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As part of our ongoing “As the Leader” series, Elizabeth Moore met with students for a wide-ranging discussion that included the key leadership lessons she learned during her career and her perspectives on how to build diversity in organizations. Moore is the former senior vice president and general counsel at Consolidated Edison. Prior to that role, she was a partner at Nixon Peabody for 14 years, and also counsel to Governor Mario Cuomo in the early 1990s. Here are some highlights, edited for space, from the conversation, which was moderated by Petal Modeste, Associate Dean for Professional Advancement, Graduate Degree Program, and Executive Education, Columbia Law School.
“I was born and raised in Queens, N.Y. My father was a very traditional Caribbean father, but he was also very supportive of whatever I wanted to do. He was incredibly supportive of my desire to be a lawyer.
The first lawyer I ever encountered was on television: Perry Mason. What I found fascinating was his ability to put a witness on the stand and with just 10 questions he could make the person confess. Yes, he was a fictional lawyer, but he really influenced my thinking about becoming an attorney. Barbara Jordan [Congresswoman and a leader of the civil rights movement] also was my absolute hero. She was a wonderful woman and completely in control. I just found her to be totally amazing.
Once I knew I wanted to go to law school, I told my father about my plans, including working for a few years to save money to pay for law school. But he said, Absolutely not. I will scrub floors. I will do whatever it takes.’ I was fortunate. I applied to a number of law schools. But St. John's University gave me a full tuition scholarship, including books.”
“The most challenging moments I faced as general counsel of Con Edison was when there was injury or loss of life, whether it was a member of the workforce, or whether it was a member of the public. Those are obviously horrible situations, whether or not the company was responsible because someone was injured or lost their life.
You’re also dealing with a huge number of regulatory agencies in those difficult circumstances. We had a gas explosion in East Harlem and the National Transportation Safety Board, which is responsible for pipeline safety, came to investigate. We had to make sure that those investigations were handled fairly and honestly, and that we were transparent and learned from those incidents and changed practices as necessary to ensure that they didn't happen in the future.
In challenging moments, I am an incredibly collaborative person. I respect the expertise of others. I don't need to be the front person, though I can be assertive. I'm also very good about listening. There are people who know more than I do, and my job is to find those people and give them the opportunity to do what they do.”
On Building Diversity
“At my law firm, I chaired the diversity committee and for many years—I was the only Black partner. I also chaired the admissions recruiting committee. I was asked to do that, and it has always been incredibly important to me to be an advocate in the area of increasing diversity.
I've had a number of recent inquiries from mentees who have said they’ve been asked to take a leadership role in the area of increasing diversity and inclusion in their companies. I tell them a couple of things. First of all, you can't do it alone. The leadership, including the chairman and the CEO, has to engage.
As a law firm partner, I was also expected to bill hours. There has to be some understanding that this takes time away from work that I could be doing with my clients. If it's important to the organization or the company, I firmly believe that all the people who get involved in this area should be rewarded for their work.”
On Organizational Character
“Culture is probably one of the most difficult things to understand and to change if it needs to be changed. Because it involves both top-down and bottom-up effort. The top of the company can change the terms of what it thinks and what it's doing. But how do you communicate that down to front-line workers?
And, there are many cultures inside an organization. There's the overarching culture of a company. And then there are many cultures among different divisions and teams. So the challenge is, how do you lead a large company to ensure that everybody's on the same page?
The National Association of Corporate Directors has made it very clear that culture should be a driving concern of boards of directors and senior level management. Transparency, integrity, inclusiveness—all those and more come out of a company's culture, and they should help individuals to achieve their highest potential.”