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    January 28, 2024

    Navigating the Future of Work with Lori Costew, Former Chief Diversity Officer and AI Champion at Ford

    Lori Costew, recently retired Chief Diversity Officer and a former Head of People Strategy at Ford Motor Company, brings a wealth of experience and expertise in cultivating a culture of belonging, advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and human resource strategies. With a career spanning nearly three decades at Ford, Costew has held various leadership positions, including in human resources for the mobility division and The Lincoln Motor Company. Her extensive background in marketing, labor union negotiations, equal employment planning, and organizational development has shaped her deep understanding of the complexities of fostering an inclusive work environment. Beyond her professional achievements, she is also an accomplished author with two award-winning novels that tackle the issue of bullying.



    Lori Costew, retired Chief Diversity Officer and HR Leader at Ford Motor Company

    I sat down to chat with Lori Costew about the future of work trends as part of my research to produce Season 1 of The Lever with Drew Fortin. This show highlights how the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and Web3 will shift the paradigm of humans at work for the better. I wrote this article based on my notes and transcripts from the interview. You can also watch a video of my interview with Lori Costew, retired Chief Diversity Officer and a former Head of People Strategy at Ford Motor Company, below.

    A Legacy of Growth, Diversity, and Innovation at Ford Motor Company

    Costew is a remarkable individual who dedicated 30 years of her career to Ford Motor Company, serving in various roles that have shaped the company's success. From the humble beginning of working in a Ford manufacturing plant to leading HR for the Lincoln Motor Company, her journey has been nothing short of exceptional.

    Throughout her tenure, Costew embraced the power of diversity and inclusion, recognizing the importance of incorporating different perspectives into every aspect of the business. As the chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, she championed diverse thought and experiences, understanding that this was crucial in designing vehicles, services, and experiences that catered to a wide range of customers.

    One notable example of Costew's commitment to diversity was evident in the development of the iconic Mustang. A female chief engineer raised an issue regarding heels getting caught in the vehicle's floor, highlighting a potential oversight. This instance showcased the significance of diverse viewpoints in creating better products and experiences.

    Moreover, Costew's work extended beyond gender diversity. Collaborating closely with employee resource groups (ERGs) focused on disabilities, she prioritized creating inclusive designs that benefited all customers. By considering the needs of physically challenged individuals, the company improved accessibility for everyone, including those with temporary injuries or aging-related challenges.

    "If you can create egress and entry into a vehicle for someone who is physically challenged. When you make it better for a certain demographic, you're actually making it better for all customers." - Lori Costew, Retired Chief of Diversity and Former Head of HR of Autonomous Vehicles Unit at Ford Motor Company

    Costew's legacy at Ford Motor Company exemplifies the value of aligning talent and business strategies, leveraging technology, and embracing diversity. Her remarkable career serves as an inspiration for professionals seeking growth, success, and innovation.

    Navigating the Intersection of Technology and Humanity: Insights on AI and Human-Centered Innovation

    Costew brings a unique perspective to the evolving landscape of technology integration in the automotive industry. With years of experience, she understands the importance of thoughtful consideration when it comes to incorporating technology into vehicles.

    In particular, Costew recognizes that technology should be viewed as a tool rather than an end in itself. Just as a hammer isn't suitable for every project, understanding the purpose and implications of the technology being implemented is essential. A prime example she cited is OpenAI's ChatGPT, a remarkable tool that, if not used with caution, can lead to confirmation bias or unintentional discrimination. It is crucial to exercise common sense and employ a critical eye when leveraging such technologies.

    "If you take ChatGPT at the surface level, you could actually go down a very wrong path or you could come across confirmation bias or you could in intent unintentionally discriminate." - Lori Costew, Retired Chief of Diversity and Former Head of HR of Autonomous Vehicles Unit at Ford Motor Company

    When discussing the fear of automation and AI displacing jobs, Costew emphasized that we are still in the early stages of this transformation. Companies must be mindful of the unintended consequences and prioritize the human element when implementing self-service solutions or customer-facing technologies. Saving money on systems may come at the cost of employee productivity or customer satisfaction.

    Costew advocates for a strategic approach to utilizing AI in knowledge worker roles. Legal and regulatory factors must be considered, and a human touch is often necessary to ensure brand integrity and enhance the output generated by AI. Augmentation, rather than downsizing, should be the goal, empowering employees to use their expertise in conjunction with AI.

    Additionally, she stressed the importance of common sense and critical thinking in this era of technology integration. Despite our natural tendency to trust experts, it is essential to question and verify the results provided by AI systems. Common sense becomes more crucial than ever, acting as a safeguard against potential pitfalls and guiding innovation in the right direction.

