An Interview with Tyra Mariani, Executive Vice President, New America

In this first interview in our series Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership, we talk with Tyra Mariani about her career journey, what she has learned about being a successful leader, and what inspires and sustains her in her work. For more about this series, click here.

Tyra Mariani, New America 

Discoverer. Change agent. Creature of habit.

What are some of your career highlights?

1. When I was just starting my career as a consultant, I didn’t have much work experience. But that experience taught me a number of valuable lessons that I would use throughout my career, including how to analyze a diverse set of problems and develop solutions, communicate to different audiences, and translate between big picture and details. I didn’t understand until later how fertile a training ground consulting would be. (Tyra Mariani pictured at right.)

2. Between business school and after my work in organizational development, I came to understand that regardless of what sector I was in, what problem I was addressing, or which governance model was present, the people and culture matter significantly in whether an organization will achieve its mission. Whether it’s Tesla, Southwest, or Chicago Public Schools, how you think about people, how those people work together, and the culture that exists — intentionally or unintentionally developed — will help you achieve your mission or not.

3. The opportunity to work in Chicago Public Schools, the third largest school district in the country, provided the experience for me to be in the belly of the beast (the primary system — a traditional school district — responsible for educating the majority of our nation’s students) and really understand the complexity of solving for all children to receive a high-quality education. It’s easy from the outside to think there’s a panacea, but it’s more complicated. It’s not just the parents, the teachers . . . pick your noun to fill in that the average citizen likes to blame. The work is hard. Understanding how it does or doesn’t work was a helpful frame for me to begin work in public education.

4. Our country had just elected the first Black president and it was a pivotal time in our country. Working in the Obama Administration (in the Department of Education) allowed me to understand the federal government’s levers for impact and what a group of smart, innovative, and inspired teams could accomplish with a visionary leader and significant resources. But it also taught me the limitations of the Executive Branch of government when the Legislative Branch, by and large, fought him at every turn. The highlights were great people, great work, and overall a great experience, but also challenging in not so good ways. We had the Great Recession and people lacked the understanding of what government was doing on their behalf. For example, when I told my niece what I did for a living, she wanted me to fix her bad high school. Well, when you understand state and local control, you’d know it’s not so easy to fix her high school from where I sat at the time. People wanted to see President Obama be much more explicit about making change to improve the quality of life for Black people and not understanding that perhaps everything we touched was working toward that end — supporting people who were struggling and working to improve their outcomes, both with and for them. It was illuminating and frustrating to see the mismatch of how people were responding to President Obama’s legacy.

If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?

It would be something along the lines of “it’s a journey” — very simple and understated, but represents the journey of discovery. We are often seeking a destination and taught we are supposed to have a destination, when life and career are very much a journey. The context is constantly shifting and so are you as a person. I began my career in management consulting then shifted to more mission-focused work, which led me to public education. That journey evolved too, as I saw the need and opportunity for real innovation and better understood how education intersects with other social issues to create change or stagnation, and I also had greater clarity about what I was good at and how I wanted to have impact.

This thing that becomes your anchor is in fact the need to recognize that you can set some big goals for 10 to 20 years from now, but also being aware of how life happens, perspective changes, and pursuits change.

What are your favorite types of challenges?

I’m drawn to systems challenges. I have a skill of seeing the big picture and detail and translating between the two. I can often see that what people try to solve in isolation is actually connected to a bigger issue for which there is a root cause and something not being addressed, or being addressed in a way that has unintended consequences. I care a lot about people and helping people be their best selves to solve some really important societal challenges — that’s the mission-driven work.

There is the people theme: what we believe about each other, how we respond as a result, how we bring ourselves to work that enables productivity in fulfilling the mission. And how we think about, consider, and hear from the people we seek to serve in carrying out our work. At the end of the day, I want many more people to have gotten the light bulb and become their best selves, realize their potential, and take advantage of the many opportunities that exist in our country and beyond. Anything I’m doing that enables that is the kind of work I am drawn to.

What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?

Rather than name a book, it’d be most honest to tell you my greatest influence came from working with and observing other leaders. Yes, there are concepts I picked up from leadership books and various business school articles, but what’s stuck the most and influenced me the most are other leaders. Arne Duncan told me it’s okay to be a quiet leader, hearing others out and then speaking, and leading from the heart. Joanne Weiss taught me the value of trusting and confiding in a team and the tradeoffs with getting a work product to 80% versus 90%. Anne-Marie Slaughter has taught me how to be a fierce champion for talent. Jim Shelton showed me a strong leader gives due credit to his/her team and is strengthened and not weakened by surrounding him/herself with very talented people. Those are just some of the lessons I’ve learned from them, and there are other leaders I could name.

Last summer, Democratic Representatives Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?

I don’t have a specific instance or story, but we are often in cultures where we want to collaborate and solicit lots of input. That is a very time-consuming process. Even the things that seem simple become complicated when getting lots of input. I began reclaiming time by determining where I will engage and at which point.

I ask myself questions like, What is the nature of the decision? How big is it impact-wise? What is the likelihood that others giving input will create an answer that is 80-90% good? How important is the decision to me and the work I am doing? If they can get to a pretty good outcome without me, then I may not engage at all or wait until the end to do so. If a critical piece may be missing that my voice can bring, then I may engage sooner rather than later. I reclaim my time by determining if, when, and where my voice is needed. One should resist chiming in on or being involved in everything that comes his or her way. Quite simply, it’s prioritizing.

What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?

I recognize that there are multiple domains to self-care including spiritual, physical, intellectual, and emotional to tend to. I realized at one point that I tried to cover all the domains, all the time, and exhausted myself. Spinning, brunch, manicure/pedicure, errands, dinners, church . . . and it was too much. I learned that part of care for me means resting at home and doing nothing.

I have a new practice where I focus on a particular project that is not primary to my job. I set a daily reminder that I want to do 2 or 3 things like read for a certain amount of time or spend time on something interesting. I will decide which activities and set reminders. I also go to the gym or work out 4 to 5 times per week because there’s nothing like completing a strong and challenging workout; yet I also give myself permission some days to curl up on the couch and watch TV!

I love music and usually have a playlist that reflects my mood that I listen to while in the shower: from love songs to jazz to India Arie’s women empowerment tracks.

It’s important for me to spend time just being, so I take health and wellness trips where I practice yoga, hike, read, write, and meditate at a resort.

So daily, weekly, monthly, and annually, I try to do an assortment of things that feed my spirit, including connecting with friends.

What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voices and become self-advocates?

1. Recognize that you have a voice. Sounds simple, but for the longest time I’m not sure I knew I had it or if it was relevant. Start with that self-awareness. Experiment with new ways to use your voice.

2. Develop relationships with folks inside and outside of the workplace to help test when, where, and how you use your voice. For example, I have a little sister who can be self-deprecating at times and other times the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. Having a person to help you balance is important.

3. Be bold. This mantra emerged for me when turning forty was on the horizon and I became more self-aware of the ways I got in my own way. When there is anxiety about taking on a new role or when I realize I am the lone voice in the room on a particular issue, I remember this “be bold” goal and sometimes use it to recalibrate myself. When I co-founded Opportunity@Work, it was a new field and new network. I had some doubts, but then realized there is enough of the world counting on me that I shouldn’t count myself out.

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