As part of our ongoing “As the Leader” series, Laurel Richie met with more than 30 students from Columbia Business and Law Schools for a wide-ranging discussion that included the key leadership lessons she learned during her career and her perspectives on this historic moment of heightened awareness around systemic racism in the United States. Richie is now a mentor at Merryck & Co., where she advises senior executives. She also serves as the board chair of Dartmouth College and is a director at Synchrony Financial and Bright Horizons.
Here are some highlights from the conversation, edited for space:
On Becoming an Authentic Leader
“Developing an authentic leadership style includes the hard work of sitting down and figuring out who you are and what you value. There are all sorts of exercises to help. One is to ask yourself, What's your legacy? What do you want written on your tombstone? Even though it’s a little morbid, write down how you would like your children to think about you. How do you want to be remembered?
There is also value in reflecting on your own life experience and the moments when you felt truly empowered and when you felt you made a difference. What was it about those moments that really spoke to you and stayed with you? More often than not, those are the things that define who you are as a person.
I started in advertising because I wanted a creative field and I wanted to work with lots of different kinds of people. Every career choice I made after that was all about empowering women. That is my calling, my passion, my gift. I wanted to leave the world a better place for the next generation of women.”
On Being a Trailblazer
“My grandmother always used to say, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ I view it as an honor to be the first or the only. And in almost every job I've ever had after my first entry-level roles, I have been the first and the only, whether that's as a woman or an African American or an African-American woman. So, I start from a place of gratitude. To me, trailblazing is less about me and more about the next generation behind me, who, if I can crack the door open, will take the door off its hinges.
So that's the upside. I will also say that there have been times in my career where I've had to take a break, because I was asked to take on a disproportionate role in educating and informing. Again, I felt grateful for the opportunity, but there were times at each of the places where I’ve worked when I literally went to management and said, ‘I'm happy to do this work, but I need a break from it right now. So, your job is to continue to find more women and more people of color so that this role can be shared by others.’
Even as recently as three weeks ago, I was on my sixth Zoom meeting of the day with a group of people who were asking for my help in thinking about how to help their organizations live up to their anti-racist aspirations. In the middle of the Zoom call, I sent a note to everyone saying, ‘I'll be back tomorrow.’ I did that because I realized I just needed a little bit of time to pace myself and to re-energize to come back the next day for more conversations. Again, it’s important to recognize that there are positives to those conversations, but there are also times when you just have to restore yourself.
I truly believe this is a moment of reckoning. If we're acknowledging systemic racism, then we collectively have the ability to figure out what we need to do. The good news is that everybody has a role to play. It's going to require all hands on deck, and with the groundswell of support, I feel like there are a lot of hands on deck.”
On the Hallmarks of Healthy Corporate Cultures
“Healthy cultures in organizations are like healthy lifestyles for human beings. It's about having good core values, running the organization according to those values, and staying firm and holding onto those values during the tough times when the values are challenged.
It's also about focus. If organizations have three to five values that they deeply believe in, they will have a better chance of living according to those values because they've chosen them carefully. The process is as much about what they choose not to do as what they choose to do.
The other aspect of defining values for an organization is to work really hard to get beyond what I would call table-stakes values. Every organization should operate with integrity, respect, trust, communication and valuing employees and customers. Building unique cultures starts with looking at values that sit on top of those table-stakes values.”