Laurel Richie - President, WNBA
Richie’s Slam Dunk
By Ruchika Tulshyan
Laurel Richie, the first African American president of the WNBA, has all eyes on her. During the 2012 Olympic Games, she’s lining up her teams to shoot for their fifth consecutive gold, in the 16-year WNBA history.
With over two decades of experience in advertising and marketing, Richie’s impressive resume includes a stint as CMO of the Girl Scouts of the USA. Her commitment to empowering young women, remains unwavering.
Find out why leading a “team of misfits” is her greatest strength, and how she learned personal success comes from leading a team that feels successful – the hard way.
Little PINK Book: What’s your advice for women in male-dominated industries?
Laurel Richie: The important thing is to never, ever deny who you are. Gender, ethnicity, and background; all of that is part of you. As you go into environments where you may be the only one, you should not feel like you have to deny that part of your personality, or hide it or modify it. That keeps you from being true to yourself. That [helped] me eventually transcended the fact that I might have been the exception. People started to view me more as Laurel, rather than as a woman or as an African American.
LPB: What’s your leadership style?
LR: I try to lead the way in which I like to be led. [I like to] set a very clear vision for the team of what we are trying to accomplish and what our end goal is. To make sure there are open channels of communication. I like to build teams where people feel they can show up and bring their full personality. I’ve often had people refer to my teams as teams of misfits – not because they’re odd or strange people, but because they are comprised of very strong and distinct individuals.
LPB: What’s a difficult conversation you’ve had?
LR: To me leadership is about the big moments and the little moments. Just yesterday, I was in a meeting with someone where they got into a bit of an argument with another member of the team. Rather than ignore it, or let it wait until the annual review process, I went and sat with this person and said: ‘Let’s talk about this incident, it seems like it got more heated than it needed to be.’ We had a good conversation about the difference between one’s intent and one’s impact. Often even with the best of intentions, if you’re not paying attention to the impact of how you say something, you can take a project way off track without even knowing it. That’s a discussion I have with people quite frequently; helping them see how they’re being received vs. how they’re intending to be received.
LPB: What’s the biggest career obstacle that you’ve faced?
LR: Shortly after I was made a VP at Ogilvy, I went on vacation to celebrate. I came back a week later and my entire team had gone to HR saying, ‘We know this is a profitable business. We know this is a high profile account and our clients are happy but we don’t like working with Laurel.’ It was literally a mutiny while I was gone! It came to me as a total shock because I was evaluating my success on tangible measures – we were winning awards, our client reviews were very positive. What I learned from that experience was: Yes, it’s important to be successful but people have to feel that they are contributing to that success. It transformed my view on what it means to be a leader. My job as a leader is not just to make sure we’re successful. It’s to create an environment where everyone feels they can be successful.
LPB: Who are your mentors?
LR: My mom was very passionate and very good at navigating different situations and building relationships with different kinds of people. When my parents went to buy a house – people wouldn’t sell it to them because they were black. A Caucasian friend ended up buying a house and selling it directly to my parents, so we grew up there. I didn’t know that story until many years later, but I often think of how brave and bold that move was for both of my parents. My mother, the primary caregiver, created an environment where we felt safe, in a community that was not very welcoming to us. She not only made us feel comfortable, but got people in the community comfortable with our family. I learned a lot from how she navigated that.
LPB: Were there times where being a woman, and African American, affected you at work?
LR: In the first 10 years of my working life, more often than not I was the only woman in the room, the only African American in the room and very definitely the only African American woman in the room. Luckily I’ve never felt unwelcome, but there were many times I was acutely aware of it. I felt I was having to make decisions others would not have to. One time, I went to a client’s dinner party, and after dinner he announced all of the people who worked for the company, who were all men, were going to go into the library, and his wife was going to take all the women for a tour of the house. I remember standing in the threshold thinking: ‘do I go with my business colleagues, or do I go with the spouses?’ It was not a case of discrimination but I felt I was in a unique position, and the choice I made would have implications either way.
LPB: What did you do?
LR: I ended up going with the men! They kind of looked at me like: ‘Huh?’ I distinctly remember feeling, ‘I have one foot in both of these camps and how interesting that I’m having to choose, whereas the decision was pretty clear cut for everybody else.’
LPB: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
LR: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Also: God is in the details.
LPB: Was there a reason why you decided to join the WNBA?
LR: My job here is my dream job. We take seriously the impact we’re having on society and the opportunity to be role models. Our players are role models. Our owners are role models, our physical trainers, the dance team. We understand that people look up to all the people who make running this league possible, and we don’t take that lightly. I really love the opportunity to help broaden the vision of what women can do as athletes, and what athletes can do as citizens. I think the 132 players of the WNBA are really leading the way.
LPB: Is there a personal goal you feel like you haven’t achieved yet?
LR: Other than effortlessly managing my weight, no! I guess it's because I believe life is a process, so I feel like I’m always growing and learning, and that there’s always more to do. But it’s not like I’ve got a personal or professional bucket list that I’ve got to check off.
LPB: What do you think is the biggest challenge for professional women today?
LR: The [lack of] confidence and belief that we belong here. All the research tells us when teams are comprised of men and women, whether it’s a board or senior management, companies are better run. Women might do things differently, or bring a different perspective. We may be different but [we’re] not less than men. So to have real confidence in both our individual and collective potential. The second thing – pretty unique to women – is balancing. How do you balance all the things we want to balance in our lives?
LPB: What kind of legacy would you like to leave, personal or professional?
LR: I think a lot about the next generation of girls. [I hope] that through my life’s work and the time I chose to spend mentoring young women and girls that I am making the world a better place for them.