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Dara Richardson-Heron MD has deep leadership experience in senior positions across a variety of organizations. Her background includes roles as Chief Patient Officer at Pfizer, Chief Engagement Officer and Scientific Executive at the National Institutes of Health, and CEO of YWCA USA. She also serves as an executive mentor, and in a recent conversation with Columbia Business School students, she shared key leadership lessons and insights. Here are the highlights edited for space.
Forging A Career Path
“The common thread through all my different roles is that I love learning and a challenge. I’m always scouting for new opportunities. Once I find something of interest, I do my homework. I learn as much as I can about the opportunity to make sure it aligns with my passion, my expertise, and my goals to make a difference and have an impact.
And I’m careful not to create arbitrary limits or boundaries on what I can do and achieve. I do my best not to allow anyone else to limit my potential. A quick example: In one of my early leadership positions, I was never approached for the company’s high-potential leadership and development opportunities, even though I was a top performer. I decided to ask why, and I was told, ‘We thought you wouldn’t be interested in considering the leadership and development opportunities outside of medicine because you’re already a physician.’
I was shocked. The HR team took it upon themselves to make that decision for me even though they never asked me. It’s vitally important that you advocate for yourself. You can’t assume that if you put your head down and just do the work that someone will notice you. You’ve got to raise your hand for opportunities and never allow anyone to stifle your potential.”
“Watching my parents lead, both inside and outside of our home, provided me with my earliest lessons on leadership. My father was an account executive at a major telecommunications company, and my mother was, in effect, an executive home engineer. She kept our lives and our household in order, and she made sure that all of us, my dad included, were organized and accountable.
At our family dinners, my father would regularly share his leadership lessons and challenges and successes. He let us know how he managed through them, and some of the stories he told were not pretty. They were sharing those stories to provide us with timeless pearls of wisdom to help us lead in and navigate a sometimes unfair and inequitable world.”
“In one of my early positions, my immediate boss was an older male who seemed to have very little respect for women, and for women of color in particular. During my first few weeks on the job, I noticed that he was very paternalistic to me, and I use the phrase ‘paternalistic micromanagement’ to describe what he did. He gave me a goal and then provided step-by-step instructions on how to get there. It was clear that he didn’t give that same type of guidance to the other physicians on the team, all of whom were a bit older and male.
That didn’t sit well with me. I could have lost my cool and potentially risked doing something that could jeopardize my leadership position in the company. But I got through it by leveraging the tailwind and lesson that our parents shared during one of our family dinners. They said that life is not fair, and equal opportunities are not equal for everyone. People may treat you differently because of your race and your gender, but your role is to never allow anyone to stifle your ability or your achievements. You must strive for excellence in everything you do, and you win in the end. That’s always been my lens.
So, when I encounter unfair headwinds because of my race and gender, I have this built-in denial mechanism, and I use it as a tailwind to help me push through. In this case, I pushed back where appropriate and ultimately that difficult former boss became one of my direct reports.”
Interviewing Job Candidates
“When people interview with me, the first question I always ask is, ‘Tell me what you know about the organization.’ If they can’t give me a good answer, sometimes I just stop the interview right there because it doesn’t bode well for them as a member of our team.
If we get beyond that conversation, I will ask questions about the characteristics of the best leader they’ve ever worked for, and I will ask them to tell me about a time when they had a problem with a prior boss and how they handled it. That helps me understand what they consider a problem, and it also helps me gain a better understanding of their judgment.
The question that I always ask during an interview to understand their self-awareness is, ‘How would you describe yourself in one word?’ This question forces the person to focus everything they know about themselves into a single word. ‘Authentic’ is my one word. I don’t judge people by their one word, but it always gives me insight into how people package themselves.”
“One of the common themes that come up is that some leaders have a challenge creating clear, understandable and actionable priorities for their team. When leading a team, it’s really important to have a clear and easily understandable vision and to work in partnership with the team to create those three to five goals. Make sure that your team understands where you’re going, and that they are engaged and have that opportunity to help shape the goals.
Another theme is to not mistake words for voice. Some leaders feel that when they get in a room, they have to always talk and say something because they like to hear themselves speak. When you use your voice, use it strategically.”