    "You're going to waste money if you have employees that are spending more time trying to figure out what they're supposed to be doing. Or customers who will get tired of you and say, 'I'm done with this chatbot. If I can't talk to a person, I'm going to find another supplier to help me." - Lori Costew, Retired Chief of Diversity and Former Head of HR of Autonomous Vehicles Unit at Ford Motor Company

    Costew's insights shed light on the delicate balance between technology and humanity. By embracing AI as a powerful tool, aligning talent and business strategies, and prioritizing the human element, companies can navigate the evolving landscape of innovation with confidence.

    The Future of Work and Human Connection: Insights on Technology Integration

    Costew offered valuable insights into the ongoing shift towards technology integration and its impact on the future of work. With the introduction of AI and automation, humans are presented with new opportunities to focus on relational and subjective components, while machines handle transactional elements.

    When considering the advances that lie ahead, Costew highlights the importance of human connection. Despite technological advancements, humans are hardwired for connection and thrive in social environments. Companies that foster a sense of community and provide networking opportunities often see higher levels of employee satisfaction and retention.

    "Humans are hardwired for connection. When you think back to our very early days on the planet as humans, tribes were critical to survival. You didn't survive if you didn't have a tribe around you to protect and help you find food. And those instincts are still in us. A core predictor of people staying with a company is if they have a work best friend. Human connections are still really important." - Lori Costew, Retired Chief of Diversity and Former Head of HR of Autonomous Vehicles Unit at Ford Motor Company

    Moreover, as the war for talent intensifies, organizations must prioritize attracting and retaining skilled individuals. Treating employees as humans and offering meaningful work with a clear sense of purpose becomes vital. In an era where skills are rapidly evolving, and industry boundaries are blurring, companies must adapt to the changing landscape and embrace the diverse skill sets required for complex technologies.

    Costew recognized the shifting priorities of younger generations entering the workforce. This generation has experienced economic downturns, social isolation, and heightened awareness of environmental and social issues. They demand companies that align with their values and prioritize environmental sustainability, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Loyalty is now viewed as a two-way street, where talented individuals expect companies to demonstrate a genuine commitment to societal well-being.

    As technology continues to shape the future of work, Costew emphasizes the enduring importance of human connection, purpose-driven work, and aligning talent strategies with the changing needs of the industry.

    Navigating Displacement and Upskilling: Costew's Insights on the Future of Work

    Costew shares her perspective on the future of work amidst technological advancements. As technology proliferates, she emphasizes the increasing importance of human elements in the workplace. While transactional tasks become automated, there is a growing need for more human-centric roles and skills.

    Regarding the displacement of jobs, Costew acknowledges that any major platform change inevitably leads to some degree of displacement. However, she raised thought-provoking questions about which jobs or roles are most likely to be affected and where the responsibility for upskilling and retraining lies.

    "It's the responsibility of both the government and corporations to upskill the workforce. There has to be a systems approach that brings employers, educational providers, and government entities together. If you're going to do a true upskilling, many organizations can't afford to do it alone." - Lori Costew, Retired Chief of Diversity and Former Head of HR of Autonomous Vehicles Unit at Ford Motor Company

    Costew believes that addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive systems approach. It cannot solely rely on government initiatives or corporate efforts. Instead, it demands collaboration between employers, educational providers, and government entities. By fostering partnerships and programs, like the collaboration between Ford and Google on coding camps, organizations can bridge the skills gap and provide opportunities for individuals previously disadvantaged in the workforce.

    Costew also spoke of the importance of recognizing diverse talents and abilities. Through partnerships with organizations teaching coding to individuals on the autism spectrum, companies like Ford have tapped into unique skill sets. By hiring candidates with a strong focus, they have not only enhanced their workforce but also improved the lives of these individuals.

    "When you think of people with ADHD or those on the autism spectrum, their superpower is often focus. And so, at Ford, we did some partnering with a local organization that teaches coding to people on the autism spectrum." - Lori Costew, Retired Chief of Diversity and Former Head of HR of Autonomous Vehicles Unit at Ford Motor Company

    Moreover, Costew stressed the need for alternative paths beyond traditional college education. With the rapid pace of technological change, certification programs and apprenticeships play a vital role in equipping individuals with the necessary skills. It's crucial to acknowledge that while AI may assist specific jobs, there will always be a need for hands-on work in essential areas like construction, plumbing, and electrical work.

