Topics:   Board Composition,Corporate Governance,Director Education,Leadership

Topics:   Board Composition,Corporate Governance,Director Education,Leadership

June 17, 2019

Valerie Jarrett on Finding Her Voice

June 17, 2019

Thirty years ago, Valerie Jarrett got behind the wheel of a car and learned a lesson that has lasted a lifetime. Neither about road safety, nor traffic, Jarrett’s ah-hah moment was concerning the imperative of using her voice, even when she doubted the value of what she was going to say—or, more specifically, what she was thinking of asking.

Jarrett was serving on her first corporate board. In the middle of her first board meeting, a question came to mind. She demurred, thinking “Nah, that’s probably a stupid question.”She noticed something the moment she decided to not ask her question.

“One of the other board members, who was a major shareholder in the company—and a billionaire from here in Chicago—asked my question.” Jarrett distinctly recalls thinking, “Darn it. I wish I’d asked that question! It couldn’t be stupid if he’s asking it, right?”

After the board adjourned, Jarrett found herself giving her senior colleague—the one who managed to speak up first—a ride home. She confided that she’d contemplated the question he’d asked, but that she’d not posed it as she’d thought it would sound stupid. Her colleague’s reply has stuck with Jarrett to this day. He advised, “When you’re on a board, there are no stupid questions.”

“That’s now decades ago and I apply it to life,” Jarrett said. “There are no stupid questions! You should be curious, and you should have the confidence to know that you deserve answers.”

The NACD Chicago Chapter hosted a fireside chat with Jarrett as part of their Distinguished Speaker Luncheon last month, and she sat down with me beforehand for an interview to discuss these and other insights about her path to the West Wing and beyond.

We know Valerie Jarrett as a corporate board leader, a nonprofit advocate, and for the eight years she spent as Barack Obama’s senior advisor during his presidency, as well as for the deep friendship she had with both the president and first lady prior to their ascent to the White House. What preceded her now famous career was a story of finding her own confidence, and the voice that grew from that.

“… [it’s a matter of] trusting [your voice] and finding it… learning to tune out the noise of people who might be well intentioned,” Jarrett said. “Only you can know what that quiet voice inside of you is saying. It took a minute for me want to trust that voice.”

The author of Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward has learned the value of using one’s voice not just at the board table, but for subtle—even sensitive—matters outside the board room as well.

“What I have found helpful in my board experience is to socialize ideas before you get to the board room—to talk to individual board members one on one, and raise issues that you think are sensitive,” Jarrett said about how she has applied her confidence. “It doesn’t have to just be about race, it can be about whatever you think might create discomfort or friction in the board room.” Jarrett maintains that if one has a better sense of where everybody stands individually on a sensitive subject, one will have an easier time raising it at the board table. “It means that you know not just where a person’s mind is, but where their heart is, what motivates them, what their values are.”

A diversity of perspective is something Jarrett prioritizes in all she does. “I co-chaired President Obama’s transition in 2008,” she noted. “It was really important to him to make sure that we had people who would push him to think about an issue from a different perspective. He knew ultimately he’d make a better decision if he did that.”

Before joining the board of any organization, Jarrett employs a similar litmus test. “I try to get a sense as to whether the people at the top are receptive to being challenged. I’ve only associated myself with the organizations where I’ve felt the leadership appreciated my values and was interested in my input. Not that they always had to agree, but that they were willing to listen. That’s my metric.”

Jarrett’s metric and sound judgement have led her to use her voice in a number of boardrooms. A couple of years ago she added Lyft to her portfolio of board service, which also includes Ariel Investments, The Obama Foundation, and 2U, a technology company helping universities like Harvard and Yale bring their master’s degree programs online.

In NACD Directorship magazine’s forthcoming July/August issue, find the entire interview, where Jarret shares her views on the role of luck in the boardroom, the responsibility of the board in organizational culture, and her tips for starting the difficult conversation about unconscious bias. A spoiler alert for that final one: she’s not letting any of us off the hook.

It’s time, she says, to “get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.”

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