team.”

Looking Past Tough Times

As she looks ahead to her term as chair during a very challenging time for the industry—and the world—Russell is ready to confront the challenges she’s facing. For the immediate future, “I’m very focused on getting everyone safely back to work and getting us back on track. I’m all about jobs, and all about sharing the value proposition of our industry.” The first jobs to be filled as employers come out of a downturn tend to be temporary and contract positions. “If companies are going to tentatively come back, they’re going to add contingent labor before they make permanent hires, so we have to be ready.”

Her longer-term goal is to help the industry grow ever bigger and stronger. Throughout her career, Russell has grown and mentored many industry leaders, embracing the idea of “the true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” She strives to help enhance the experiences of those around her and make a lasting difference in an industry she loves so much.

But in the immediate future, she says, “We need to get everyone safely back to work—we need to get our country, our clients, and our associates back to work.” And as chair of the association’s board of directors, Russell will use her leadership and experience to ensure ASA leads the way for its members in 2021.


Jennifer Silber, CAE, is senior editor for the American Staffing Association. Send feedback on this article to success@americanstaffing.net. Engage with ASA on social media—go to americanstaffing.net/social.

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