    Costew's insights emphasize the significance of a balanced approach where both knowledge work and skilled trades are valued. The future of work lies in aligning talent strategies with the evolving needs of the economy, empowering individuals through upskilling, and ensuring that no one is left behind in the knowledge economy.

    The Importance of Neuro-Based Leadership in Fostering Growth and Success

    Costew recognizes the significance of neurodiversity and its impact on leadership. Drawing from personal experience as a father of a child with autism spectrum disorder, she acknowledges the critical role that inclusive leadership plays in creating an environment where all individuals can thrive.

    In examining labor shortages and the need for effective leadership, Costew highlighted the growing movement towards emotional intelligence and the acceptance of neurodivergent individuals. However, she goes beyond this and emphasizes the need for neuro-based leadership that extends beyond self-awareness and encompasses understanding others.

    When discussing the attributes of exceptional leaders, Costew posed a rhetorical question to engage the reader. The best leaders, according to her, are caring and possess the ability to drive and influence their teams while creating a safe space for individual authenticity. By recognizing and leveraging the unique strengths, or "superpowers," of each team member, these leaders unlock their full potential and inspire exceptional performance.

    Costew's insights lead to an important realization - every leader should possess these attributes. When individuals feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves and have opportunities to learn, grow, and deliver their best work, the entire organization benefits. Empathy becomes a crucial element, as it enables leaders to understand what drives different individuals and tailor their approach accordingly.

    However, Costew noted that many organizations have overlooked leadership training in recent years. Promotion decisions often prioritize technical competence over leadership skills, resulting in individuals transitioning into people leadership roles without adequate preparation.

    To address this, Costew underscored the need for ongoing support and development for both new and experienced leaders. Organizations must prioritize helping leaders understand how to treat their employees, how to foster growth, and how to create an environment where individuals can thrive. This investment in the growth and well-being of employees is essential for retaining top talent and driving overall business success.

    "When you talk about being human, we have to help new workers, leaders and tenured workers. How do they treat their employees? How do they get the best out of their employees? How are they helping them grow?" - Lori Costew, Retired Chief of Diversity and Former Head of HR of Autonomous Vehicles Unit at Ford Motor Company

    In the pursuit of growth and success, Costew stresses the importance of neuro-based leadership that embraces empathy, individual strengths, and continuous development. By prioritizing the human element, organizations can create a culture where employees feel valued, supported, and inspired to deliver their best.

    The Value of Humans in the Workplace: Balancing Employee Currency and Organizational Success

    Costew addressed the tension that often exists between employers and employees, acknowledging the negative portrayal of this relationship in the media. However, she believes that the state of the employee-employer relationship varies across organizations.

    According to Costew, when individuals recognize that their skills and competencies are their currency, they become empowered to seek opportunities where their value is appreciated. In today's highly automated world, organizations must prioritize the employee experience. This means offering accessible support systems and not burdening employees with unnecessary self-service processes that hinder productivity.

    "Skills and competencies are currency. I'm not going to stay in an organization that's undervaluing me. We all have that agency and can go elsewhere." - Lori Costew, Retired Chief of Diversity and Former Head of HR of Autonomous Vehicles Unit at Ford Motor Company

    Costew emphasized the importance of retaining employees, especially in complex industries where product cycles can span several years. When employees feel undervalued and underutilized, organizations risk losing valuable knowledge and expertise. It is not about favoring long-tenured employees over new hires or vice versa, but rather finding a balance that combines the understanding of the business and product with fresh perspectives.

    Placing a value on workers is a complex endeavor, influenced by the organization's mindset. Costew distinguished between organizations that prioritize profits and those that prioritize their people. She asserted that valuing employees and creating a psychologically safe environment for them to contribute leads to higher engagement and, ultimately, higher profits.

    The value of humans in the workplace cannot be underestimated. Organizations that invest in their people and prioritize their well-being are more likely to reap the rewards of a dedicated and engaged workforce.

    Redefining Performance Measurement: Balancing Productivity Metrics and Human Abilities in the Workplace

    Costew delves into the complexities of performance measurement and the evolving need to correlate human abilities with business value. She acknowledged that traditional metrics like revenue generation and patient health are tangible outcomes businesses can easily measure. However, she emphasizes the importance of recognizing and evaluating the human abilities that contribute to overall performance.

    Costew highlighted the critical role of leaders in developing employees and enabling growth throughout their journey within the organization. She believes that leaders should not only possess technical expertise but also prioritize the entire value chain of an employee's life cycle. By focusing on developing people and preparing them for leadership roles, organizations can tap into an untapped resource and foster stronger, more capable teams.

