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F5 Networks CEO Francois Locoh-Donou at the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Francois Locoh-Donou has a different perspective than a lot of CEOs do.

An immigrant from Togo who came to the U.S. via France, Locoh-Donou worked as a telecom executive before landing the top job at Seattle’s F5 Networks last year. He has also founded factories in Togo, where workers, mostly women, process cashews.

While these two experiences would seem to clash, Locoh-Donou has found a common thread that unites technology workers in some of the world’s richest cities with factory workers who live on a minimum wage of $40 a month. That common thread is the value of self worth.

“Whether in rural Africa or global centers of technology, when a person’s worth is valued and celebrated, they become the best they can be,” Locoh-Donou said Thursday, addressing the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting. The speech left a crowd of more than 1,000 people in silence, a fact that stood out during Locoh-Donou’s dramatic pauses.

Locoh-Donou, who is leading the Seattle-based security technology and network infrastructure company as it makes a tough transition to the cloud, described the lessons he’s learned as a leader in two worlds that seem like complete opposites but actually have a lot in common.

The talk, which drew a standing ovation from the crowd of civic and business leaders, weaved in the theme of the day, “the business of doing good.” Locoh-Donou shared a personal philosophy he called the “three stages of reach,” to help raise people’s sense of self-worth.

The first stage is what I call giving as a leader. It’s knowing and behaving that with every interaction you have at any level in an organization you have an opportunity to enhance the sense of worth in others by being accessible, by being generous with your time, your advice, your coaching. By celebrating victories large and small. By valuing every contribution, you demonstrate your commitment to the worth of the people you touch. This is a choice you make as a leader every day and it’s free.

The second stage of reach I have found is creating inclusion. If you work in a large organization, you are not reasonably going to touch everyone in your company. But you can impact everyone’s sense of worth if you create an inclusive environment. By that I mean a place where everyone, regardless of their background, feels like they can be themselves. That they don’t have to suppress a part of their identity or cover a part of their identity to be successful. It’s about the policies you put in place; it’s about the cultural standards you set, it’s about what you tolerate and what you don’t tolerate. It’s about how you characterize your company.

Beyond the walls of the organization, you can extend worth into the third stage of reach by clarifying purpose, defining why your organization is a force of social good. Depending on the industry or community this could be about social justice, it could be about economic development. It could be about anything, but it’s about defining why your organization is a force of social good.

Locoh-Donou explained how he is implementing these principles at F5. A push to create a more inclusive culture at the company has led to double the number of female vice presidents, he said. F5 earlier this year hired a senior director of diversity and inclusion: Colleen Fukui-Sketchley, who spent 21 years at Nordstrom, most recently working on inclusion initiatives.

Without giving details, Locoh-Donou said the company has had to make some “tough calls” to reinforce these cultural changes.

“I have learned the hard way that you are not going to create an inclusive environment unless you make very visible what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Too many times inaction signals that damaging behaviors are acceptable. At F5 we are in no way perfect in this way, but we are committed to the journey.”

F5 Networks is also partnering with the Seattle Foundation to launch its own charitable initiative with two main focus areas: helping the homeless and getting people from underrepresented communities, chiefly women and minorities, into STEM fields. The plan is still coming together and Locoh-Donou didn’t give a dollar figure for the commitment.

Through both words and actions, Locoh-Donou wants to show the impact businesses can make. To close the talk, he relayed a famous story from 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai about a hummingbird that tried to put out a forest fire despite its tiny stature, saying “I’m doing the best I can,” while all the either creatures stood paralyzed.

“And that is my aspiration for all of us, to celebrate worth in our way, and be hummingbirds in the business of doing good.”

Here is the full audio of Locoh-Donou’s speech, courtesy of Seattle’s KNKX-FM.

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