    However, Costew acknowledged the challenges in performance management and the lack of a perfect system. She suggests that businesses should adopt a more systems-oriented approach, integrating different functional areas such as finance, marketing, and HR. This integration allows for better collaboration, improved product development, and reduced missed handoffs.

    While metrics are important, Costew cautioned against overemphasizing them at the expense of context and the why behind the metrics. She highlighted the significance of team and company-level performance, emphasizing the need to strike a balance between individual performance and collaborative efforts. Over-indexing on compensation for top performers may hinder team collaboration and overall productivity.

    In addressing the question of future performance measurement, Costew acknowledges the complexity of the issue and the lack of a definitive solution to date. However, she suggests that businesses should consider a more holistic approach, incorporating both productivity metrics and the development of people. By understanding the subtleties of team dynamics and nurturing a culture of growth, organizations can navigate the challenges inherent in performance measurement.


    The Future of Work: Exploring Fractional Leadership and the Evolving Employee-Employer Contract

    When discussing the potential benefits and challenges associated with relying on freelancers and fractional workers, Costew highlights the importance of aligning everyone's efforts toward a shared mission.

    While acknowledging the value of tapping into specialty skills on an as-needed basis, Costew emphasized that building a product and going to market solely with freelancers may not be sustainable. She raised concerns about maintaining a higher-level purpose and ensuring accountability when individuals are only involved in specific tasks for a limited time.

    Costew recognizes the growing interest in freelance and fractional work, especially among the aging boomer generation. However, she cautiond that true success in this model lies in creating alignment and shared accountability. It is essential for every individual, regardless of their fractional role, to understand and contribute to the organization's mission and purpose.

    Discussing the freelance and fractional movement, Costew noted its impact on redefining the employee-employer contract. Platforms like Upwork now offer full-time contracts, blurring the lines between traditional employment and freelancing. Simultaneously, there is a rise in union activity as employees seek equity and recognition for their skills and competencies.

    "There a lot of unintended consequences, and if you're not tied to the output, then you're not going to be as invested." - Lori Costew, Retired Chief of Diversity and Former Head of HR of Autonomous Vehicles Unit at Ford Motor Company

    Costew believes that the future of "at-will" employment in the United States is complex and influenced by various factors. While some individuals desire flexibility and stability, others are advocating for greater equity and fair treatment. The interest in unions is growing beyond traditional industries, with companies like Starbucks becoming potential targets for unionization.

    Empowering Career Development: The Shift towards Individual Agency and Organizational Responsibility

    Costew explored the evolving landscape of career development, highlighting the increasing agency of individuals in shaping their professional paths. She emphasized that as skills and competencies become the currency of the workforce, workers are actively seeking experiences and growth opportunities that align with their values and true talents.

    Costew observed a shift in mindset, with individuals venturing beyond their current employers to gain diverse experiences and knowledge. This trend is driven by a strong sense of personal agency and the desire for continuous learning and growth. Certification programs and online platforms like Coursera are empowering individuals to take charge of their career development, signaling a heightened focus on individual skill-building.

    However, Costew also acknowledges the ongoing need for employer-led development, particularly in succession planning and cultivating specific skills within organizations. Employers must recognize the importance of investing in employee growth to attract and retain top talent. Neglecting employee development can result in a negative impact on the organization's brand reputation and hinder long-term success.

    "There's a phenomenon unfolding. Your skills and competencies serve as your invaluable currency. This explains the shift, where individuals who previously explored diverse roles within their own company, as I once did, now venture beyond its confines to acquire essential experiences elsewhere." - Lori Costew, Retired Chief of Diversity and Former Head of HR of Autonomous Vehicles Unit at Ford Motor Company

    Costew also touched upon the influence of the pandemic on career choices, with some individuals prioritizing fulfillment over traditional career trajectories. She notes that people are increasingly taking ownership of their careers, pursuing what brings them joy and satisfaction, even if it means making significant shifts in their professional lives.

    Wrapping up our discussion, Costew highlighted the significance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in creating a sense of belonging within organizations. Costew emphasized the importance of fostering an inclusive environment, where individuals feel valued and can bring their best ideas to the table. When people feel a sense of belonging, they are motivated to contribute their best work and be part of something greater than themselves.

    Want to hear more from Lori Costew?


    Drew Fortin

    Drew is a people-first, values-driven leader with nearly 20 years of growth strategy and team-building experience across retail, marketing technology, local media, and HR tech. He spent 7 years at The Predictive Index, where he was Chief Growth Officer responsible for the company's strategy to build the world's first...

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